Climbing the Ranks: 10 Programs to Keep An Eye On
In the past decade, these programs have proven their worth. Some have overcome tremendous setbacks, ugly losing streaks, and downright tragedies. Others have been good in the past, but have reached a whole new elite level in recent years.
In football, motivation breeds success. These teams have tons of it, and will be riding it during the 2010 season and beyond.
The programs on this list are a diverse bunch. Some are simply overshadowed in a BCS conference, others are climbing the ranks as a mid-major, and yet, even some are former Divison 1-AA schools who are seeing just what big-time college football is all about. And they're finding success.
Watch for these programs to find new success in the following years. With coaches who have a knack for winning, these teams are on the rise, and plan on making a statement to those who may doubt them.
That was the last year Rice played in a bowl game in before being led by Todd Graham to the New Orleans Bowl in 2006.
The endless hallelujahs that followed were matched by immense disappointment after Graham's departure for conference rival Tulsa the next year, making room for current coach David Bailiff to build on the newfound success.
The Owls took a step back in 2007, but had arguably the best season in Rice history in 2008. Led by now-Rice legends Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard, the Owls finished with a 10-3 overall record and a victory in the Texas Bowl.
The play of Clement and Dillard clearly had an enormous impact on the team's success, having helped them reach bowl games in both 2006 and 2008. Their departure was extremely visible last year, as the Owls returned to their old ways, going 2-10 and losing to crosstown-rival Houston 73-14.
Despite last season's let down, I have faith in David Bailiff.
His players really seem to respond to him, which bodes well for future recruiting, especially given Rice has among the most stringent academic requirements for student-athletes of all Division I schools.
As for the future, the acquisition of running back Sam McGuffie from Michigan, a Houston native, should be a huge boost for the Owls offense.
McGuffie was a five-star recruit in high school, and was recruited by the likes of USC, Florida, and Notre Dame. He might be the most talented player in Conference USA this year.
After half a century of disappointment, Rice has had recent new-found success. I may be going out on a limb, but I see Rice continuing their steady climb.
I think we can all agree that Idaho doesn't have a great tradition of winning. At least not on the Division I (FBS) level.
Robb Akey might be able to change that.
In his third year as head coach, Akey led the Vandals to a 8-5 record and their first bowl since 1998. He took Idaho, the team that has, for years, been among the countries weakest, to new heights.
Akey took arguably the hardest coaching job in college football.
With a capacity of 15,000, Idaho's Kibbie Dome is the smallest of all Division I schools, which, as you can imagine, isn't a big sell for prospects. The fan base has been less than strong. And finally, the team has only been in the FBS since 1996. Despite the challenges, Vandal fans can look to their team as winners after 2009.
The 8-5 record achieved by Idaho in 2009 seems like a freak accident. In the two years preceding, Akey's squad went 3-21 with one conference win. In his third year, new life sprung from his players and the wheels began to turn.
With Akey signed through 2014 and three-year starter Nathan Enderle coming back, Idaho's future looks bright. Known around the northwest as a exceptional recruiter, Akey will be able to snatch some talent away from bigger schools in years ahead.
In 2009, the Vandals laid down a foundation of success. With the wind at their back, expect them to go the only direction they can go: up.
When you take a look last season, and then look at life under Gene Chizik, you begin to see why Iowa State fans are as excited as anybody in the country right now.
In one season, Paul Rhoads, the former defensive coordinator for Auburn, successfully turned the defeated Big 12 doormat into a legitimate bowl contender.
Rhoads brought enthusiasm to the down-and-out program after the departure of former coach Gene Chizik, which has won over his players and Iowa State fans. His intense defensive philosophy did wonders for the Cyclones in 2009, as evidenced by their 9-7 upset of Nebraska in Lincoln. The Iowa State defense forced eight turnovers.
Offensively, they return one of the Big 12's leading rushers in Alexander Robinson, and an athletic dual-threat quarterback in Austen Arnaud. If they can be more consistent, the fiery defense can win a lot of games for the fiery coach.
There seems to be a lot of swagger in Ames at the moment. Expect the Cyclones to keep improving, and to knock off one or two of the big dogs in the Big 12 in 2010.
In attempt to keep up to the rest of the improving Mountain West Conference, Wyoming hired former Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen after the 2008 season.
He brought his spread offense to Wyoming, jumpstarting the Cowboys' offense and helping them increase their scoring average by eight points. More importantly, he improved Wyoming's conference record from 1-7 to 4-4, which helped them reach the New Mexico Bowl.
The hiring of Christensen was perhaps the best pickup imaginable for Wyoming.
In the Spring of 2008, Rivals.com ranked him as best assistant coach in the country, based on his installation of Missouri's prolific no-huddle offense and his grooming of quarterback Chase Daniel.
Having been around big-time teams and big-time athletes for almost 20 years, Christensen has a feel for what it takes to be an elite program. His confidence is also evident. For the second year in a row, his Cowboys are scheduled to play Texas.
The fact that this coach has enough faith in his players to schedule games like this is a refreshing quality. It's also a sign of things to come for this program.
The tragic death of Randy Walker in 2006 left the Northwestern players and fans devastated.
In his last two years, the team looked to be greatly improving.
In 2005, the longtime little brother of the Big 10 finished third in the conference, boasting a 7-5 record and a trip to the Sun Bowl.
The administration needed a new head coach, along with a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. In the summer of 2006, linebackers coach Pat Fitzgerald was chosen as Walker's successor, becoming the youngest head coach in the country at that time at age 31.
The likable Fitzgerald has responded tremendously, having led the Wildcats to two consecutive bowl games in 2008 and 2009. Perhaps Northwestern's greatest moment under Fitzgerald came last season, when the Wildcats upset undefeated Iowa, ruining its national title hopes.
Northwestern's head coaching job is a tough one. With a student of only 8,500, competing in perhaps the greatest conference of all-time is a daunting task. After Northwestern, the next smallest school in the conference is Iowa, which has 21,000 students.
Sometimes a young, energetic coach is exactly what a small underdog needs to win big games.
Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has certainly become relevant in an elite conference. Don't be surprised to see a lot more wins from Fitzgerald's squad.
Always being overshadowed by historic programs of Army and Navy, the Falcons have made themselves heard in the 21st century.
Twenty-three-year head coach Fisher DeBerry paved the way for Air Force's success, amassing a record of 169-107 and leading the Falcons to 12 bowl games while competing in the WAC.
The current team, under coach and former Falcon Troy Calhoun, the team has reach a new level of success and respect as a member of the up-and-coming Mountain West Conference.
In Calhoun's first season, he led Air Force to an 9-4 record and a second place conference finish. Most recently, Air Force pulled off an impressive win over Houston in the 2009 Armed Forces Bowl.
The Falcons have a relatively small but committed fan base, and one of the hottest coaches in the country. Upon the departure of Lane Kiffin, Calhoun was among the first to be offered his job at Tennessee. Calhoun declined the offer, which tells you just how much confidence he has in this team.
If the Mountain West were to become a BCS conference, I'd watch out for Air Force. They've shown they can win games, and are on the upswing under a terrific coach.
Before playing in the short-lived Oahu Bowl in 1999, Oregon State had not qualified for a bowl since 1964.
Dennis Erickson worked his magic in Corvallis in first season, leading the Beavers to a 7-5 record, their first winning season in 30 years.
The following year, he guided the Beavers to an 11-1 record and a dominating victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Erickson completely revitalized the program and set the stage for its success in the 21st century.
Oregon State has long played in the shadows of the University of Oregon, its older, bigger, better-looking big brother. While that scenario remains to be unchanged, the Beavers have gained a new kind of respect among the Pac-10.
Current head coach Mike Riley actually beat Erickson to the job in the late 80s, but wasn't able to make any kind of positive change, at least not in their record. Maybe he just needed to see somebody else get the fire started so that he could foster the flames.
Nevertheless, Riley has built upon Erickson's success and has kept the Beavers in the top 25 in each of the last four seasons. He's turned Oregon State into a pesky opponent with a knack of surprising people. In 2008, Riley's team knocked off No. 1 USC in dramatic fashion, representing the first win over a number-one team in program's history.
With Oregon State becoming more relevant in the Pac-10 each season, future championships are sure to come.
In 2010, a very talented offense, including Heisman hopeful Jacquizz Rodgers (pictured above), Oregon State looks poised to take the conference by storm.
The only team in college football history to ever receive the NCAA's "death penalty," there's no doubt that SMU has had troubles in the past.
The once dominant program was shut down due to recruiting violations in 1987, handicapping the program for the next 20 years. 1984 would be their last bowl appearance until this past season, under new coach June Jones.
The recent hiring of Jones washed away the bad taste of their setbacks, as it as completely revitalized the players, fans, and SMU community.
Jones made a name for himself by way of his exciting run-and-shoot offense and prolific quarterbacks, such as Andre Ware at Houston, and Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan at Hawaii.
After a tough first season under Jones, the Mustangs found new strength and posted an 8-5 record, including a dominating 41-10 performance against Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl.
So, does this mean SMU is back?
Well, it's hard to say if their back just yet. But, considering their past, it is fair to say that the program has made unbelievable strides in the past two years. And, under June Jones, I expect them to be even better in years to come.
Due to its rich history and winning tradition, it would be wrong of me to say that Houston has ever been a down-and-out program.
However, the Cougars' recent success must be recognized.
The team has been hot lately. Houston has garnered national attention by way of its ability to put great talent on the field and knock off BCS programs.
The Cougars have been especially annoying to teams of the Big 12. In 2009, they pulled off back-to-back up upsets by beating Texas Tech in Houston, then traveling to Stillwater to beat Oklahoma State.
The team has been somewhat of a career launcher. Current Baylor head coach Art Briles coached the Cougars from to 2003 to 2007, and installed the Texas-style spread offense he learned while working under Mike Leach at Texas Tech.
It was during these years that current Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb was put on display. Briles returned Houston to prosperity, leading them to their first bowl since the 1998 season.
Since Briles was lured away, his successor Kevin Sumlin has been enormously successful. With Heisman candidate Case Keenum under center (or, in his case, five yards behind), Houston looks ready for bigger competition and new challenges.
It's no wonder Texas lawmakers continue to lobby for their move to the Big 12.
Since the turn of the century, the Broncos have done absolutely nothing except win. Since joining the Western Athletic Conference, they've amassed an unbelievable 68-4 record.
That's a 94.4 percent winning record, folks. They also have two BCS bowl victories, having won the Fiesta Bowl in 2007 and 2009.
The man behind it all is Chris Petersen, the two-time Paul "Bear" Bryant National Coach of the Year. He's the man at Boise State, and is on the fast track to super stardom, with or without the Broncos.
Prior to 1996, Boise State competed as a Division 1-AA school in the Big Sky Conference. The fact that, in only 11 years, this program was able to go from that level all the way to beating Oklahoma in a BCS bowl is nothing short of miraculous. Now, just before the 2010 season, the team's future looks bright.
The Broncos are expected to be ranked in the top five in preseason polls, and just signed a deal to join the Mountain West Conference for the 2011 season. Had it not been for the departure of Utah, the MWC would have most likely been deemed BCS worthy sooner or later.
Boise still looks great. With an unreal 21 returning starters, they have a legitimate shot to play for a National Championship in 2010, which would make them the first non-BCS team to do so. Behind Petersen, they are tearing the BCS apart with their bare hands.
They better pray that Petersen stays. If he does, the Broncos will achieve greatness.