Non-Bowl Teams That Will Improve Dramatically in 2019

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2018

Non-Bowl Teams That Will Improve Dramatically in 2019

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    In 2018, several of college football's blue bloods fell on hard times. For some, it was a continuation of a miserable stretch of football. For others, it was all about transition. At still other places, it was the final straw for a coaching regime.

    Whether it was because of injuries or inefficiencies, most of the teams on this list want to put this year in the rearview.

    But for all the programs here, there is hope, whether in the promise shown in glimmers from this year or in the youngsters on the roster. Even though 2018 was a bummer of a season, hope abounds for 2019.

    A few teams have young stars around which to build, such as Nebraska's Adrian Martinez and USC's JT Daniels. Others have quality recruiting classes coming in to help with massive talent gulfs.

    Others just hope they're better because of veteran coaches.

    Let's take a look at 10 teams that didn't make a bowl game this year that will be much-improved in 2019.

Air Force Falcons

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    Air Force's biggest goals going into each season are to beat Army, beat Navy and to go to a bowl game. While the Falcons did beat Navy, they failed to accomplish the other goals in a 5-7 season.

    That is a disappointment for coach Troy Calhoun and a proud program.

    Not only did the Falcons struggle to call plays and stay in any offensive rhythm; they also allowed 33 or more points five times and lost four of those games. But all is not lost. All seven losses for Air Force were by 10 or fewer points, and they had an extremely young team. The youth is all over both sides of the ball too.

    "We have so much potential," defensive back Jeremy Fejedelem told the Gazette's Brent Briggeman. "We've just got to have all the pieces put together. You can't go in overconfident, but I think we'll come in confident. We have a lot of people returning. A lot of young people that got a lot of playing time this year, which is so helpful for your development."

    It's almost worth the struggles to set up the program for the near future.

    The team's top four rushers will return, including the top two quarterbacks, and quarterback Donald Hammond III looks like a potential program-changing star heading into his junior season. Backup Isaiah Sanders will be back too.

    When you consider that 13 of the team's top 20 tacklers will return, that's a recipe to make a lot of noise quickly in the Mountain West. Calhoun knows how to coach, and while he could have done a better job in '18, a lot of youth and inconsistency led to issues.

    It's going to be interesting to watch this team develop and grow.

Florida State Seminoles

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    Willie Taggart's first year in Tallahassee was about as bad any the proud Seminoles have suffered in a long time. As a matter of fact, it was historically forgettable.

    Florida State finished 5-7, its first losing record since way back in 1976, Bobby Bowden's first season with FSU. Of course, his Hall of Fame career turned out OK. But Taggart has a lot of changes and improvements to make before that can happen.

    The 'Noles didn't adjust well to the former Oregon coach's tough-love mentality, and former star quarterback Deondre Francois wasn't himself when he returned from a season-ending knee injury suffered against Alabama in the first game of the 2017 season.

    Above all that, though, were the offensive line issues. It's hard to blame Francois when he rarely had time to throw the ball.

    The piecemeal offensive line allowed 36 sacks, which ranked 113th out of 130 teams, and the team's 2.8 rushing yards per carry ranked 129th. When a star running back like Cam Akers is as awful as he was in 2018, it's a problem.

    Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued FSU's offensive line, but they'll get healthy and a year older next year.

    "The unit struggled to do anything right this season," wrote the Tallahassee Democrat's Wayne McGahee III.

    The biggest worry about FSU is it only has one 4-star recruit coming in to help fortify the line in Dontae Lucas. Overall, though, the 'Noles class ranks 14th nationally and is led by star defensive backs Akeem Dent and Nick Cross, along with 4-star quarterback Sam Howell.

    Who knows who is going to stick around with Taggart, but you've got to believe if Akers and Francois come back, things will be better. It's also possible a school that recruits as well as the 'Noles will find a better quarterback.

    It can't get much worse in Tallahassee. History says that, anyway.

Kansas Jayhawks

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    Kansas made a big splash move when the Jayhawks replaced fired coach David Beaty with former LSU coach Les Miles, who'd been out of coaching a couple of years.

    They're following the blueprint of Arizona State, which made the surprising move of hiring Herm Edwards last year despite some puzzled reactions from pundits. The Sun Devils overachieved and are heading to a bowl game this year.

    Kansas and North Carolina (more on the Tar Heels' hire of former coach Mack Brown later) hope to repeat the feat.

    While it would be a major turnaround for KU, don't count it out, even though the Jayhawks went 3-9 in 2018. They improved dramatically, especially on defense.

    Several defensive starters return to a team that hasn't won more than three games in a season since 2009. Miles has plenty of recruiting work to do. Remarkably, KU has just one commitment in the 2019 class.

    "I think it's a challenge, but I think it's something we can do," Miles said on his Les Is More podcast (h/t's Benton Smith). "I think we will win in the first year."

    While quarterback Peyton Bender will be difficult to replace, Carter Stanley and Miles Kendrick have some game reps, and both of them return. The biggest deal on offense is that running back Pooka Williams Jr. comes back for his sophomore year after a breakout '18 campaign that saw him run for 1,125 yards and seven scores.

    Williams was a big-play threat, averaging 7.0 yards per carry.

    With Miles at the helm, Kansas' recruiting will prosper, at least compared to its regular standards. If Miles can learn from his offensive mistakes at LSU and open things up a bit more the way he did at Oklahoma State, it will behoove him in the offensive-minded Big 12. But the defense will remain in good hands.

Maryland Terrapins

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    It's been an extremely difficult year at Maryland with the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, DJ Durkin's suspension, reinstatement and ultimate firing, and another season of struggles on the field that wound up with a 5-7 record.

    While offensive coordinator Matt Canada did an admirable job as interim coach, the Terrapins have hired Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley for the full-time position despite his tumultuous tenure as New Mexico's head coach in 2009-11.

    Locksley will inherit a roster that has plenty of talent, even if Durkin never got the most out of it due to off-field issues and injuries. Talented quarterback Kasim Hill has lots of potential, even if he struggled at times this year.

    While Hill's torn anterior cruciate ligament puts next year in jeopardy, Tyrrell Pigrome is capable and has another year of eligibility too.

    Though the departure of running back Ty Johnson will be difficult to handle, two strong recruiting classes will yield plenty with which to work, including potential star Anthony McFarland, who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection at running back as a redshirt freshman.

    There must be major makeovers along the offensive front and in the defensive secondary, but again, the talent is there waiting to play. It's just a matter of whether the Terps make the right hire to put everything together.

    With all the uncertainty that surrounds the program, this year's recruiting class is slumping. But an upstart coach can turn that around, and Maryland has a lot of the pieces in place to do so in a hurry, especially if Hill comes back quicker than expected. Look for a bowl in '19.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    The Scott Frost era in Lincoln got off to a terrible start.

    After six games, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were 0-6. They were the third-to-last FBS team to win a game this year, leading to plenty of questions and snarky comments about the ceiling of Frost's hire in the rugged Big Ten.

    People tend to forget how rough things were the first year at UCF before he made that program a powerhouse.

    Glimmers of hope and belief in the system abounded after that six-game slumber, mostly due to electrifying true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who battled injuries early in the season but became one of the country's most dynamic players when healthy.

    He completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight picks and rushed for 629 yards and eight more scores. Though Devine Ozigbo's loss in the running back corps will be huge, players like Maurice Washington are ready to emerge.

    The Cornhuskers rebounded to win four of their final six games, including wins over Minnesota and Michigan State. They lost just 36-31 to Ohio State and fell 31-28 to Iowa to close the season.

    Nebraska president Hank Bounds discussed the changes that are taking place in the program in an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star's Parker Gabriel:

    "Clearly the desire to win and compete—think about how we end games now. You go into games now, everybody from the trainers to the coaches to the players and all around them, everybody believes that they can win. Frankly, that's a huge portion of the battle.

    "You hear a lot about culture, it's one of those things where it's hard to define when you know it when you see it. I think Husker fans can see it and feel it."

    Frost is recruiting at a high level too, as Nebraska's class is ranked 22nd by 247Sports and features potential stars like the fourth McCaffrey brother (Luke McCaffrey) and linebacker Nick Henrich. All Frost needs is to outfit the roster with his players.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Welcome home, Mack Brown.

    Now, all the legendary North Carolina coach has to do is turn around a 2-9 football program that got Larry Fedora fired. It's up to Brown to surround himself with coordinators and coaches he trusts, and it's vital Brown hires a dynamic offensive coordinator. If he does that, a turnaround is possible.

    Why? The Tar Heels aren't devoid of talent. That program always has recruited well and sits on an underrated hotbed of talent in Carolina. Back when Brown was winning big in Chapel Hill, he was pulling talent left and right.

    Then he left for Texas in 1997, and UNC hasn't been the same since.

    Nathan Elliott struggled at quarterback in 2018, but Chazz Surratt and Cade Fortin should provide competition. It's also possible UNC could go with a younger, more talented quarterback. That would probably be dual threat Jace Ruder, who has difference-maker written all over him.

    There's a ton of youth on Carolina's roster, and everybody who amassed more than 30 rushing yards is set to return, led by potential breakout stars such as Antonio Williams and Javonte Williams.

    Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Dazz Newsome give Brown a pair of playmaking receivers too.

    The defense has some young potential as well, such as defensive tackle Xach Gill, safety D.J. Ford and linebacker Matthew Flint. They need playmakers on that side of the ball, and Brown can bring out the best in those guys.

    If Brown can rejuvenate recruiting, things could get much better quickly.

    "If North Carolina is able to get it rolling and if they can translate some momentum in terms of wins on the field, get the ball rolling in recruiting, I think they could land at least a top-25 class every year, maybe top-15," 247Sports recruiting analyst Charles Power said on The 247Sports Recruiting Podcast (h/t Sam Hellman).

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Jeremy Pruitt's first year on Rocky Top was even more up-and-down than anybody could have predicted.

    He replaced Butch Jones after the Vols' worst season in school history finished 4-8, and the talent cupboard was about as bare as it can be at an SEC institution. Following major upsets of Auburn and Kentucky, Tennessee was in position to make a bowl game, needing just one win in its final two games.

    But a blowout loss to Missouri and Vanderbilt's third consecutive win over the Vols in a series dominated by UT left a sour taste in fans' mouths.

    There are reasons for optimism, though. The defense hit a wall late in the year with all the youth, but the way Pruitt is recruiting and the way he's developed players in the past, coordinating some of college football's top defenses of the last decade, lend plenty of hope.

    UT has to bring in some competition for quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who needs another major leap forward as a junior.

    The biggest concerns lie along the lines of scrimmage.

    On offense, the Vols must fortify an offensive line that was historically horrible in 2018, and it will help to bring in a few blue-chip prospects, led by 5-star offensive tackle Wanya Morris. Other 4-star prospects already are committed, and UT is a finalist for 5-star OT Darnell Wright too.

    Getting Alabama transfer Brandon Kennedy back from a season-ending injury suffered early in the year will help the offensive line, and there's still slim hope former star Trey Smith can play again after missing half the season because of blood clots.

    Three seniors leave a defensive line that struggled in '18, but can Tennessee be better with new faces? There are still plenty of questions and talent gaps, but an easier schedule—the toughest out-of-conference opponent is BYU—should lead to a bowl game for the Vols.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    It's disappointing for everybody that the Kliff Kingsbury era didn't work out in Lubbock. The favorite son and former star quarterback seemed to be a perfect fit when he came on board, but it never materialized as wins.

    The Red Raiders have moved on to former Utah State head coach Matt Wells, who could do big things for Texas Tech.

    Wells is a strong offensive mind whose USU teams thrived with Chuckie Keeton and, this past year, Jordan Love at quarterback.

    Though Jett Duffey did an admirable job in mop-up duty, it's a big deal that TTU gets back Alan Bowman, who threw 17 touchdowns against seven picks before a season-ending injury.

    Ja'Deion High graduates, so Texas Tech loses his 800-plus receiving yards, but top target Antoine Wesley and fellow star T.J. Vasher still have eligibility to lead a loaded receiving corps.

    Wells can bring more offensive balance, so it'll be worth watching to see which running backs emerge. Most importantly, though, Wells needs to build a defense that can stop anybody. That was a longstanding issue under Kingsbury, and TTU never has been known for its work on that side of the ball.

    Wells is already guns-up, saying at his introductory press conference: "The current talent on the team—this is a reload, not a rebuild. There's guys here that can play. These guys deserve the chance to win right now."

    Wells also said he's going to address the fact that he doesn't have extensive experience recruiting in the Lone Star State by adding some Texas flavor to his staff. He wants to do a reset of the defense too.

    It won't be an overnight fix, but if he does those two things, TTU can win in a hurry.

UCLA Bruins

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    Much like the Scott Frost regime at Nebraska, the other "splash" hire in college football made more of a first-year thud.

    UCLA hired coach Chip Kelly, who chewed up defenses during his days at Oregon, but it didn't start out that way in 2018. The Bruins lost their first five games, and Kelly's team went 3-9 as he overhauled the roster and the mentality left behind by Jim L. Mora.

    As former Michigan graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight got most of the late reps, UCLA did wind up the season on a strong note, upsetting USC. But there weren't many bright spots. It's odd that Speight was a fit considering Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked like the perfect Kelly quarterback.

    If Thompson-Robinson develops, he's got all the talent and ability to develop into a star.

    Joshua Kelley could be a big weapon at running back if he sticks around for his senior year, but Kelly needs more players who can run his system. This year was difficult because of the many seniors UCLA lost and had to replace with freshmen and transfers.

    UCLA needs to improve its pass rush and secondary, both of which struggled in 2018. Kelly is going to need to have a better recruiting class than he did a season ago in his first partial class. It certainly hasn't translated yet as the Bruins are 10th in the Pac-12 on the recruiting trail.

    Even though the Ducks rarely had huge recruiting classes under Kelly, he got his type of players to run his system.

    After beating USC, Kelly told reporters he was happy with the team's progression.

    "I think [I'm] more happy for [the team] because we have a process that we go through," Kelly said. "And I think it validates the process for those guys and they understand what this process is all about."

    The Bruins have nowhere to go but up.

USC Trojans

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    When USC athletic director Lynn Swann decided to keep coach Clay Helton after a five-win season, it was surprising because those aren't normally met with leniency at a program as proud and prestigious as Southern Cal.

    But the Trojans let embattled offensive coordinator Tee Martin go, and how the offense fares going forward will go a long way in determining how the Helton era turns out in Los Angeles. Kliff Kingsbury will replace Martin in that role.

    That could be huge news depending on how Kingsbury meshes with the current talent on the roster.

    He has the important task of helping develop one of the most gifted young quarterbacks in the nation in JT Daniels, who had an up-and-down year for USC. His flashes of brilliance are obvious, but it's easy to forget Daniels should have been a senior at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, this year.

    There are plenty of building blocks for the Trojans, starting with Daniels and freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. But close losses to UCLA and Notre Dame are tough lessons.

    USC needs an electrifying running back now that Aca'Cedric Ware is leaving, and Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr could fill that void.

    Receivers Puka Nacua and Drake London, along with tight ends Ethan Rae and Jude Wolfe, are 4-star targets for Daniels in a 2019 recruiting class ranked 26th by 247Sports. It's going to be vital for that class to grow in number as Helton proves he can add blue chips during this tumultuous time.

    Given that receivers Velus Jones Jr. and Michael Pittman Jr. still have eligibility, it could be a big year next season for USC's offense.

    While five key starters or contributors leave the secondary, there are plenty of talented players ready to step in, such as Chase Williams, Olaijah Griffin, Talanoa Hufanga, Isaac Taylor-Stuart and others. They just need somebody to bring out the best in them.

    The offense will carry the load next year, and USC will be back where it's supposed to be.