College Football Teams with the Most Turnaround Potential Next Season
The 2020 college football season was memorable for some and extremely forgettable for others. While some of the teams in the latter group are entrenched in that middling state, several of them have reason for optimism next year.
Temporary potholes are inevitable for the majority of programs, and some powerhouses fell on tough times while trying to navigate the pandemic-plagued regular season. The defending national champions barely crept above .500.
Coaching changes and development from incumbent players give reason for optimism for some programs, while a couple of former upper-echelon programs experienced such awful seasons that there's nowhere to really go but up and back to (hopeful) mediocrity.
Arizona State Sun Devils
After playing just four games in 2020 and going 2-2, the Arizona State Sun Devils are a safe bet for a major turnaround this year.
As a matter of fact, they should battle USC and Colorado for the South title.
With Jayden Daniels at quarterback, the future for coach Herm Edwards' team is very bright, and they had to find their way in the shortened season after losing running back Eno Benjamin and receiver Brandon Aiyuk to the NFL.
The Devils from the desert have built a deep, talented backfield that includes Chip Trayanum, Rachaad White and Daniyel Ngata, and in a small sample the offense led the Pac-12 with more than 40 points per game. They've also got a young receiving corps that looks potentially exciting, too.
Arizona State should boast the best offensive line in the Pac-12, and Antonio Pierce's defense won't lose key members from a defense that struggled at times but has plenty of talent. Four seniors are returning, eschewing the NFL, as are the team's top 16 tacklers.
This team is set up to compete for conference championships now even if the schedule is rife with tests and includes a difficult out-of-conference game against BYU.
Boston College Eagles
One of the biggest surprises of the 2020 season was what Jeff Hafley did in his first season at Boston College after taking over for Steve Addazio.
The Eagles had a winning record at 6-5, and they had moments of brilliance, even taking Clemson to the brink when the Tigers were without Trevor Lawrence.
This is a program improving on both sides of the ball, but it will have to replace two huge offensive pieces with tight end Hunter Long off to the NFL and starting running back David Bailey entering the transfer portal.
Hafley is a strong recruiter dating back to his days at Ohio State, and he will outfit the Eagles with talent on both sides of the ball. Bailey's replacement likely will be either Travis Levy or Pat Garwo III.
The biggest reasons for the turnaround are back, though. That would be quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who was a revelation after transferring from Notre Dame, and receivers Zay Flowers, CJ Lewis and Jaelen Gill. Those guys are back for what should be an explosive passing game.
It's not out of the question for the Eagles to make it to eight or even nine wins next year with all those playmakers.
Florida State Seminoles
Much like another team on this list, the Florida State Seminoles made it because they were so putrid in coach Mike Norvell's first season, there's nowhere to go but up.
The 'Noles went 3-6, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them double that win total in year two.
Norvell knows there's plenty of impatience in Tallahassee for a program not that far removed from competing for national titles, so he has tried for some quick fixes in the transfer portal.
While former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton is a gamble trying to return from his gruesome, near-career-ending injury two years ago, he has a high ceiling if he can return. He was a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate in Orlando.
Then there are defensive line transfers Keir Thomas (South Carolina) and Jermaine Johnson (Georgia), while safety Jammie Robinson and running back D.J. Williams also join from South Carolina and Auburn, respectively.
There are new, potential impact players at every position. Will it be enough to turn the tides in Tallahassee? Maybe not all the way, but the 'Noles should take a big step forward.
Kansas State Wildcats
The reason for the possible turnaround in the Little Apple can be summed up in two words:
The Kansas State Wildcats starting quarterback suffered a season-ending injury early on last year after a brilliant start, and though true freshman Will Howard filled in admirably, he was nowhere near the dual-threat playmaker Thompson was.
Now, Thompson is coming back for another year in Manhattan, and this may finally be the year Chris Klieman begins to turn things around if his star can stay healthy.
Klieman is a noted winner who led powerhouse North Dakota State to yearly title contentions in the FCS, and he is doing a slow but thorough rebuild at K-State. They also will have explosive playmaker Deuce Vaughn returning in the backfield.
The Wildcats have a few quality playmakers in the passing game who should thrive with Thompson back, and while a defense that finished eighth in the Big 12 needs to improve dramatically, it should have enough to get the team back to .500 or better.
They finished 4-6 a season ago, and a big turnaround is expected.
The fall from grace was more like a fiery crash for the LSU Tigers in 2020, as they went from an undefeated national championship campaign led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow to a 5-5 record in 2020.
A self-imposed bowl ban meant no postseason for the Bayou Bengals, but at least they ended the season on a high note, beating sixth-ranked Florida at The Swamp before dispatching upstart Ole Miss in a shootout.
Nobody was hit harder by early defections to the NFL, COVID-19 opt-outs and a roster flip (including defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady) more than Ed Orgeron, and it showed.
But the good news is the Tigers found a bunch of young playmakers, like receiver Kayshon Boutte, defensive end B.J. Ojulari and cornerback Eli Ricks. Even with star tight end Arik Gilbert's transfer to Florida, LSU should have a much better season in 2021.
Quarterback Myles Brennan will be back after an early-season injury saw him give way to the inconsistent-but-talented freshman tandem of TJ Finley and Max Johnson. The team should have a better season running the ball, too.
If trading failed defensive coordinator Bo Pelini for Daronte Jones works out, LSU could compete for the SEC West again.
The abbreviated Maryland football season had a smattering of highs and lows.
On one hand, shocking Penn State and beating Minnesota in overtime were pretty big milestone wins for a program trying incrementally get better. But the Terrapins were torched by Northwestern, then beaten by Indiana before a disappointing season-ending loss to Rutgers.
All told, they played just five games and went 2-3. But there were still reasons for optimism.
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa looked like a budding star when he was healthy, and the Alabama transfer thrived with his former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Mike Locksley as head coach.
While running back Jake Funk must be replaced, the Terrapins have done an exceptional job recruiting under Locksley and have the pieces in place to keep moving forward.
The defensive trio of incoming freshmen Demeioun Robinson, Terrence Lewis and Branden Jennings could have gone anywhere in the nation and will help Locksley turn around a suspect defense.
Is Maryland ready to contend in the Big Ten? Not for titles, no. But it could inch toward a .500 record or better in 2021, and that would be a huge step forward for a program that appears to be headed in the right direction.
With Jim Harbaugh restructuring his contract and taking less pay in the offseason, it's clear the future plans of the Wolverines program include its current head coach.
They've just got to find a way to improve, or the contractual language isn't going to matter. The proud Big Ten program isn't going to accept failure (or mediocrity) for long.
Harbaugh fired defensive coordinator Don Brown and replaced him with Mike Macdonald after a disappointing season on that side of the ball. Potential stars on that side of the ball such as Daxton Hill and Chris Hinton could assist with a quick turnaround.
With Dylan McCaffrey out of the quarterback picture after transferring to Northern Colorado, Joe Milton is the clear favorite to win the job again despite inconsistent play last year. But incoming former 5-star freshman J.J. McCarthy could have a say in the race, too.
The Wolverines surprisingly struggled to run the ball last year. Zach Charbonnet's transfer to UCLA opens up carries for another talented true freshman, Donovan Edwards, and the Wolverines have strong pieces elsewhere in the backfield, too.
That's really the issue: Harbaugh has recruited talent all over the place, but it's not developing enough to win games. There could be a big turnaround for Big Blue this year, and improving from 2-4 shouldn't be tough. Expect a lot more wins, despite the question marks.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State was the first-ever team to be a preseason Top 10 program to start 0-5. It was also the first time the Nittany Lions ever started the year with that record.
Though they wound up with a four-game winning streak to end the season 4-5, it was still a forgettable campaign for coach James Franklin. A difficult season was made even tougher just before the opening kickoff when running back Journey Brown announced his retirement from football after being diagnosed with a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The Lions' late-season improvement should be exciting, though, and after a disappointing season as offensive coordinator for Kirk Ciarrocca, Franklin has replaced him with former Texas OC Mike Yurcich.
The offensive line must improve after giving up 28 sacks in nine games, and the defense allowed nearly eight more points per game than the offense scored, too. Temple defensive end transfer Arnold Ebiketie and a young but blossoming linebacking corps should improve that unit in '21.
It's going to be impossible to replace tight end Pat Freiermuth's production, but with quarterback Sean Clifford back, explosive receiver Jahan Dotson returning and an offensive backfield that will benefit from the return of injured Noah Cain to join Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford, the team should see improvement.
A promising finish has sparked hope the Lions can return to the Top 25 this year, but they'll almost certainly improve dramatically from four wins, at least.
Ole Miss Rebels
If you want a dark-horse candidate to perhaps be a Top 25 team in 2021, look no further than the Ole Miss Rebels.
They were a ton of fun to watch on offense in coach Lane Kiffin's first year in Oxford, finishing third in scoring offense behind Alabama and Florida. But defensively, they were absolutely atrocious.
Kiffin addressed a lot of those woes in his first full recruiting class, which was defense-heavy. And though you can't expect a bunch of freshmen to come in and completely turn things around, the Rebels will be a whole lot better on that side of the ball in 2021. They're going to be too talented not to be.
Plus, they return key players such as linebackers MoMo Sanogo, Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones, along with defensive backs Otis Reese and Jaylon Jones.
When you factor in they'll be returning a lot of offensive playmakers, despite losing star pass-catchers Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah to the NFL, there are a lot of reasons to like Ole Miss improving from last year's 5-5 record.
The Rebels open the season against a Louisville team searching for playmakers after Javian Hawkins and Tutu Atwell left, and the Liberty game will bring former coach Hugh Freeze back to Oxford. But playing Tennessee and Vanderbilt from the East shouldn't be too tough.
There are a lot of probable wins on this schedule.
TCU Horned Frogs
If you've forgotten about coach Gary Patterson's TCU Horned Frogs, it's because they really haven't done anything to be memorable in the past three years.
Following a 1-3 start in '20, they won five of their last six and upset Oklahoma State along the way. Despite losing Trevon Moehrig, Ar'Darius Washington and Garret Wallow the NFL, there are a lot of reasons to like the upside of the team next year.
They finished 6-4 a year ago and could climb back to the Top 25 in '21, and, if so, it will be because of the offense.
Quarterback Max Duggan is back, as is a group of strong running backs that features Zach Evans, Darwin Barlow and Kendre Miller. Basically the entire receiving corps is back again, too. Adding Memphis transfer Obinna Eze will help depth along the offensive front.
Yes, losing those defensive playmakers will hurt, but Ochaun Mathis is back after a strong nine-sack campaign, and there are budding stars on all levels. Patterson knows how to develop a defense, and you should expect the Frogs to be OK on that side of the ball.
Out-of-conference showdowns against California and SMU loom large, but TCU hosts both games, so that will help. If they can take a big step forward in the Big 12, eight or nine wins is not out of the question. This is going to be a much-improved offensive team.
You may take one look at the name at the top of this slide and wonder just how Tennessee could have a major turnaround after firing its coach, going through an offseason-long embarrassment in the news and enduring an ongoing recruiting investigation that led to a bevy of transfers.
The bottom line is this team is one year removed from an eight-win campaign.
It also still has some talent on both sides of the ball despite losing stars such as running back Eric Gray, offensive lineman Wanya Morris and (potentially) linebackers Henry To'oto'o and Quavaris Crouch, who are still in the transfer portal.
When you factor in the Vols still have young, under-developed talent in the passing game where new coach Josh Heupel thrives, it's not out of the question to see them doubling the win total of last year's 3-7 team.
The schedule is favorable. Though games against Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss are probable losses, Tennessee also plays Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, Tennessee Tech, Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, South Alabama and Vanderbilt.
None of those final eight opponents will strike fear in the hearts of anybody, so while Tennessee has a bunch of holes to fill and still faces the potential wrath of the NCAA, it's not a total on-field rebuild for Heupel. Plucking Penn State co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks to be the new DC at UT will help.
Perhaps injecting a little offensive firepower into a unit that was stagnant when Jeremy Pruitt was the coach will lead to more victories.
Chip Kelly's rebuild at Westwood has been long and arduous.
The Bruins are getting better each year, and last season's 3-4 record was not indicative of the progress they have showed. Each loss was by six points or fewer, and with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson back, Kelly has his catalyst.
Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet will seek immediate eligibility and would really help replace the production of departed back Demetric Felton, and the rest of the unit is back after averaging more than 35 points per game a season ago.
Adding LSU to the 2021 schedule makes the Bruins' slate even tougher, but this is a very important year for Kelly's tenure. Doubling that three-win total should be expected, and if they can improve enough defensively to make it to seven or eight wins, it would be huge.
Few expect UCLA to beat out USC in the South, but that rivalry game against the Trojans was close again in '20, and it's not out of the question for the Bruins to pull off the upset. The key is going to be having something to play for at that point of the season.
It's nice to see UCLA's program trajectory, but it must break through. Maybe '21 is the year.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Neal Brown is too good a coach for West Virginia to be down for long. So, after a difficult '19 season, the Mountaineers did exactly what was expected and saw significant improvement.
They went 6-4, and though there was still plenty of inconsistency, there were also some massive steps toward competing in the Big 12.
Most importantly, the defense was the top unit in the conference and returns the vast majority of its production after leading the league in scoring defense (20.5 points per game) and total defense (291.4 yards per game).
Darius Stills is going to be a huge loss, as well as linebackers Tony Fields II and Dylan Tonkery. But the secondary is a strong point, led by seniors Sean Mahone and Alonzo Addae and the addition of Arizona transfer Scottie Young Jr.
When you throw in quarterback Jarret Doege and a schedule that includes a trio of nonconference games where they should be favored (including against Virginia Tech and Maryland), it isn't a murderers' row of games they must navigate next year.
Don't forget about 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown, who is coming back to Morgantown, too.
This team has Top 25 and Big 12 title game aspirations. Those may be lofty goals, but improving from six to nine wins is not a major ask for a program with so many quality pieces back.
It was an inconsistent 2020 season for the Wisconsin Badgers.
They trounced Illinois to open the year, where quarterback Graham Mertz drew rave reviews with a near-perfect performance, endured two COVID-19 cancellations before returning and embarrassing Michigan 49-11.
Then they fell off the Big Ten map, due mostly to offensive ineptitude. The Badgers looked great between the 20s but turned the ball over late in drives or at other pivotal moments. What followed was an embarrassing stretch that included a 17-7 loss to Northwestern, a 14-6 defeat to Indiana and 28-7 setback against Iowa.
Ending the year with wins over Minnesota and in the Duke's Mayo Bowl over Wake Forest helped soothe the sting, but a 4-3 season left a bitter aftertaste.
With Mertz back and hopefully much better in '21, the Badgers have some young offensive playmakers like incoming freshman receiver Markus Allen and 2020 leading rusher Jalen Berger who could help the team get a lot better on that side of the ball.
The running game should show dramatic improvement, too, with Berger being a year older and Garrett Groshek returning, as well.
Wisconsin normally boasts a strong defense and offensive line, so you've got to believe coach Paul Chryst will have those units ready, and the proud program should return to the Top 25. With all the distractions and the stops and starts in play, it's understandable that '20 was so odd.
Look for them to be a lot better next year.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.