College Football Teams with the Most to Prove This Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 13, 2021

College Football Teams with the Most to Prove This Season

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    USC QB Kedon Slovis
    USC QB Kedon SlovisMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Every college football team has something to prove every season, but there are always a handful of teams whose "now or never" situations are most dire or nationally relevant.

    In some cases, it's a coach on an extremely hot seat. In others, it's a team hoping to prove it made the right decision in firing a coach who was on the hot seat one year ago. There are some teams who were facing loftier preseason expectations than at any other point in the past half century. And then there are teams with annual national championship dreams, hoping to finally get over that hump.

    Who are those teams with the most to prove in 2021?

    And after two weeks of watching them, what are they actually proving thus far?

    The following 10 programs are listed in no particular order, with the exception of saving the neediest one for last.

Iowa State Cyclones

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    Iowa State QB Brock Purdy
    Iowa State QB Brock PurdyMatthew Putney/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    Expectations in Ames have never been as high as they were for the past eight months.

    The Cyclones debuted at No. 7 in the AP Top 25, which is uncharted water for them. Their previous best preseason ranking was No. 20 back in 1978. But they got back just about everyone from a team that finished last season at No. 9 in the AP polljust the third time Iowa State has ever been ranked to end the year and the first time since 2000.

    Somewhere along the way, Iowa State became the team most likely to crash the Alabama-Clemson-Georgia-Ohio State-Oklahoma party atop the rankings. Any time someone asked the "Aside from the usual suspects, who's going to be good this year?" question, Iowa State was the go-to answer. At any rate, if the Nov. 20 game against Oklahoma was in Ames instead of in Norman, I probably would've picked the Cyclones to make the College Football Playoff.

             

    Early Returns

    Not great.

    The defense has been more than adequate. The Cyclones held Northern Iowa to 10 points in their season opener and limited Iowa to 173 yards of total offense in Week 2. But the offense has been a major disappointment, resulting in a narrow victory over the Panthers and a loss to the Hawkeyes.

    It all feels a bit like a repeat of the 2020 Oklahoma State team that brought back most of its offensive starters, was supposed to be one of the top contenders in the Big 12 and instead just had a hard time scoring, in large part because its nation-leading rusher wasn't anywhere near as prolific in his encore season.

    The Cyclones could still turn things around and win the Big 12, but that feels highly unlikely at this point.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler
    Oklahoma QB Spencer RattlerAlonzo Adams/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    From the beginning of 2001 through the end of 2020, only Ohio State won more games (218) than Oklahoma (214). The Sooners spent at least one week ranked in the top seven of the AP poll in each of those seasons and finished 14 of those years ranked No. 8 or better.

    But it has been two decades of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" for Oklahoma, which last won a national championship in 2000 and hasn't even played in one since losing to Tim Tebow and Florida at the end of the 2008 season.

    The Sooners have played in four of the past six College Football Playoffs, immediately losing in the semifinal each time, typically by a lopsided margin. It's getting to the point where we expect them to make the playoff every year, but never to win it. And that's only going to get worse if this year's teamwhich debuted in the top two of the AP poll for just the second time in the past 17 years—also loses in the semifinals.

             

    Early Returns

    That 40-35 opener against Tulane was quite concerning. Preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler threw a pair of interceptions and they darn near blew a 37-14 halftime lead.

    Not that the rankings matter at all right now, but that close call cost them two spots in the AP poll.

    Oklahoma bounced back with a vengeance for a 76-0 victory over Western Carolina this past weekend, but there's no point in trying to glean anything useful from that blowout win over an FCS opponent that has been quite bad in recent years. If it instilled some confidence for the guys on the roster, great, but it doesn't do anything to further convince us that the Sooners can beat an Alabama or a Georgia a few months from now.

    But, hey, at least they won in Week 2. Neither Iowa State nor Texas can say that, which does make Oklahoma feel like that much more of a favorite to win the Big 12.

UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA head coach Chip Kelly
    UCLA head coach Chip KellyAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    In four seasons with Oregon, Chip Kelly went 46-7 and consistently had one of the highest-scoring and most entertaining offenses in the nation. And while the NFL portion of his coaching career was nowhere near as impressive, the expectation was that he would put UCLA football back on the map in short order.

    The Bruins went just 10-21 overall in his first three seasons at the helm, though they showed gradual improvement. Per Sports Reference's simple rating system, UCLA was the 86th-best team in the country in 2018, ranked 74th the following year and was 69th during the truncated 2020 campaign.

    However, this needs to be the year they make "the leap," or else it's time to seriously question whether Kelly is the man to lead this team moving forward. And with the Pac-12 South looking like a four-horse race with no clear favorite, that leap could result in UCLA's first Pac-12 championship game appearance since 2012.

             

    Early Returns

    You couldn't ask for a much better start to the season. Not only did the Bruins blow out Hawai'i in Week 0, but they came out the following week and knocked off No. 16 LSU, subsequently jumping all the way to No. 16 for their first AP Top 25 appearance of the Kelly era.

    Dorian Thompson-Robinson still isn't a particularly accurate quarterback (52.8 completion percentage through two games). When he does complete passes, though, they're typically for huge gains, as he is averaging 20.5 yards per completion. And the combined force of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown has been lethal on the ground.

    With USC and Utah each already suffering a loss and dropping out of the AP Top 25, UCLA has emerged as not only a threat to win the Pac-12 South, but perhaps even the favorite to do so. We'll see what happens when they host Arizona State on Oct. 2, but the Bruins should at least be bowl-bound for the first time under Kelly.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and QB J.J. McCarthy
    Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and QB J.J. McCarthyTony Ding/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    Pressure has been mounting for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh for quite some time, even if we give them a mulligan for *gestures wildly at the nightmarish 2020 season.* The Big Ten championship has now been an annual tradition for the past decade, but this once-elite program has yet to even participate in any of them.

    The Wolverines have had a bunch of "pretty OK" seasons under Harbaugh, finishing four of his previous six seasons in the top 20 of the final AP poll. But they brought Harbaugh to Ann Arbor to win championships and to compete with and occasionally defeat Ohio State. Thus far, that hasn't happened. Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes, and three of those losses were merciless blowouts.

    Preseason national expectations for Michigan were nowhere near what we're used to seeing, but that doesn't change their goal. They want to win "The Game" and play for a Big Ten championship. And if that doesn't happen, the $4 million buyout on Harbaugh's contract will be a small price to pay to figure out if someone else can beat Ohio State.

             

    Early Returns

    Certainly can't argue with how good Michigan has looked thus far.

    The duo of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins has combined for 507 rushing yards and six touchdowns while the Wolverines are averaging 339.0 yards on the ground per game.

    They're also defending at a much better level than what we saw last fall. In fact, Michigan has rushed for more yards than the total number of yards its defense allowed in each of the first two games.

    However, those games were against Western Michigan and a Washington team that also lost to Montana. And the next two are against Northern Illinois and Rutgers, so we won't really get a sense of where Michigan is at until the Oct. 2 road trip to Wisconsin. Still, it's nice that they already have as many wins in 2021 as they had in 2020.

LSU Tigers

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    LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
    LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    One year after going 15-0 en route to a national championship, LSU had one of its worst seasons in decades.

    The Tigers went 5-5 last fall with a completely unrecognizable defense. Normally one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, LSU allowed 35 points and nearly 500 total yards per game.

    Was it just an off year resulting from a mass exodus of talent to the NFL, or is poor defense the new normal in Baton Rouge?

    The natural assumption is the former and they'll be back competing for an SEC West division crown once that defense re-engages. However, the division is so loaded that another season of being .500 or worse could be headed LSU's way if it continues to struggle on D. And 2019 national championship or not, there will be a lot of people calling for Ed Orgeron's termination if 2021 plays out similarly to 2020.

             

    Early Returns

    At least the Tigers didn't give up 623 passing yards in their season opener this year, but this defense still clearly has a lot of maturing to do in the aftermath of a 38-27 loss to UCLA in which Bruins QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson averaged nearly 30 yards per completion.

    Like Oklahoma, LSU did at least respond nicely in a Week 2 win over a hapless FCS opponent. Orgeron's son, Cody, had a 44-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. But up until that point, the Tigers were pitching a shutout and had held McNeese State to just over 100 total yards of offense.

    Shutting down McNeese State can hardly be considered a precursor for success against the SEC, though it is certainly more promising than struggling against an opponent of that caliber. LSU will draw Central Michigan in Week 3 before diving into a five-week gauntlet of conference foes, starting with a road game against Mississippi State on Sept. 25. That will be the game where we come to a collective decision on whether LSU is competent enough on defense to even compete with Alabama later this season.

Auburn Tigers

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    Auburn QB Bo Nix
    Auburn QB Bo NixButch Dill/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    Gus Malzahn led Auburn to a 68-35 record over the past eight seasons, including three rivalry wins over Alabama, which otherwise had a 97-7 record during that time. The Tigers had a winning record in each of Malzahn's years there.

    But, apparently, it wasn't good enough. In fact, it was deemed so not good enough that they ponied up $21.45 million (plus more than $6 million to assistant coaches) to buy Malzahn out of the remainder of his contract and make him go away.

    And new head coach Bryan Harsin has quite the precedent set before him. Malzahn led Auburn to the BCS Championship in his first season. Before him, Gene Chizik led the Tigers to a national championship in his second season at the helm. It took a little longer than that (six years) for Tommy Tuberville to finish a season ranked in the AP top five, but Terry Bowden went a perfect 11-0 in his first year. Basically, they don't do rebuilding years on the plains.

    Last but not least, 2021 feels like a "now or never" year for Bo Nix living up to the hype at quarterback.

             

    Early Returns

    The strength of schedule isn't impressing anyone, but the margins of victory sure are.

    One week after annihilating Akron 60-10, the Tigers throttled Alabama State by a score of 62-0.

    Nix was just about perfect against Akron, completing 20-of-22 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn't as crisp against Alabama State (9-of-17 for 108 yards and two touchdowns), but five touchdowns with no interceptions is a big step in the right direction for Nix, regardless of the quality of the competition.

    More important than what Nix has been up to in these early games, Auburn's ground game appears to be back. Both Jarquez Hunter and Tank Bigsby rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the first two games, and they are both averaging better than 10 yards per carry.

    Don't expect that degree of dominance to continue next week at Penn State, but an Auburn win in Happy Valley definitely feels more plausible than it did a few weeks ago.

Texas Longhorns

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    Texas RB Bijan Robinson
    Texas RB Bijan RobinsonChuck Burton/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    Texas always seems to have a lot to prove, but that's especially true this year.

    Much like Auburn, Texas paid a lot of money ($15.4 million) to get rid of a coach who wasn't doing that poorly. Tom Herman had a winning record in each of the past four seasons and an overall record of 32-18. But they kicked him to the curb to bring in Steve Sarkisian from Alabama.

    About six months after that bit of coaching realignment, we found out that Texas (and Oklahoma) will be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC at some point in the next few years. While that doesn't change anything for this year's team or its expectations, it does draw a little more national attention than usual to a program that is already a lightning rod for #content.

    And after an entire offseason of hearing about how good both Oklahoma and Iowa State are going to be this year, Texas badly wants to prove that the road to a Big 12 championship still goes through Austin every now and again.

             

    Early Returns

    New head coach, same Jekyll and Hyde tendencies.

    Texas thrived in its 20-point Week 1 win over Louisiana with Hudson Card, Bijan Robinson and Jordan Whittington leading the way. But all three of those young stars were held in check in the Longhorns' subsequent 40-21 loss at Arkansas.

    The defensive front seven also took a colossal step backward, allowing the Razorbacks to rush for 333 yards one week after limiting the Ragin' Cajuns to 76 yards on 29 carries.

    The first glimpse of Texas looked like a team that could win the Big 12. The second one looked like a team that could go 4-8.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr.
    Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    For the first time in more than half a century, Indiana was in the preseason AP Top 25.

    After a most impressive 2020 campaign with only one regular season loss, the Hoosiers debuted at No. 17 with dreams of winning the Big Ten for the first time since 1967.

    But with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. recovering from a torn ACL and with a handful of other starters (most notably wide receiver Whop Philyor and safety Jamar Johnson) needing to be replaced, could the Hoosiers possibly turn last year's success into a trend? Or will they return to their usual role of finishing in no better than fourth place in the Big Ten East?

    Even before they get into the meat of their conference schedule, though, the Hoosiers will have a major nonconference opportunity at home against Cincinnati. Will they serve as a stepping stone for the Bearcats' argument for a spot in the College Football Playoff, or will the Hoosiers put an end to that narrative before it gains steam?

             

    Early Returns

    Indiana came out flatter than a pancake in a 34-6 loss at Iowa. The Hoosiers were down 14-0 less than three minutes into the game and never managed to get the ball past the Iowa 12, let alone into the end zone.

    Given the Hawkeyes' subsequent victory over Iowa State, it's possible they are one of the five best teams in the country this year. But Ohio State was also one of the five best teams last year, and the 2020 Hoosiers went into the Horseshoe and nearly came away with a victory.

    And it's not like Indiana's offense looked much better the following week against Idaho. The Hoosiers won 56-14, but Penix averaged 4.3 yards per pass attempt and the team averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Not exactly a promising lead-in to next week's matchup with Cincinnati's outstanding defense.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher
    Texas A&M head coach Jimbo FisherCarmen Mandato/Getty Images

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    Several of the teams on this list are here because they want to prove it was a good idea to make a coaching change during a pandemic.

    Texas A&M went the opposite direction with Jimbo Fisher, giving him both a substantial raise and a (fully guaranteed) contract extension through 2031. The decision was announced not even 72 hours before A&M's first game of the season, and it was made in spite of an 0-3 record against Alabama in which each game was decided by at least 19 points.

    Even though the Aggies were in the unenviable position of needing to replace their starting quarterback and four starters along the offensive line, they debuted at No. 6 in the preseason AP Top 25—their highest preseason ranking since 1995.

    Is this the year they get over the hump and win the SEC West? Or will there be serious concerns raised about that extension after yet another blowout loss to Alabama? I'm not trying to suggest that the other 11 games on the docket are irrelevant, but the Aggies just about need to snap that eight-year losing streak to the Crimson Tide if they want to take that next step into the College Football Playoff.

             

    Early Returns

    On the plus side, Texas A&M appears to have a very strong defense. Kent State led the nation in scoring at 49.8 points per game last season and dropped a 60-burger on VMI this past weekend, but they were held to just 10 points by the Aggies. And against Colorado, A&M only allowed two first downs in the final 36 minutes, one of which came on a defensive penalty.

    On the minus side, Texas A&M's offense committed five turnovers against Kent State and managed just 10 points against Colorado. The Aggies lost quarterback Haynes King III to an injury early against Colorado and seemed incapable of stringing together a good offensive series until the fourth quarter.

    With Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane and Ainias Smith at their disposal, this should be one of the more electric offenses in the country. But that aforementioned loss of four starting offensive linemen might be more of a hurdle than they can overcome.

USC Trojans

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    USC head coach Clay Helton
    USC head coach Clay HeltonAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Why They Need to Prove Something

    Like Michigan and Texas, this is one of those programs that seems to have spent the past decade in a perpetual state of failing to prove itself worthy of being ranked in the preseason, yet repeatedly receiving that honor.

    The Trojans went 5-1 last season, but they lost the Pac-12 championship to Oregon, keeping Clay Helton in his usual spot on one of the hottest seats in the country. And this is the year that the poor-by-their-standards recruiting in 2019 and 2020 is likely to become a problem.

    Per 247Sports, USC had a top-four recruiting class every year from 2003-11 and ranked in the top 13 each year from 2012-19, but Helton put together the 20th-best class in 2019 and an especially brutal 64th-best class in 2020.

    With those guys now stepping into more important roles in their second and third years with the program, anything less than a return trip to the Pac-12 championship will serve as an indictment against Helton's ability to run this program.

             

    Early Returns

    USC looked broken in its 42-28 loss to Stanford, which was actually a 42-13 ball game until a couple of garbage-time touchdowns by the Trojans.

    It took the Cardinal more than 56 minutes to score a single point the previous week against Kansas State, but they made it look easy against USC. During one stretch of more than 30 minutes of game time, they scored touchdowns on four out of five possessions, going at least 55 yards for each of those scores. And after the one outlier where they needed to punt, Kyu Blu Kelly got a pick-six against Kedon Slovis.

    While that was going on, USC's supposed-to-be-high-octane offense was repeatedly either stalling out in field-goal range or going three-and-out.

    It got ugly in a hurry, and I'm a little surprised we didn't wake up on Sunday to news of Helton being fired for that debacle.

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