Non-Bowl Teams That Will Improve Dramatically in 2022
With 42 bowl games to be played over the course of the next month, it sometimes feels like every college football team in the country earns a spot in a bowl.
In reality, more than one-third of FBS teams (46 of 130) are already in offseason mode with dreams of things going much better in 2022.
Everything might seem bleak for these programs right now, but overnight transformations happen all the time.
Michigan (2-4), Baylor (2-7), Northern Illinois (0-6) and Utah State (1-5) all had considerably sub-.500 records in 2020 before winning conference championships in 2021. Old Dominion went from not even playing in 2020 to winning six games in 2021.
By my count, 28 teams improved their winning percentage by at least .250 points from 2020 to 2021, and you can take it to the bank that there will be at least a dozen teams with similar drastic improvements in 2022.
Which teams, though?
All seven teams on my list from last December at least made a bowl game this year, so let's see if we can go 7-for-7 once again.
Teams are listed in no particular order, though we'll kick things off with the most obvious choice of them all.
Say what you will about Lincoln Riley's decision (or the timing of it) to leave Oklahoma for USC, but there's little doubt that he'll be able to put the Trojans back on the map.
Even in a season that Spencer Rattler struggled and Caleb Williams battled some minor injuries, Oklahoma still averaged nearly 40 points per game. Before that, Riley coached the Heisman-winning quarterback in 2017 (Baker Mayfield), the Heisman-winning quarterback in 2018 (Kyler Murray) and the Heisman runner-up in 2019 (Jalen Hurts)—each of whom transferred to Oklahoma after starting his college career elsewhere.
And he certainly isn't starting over from scratch at USC. We'll see how things shake out with transfers and draft declarations, but for now, Riley inherits two great quarterback options in Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart, as well as a stockpile of former top-100 overall wide receivers, including Jake Smith, Gary Bryant Jr., Kyle Ford and possibly Bru McCoy if he is reinstated after being suspended following his arrest on the suspicion of intimate partner violence in July.
Whether Riley can improve a defense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game this season remains to be seen. Defense certainly wasn't Oklahoma's calling card under his tutelage, although it's considerably better now than it was five years ago. But his offensive mind alone has to be worth several more wins for the Trojans in 2022.
Of course, we had similar thoughts about Steve Sarkisian's move to Texas last offseason and the Longhorns were a 5-7 disaster, so who knows? But if you had to bet on any sub-.500 team rebounding for 10 wins next year, USC seems to be the logical choice.
Five-and-one-quarter games into the 2021 season, Texas looked pretty darn good.
The Longhorns were 4-1 and averaging 43.8 points through those first five full games. And with a 28-7 lead over Oklahoma 15 minutes into the Red River Rivalry, the then-ranked Longhorns looked like a team that—despite a 19-point loss to Arkansas in Week 2—just might mess around and sneak into the College Football Playoff conversation.
But then, something broke.
Caleb Williams came off the bench for the Sooners with a 66-yard rushing touchdown, Kennedy Brooks turned into Adrian Peterson and things were just never the same again for Texas. The Longhorns blew that game, and the subsequent gauntlet of games against Oklahoma State, at Baylor and at Iowa State kept them from ever recovering.
This team should have been better than 5-7, though, and with 1,000-yard producers Bijan Robinson and Xavier Worthy both too young for the draft, they should at least be potent on offense again. Maybe next year the winner of the offseason quarterback battle will actually keep the job for two full games, too.
And, I mean, the defense can't get any worse, right?
It seems safe to assume they're going to lose DeMarvion Overshown, D'Shawn Jamison, Josh Thompson and B.J. Foster to the NFL draft, but we're talking about a defense in which no one registered more than 2.0 sacks and no one broke up more than three passes. Nowhere to go but up.
I dare you to find a better 3-9 team in college football history than this Nebraska team.
The Cornhuskers ended the regular season ranked 35th in ESPN's Football Power Index, as well as 38th in Bill Connelly's SP+ rankings. The nine teams they lost to finished the regular season with a combined record of 80-28, and yet they did not lose a single game by double digits and ended up with a scoring margin of plus-62—only slightly worse than 10-2 Michigan State's year-to-date scoring margin of plus-75.
Adrian Martinez won't be back at quarterback for the Cornhuskers, but Logan Smothers flashed some exciting potential in the season finale against Iowa. With the exception of wide receiver Samori Toure and a couple of starting seniors on defense, just about everyone is eligible to return for at least one more year.
While this year's coaching carousel has been spinning at an alarming rate since all the way back in September, Nebraska restructured Scott Frost's contract to essentially set up the type of do-or-die season Michigan gave Jim Harbaugh this year.
It would be truly stunning if the Cornhuskers come anywhere close to doing in 2022 what the Wolverines did in 2021, but an eight-win season certainly feels attainable.
Tulane Green Wave
After five consecutive years of allowing between 26.3-29.2 points per game, Tulane fired defensive coordinator Jack Curtis at the end of the 2020 campaign.
And the first year with Chris Hampton running things went...so much worse.
The Green Wave allowed 34.0 points per game during their 2-10 campaign. Both East Carolina and SMU eclipsed 600 total yards against Tulane, and Ole Miss scored 61 points and went over the 700-yard mark.
But they clearly turned a corner over the final five games of the season.
Excluding a matchup against FCS Morgan State—against whom the Green Wave still gave up 20 points—they allowed 46.0 points and 539.2 total yards through their first six contests. But those numbers plummeted to 22.4 and 340.2, respectively, over their last five games.
It's not like the schedule got considerably easier down the stretch, either. In fact, 10 of Tulane's 11 FBS opponents qualified for bowls, most of them with plenty of room to spare. They simply improved on defense, though that shift unfortunately began right as their offense was tanking.
Tulane should get Michael Pratt back as its starting quarterback for a third season. If he's able to rebound from some of those tough outings late in the year—against what should be a much more favorable schedule in 2022—Tulane should at least be able to start a new bowl streak.
Florida State Seminoles
Florida State had 41 consecutive winning seasons from 1977 to 2017. But the Seminole faithful have since suffered through four straight losing campaigns.
At least this year's team seemed to improve as the season progressed.
FSU started out 0-4, including an embarrassing loss to Jacksonville State, before winning five of its final eight games. Three of those wins came against bowl-eligible teams, and the 'Noles also perhaps should have won against Clemson and could have won the season finale at Florida, but they couldn't quite finish either of those comebacks.
Quarterback Jordan Travis was a major catalyst for that turnaround.
He started the year at quarterback, but was replaced by McKenzie Milton late in the opener against Notre Dame. Travis didn't again play a critical role until he was re-inserted as the starter in early October, giving FSU a much-needed mobile threat Milton simply couldn't provide. Travis missed the November loss to NC State, but he averaged better than 70 rushing yards over his final seven games along with 11 passing touchdowns and two interceptions.
His reliably competent play was something Florida State has been lacking since Deondre Francois got hurt in the first game of the 2017 season. Travis has two years of eligibility remaining and will presumably return in 2022.
FSU's defense was also considerably better this year than it had been over the past three seasons, though we'll see if that continues next year after losing top pass rushers Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas, among others.
It's almost poetic that—in the year Jim Harbaugh got Michigan into the College Football Playoff—Stanford had its worst season since right before it hired Harbaugh (1-11 in 2006).
The Cardinal went 3-9, and the most recent of those wins came on October 2. Stanford lost its final four games by a combined score of 173 to 46, making it more than a little surprising David Shaw still has a job, considering they went 4-8 in 2019.
Here's the thing, though: Stanford's schedule was a gauntlet.
Two of its nonconference games were against Notre Dame and Kansas State, and even the "gimme" was a contest at Vanderbilt. The only two Pac-12 teams it didn't get to play (Arizona and Colorado) were the two worst teams in the Pac-12 South.
Granted, it's pretty much the same schedule next year, replacing Kansas State and Vanderbilt with BYU and Colgate. But it's also worth remembering starting quarterback Tanner McKee was basically playing his first football in nearly four years.
McKee missed all of 2018 and 2019 while on a two-year LDS mission, only to return amid a global pandemic. He attempted just seven passes last fall and wasn't the starter this year until Jack West's atrocious season-opening performance against Kansas State. McKee, who has three years of eligibility remaining, had his moments this season. Still, he was largely inconsistent.
Maybe Stanford's improvement won't be dramatic, but it's hard to imagine it won't at least turn some sort of corner in 2022.
Georgia Southern Eagles
After starting this list with Clay Helton's former team, let's end it with his new one.
Georgia Southern went 25-14 over the previous three seasons before struggling through a 3-9 mess this year.
The Eagles' triple-option offense simply wasn't the same, after they lost four-year starting quarterback Shai Werts as a transfer to Louisville. But the bigger problem was a defense that couldn't stop anything. One year removed from holding opponents to 20.8 points and 326 yards per game, those numbers ballooned to 31.4 and 445 in 2021.
When Derrick Canteen suffered a torn pectoral muscle early in the second game of the season, though, it meant Georgia Southern would need to play the rest of the year without its best defensive back, without its best pass rusher and without four of its five leading tacklers from 2020. The Eagles never figured out how to plug all those holes.
That said, the defense was better over the final five games of the season, Canteen should be back in 2022, and you have to believe it's only matter of time before Helton spices up the offense with a few splashes from the transfer portal. Helton might not lure the kind of highly touted recruits he was able to sign while with USC, but he'll add talent, and Georgia Southern will likely re-emerge as one of the Sun Belt's contenders.