Here are 10 breakout college football teams to watch for during the 2016 season.
Clemson finally got over the hump in 2015, winning the ACC and finishing as the runner-up to Alabama for the national championship. Iowa, Oklahoma, Navy and Washington State were among the other prominent schools to raise the bar and exceed preseason expectations from a year ago.
But the past is the past, and a new campaign brings an entirely new collection of teams poised to climb from good to really good following an offseason of positive developments.
The following 10, in particular, are uniquely positioned to blow past last year’s results and chart a new course of potential in 2016.
The Huskies have all of the requisite characteristics to be this year’s Temple out of the American. Remember the 2015 Owls, which beat Penn State for the first time since 1941 and had Notre Dame on the ropes on Halloween night? That’s where the bar is set for UConn. Bob Diaco begins his third season with a tailwind and a veteran squad intent on being this year’s Cinderella in the conference. The defense will continue to be stingy in Storrs, while the offense might finally have a pulse with the trio of QB Bryant Shirreffs, RB Arkeel Newsome and WR Noel Thomas headlining the return of eight starters.
9. Penn State
Maybe in some weird way, the Lions will be better off without Christian Hackenberg. Were the offense’s issues all Hackenberg’s fault? Of course not. The O-line has been a sieve. But he’d become a lightning rod of attention, and never was an ideal fit for the system. Now that the program has turned the page, with Joe Moorhead taking over as coordinator, RB Saquon Barkley is ready to erupt into one of the Big Ten’s rising stars. And the D, despite significant losses up front, always seems to find a way to cobble together a salty unit.
Although they no longer measure up with the Clemsons and the Florida States of the ACC, a lack of raw talent has never been the issue for the Canes during this protracted lull. They just needed the right staff to mold those kids into consistent winners. Enter Mark Richt, the program’s best coach of this century. Richt inherits one of the game’s top quarterbacks, Brad Kaaya, and enough valuable parts to rise to the top of the conference’s lesser half. If line play exceeds expectations, Richt is capable of laying a terrific foundation on which to build a Miami resurgence.
Sure, last year was a disaster in Lincoln. But the Huskers can’t possibly be as unlucky as they were in 2015. Plus, a second season with Mike Riley’s staff in charge means less uncertainty and better communication between coaches and players. All seven of Nebraska’s losses were by 10 points or less, and it closed with impressive upsets of Michigan State and UCLA, so the 6-7 mark wasn’t quite as bad as it looked. While the talent pool isn’t elite compared to the Big Ten heavyweights, there’ll be enough quality vets on offense to bounce back with eight wins.
They’re perennially tough and plucky, and they avoid Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan on the schedule. Yeah, the Gophers will have a shot to be this year’s Iowa out of the Big Ten West. Minnesota is the classic try-hard, overachieving team that no one in the league enjoys facing. This fall, it sports the right mix of manageable slate and stability where it counts to be a divisional factor late in November. The Gophers are upping their coach-QB quotient now that Tracy Claeys had his interim title removed and Mitch Leidner is bucking to become the program’s first quarterback drafted since 1972.
As a first-year head coach, Pat Narduzzi laid the ground floor with the Panthers a year ago. This season, he continues to build around a team that has the mindset and right mix of talent on both sides of the ball to win the ACC Coastal. Defense won’t be an issue as long as Narduzzi is pulling the strings, and the offense will get a physical and emotional boost from the healthy return of RB James Conner. If a receiver steps up to supplant the lost production of Tyler Boyd, look out. This program is in the embryonic stages of becoming Michigan State on the Monongahela.
Nah, the Horns still don’t stack up apples-to-apples with the Big 12’s premier teams. Still, it’s funny how a sense of urgency has a way of closing the divide with opponents. After losing seven games in consecutive seasons under Charlie Strong, Texas has to be better in 2016. The entire staff’s future in Austin depends on it. The Horns could start slowly, particularly with Notre Dame in the opener. But with gifted underclassmen, like QB Shane Buechele, LT Connor Williams and LB Malik Jefferson, littering the lineup, this will be the team no one wants to see in November and December. UT will rock down the stretch, earning Strong a fourth year at the helm.
3. Texas A&M
Rough past year? You bet. The Aggies have squandered a lot of their mojo under Kevin Sumlin, the result of on-field mediocrity and the high-profile transfers of quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray. But A&M is liable to sneak up on folks this season, especially now that the bar is being lowered a rung. There’s still top-end talent on hand, like ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall and the Christian Kirk-led receivers. And the addition of Trevor Knight, a veteran QB who’ll operate with something to prove, is exactly the kind of one-year stopgap Sumlin needed for 2016.
True, it’s been a rocky 21st century for U-Dub, which last won 10 games or a league title in 2000. However, all signs point to the start of a new trajectory. Chris Petersen enters his third year at the school, armed with a squad flush in young talent on both sides of the ball. The Huskies leaned on a pack of underclassmen in 2015, such as QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin and pro-ready DBs Budda Baker and Sidney Jones. Plus, they finished with the wind at their back, whipping Oregon State, Wazzu and Southern Miss by double-digits. If the kids keep maturing in Seattle, Washington could seriously threaten Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North.
Watch your back, Clemson and Florida State. The Cardinals are an extremely talented and dangerous squad that’s liable to derail your quest for an ACC crown and playoff contention. Last season was a time of transition for Bobby Petrino, as he broke in a true freshman quarterback, Lamar Jackson. But Louisville finished on a tear, winning eight of the final 10 games, with Jackson serving as the budding dual-threat catalyst. Add in a defense littered with next-level speed and talent, and the Cards are geared up to become the third member of the ACC’s power trio for 2016.