Non-Bowl Teams That Will Improve Dramatically in 2018

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2017

Non-Bowl Teams That Will Improve Dramatically in 2018

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    It was a disappointing 2017 season for plenty of proud college football programs who'll be home for the holidays.

    For a few, such as Nebraska, Florida and Tennessee, the struggles ran so deep that those teams will be suiting up for new coaches when next season kicks off.

    The Cornhuskers snagged high-profile favorite son Scott Frost from Central Florida, and the Gators tabbed former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen from Mississippi State.

    Others like the Vols are still awaiting whom they'll have at the helm in 2018 following a nationally publicized coaching search. 

    Then, there were teams like Baylor and Maryland that found rough footing under coaches in their first two years on the job.

    But a bunch of the teams that found themselves in a rut that spiraled deeper as the season progressed are too strong and storied to be down for long. They'll rebound, and though most of them won't be contending for any titles anytime soon, they'll do enough to get back to the postseason next year.

    Let's take a look at some of 2017's non-bowl teams that'll hop right back into the end-of-the-year festivities in 2018.

Baylor Bears

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    What went wrong in 2017

    What started with an improbable 48-45 loss to FCS opponent Liberty never really turned around for first-year coach Matt Rhule, who left Temple to try to turn around a dismal couple of years on and off the field for Baylor.

    Maybe it gets worse before it will get better. The Bears, who finished 1-11 with only a win over Kansas, dealt with tons of youth and an injury to quality young quarterback Zach Smith.

    With depth gutted from all the players who defected in the wake of the off-field issues, BU played 11 true freshmen and 27 first-time starters. It's hard to win in a deep league with that kind of inexperience.

                       

    Why they'll improve

    Smith will be back, and true freshman Charlie Brewer looks like he'll provide quality competition, as he finished the year with 11 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. 

    All of that youth will improve, and the Bears have several games to build upon, such as close losses against ranked opponents Oklahoma and West Virginia. Yes, this season was ugly, but it wasn't like Rhule's team was blown out every Saturday.

    Rhule is a good coach whose track record with the Owls is impressive. He'll recruit well, and the further the program moves away from the embarrassment of the Art Briles era, the better it will be for everybody. Underclassmen accounted for 71 percent of the team's rushing yards, too.

    It'll get better.

                     

    2018 outlook

    A five-win turnaround is a lot to ask, but the Bears are going to do it. They play two tough out-of-conference games early against UTSA and Duke, two teams that beat them this year.

    But they'll return the favor in '18. If they get past those games, they'll be 4-0 heading into the game against Oklahoma. After that, the schedule gets much tougher, but they'll find at least a pair of wins elsewhere and wind up with a 6-6 record to make it back to the postseason.

    Smith or Brewer will be a quality centerpiece around which to rebuild the program.

Colorado Buffaloes

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    What went wrong in 2017

    A season after the Buffaloes made it to the Pac-12 Championship Game, they found it difficult moving on from record-breaking quarterback Sefo Liufau and a high-powered group of defenders who were out of eligibility.

    Coach Mike MacIntyre dealt with a 5-7 season, finishing last in the South division for the fourth time in his five years, a season after winning national Coach of the Year honors. While the offensive line was supposed to be a major strength this year, it was far from it.

    Perhaps most importantly, the Buffaloes replaced eight defensive starters from 2016, and that didn't go well, either, as they also had to replace coordinator Jim Leavitt, who left for Oregon. The Buffs finished 110th nationally in total defense, allowing 450.6 yards per game.

                  

    Why they'll improve

    Quarterback Steven Montez is one of the most talented signal-callers in a loaded conference, though you wouldn't know it from his 2017 performance. If the Buffs can work out some O-line issues, he'll improve dramatically as a junior.

    Three of the elite quarterbacks who torched CU's defense in UCLA's Josh Rosen, USC's Sam Darnold and Washington State's Luke Falk will be gone as the conference faces a hefty rebuild next year.

    Yes, replacing senior running back Phillip Lindsay will be tough, but the Buffs will fill that role by committee and have a stable of receivers for Montez. The defense will improve sheerly because the quality of opponents' quarterbacks will decrease.

                    

    2018 outlook

    It's going to be tough to get to six wins considering the Buffs must face two of the hottest coaching hires of the offseason in Nebraska's Scott Frost and UCLA's Chip Kelly.

    But those rosters have huge holes. CU will split with those teams, beat Colorado State and New Hampshire and find a few more wins to claw its way to bowl eligibility. Teams like Oregon State, California and Arizona State are going to be trying to find themselves.

    MacIntyre is a good coach who will have a lot of pieces back, and he'll do what it takes to make defensive tweaks.

Florida Gators

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    What went wrong in 2017

    The Jim McElwain tenure couldn't have ended worse, with Florida attempting to fire him with cause. The decision was later overturned and he was awarded money.

    Though the Gators made the SEC Championship Game in each of the past two years, they were far from a complete team. After the third consecutive season of fielding a putrid offense, it became clear McElwain didn't have a future in Gainesville.

    When McElwain was fired, the defense fell apart, slumping to nearly as poor a showing as the offense. This 2018 roster will be one with a lot of flaws.

                     

    Why they'll improve

    Former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is the perfect fit for this program. He was once the offensive coordinator for the Gators during an extremely successful run by Urban Meyer before taking over the Bulldogs.

    He will continue the trend of a strong defense, but the offense will improve dramatically as well. Mullen is a known quarterback developer, and he'll have redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks to mold. Elite QB recruit Matt Corral also will enter the fray and could be an ideal player for Mullen.

    The coach is also perfect to figure out the best use of players like Kadarius Toney, who never would have reached his potential under McElwain.

    With Todd Grantham coming with him to coach the defense, the Gators should be on their way up in '18.

                     

    2018 outlook

    With Charleston Southern, Colorado State and Idaho on the schedule, that's three near-guaranteed wins. Missouri will probably be replacing star quarterback Drew Lock, who could leave for the NFL, and Tennessee has plenty of question marks as it starts its new regime.

    Kentucky and Vanderbilt are capable of beating Florida, but that doesn't happen often. Perhaps a pivot game will be the interesting matchup with Mullen's old team, Mississippi State, and new coach Joe Moorhead.

    Mullen's turnaround will take some time, but the Gators will win at least six and probably seven with that schedule.

Maryland Terrapins

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    What went wrong in 2017

    For the second straight year, coach D.J. Durkin had to dig deep into the roster to find healthy quarterbacks. That's never a winning recipe.

    Star freshman signal-caller Kasim Hill and sophomore starter Tyrrell Pigrome were lost to torn anterior cruciate ligaments in the first three games of 2017, and the Terrapins were left with a third-string quarterback for the remainder of the year.

    All of a sudden, a team that beat Texas 51-41 to open the season understandably began to struggle. The offense was pummeled much of the year, and the defense didn't hold up against the big boys, either. But don't count Durkin out just yet.

                      

    Why they'll improve

    Everybody is excited about Hill, and the quarterback battle with Pigrome is going to be a fun one to watch with both of them healthy.

    "It’s like two different seasons," Durkin told the Baltimore Sun's Don Markus. "That Texas game feels like eight years ago right now. We definitely had a plan, had a mindset, had a culture and a team built, but we got hit pretty hard with injuries at one spot, obviously.

    "You lose your two quarterbacks in the first nine quarters of the season, you ride emotion a little bit."

    After finishing with a top-20 recruiting class last year, Durkin has one again. If receiver D.J. Moore returns, that'll be another offensive centerpiece.

    Safety Darnell Savage, cornerback JC Jackson and nickelback/safety Antoine Brooks will help anchor a defense that should be improved. That's three secondary members who earned All-Big Ten honorable mention and should only get better with experience.

                    

    2018 outlook

    Texas will win the season-opening rematch, but the Terps are going to take a major step forward in 2018.

    They'll beat Bowling Green, Temple, Minnesota, Rutgers, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana to get to seven wins, which will be a drastic turnaround in Durkin's third season.

    The Maryland team that showed out in this year's season opener against the Longhorns is closer to reality than the one that ended the year with a 66-3 loss to Penn State. Durkin is a dynamic personality and elite recruiter, and he'll bring in another quality class for the Terps.

    That will start paying dividends on the field beginning next year.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    What went wrong in 2017

    After what was a puzzling hire to begin with, Nebraska never really adapted to Mike Riley's style, and he was fired after a disappointing season. The Cornhuskers were 121st in rushing offense, averaging a paltry 107.5 yards per game. 

    When you combine that with the fact that Nebraska was 115th in rush defense and 103rd in total defense, there wasn't much about which to be excited. This was a team that had personnel mismatches for Riley's scheme, and the veteran coach couldn't ever get on firm footing with the fans, either.

    The bottom line of what's wrong in Lincoln is the Huskers haven't gotten the type of athletes they used to back when they were dominating college football. They hope the arrival of Scott Frost will change that significantly.

                        

    Why they'll improve

    Frost is the short answer.

    Everybody knows by now what he did at Central Florida, taking an 0-12 Knights team to a bowl game in his first year before leading it to a spotless 12-0 slate this season. He's a program builder, a dynamic offensive mind and is finally home where he played college ball.

    Though it'll take a while to rebuild the Huskers with the type of athletes it takes to be competitive, Frost enters one of the easiest divisions in which to win in the entire country. It won't be long until he has Nebraska competing with Wisconsin for the Big Ten West.

    The talent discrepancies won't change Frost's philosophy.

    "We're going to go fast and try to have the best offense in the country here, just like we did at UCF," he told Landof10.com's Joshua Needelman. 

    Look for Frost to search far and wide for a freshman quarterback to run his system and to outfit his roster with JUCO talent.

                     

    2018 outlook

    The early-season matchup against another team on this list, Colorado, will go a long way toward determining the Cornhuskers' bowl eligibility, but the out-of-conference schedule is definitely manageable. 

    Besides the Buffaloes, the Huskers play Troy and Akron. Purdue will be tough in Jeff Brohm's second year, and everybody knows Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin will be hard to beat. But Northwestern will have some questions after a roster turnover, and Minnesota and Illinois still have issues.

    There are at least six potential wins on that schedule, and the excitement that will surround Frost will be similar to what Tom Herman saw this year at Texas. The Longhorns went 6-6 and will go to a bowl game. Expect Frost's Huskers to do the same, taking a significant step forward.

Pittsburgh Panthers

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    What went wrong in 2017

    It's hard for anybody to sustain a body blow like the one that faced Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi in 2017. After his team was carried by an offense led by quarterback Nathan Peterman, running back James Conner and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, they all left.

    Peterman and Conner went to the NFL, and Canada bolted for LSU.

    That left Narduzzi with a brand-new offense as well as a lot of youth on defense. After an overtime win against Youngstown State to start the season, things spiraled as the Panthers lost five of their next six games.

    Late-season close losses to North Carolina and Virginia Tech stung, too, as the team looked like it could eke out a bowl game. Instead, Pitt finished 5-7. 

                     

    Why they'll improve

    The season-ending home upset of previously unbeaten Miami offered a lot of positives for Pitt and Narduzzi to build on going into the offseason. A young defense showed some growth, harassing Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier, shaking him and causing him to eventually get pulled.

    Though Ben DiNucci could provide competition, freshman Kenny Pickett staked his late-season claim to be the Panthers' favorite at the position with an impressive late-season audition.

    He was 15-of-23 for 242 yards and an interception against Virginia Tech. Then, in the win over Miami, he completed 62 percent of his passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. He ran for two more scores in a game that showed his dual-threat abilities.

    If Pickett can build on his showcase, Pitt has its signal-caller of the future. The team has a lot of young talent to go along with him, especially on defense.

                       

    2018 outlook

    Other than maybe Baylor and Tennessee, this is the biggest gamble pick. Because even though the Panthers are going to be good enough to go to a bowl game, they play what may be the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the nation.

    Yes, they start with Albany, but they also have to take on Penn State, Central Florida and Notre Dame. That's a slate nobody wants to face, especially a team looking to rebound.

    As a result, the ACC is going to be easier to navigate next year, especially considering the Panthers don't have to play Clemson or Florida State (with Deondre Francois returning). Miami and Virginia Tech will be tough games, but Pitt should win at least one of those.

    This is a team that can finish with at least seven wins next year.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    What went wrong in 2017

    Everything.

    The final season of the Butch Jones era had about as much turmoil as possible, and it didn't help matters that the Vols lost star players such as quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett, cornerback Cameron Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

    UT just couldn't find the star power it had in recent years. The offensive line struggled, the defense never materialized under coordinator Bob Shoop, and injuries were a major issue, much like it has been throughout Jones' tenure.

    Once the questions surrounding Jones' future started swirling, it looked like the Vols quit, producing the first eight-loss season in school history.

                      

    Why they'll improve

    It can't get worse, but the Vols will welcome back a bunch of injured difference-makers who missed significant time in 2017. Perhaps the most important of those players will be middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and safety Todd Kelly Jr., who can help shore up a porous unit.

    On offense, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano showed flashes in his redshirt freshman year, and running backs John Kelly and Ty Chandler will be something to watch if UT can fix its issues across the offensive front and in strength and conditioning.

    The schedule is tough next year with a season-opening game against West Virginia and having to face Alabama and Auburn from the SEC West, but the East division is bad, and the Vols have much more talent than this season's 4-8 record suggests.

                     

    2018 outlook

    With Charlotte, ETSU and UTEP on the schedule, that's three wins for the Vols, but they've got to find three more, and on the surface that looks tough for a program that finished with its first 0-8 conference record in school history.

    Still, history says Tennessee won't continually lose to Vanderbilt or Kentucky, and if Missouri has to replace quarterback Drew Lock, who is a lock to be a high-round draft pick if he leaves early, that's three games the Vols could win. South Carolina is always a close match, too, and Florida has plenty of its own issues.

    Tennessee beat none of those teams in 2017, but the Vols are capable, and they've got a better roster than most of their division rivals. The biggest question right now is who's going to coach UT.

    If it's somebody who can maximize and develop talent (two things Jones couldn't do), the returning healthy players will boost Tennessee into the postseason.

UNLV Runnin' Rebels

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    What went wrong in 2017

    If you take away the bookend games of the 2017 season, it wouldn't have been so bad for UNLV.

    The Runnin' Rebels are a shocking 43-40 season-opening loss to Howard away from being bowl-eligible this year, so expecting one more win next season isn't out of the question. They also closed the year with another embarrassing setback, losing 23-16 to Nevada.

    They should have won both. 

    That loss to Howard that nobody saw coming did not get the team off on the right foot, but coach Tony Sanchez finally looked like he may start building a program at UNLV after a dominant high school coaching career. Inconsistency on both sides of the ball was UNLV's biggest problem this year. There are building blocks, though.

                    

    Why they'll improve

    Freshman quarterback Armani Rogers wasn't exceptional this year, but he has a vast skill set that should excite UNLV fans. He looks like the kind of player who could wind up dominating in the Mountain West Conference.

    His dual-threat abilities led the Rebels to the 18th-ranked rushing offense in the country, and star running back Lexington Thomas will be entering his senior season after running for 1,336 yards in 2017. The Rogers-Thomas combo is thrilling to think about.

    Sanchez's coaching acumen grew as the season progressed, and though the Rebels still need plenty of difference-making defenders to make some noise, they'll have enough offense next year to become bowl-eligible.

                  

    2018 outlook

    Thomas is one of the best players in the nation you've never heard of, and if Rogers keeps developing, Sanchez has some exciting prospects on offense.

    The Rebels should beat UTEP next year, and the game against Arkansas State will be a pivotal nonconference battle considering they aren't going to sneak up on USC. The MWC always has a few quality teams, but there's no reason with the way Sanchez has recruited that the Rebs shouldn't be one.

    The offense will be much improved, and they'll find a way to win at least six games. Going out on a limb, they'll get to eight wins and enjoy a huge turnaround. They may even be a sleeper to win the division.