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#pounditSunday, September 25, 2022

Six college football programs on the rise

Gus Malzahn Auburn sweater vest

In the world of college football, the rich tend to get richer. Alabama will always bring in loaded recruiting classes. Ohio State will always contend as long as Urban Meyer is at the helm. Oklahoma is consistently among the best. Programs at the top tend to stay at the top.

But other programs tend to fall off after having success, sometimes due to recruiting struggles or players not panning out. After a few down years, some of those programs reload with new players or make coaching changes and then surge back to what they were before.

Here are a few of those programs that appear to be on the rise again — as well as a couple lesser-known schools with the potential to make noise nationally in 2017.

1) Auburn Tigers

Gus Malzahn’s Tigers have never quite been able to match their national championship appearance in 2013. In fairness, that’s a high bar to match, but Auburn settled into a string of seven and eight win seasons since.

In 2016, Malzahn started out 1-2 and looked like he might lose his job, but a win over LSU possibly saved it and cost Les Miles his. Ultimately, the team recovered, jumped out to an 8-3 record, and then promptly lost their last two games to finish 8-5 with a Sugar Bowl loss.

There is reason to believe Auburn could approach double digit victories again in 2017.

A big reason for that is Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who will take over as quarterback and try to bring Auburn’s passing attack up to par with their already well-established run game. Watch out for sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson, who should anchor the defensive line.

The Iron Bowl is at Auburn in 2017 as well, and while the Tigers may not best Alabama, they could finally return to the status of offering the Tide a real challenge for SEC West supremacy.

2) Oregon Ducks

After a disastrous 2016 that saw the once-elite Ducks finish with just two Pac-12 victories, Mark Helfrich was jettisoned in favor of South Florida’s Willie Taggart. That may well prove to be the first step in restoring Oregon to the status it hasn’t consistently enjoyed since Chip Kelly was roaming the sidelines at Autzen Stadium.

The big key for Oregon will be to get their defense back on the right track, as it was shredded numerous times under Helfrich in 2016. New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will have his hands full with a fairly young unit, but many of those players will be returning with added experience in 2017. The same goes for quarterback Justin Herbert, who will have a lot of help from senior running back Royce Freeman, a member of the Doak Walker watch list.

Taggart’s tenure has already been marred by controversy, but he looks like the right man to lead the team forward, and it’s hard to believe we won’t see significant improvement from the Ducks in 2017.

3) Texas Longhorns

The Longhorns have experienced several false dawns, particularly in the Charlie Strong era, but they have still failed to find any real, consistent success in several years. The last time Texas had double-digit wins was in 2009 when Mack Brown was coaching and Colt McCoy was the quarterback. Since that BCS title game loss, they have just three seasons in which they’ve had a winning record in the Big 12, and only once have they finished the season ranked.

The job of new coach Tom Herman is to change all that, and there is reason to believe that he can do what Strong did not.

First, Herman’s very familiar with recruiting in Texas — in fact, he’s blamed himself for playing a role in opening the state up nationally. He also has a track record as a successful coach in the state, having turned Houston into a winning program.

While the loss of D’Onta Foreman will hurt, quarterback Shane Buechele will be back, and a young defense that struggled in 2016 will mostly return under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. There is talent here, and Texas is a solid bet to have a winning season in Herman’s first year.

4) Miami Hurricanes

The last time Miami football won ten games or more, they were in the Big East and Larry Coker was the head coach. That was 14 years ago, and Mark Richt, who accomplished the feat nine times at Georgia, looks like he may be the coach to bring the Hurricanes back to that point.

Make no mistake — losing quarterback Brad Kaaya to the NFL will hurt Miami. However, the bulk of the team, both offensively and defensively, will be back to build on a nine-win 2016, with running back Mark Walton the cornerstone of the returnees.

Hiring Richt was a coup for the Hurricanes, as his track record at Georgia was excellent. He is exactly the sort of thing a once-proud program like Miami needs after being so consistently mediocre for over a decade. Amazingly, the Hurricanes have never won the ACC Coastal. That could change in 2017.

5) South Florida Bulls

USF lost coach Willie Taggart to Oregon, but they did well to bring in Charlie Strong, who has shown that he can be a successful coach despite a weak reign at Texas. Strong is also very familiar with the state of Florida, as he spent a long time working as an assistant with the Gators.

It also helps that Strong is inheriting a pretty good team.

The 2016 Bulls won 11 games and finished the season ranked in the top 20. Most importantly, they have electric dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers back for another season.

This is a squad that has tasted success and will want more of it after losing just one AAC contest all season, plus a bowl win over South Carolina. They could be this season’s Western Michigan, with a New Year’s Six bowl within reach.

6) SMU Mustangs

Chad Morris is building something at SMU. After all, there is a reason that Baylor wanted him as coach last season. After June Jones restored the Mustangs to relevance, it fell upon Morris to keep them from sliding back into the abyss following a 1-11 season. After winning just two games in his first season, SMU improved with five wins in 2016, including an upset of AAC darlings Houston.

The Mustangs will be expecting another step forward this season, and it may be one that sees them contend for a division title.

Courtland Sutton is one of the nation’s better receivers, and it will be incumbent upon SMU to find the best quarterback option to throw to him. The defense has talent as well. The Mustangs have the players on both sides of the ball, but it’s a matter of putting it all together consistently. If they do, they’ll be back in a bowl game and contending for an AAC title — and Morris will rightly be hailed for one of the country’s finest coaching jobs.

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