Up-and-Coming College Football Teams
by Trevor Whenham - 09/28/2006
The Top 25 in college football is always made up of about 20 of the same teams every year, with a few other teams trying to prove that they belong. Some of the current perennial ranked teams were just average not too long ago. Florida State, Miami (ignore their current problems), Louisville and Kansas State are major conference teams that rose from the depths of mediocrity to consistently field solid teams with a shot at a conference title. Some mid-major programs, like Fresno State, Boise State, TCU and Utah have overcome even more barriers, because they had fewer resources and they had to be very good before they got any credibility.
Other teams, like Virginia, Northwestern and Maryland, have put huge seasons on the board recently, but they haven't been able to follow those up with the kind of consistency needed to join the big boys this year. There are some teams out there now trying to become the next Louisville or TCU. Knowing who they are can help you spot betting value if they improve faster than the public gives them credit for. Here are four teams at various points on the path to national relevance:
Rutgers - The Scarlet Knights are in the Top 25. I bet you thought you would never hear that sentence. The last time they were ranked was at the end of the 1976 season.
They have a very long history of success, however - they beat Princeton in 1869 in the first college game ever played. The team joined the Big East in 1991, then went 13-9 and their first two seasons. That relative success was short lived. They were 4-7 in 1992, and thus began more than a decade where Rutgers was a national football joke.
There were signs of life once coach Greg Schiano took over the team, like an upset of Michigan State in 2004. 2005 was the first time they posted a record better than .500, 7-5, since 1991. That was also the first time they made a bowl since 1978.
This year their 4-0 record will likely turn into 6-0 before tough tests against Pittsburgh and then Louisville, and they face West Virginia to end the season. The team is unquestionably on the rise, and Schiano is one of the current media-dubbed football geniuses, so the team will continue to get attention. Attention helps recruiting and the team will keep getting better.
Washington - For the Huskies this isn't a climb into the national picture, it's a climb back into a place they never should have left. They were national champions in 1991 and they won the Rose Bowl as recently as the 2000 season, but they fell far and fast. They were 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 last year. They are 3-1 so far this year, so they could forfeit the rest of their games and it would still be an improvement.
Ty Willingham has come to Washington to try to regain the genius title that he definitely lost in his tenure at Notre Dame. They lost to Oklahoma this year, but have posted good wins since against Fresno State and UCLA. Games against USC, California and Oregon, which come over five weeks starting on Oct. 7, will be the test of how far along the path the Huskies are. One win in those three games and it will be time to pay attention to them again.
Wake Forest - The Demon Deacons are the third smallest school to play Division I-A football, which has to count against them in their quest for recognition. Their biggest football claim to fame is that Brian Piccolo, the tragic subject of Brian's Song, played at Wake Forest.
They were 4-7 in 2004 and 5-7 last year, but wins against Boston College two years ago and Clemson last year gave fans some hope. This year they are 4-0 and have an easy game against Liberty next to boost the record further. They get another shot at both Clemson and Boston College in coming weeks as well. Florida State and Virginia Tech are also on the schedule, so Wake Forest won't have an easy road. A win against NC State, UNC or Maryland would make them bowl eligible, however. That would certainly be progress.
Houston - The Cougars are 4-0 and heading into a potentially defining game against Miami this weekend. A win against the suddenly not-so-mighty Hurricanes would be huge. The team has been on a steady path of improvement for the last three years. In 2004 they were 3-8, and none of their wins (Army, Tulane, East Carolina) were against impressive teams. Last year they improved to 6-6, including a trip to the Fort Worth Bowl (they got crushed by Kansas, but improvement is a slow process). The first three wins against Rice, Tulane and Grambling State really weren't earth shaking, but they handed a decent Oklahoma State team their first loss last week. That's a game they would have lost in the last two years.
Houston has been good before. Back in 1990, David Klingler tore up college football, including 716 passing yards in one game against Arizona State and 11 touchdowns against Eastern Washington, both NCAA records. They won't put those kind of numbers up again, but they should at least be competitive this season. Conference USA is wide open this year, so Houston stands as good a chance as any other team of winning it all.