Although a program like Alabama has ascended to the top of college football in the last several seasons, success in college football is both precarious and fleeting in that a bad loss or a weak class of recruits can undermine an entire season—or several. With parity increasing across the country, historically celebrated and successful programs cannot rest on their laurels. Even Alabama knows this reality too well, as a miraculous last-second play in 2013 precluded the team’s championship hopes. Disappointment and failure loom over every team with championship aspirations and overshadow every game of significance, as missteps here and mistakes there are the death knells of an entire season.
The obverse side of this discussion, of course, is that the door is always open for teams to bounce back from disappointing seasons. Coaching changes, key recruits, and different strategies can radically alter a team and propel it into the stratosphere of college football. In 2012, for instance, Notre Dame reminded the nation that it is not an effete titan, but a powerful and still-vital program. Led by their shrewd coach, Brian Kelly, Notre Dame proved that success is not an elusive and unreachable ideal. Any team, irrespective of preseason rankings, can, like an intrepid Indiana Jones, reach out and grab the precious orb of success and discover its painful transience.
Similar to Notre Dame’s run in 2012, Auburn’s path to the National Championship last season illustrates this reality of wild fluctuations in college football. A few years ago, after moving on from Cam Newton’s class and starting afresh, Auburn looked anaemic. Seemingly by divine intervention, however, Auburn marched through the 2013 season with spectacular play after spectacular play, crushing, on a weekly schedule, the hopes of other powerful programs. The National Championship seemed to be Auburn’s to lose, but Florida State rode its own macabre wave of resurgence. Indeed, for all of Auburn’s heroic plays, its season still ended with a lusterless second-place finish: the vicissitudes of college football, indeed.
Looking at this very phenomenon of roller-coast success in college football, this list looks at five teams who will probably improve their 2013 records next season. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and plenty of teams will improve their respective records from 2013 in 2014. However, past success unites the following five programs; they are teams that have enjoyed a good deal of success in college football and, because of that past success, know too well the feeling of disappointment and failure. Let us know your predictions for teams that will improve in 2014.
5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
As mentioned in the opening (and playfully turgid) section, Notre Dame had a kind of renaissance in 2012. That renaissance was short lived, however, as last season things did not go swimmingly for Notre Dame. The key to Notre Dame’s success in 2014 will be Everett Gholson, who was suspended for the entire 2013 season due to academic improprieties. In 2012, Golson was a precocious freshman who led his team to the National Championship. Many experts expected him to return in 2013 with a more mature game, so 2014 will be his year to prove his supporters right. Golson’s style of play fits perfectly in Notre Dame’s stretch offense, which affords him the choice of tucking the ball and running in space when plays break down. He will need to make good choices and pay assiduous attention to the defensive schemes he will face, but his maturity towards the end 2012 suggests that he is fit for the task.
Notre Dame’s defense is the unknown variable in this equation. Their strongest defensive players, who were arguably the team’s best athletes, either graduated or left for the draft after the 2013 season. Coach Brian Kelly, though, has shown a talent for assembling strong defenses since he took over the program, so concern for Notre Dame’s defense is still unwarranted. The first few games of the season will elucidate whether or not the defense has the stuff of champions. In any case, it should be an interesting season for Notre Dame and its fans, as the team begins its transition away from being an Independent.
4 Florida Gators
In 2013, the Florida Gators had a woeful season, wherein they finished with a 4-8 record, the team’s first losing season in 34 years. The team’s loss to a little-known FCS opponent, Georgia Southern, compounded the dismay for players, coaches, and fans. In the wake of that season, the team’s head coach, Will Muschamp, fired his offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach, cleaning house to make room for a new offense. If the team’s recent Spring Game is any indication, the coaching staff is trying to implement quick, no-huddle offense which should feature a good deal of vertical passing. On the defensive side of the ball, things will be largely the same in 2014, as size and speed have not been issues for Florida in the past several seasons. According to Scouts.com, Muschamp also has the seventh-ranked recruiting class, which features 29 incoming freshmen.
A good deal of pressure will fall on the backs of Gators who are returning from injuries that undermined their 2013 season. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is back from injury, and he will be the key to Florida’s new up-tempo offense. If Driskel handles the offense well and makes good decisions, the passing attack could be lethal. Moreover, wide receiver Andre Debose is returning to Florida for his sixth season, as he was granted an extension to his eligibility on account of injuries. When Debose came to campus in his freshman year, many dubbed him the “next Percy Harvin,” so he certainly has the athletic tools to help put Florida’s offense over the top. In any case, Florida will most certainly improve upon its season from 2013, despite the competitiveness of the SEC.
3 USC Trojans
Since Pete Carroll left the program in a quagmire of NCAA investigations and scholarship removals, the USC Trojans have not looked as strong as they were in those glorious seasons in the early-2000s. Last season, USC continued its sharp descent from the stratosphere of college football, and the team cycled through several coaches to no avail. Given that kind of fall, things can only go up for USC in 2014. Also, the program seems to have their new head coach in Steve Sarkisian, who was signed in the late stages of last season. The team will be a mature one, as the players from the team’s 2011 recruiting class, which, according to Scouts.com, was the fifth-best class in that year, will be seniors.
The difficulty for USC in 2014 will be consistency. Since its fall from the top, the team has still managed a few big wins each year. Last season, for instance, USC beat Stanford, when Stanford was the fourth-ranked team in the nation. In the last couple of offseasons, the team has lost key players, especially talented skill players, but the pressure will not be on the offense, but on the defense. If the defense can stay strong and maintain its consistency, USC could be a dangerous team in 2014—but they will surely improve on last season’s record.
2 Texas Longhorns
In 2014, a new era for Texas Longhorn football will begin, as Mack Brown retired and the team announced Charlie Strong as the new head coach. Before signing with Texas, Charlie Strong was the head coach at Louisville, so it is still unclear how Strong’s coaching style will translate in the Big 12. He will have plenty of fire power, though, as Scouts.com ranked Mack Brown’s last two recruiting classes in the top 10 in the nation. Statistically, Texas wasn’t great at anything in 2013, but wasn’t horrible either. Strong will have to shape his team’s identity in this post-Mack Brown era.
A boon for Strong, though, will be the return of the team’s talented core of skill players. Running backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, and wide receiver Jaxon Shipley are all returning to campus for the 2014 season. At times in 2013, this core group of players played spectacularly, so they will be counted on to bolster the team and play consistently. Quarterback David Ash who sat out almost the entire 2013 season due to injury will have an opportunity to prove himself this season. Barring any more serious injuries (he has suffered broken ribs, concussions and most recently a fractured foot), 2014 should be his time to shine for the Longhorns.
1 Michigan Wolverines
Since Lloyd Carr retired as the Michigan Wolverines’ head coach, the program has floundered. Rich Rodriguez came to campus after Carr’s retirement with a good deal of hype, but he left campus with a 15-22 record, the worst record of any head coach in the program’s history. Since 2011, Brady Hoke has been the head coach of the Wolverines, and he will look to improve upon his team’s disappointing 2013 season, wherein the Wolverines finished 7-6 overall and 3-5 in conference games. The team finished out of the top 100 in rushing yards in 2013, a statistical category that the team did well in under Carr. It will be imperative for Hoke to find ways of getting the team’s running back Fitzgerald Toussaint going, as he averaged only 3.5 yards a carry in 2013. On the other side of the ball, Hoke has done a good job, and he has a strong class of recruits coming to campus in 2014. Hoke’s top recruit, Jabrill Peppers, is one of the highest-rated corner backs of his class, and he will surely make an impact in his freshman season.
Like many seasons for the Wolverines, the big climax will come at the end of the 2014 calendar, as the team is scheduled to play Ohio State in the final regular season game. This game between the two storied programs is always competitive regardless of whether or not the teams are having good seasons or otherwise. However, if Michigan can get to this game in good enough shape, the Wolverines could find themselves in a BCS game. Aside from a matchup with Notre Dame in its second game, Michigan has an easy schedule to begin the year, so those games should bolster the players’ confidence. 2014 will be an exciting year for Michigan, and the team should improve upon its record from 2013.