Oh the disappointments that college football fans experience throughout the course of the season as their lofty preseason hopes and expectations come crashing down in front of their eyes and often in front of a National Televised audience. As college football fans we spend the entire offseason searching for stories about the acquisition and development of players and dreaming of championships that are surely around the corner. Expectations vary at different schools as some programs are perennially in the running for conference and national championships while other programs are struggling to find the right formula to either bring or return their team to national prominence.
What you won’t find on this list is any mention of Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky, Boston College, Cal, or Colorado. All these teams had disappointing seasons for sure, and some of them had very lofty expectations (ahem, Arkansas, ahem), but their struggles are already well-documented and their programs are already looking for new coaches to turn their programs around. No, this list is centered on teams that will be bowling this season but are not in the bowls they expected to be in. They will also be returning coaching staffs next year, if not star players, and will be looking for better luck or better formulas next season in order to achieve further success next year. Some of these teams will be replacing coordinators or returning with coaches that are on that “hot seat” for next season, but others simply slipped up somewhere along the way and were therefore kept from achieving the loftiest of expectations from their fan bases.
Do not sleep on any of these teams as you make your picks for bowl winners in the coming weeks. Some teams listed below will come into their bowl game with a chip on their shoulder (or a Chip Kelly screaming in their ear) ready to prove that they are as great as their preseason expectations while others will come in with a senior-laden team that is destined to put up a lame (or Lane Kiffin-type) effort in their bowl game with nothing left to play for. Coaching and strong leadership in the locker room are keys to determining how these programs will handle their disappointment and the type of performance we will see in their bowl games.
#9 Oregon Ducks – Clearly this speaks well for the Oregon program and the job that Chip Kelly is doing in Eugene that an 11-1 team can make this list. Oregon has put itself into the “Championship or Bust” category and clearly a season in which they will not win even their own division within the Pac-12 has to be a disappointment. Their season would be considered a success for about 120 programs.
The truth is that Oregon was a win away from having a very successful season and still has a chance to win a BCS Bowl (bid coming) and finish with 12 wins. They are a very young team that will need to replace Kenjon Barner at running back and some key offensive and defensive linemen, but HC Chip Kelley has this team stacked through successful recruiting classes in the past few years and they will reload. The future is bright, assuming that Kelly sticks around the program for a few more years.
#8 Oklahoma Sooners – Another program that measures the success of a season by how many trophies are added to the cupboard, the Sooners sit at 9-2 with a chance to finish with 11 wins. It may be pre-mature to put OU on this list since they are still mathematically alive in the Big XII race, but “backing” into a championship is not what the fan base in Norman has become accustomed to. Expectations for this season were set a bit higher with senior QB Landry Jones opting out of the NFL to return for one more year.
Like Oregon, the Sooners still have a shot at winning a BCS bowl (bid not guaranteed like Oregon) and at the very least seem poised to play in the Cotton Bowl against a top-10 opponent from the SEC. The Sooners will be thrust into more of a rebuilding mode after this season with the graduation of Jones and the possibility of two of their top wide receivers leaving for the NFL (Justin Brown graduates, Kenny Stills is a junior). One of the best defensive backfields in the nation could also see a complete turnover with two graduating seniors and two NFL-ready juniors. The good news is that the coaching staff is as stable as can be and this is the type of season that should see all assistants return rather than being poached for head coaching gigs around the country.
#7 Florida St. – HC Jimbo Fisher has brought the Seminoles back to the national spotlight, but they have not broken through to national championship contender status. This was thought to be the year that they could break through with one of the best defenses in college football and an improving supporting cast for QB E.J. Manuel. An ACC Championship is still in front of them and the Orange Bowl berth that comes with it, but this team was poised for more special things this year and came up short with a shocking loss to NC St. and a loss to Florida that just screamed not-quite-ready-for-primetime.
The Seminoles will be in rebuilding mode much like the Sooners next year as Manuel graduates along with key members of the offensive and defensive lines. This is still a young team and they are getting better all the time but will likely take a step back next year. The ‘Noles already suffered what will likely be its biggest loss of the off-season when DC Mark Stoops accepted the head coaching gig at SEC-member Kentucky.
#6 Texas – Mack Brown and his Texas Longhorns come into every season with lofty expectations, as well they should. As the Flagship University in one of the most talent-rich states, the University of Texas gets its pick of the top talent and annually brings in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Despite always bringing in top talent, the Longhorns under Mack Brown have only climbed to the mountain top one time (in 2005) while coming up with another National Title appearance in 2009 (lost to Alabama).
This season looks to be the second season in a row of improvement as they have already equaled last season’s win total, but this was supposed to be the year that they turned the corner with an improved David Ash at quarterback and an experienced defense with NFL-talent seemingly all over the two-deep. Alas, the Longhorns look destined for the Alamo Bowl this year as the best they can finish the season is third in the Big XII after a loss to TCU last week. They do have the opportunity to knock off Kansas St. this Saturday to finish the season on a high note, but the National Title hopes of the Wildcats have already been dashed and by beating K-St., they likely hand another Conference title to Bob Stoops and their hated rival, OU.
Mack Brown seems to be entrenched in Austin, although the natives are beginning to get restless with three disappointing seasons in a row following a National Title appearance in 2009. At the end of 2010, the Longhorns first losing season under Brown, long-time coordinators were fired and a shakeup in the coaching staff and schemes was expected to bring Texas back to the top of college football. Two years later, DC Manny Diaz appears to be a likely scapegoat for the team’s troubles this year as his defense disappointed all year.
#5 Wisconsin – Like Oklahoma, it may be a bit premature to put the Badgers on this list with a chance to win the B1G Championship and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl still ahead of them. For Wisconsin, though, it has been a long and disappointing season. The Badgers started out 2-1 in the first three weeks with narrow escapes against Northern Iowa (5 point win) and Utah St. (2 point win) while losing away from home to an Oregon St. team that wasn’t expected to be much. Now the Beavers and the USU Aggies both turned out to be pretty good teams and the Badgers went on to right the ship by winning 4 of their next 5 games. However their season has been marred with close misses as they have lost four games by a touchdown or less in conference with 3 of their 4 games down the stretch ending in overtime losses.
Assuming that Wisconsin can win the B1G Championship and move onto the Rose Bowl, this team will always be remembered as the team that couldn’t finish better than third in their division, behind post-season ineligible Ohio St. and Penn St. Even if they can manage a championship, there will be asterisks and competing championship t-shirts worn in Columbus and State College. Oh what could have been with 5 losses by a total of 19 points?
The good news for Wisconsin is that they have stability in their coaching staff and they have finally identified some quarterbacks on their roster than can guide their teams in the coming years. This was the second year in a row that the Badger coaching staff went into the season relying on a transfer quarterback from the ACC. Danny O’Brien transferred from Maryland and followed in the footsteps of Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State the previous year. Both quarterbacks transferred as “free agents” due to early graduation and were immediately able to play. Wilson was able to parlay his transfer into being taken in the third round of the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks. Danny O’Brien, however, struggled and was replaced in the starting lineup after the team’s slow start. O’Brien apparently has fallen to the third string behind two quarterbacks who were recruited by more conventional methods. Am I the only one who questioned the Badger staff’s evaluation of high school quarterbacks after they brought in talent from the outside two years in a row?
#4 Michigan St. –After missing out on two BCS Bowl bids awarded to Big Ten teams last year despite having the best regular-season record in the B1G, this was supposed to be the year the Spartans rose up and won the conference. Particularly since half the conference seemed to be on probation. Instead, a close win against Boise St. at home to open the season was a sign of trouble to come. When it was all over, the Spartans had a 3-5 record in B1G play including a 3-point overtime win against Wisconsin who is in-line to play in the Rose Bowl. Speaking of the Badgers again, Michigan St. laughs at the notion of Wisconsin being disappointed by losing 5 games by a total of 19 points. Michigan’s 5 losses in B1G play came by a total of 13 points. So take that, Badger futility and disappointment.
What happened with the Spartans was a passing offense that never materialized behind junior QB Andrew Maxwell. MSU came into the season with one of the best running backs in the nation in Le’Veon Bell and one of the most promising defenses in the nation led by talented pass rusher, William Gholston. Bell and the MSU defense did not disappoint, but the passing game was atrocious all year. On the year, Maxwell completed just over 53% of his passes for less than 220 ypg. Bell, meanwhile, finished third in the nation with over 137 ypg but carried the ball 350 times (37 more times than the next most worked RB). For some perspective, the top-2 running backs (in yards per game) played for top-10 offenses; the Spartans Offense ranked 90th.
The good news for the Spartans is that they have stability in coaching. HC Mark Dantonio is the best football coach in East Lansing since Nick Saban roamed the sidelines. Maxwell is returning for his senior year and Bell and Gholston each have a year of eligibility left. The bad news is that Bell is unlikely to return for another year as a battering ram and the only threat on the offense. He’s likely to take his talents where he will make millions doing the same thing next year. Gholston is also unlikely to return which would mean that the Spartans would need to replace 75% of their starting D-Line. Michigan and Nebraska also return their starting quarterbacks next year which will make it even more difficult for the Spartans to improve their lot in their division, much less the conference. One more bit of good news…it is basketball season.
#3 Virginia Tech – Virginia Tech wasn’t expected to win the ACC this year with Florida St. and Clemson garnering the preseason hype in conference, but who could have foreseen the dip the Hokies took this year? An overtime victory in week 1 against Georgia Tech foreshadowed what was to come for VaTech as they dropped two games to Big East members Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on their way to a 3-3 start. The Hokies 6 losses this year are the most since they went 2-8-1 in 1992 (HC Frank Beamer’s 6th year).
The problem has not been DC Bud Foster’s defense this year. The long-tenured defensive coordinator’s unit hasn’t been as highly ranked as it has been in the past, but it has more than held its own, ranked 24th in total defense. Frank Beamer’s teams have long been known for big plays in special teams and that has been shockingly absent in this year’s version. Aside from the lack of big plays in special teams, the offense failed to find a running back to fill the void left by David Wilson’s move to the NFL (1709 rushing yards last year). QB Logan Thomas, the lead returning rusher from last year, leads the team in rushing with 528 yards on the season and true freshman RB J.C. Coleman is second on the team with 486 yards. The Hokies have been equally woeful in passing the football as Thomas has completed less than 53% of his passes on the year with a pitiful 17:14 TD to INT ratio.
The good news for the Hokies is that they have long-time stability in the coaching staff and they are likely to bounce right back from this one-year aberration. Beamer has coached longer than any current FBS coach and long-time DC Bud Foster is a fixture as one of the best coordinators in football, offensive or defensive. The offense will need to replace their tackles and their wide receivers, due to graduation, but the rest of the offense comes back intact and should be able to improve with a year’s experience. The key to improving next year will be in identifying a running back to lean on next year either through development of players on the roster or through this year’s recruiting class.
#2 West Virginia – The Mountaineers were set to come into the Big XII from the Big East and walk away with the conference crown on their way to playing for a National Title. They were bringing back a lethal passing attack led by Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith under the guidance of second-year HC Dana Holgorsen. With their top-4 running backs and top-3 wide receivers returning to aid Smith, the offense wasn’t expected to skip a beat coming into 2012. Through the first 5 games, this was the case as Smith put up video game-type numbers through September and at one point had more TD passes than incompletions on the year. There were always questions about their defense, but the offense seemed capable of outscoring every team on their schedule. Then the wings fell off the jet engine and the fuselage went spinning out of control and crashed on the West Texas prairie somewhere outside Lubbock, TX. Five straight losses, highlighted by a 2-point shootout loss to the Sooners and an overtime loss to the Frogs, both at home, left the Mountaineers far outside the top-25 and Smith far outside the minds of Heisman voters. A victory at Iowa St. last Saturday gave them the 6th victory needed for a bowl appearance and they have a chance to get healthy against a Kansas team on Saturday to salvage a 5th place tie in the conference. Rumors are that they could end up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego which is a nice consolation, but a long way from Miami Beach.
The fact that the defense continued to be as effective at stopping Big XII offenses as a colander holding water was not a surprise. But what happened to that offense? In retrospect, a 31-point effort against Maryland in week 4 served as a warning that the offense was not as unstoppable as it seemed. After scoring 70 points against Baylor in the Big XII opener and 48 points a week later in Austin, the Mountaineer offense scored 14 points against both Texas Tech and Kansas St. (road and home, respectively). The offense recovered to average 40 points over their next three games in losses to TCU, Okie St., and Oklahoma, but the damage was done. Geno Smith today looks like a shell of the person we saw tearing teams up in September.
The bad news for Mountaineer fans is that their high-powered passing game is graduating. Both Smith and star WR Tavon Austin take their talents elsewhere after this season. WR Stedman Bailey, the other star of the passing game, is eligible for one more season and could decide to stay which would cushion the losses somewhat. The good news for the fans in Morgantown is that Holgorsen’s offense is built to simply insert the next quarterback into the system and keep going. The offense, imported from Texas Tech and Mike Leach (through Houston and Oklahoma St.), is proven to be effective with virtually any quarterback that is asked to run it.
In his second year as a head coach, the jury is still out on HC Dana Holgorsen’s ability to run a football team. DC Joe Deforest was brought in from Oklahoma St. by Holgorsen, where he coached Safeties and is likely to take the bulk of the blame for the Mountaineer struggles this year. The truth is that the team didn’t have the depth to compete in the Big XII this year and it may take a couple of years for them to build the type of depth that will allow them to compete for the crown in their new conference. Does anyone doubt that WVU would have easily run the table in the Big East this year?
#1 Southern Cal – And bringing the most disappointing season to their fans and alumni is the Lane Kiffin-led USC Trojans. As much as Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit would like you to believe that Matt Barkley came back for his senior year to share senior day with his parents, I’m telling you he came back to win a Heisman Trophy and a National Championship. Those dreams died in Palo Alto on September 15th. If there were thoughts that USC and Barkley could rebound and potentially avenge their loss in the Pac-12 Championship game, those hopes were shot down in Tucson against Arizona; and again at home against Oregon; and again in the Rose Bowl against UCLA; and finally again at home against the Irish.
The troubles for the Trojans were first evident on the road against Syracuse in the second week of the season as they went into the 4th quarter against the Orange with a slim 21-16 lead. Although the game was never seriously in doubt, it showed that this Trojan team was not like former Southern Cal teams that could simply push down the offensive pedal at will and blow out inferior teams. This version of the Trojans’ signature victory of the season has to be the 21-point “beat down” they administered to Arizona St. on homecoming weekend. If you had told Silas Redd that he could transfer to Southern Cal from Penn St. and could play in the Las Vegas Bowl or the Sun Bowl for a chance to match the win total the Nittany Lions tallied during their regular season, I wonder if he would still go. Perhaps he would, but could Penn St. have challenged for an undefeated season had Redd stayed?
Where does USC go from here? The Trojans are probably the farthest from a permanent coaching staff of any team on the list. I am not suggesting that Kiffin and his staff should go, but this season’s failures along with the Kiffin antics has to be cause for concern for AD Pat Haden. The flip side of that coin is that Kiffin, based on his track record at Tennessee, is someone who could seemingly chase the next shiny object that enters his peripheral vision. It’s hard to tell if the distractions or the lack of depth coming off probation was the real downfall for the Trojans this year. It was probably some combination of both. They have the #1 rated recruiting class in the nation as of today (verbal commitments, none signed) and they appear to be restocking the cupboard with superior athletes. But Trojan fans need to understand that the Pac-12 is getting better and it is unlikely that USC would be dominating the league right now if there had been no probation or coaching changes.
The rise of teams like Washington, Stanford, and Oregon over the last few years coupled with the resurgence of Oregon St., Arizona and Arizona St. this year means that this conference is trending up in difficulty. We are far from comparing this conference to the SEC, but it is heading in a direction that Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott should be pleased about. But that is going to make the job of Lane Kiffin (or whomever would be leading the Trojans) much more difficult than it was 10 years ago. The Trojans got a glimpse of their future QB Max Wittek last Saturday against Notre Dame and they couldn’t have hated what they saw. WR Robert Woods is likely to forego his senior season and head to the NFL along with Barkley, but star WR Marqise Lee has another season at USC before he would be eligible to go. Going forward, they will need to identify a running back for next season and continue to rebuild depth to return to championship form.