We all know the college football programs that are perennial favorites to win a title. Alabama, Oregon, Stanford, Ohio State and the like will be on that list more often than not. However, there are plenty of programs that are bubbling under the surface. A few years ago, a Stanford or even a Florida State national championship seemed unlikely, but now they’re among the top programs in the nation. Here are ten teams that seem primed to go on a big run, or will remain among the nation’s elite programs for years to come.
The Wildcats haven’t had a winning season since 2009, when Rich Brooks’ team went 7-5. The last time Kentucky had a winning SEC record was in 1977, when the team went 6-0 in conference, but was barred from post-season play because the program was on NCAA probation. Putting a team coming off of a 2-10 (0-8) season on this list may seem bold, but Kentucky definitely has a ton of room to move on up, and Mark Stoops seems to be giving them some life, especially on the recruiting trail. Stoops’ first two recruiting classes ranked 29th and 17th on Rivals’ team rankings, are they’re currently in good position to land another Top 25 class. The climb to the top of the SEC is a long and arduous one, but Stoops and Kentucky have some forward momentum.
The Cardinals had a tumltuous off-season, losing coach Charlie Strong to Texas, and bringing back former coach Bobby Petrino for a second run. Petrino brings a ton of baggage with him, especially because his original departure from U of L was far from amicable, and he is known for his transience. No matter what you think of Petrino as a person, it is hard to deny that the man can coach, and Louisville’s new conference digs makes it a much harder job to leave. The Cardinals begin ACC play this year, which should provide a solid step up from the American Athletic Conference competition. Under Strong, Louisville became a BCS bowl contender. That rise should continue in the ACC with Petrino.
The Spartans, led by Mark Dantonio, are one of the more consistent teams on this list. Dantonio has been at MSU since 2007, and has the rare ability to say that he made a program better than it was under Nick Saban. The Spartans have been solid for a long time, but Dantonio has them rolling with three 11+ win seasons in his last four years, including a high-water mark of 13-1 and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford this past season. Sparty continues to improve, and Dantonio seems very happy in East Lansing.
Everyone loves Kliff Kingsbury. The 34-year old coach is energetic, handsome, charismatic, and can really coach an offense and develop a college quarterback. Hiring young, enthusiastic coaches is definitely becoming a trend, and Texas Tech’s selection of Kingsbury certainly continues to look like an inspired choice, especially after his Red Raiders landed a big upset over Arizona State in last season’s Holiday Bowl. Connecting with players is increasingly important at the college level, and Kingsbury does it as well as anyone. Plus, with names like Sumlin, Briles, and Strong at the other big Texas schools, Kingsbury may be in Lubbock for a while.
The Bruins avoided a bullet when Jim Mora reportedly turned down the Texas opening. With him and Heisman hopeful quarterback Brett Hundley returning, expectations in Westwood are as high as they’ve been in a long time. In four seasons under Rick Neuheisel, the Bruins went 21-30, and only had one winning year in conference play. In two years, Mora has gone 19-8, and recruiting is on the way up as well. The Bruins signed a top 20 class last year, and were ranked 8th and 13th in Mora’s first two years on the trail. Neuheisel’s last class was ranked 45th by Rivals.
Life after Brett Hundley will be interesting, but Mora is stacking the roster with young talent to make that transition easier.