In college football, the rich get richer. The top recruits want to win, so they go to the top programs, helping them win, thus attracting more top recruits. This cycle makes it incredibly difficult for teams without historical success to compete.
But it can be done. Some programs have managed to claw their way out of mediocrity and start achieving consistent results. The Oregon Ducks had only finished in the AP top 25 just four times prior to the turn of the century. Since then, they’ve only missed out seven times, and posted six top five finishes.
Moving up in the college football world takes time. Programs have to implement a winning system and culture, then bring in the talent to execute it. Here’s five teams that have put in the work, and could make the jump to the next level in 2020.
University of California Golden Bears
Since the arrival of head coach Justin Wilcox in 2017, the Bears have been on a consistent upward trend. Their record has improved from 5-7, to 7-6, to 8-5. Their defense has gone from allowing an obscene 42.6 points-per-game (second-worst in the nation) to nearly half that amount over the last two seasons, 20.4 and 21.9.
On the offensive side, they recently added Bill Musgrave as coordinator, who has helmed many successful units at both the collegiate and NFL level. Musgrave will have the benefit of returning the majority of last year’s starters, including quarterback Chase Garbers and the entire offensive line. With Stanford struggling, Washington transitioning to a new head coach and Oregon needing to replace Justin Herbert, 2020 could be Cal’s year to seize the Pac-12 North and crack the nation’s Top 25.
Penn State Nittany Lions
For Penn State, 2020 represents less of a breakout chance and more of an opportunity return to greatness. Following decades of consistent elite performance, Penn State has struggled to reach the same results over the last 20 years, finding itself overtaken by new powerhouse programs. However, head coach James Franklin has the program on the cusp of returning to its former glory.
Last season the Nittany Lions finished 11-2, falling only to top Big Ten rivals Minnesota and Ohio State, and they should be even better next year. They have one of, if not the very best, defensive player in college football in Micah Parsons. If quarterback Sean Clifford can raise his game and find more consistency, their offense will be one of the nation’s best. The Nittany Lions host Ohio State in 2020. If they press their home advantage and pull off an upset against the Buckeyes, they should find themselves atop the Big Ten and easily in College Football Playoff contention.
North Carolina Tar Heels
One could say North Carolina already had its breakout season. After disastrous 2017 and 2018 seasons in which the Tar Heels totaled just five wins, they turned it around in 2019, winning seven games and taking home their first bowl victory since 2013. This rapid change in fortune can be attributed mainly to two men: head coach Mack Brown and quarterback Sam Howell.
Brown, the winningest coach in Tar Heels history thanks to a successful tenure in the early 90s, looks to have picked up right where he left off. Howell meanwhile, a true freshman in 2019, flashed so much talent he is already showing up on lists of top young quarterbacks.
In the second year of their partnership, this duo could reach even greater heights. None of the Tar Heels’ 2019 losses came by more than one possession, including a 20-21 defeat against Clemson where they came a two-point conversion away from the huge upset. If another year of experience for Howell and company helps flip a few of those close games, North Carolina could find itself ranked and in the running for an ACC Coastal Championship in 2020.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Since taking over Oklahoma State in 2005, head coach Mike Gundy has kept the program constantly flirting with emerging as a true powerhouse. The Cowboys peaked in 2011 with a 12-1 record and Fiesta Bowl win, but the last two seasons have earned just seven and eight wins and failed to truly compete for the Big 12 title. That could change in 2020.
The Oklahoma State offense gets a huge boost from the surprising return of potential Heisman threat running back Chuba Hubbard, and also returns quarterback Spencer Sanders, who shattered the school freshman passing record in 2019 despite missing two games due to injury. On the defensive end, they return every starter except cornerback A.J. Green. Overtaking rival Oklahoma will be tough, but this could be the year Gundy leads the Cowboys to their second conference championship of his tenure — and maybe more.
Arizona State Sun Devils
In 2019, Arizona State’s biggest issue was consistency. The Sun Devils at times looked great, posting a 3-1 record against ranked opponents and handing Oregon its only conference loss of the season. But at other times they struggled, losing four in a row down the stretch of the season including a 21-3 shellacking on the road in Utah.
When they did win, it was often thanks to true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, who flashed arm talent and ran for over 300 yards while only tossing two interceptions all season. Daniels will have to adjust to life without his top targets from last year, as both Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams have moved on to the NFL, but he has the talent to make it work. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils defense just keeps getting better under head coach Herm Edwards. Life in the Pac-12 is always unpredictable, but if Arizona State puts it all together, the Sun Devils could rise to rule the South.