Hope for college football’s (hopefully) not hopeless programs: Colorado, Texas A&M, Rice and more

Aug. 28, 2023
Always have hope, we are taught.
Except in college football, where all that hope gets gobbled up by the same handful of powerhouse programs year after year. Who needs hope when you have an elite Blue-Chip Ratio?
But before the Georgia Bulldogs cruise to a three-peat out of an all-SEC four-team College Football Playoff, let’s do our best to mine some optimism for the schools that need it the most.
The Athletic
Published a 2022 edition last season, and in retrospect, some of that hope doled out looks rather prescient. Kansas reached a bowl game for the first time since 2009. Duke won nine games in year one under Mike Elko. Arizona’s recruiting has been rejuvenated under Jedd Fisch, and the Wildcats avoided the Pac-12 guillotine. Nebraska brought in Matt Rhule, the program’s most hyped and anticipated coaching hire since … well, whatever, it’s still exciting.
Others, unfortunately, continue to languish on the hopeless end of the spectrum. Vanderbilt. Indiana. Akron. They can’t all be Cinderellas.
But the start of a new season means a chance for renewed dreams, whether your team made this list last year or not. So here’s the second annual Hope for the Hopeless. May your Saturdays be more Jayhawks than Commodores this fall.
Boston College
Boston College came in at No. 13 in the ACC’s preseason poll. It’s been a rough go for coach Jeff Hafley’s Eagles, who won just three games a year ago and lost six of their last seven contests. But kudos to Boston College for beating both Louisville and NC State by a single point, showing that not all hope was lost.
This year, there’s reason for slightly more optimism. Although the Eagles still have to play Florida State, they avoided Clemson (a win in itself), Notre Dame and North Carolina on the schedule as the ACC goes division-less. Nonconference matchups against Northern Illinois, Holy Cross, Army and UConn should be forgiving, especially as the Eagles turn to a new quarterback following the departure of journeyman Phil Jurkovec. Emmett Morehead threw for 1,200-plus yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago with 10 appearances and four starts. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll have Christian Mahogany, one of the league’s better guards, helping anchor his offensive line.
Cal
Oh, Cal. In addition to going 4-8 in 2022, the Golden Bears were left on the wrong end of the Pac-12 dissolution in the latest round of realignment. Nothing like college football as we know it dying on a Friday in the offseason. But there is hope for the Golden Bears on the Atlantic Coast. The ACC has gone back and forth on adding Stanford and Cal as new members, but as of Thursday, the powers that be were “seriously considering” the two schools. The Golden Bears lost their quarterback, Jack Plummer, to the transfer portal, but have an intriguing dual-threat option in TCU transfer Sam Jackson V, a four-star prospect in the Class of 2021. Running back Jaydn Ott rushed for 897 yards as a freshman a season ago, good for fifth-most in the league. And even if Cal flops on the field again, the Golden Bears will exit the 2023 season with a win if they can secure a spot in the ACC. Realignment in many ways is about survival. If the ACC throws Cal a life raft just off the Myrtle Beach coast, that’s reason enough for hope.
Charlotte
The 49ers haven’t had a winning season since 2019 and parted ways with Will Healy after a 1-7 start last year. Enter Biff Poggi, who in addition to having one of the best names in college football, might also be one of the sport’s most fascinating figures. Poggi, 63, spent the past two seasons as the associate head coach at Michigan, where he was one of Jim Harbaugh’s most trusted mentors and a crucial behind-the-scenes figure as the Wolverines earned consecutive Playoff berths. He’s never been a head coach at the collegiate level, but will be tasked with delivering stability to a program that has hired three head coaches since its inception in 2013 and moves to the American Athletic Conference this season. One thing Poggi has already mastered: the moody news conference.
“That’s it? Three questions?” he asked reporters at conference media days while banging his hand on the podium. “Maybe that’s because you have us ranked last — that’s all what you think of us. So we get that message. Thank you.”
Colorado
This one’s easy: Coach Prime! The Athletic hasn’t devoted much offseason coverage to Deion Sanders (wink, wink), but the buzz surrounding his hire and complete roster renovation should be more than enough hope for long-suffering Buffs fans. You get to watch Shedeur Sanders, Travis Hunter, Alton McCaskill and, like, 75 other new players whose names, numbers and positions you’re still learning. The bigger problem for Colorado this season might be tempering expectations after months of hype, but considering the team was a putrid 1-11 in 2022, some measure of improvement shouldn’t be hard to come by. And honestly, anything better than 6-6 and bowl eligibility in 2023 could have diminishing returns in the form of other schools trying to swoop in for Sanders. Your best bet is to win a handful of games, build some momentum, let Sanders recruit the state of Texas as you gear up for the Big 12 in 2024, and enjoy the ride.
Indiana
The Hoosiers, along with South Florida and Vanderbilt, have the distinct honor of making this list for the second consecutive season. The good news: Indiana doubled its win output a season ago from 2021. If that’s the case in 2023, the Hoosiers most certainly will not be on this list again next year. The bad news: Indiana still won only four games. Entering his seventh season, Tom Allen needs to improve on the nation’s No. 110 offense and No. 119 defense a season ago. Per local reports, IU seems to have made a quarterback decision between Brendan Sorsby and Tayven Jackson, but won’t be making an announcement ahead of the Ohio State opener (hey, at least the game is in Bloomington). It will be paramount that the new quarterback has help along the offensive line, which is perhaps where the biggest piece of hope lies. After firing offensive line coach Darren Hiller mid-season, Allen hired Bob Bostad from Wisconsin. Bostad, who will also be the run-game coordinator, has a track record of producing all-conference and NFL linemen.
Rice
With the Pac-12 falling apart, there’s been a lot of nostalgic talk about the old Southwest Conference, a reminder that Rice once stood among the giants of college football in the state of Texas. It was hardly the glory days for the Owls — Rice famously didn’t make a bowl game from 1962 to 2005, most of which was spent in the cellar of the old SWC standings — but there was a time when the program played on a more relevant stage. Perhaps the Owls can reclaim some of that this season as it transitions to the new-look AAC. The schedule features a pair of early season matchups with former SWC foes Texas and Houston, as well as an in-league showdown with Tulane. Plus, former five-star prospect JT Daniels is in the fold at quarterback. Despite this being his fourth school, maybe Daniels can finally harness that potential to pull an upset, and start Rice on a path to more consistent success in a new conference.
The MAC
You know what we love about the Mid-American Conference? All these conferences keep expanding and realigning, and the MAC stays exactly the same. Twelve full members who have been together since 1998, with six schools in the state of Ohio and another three in Michigan. The furthest distance between MAC schools is the 600 miles separating Buffalo and Northern Illinois, which is slightly less than the 2,800 miles between future Big Ten rivals Washington and Rutgers. As the rest of college football sells off bits of its soul for more TV revenue, the MAC has maintained a sense of regionality and tradition.
Of course, outside of the occasional Sickos Committee interest in some midweek MACtion, the conference has struggled to achieve relevancy on the national stage, with only one New Year’s Six appearance since 2014: PJ Fleck’s Western Michigan in 2016. With the Group of 5 (and AAC specifically) diminished by conference realignment this season, maybe Toledo or Ohio can rise up and claim the G5 access to the NY6. Same goes for next year, as the Playoff expands to 12 teams. Combined with the Pac-12 crumbling, the MAC could have a window to start nabbing one of those automatic berths as one of the six highest-ranked conference champions with more regularity —assuming SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and company don’t try to ruin that as well.
South Florida
The Bulls aren’t scheduled to have an on-campus stadium until 2026 and yet still have to compete with other Florida schools in recruiting. Jeff Scott wasn’t able to get South Florida over the hump in the post-Charlie Strong era and was let go in his third season after going 1-11. It won’t be easy for Alex Golesh to turn things around, but Golesh enters the job on the heels of coordinating the best offense in the nation a season ago. Tennessee led the nation in yards per game and points per game, as Golesh guided quarterback Hendon Hooker, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, a third-round draft pick. Golesh should bring a renewed sense of energy.
Texas A&M
Having just relived the Johnny Football years through the Netflix documentary, Aggies face a season of massive importance. Head coach Jimbo Fisher’s seat is about as hot as it can get considering it currently costs $80 million to buy it out. After being ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll ahead of last season, A&M floundered to a disappointing 5-7, losing six straight league games and failing to reach bowl eligibility. Fisher was forced to swallow his pride and bring in Bobby Petrino to run the offense. The Aggies do have seven home games on the schedule, including hosting Alabama Oct. 7 at Kyle Field. All of this feels like a drama-infused setup that will unfold one of two ways. Either the arranged marriage of Fisher and Petrino pays off and unlocks A&M’s stockpile of blue-chip talent … or this impending train wreck crashes and burns in spectacular fashion, forcing Texas A&M to blow the whole thing up and start over. One way or another, it should be fun to watch. That buyout dips to just under $78 million come December, by the way.
Vanderbilt
Last but not least: the Commodores. After beating Hawaii on Saturday, the Commodores’ next nonconference matchups are Alabama A&M, Wake Forest and UNLV — giving Vandy a good chance to win two of the three. Quarterback AJ Swann threw for 1,274 yards as a freshman — good for the fourth-most in Vanderbilt history, despite missing two games with an injury. He’s got a promising wide receiver coming through the system, too, in true freshman London Humphreys. Oddsmakers have Vanderbilt’s over/under set at 3.5, the lowest in the SEC. So long as Swann stays healthy, there’s no reason why the Commodores shouldn’t surpass that.

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