Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where a poorly timed onside kick can extinguish preseason hope in a hurry:
First Quarter: The Most Desperate Teams in America
Well, what do we have here? Some faces we haven’t seen in a while lurking around the exclusive neighborhood. Folks who used to have property in the gated community but have since been evicted, now trying to get back in.
There are a handful of former bluebloods hankering for a comeback and putting their dollars to work to do it. They’ve led the way in the new name, image and likeness/collective/pay for play movements. They’ve paid handsomely to fire and hire coaches, expand staffs and do what it takes to close the gaps on the programs that have left them behind.
The Dash takes a look at the programs most desperate for a return to prominence, how long they’ve been away and what they’re doing to come back—with some local intel on expectations for 2022.
Big bucks and big desperation make a powerful elixir, and the Longhorns are flush with both after a perplexing 12-year malaise. Sufficiently ambitious and arrogant to blow up the national conference structure, Texas is betting it can relocate to the nation’s toughest conference and revive its flagging program at the same time. We’ll see how that works out.
- Last national championship: 2005.
- Last conference championship: 2009 (Big 12).
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2018.
Comeback moves: Firing Tom Herman and hiring Steve Sarkisian. Shaking the Earth and re-starting realignment with an impending jump from the Big 12 to the SEC along with Oklahoma. Landing a commitment from 2023 No. 1 quarterback Arch Manning, the centerpiece of what currently is the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .632
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .625
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .853
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .555
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .546
How hungry are the fans? Cedric Golden of the Austin American-Statesman answers. “Is ravenous a strong enough word? We’re talking about a program that hasn’t won 10 games in a regular season since Colt McCoy got hurt in the first drive of the 2009 national title game loss to Alabama. The fan base is aching for some new memories. In three years, it will be 20 seasons since Vince Young led the Longhorns to the Promised Land. That’s the equivalent of the old codger in the Wolf Brand Chili commercial asking about the last time you had a bowl. It’s been too long in Austin. Far too long.”
Expectations for this season: “After that 5-7 disaster in Sark’s debut, one would think a bowl game—any bowl game—would be satisfying, but the Horns believe if they get good QB play from Quinn Ewers behind a suspect offensive line and an marked improvement from a defense that gave up 425 yards per game last season, they can ride the legs of running back Bijan Robinson to the Big 12 title game,” Golden says. “I’m thinking that would take a 7-2 record at minimum in conference play. With that said, I don’t expect to hear much complaining if they finish 8-4 and at least third in the league.”
The Volunteers have been dining on humble pie for a long time now, with regular helpings of dysfunction as a side dish. Their record against SEC East rivals Georgia and Florida in the past decade is 3-17, and don’t even bring up the hammer vs. nail series with Alabama. Last year’s improvement from the Jeremy Pruitt debacle spurred optimism for 2022; maybe too much optimism?
- Last national championship: 1998.
- Last conference championship: 1998.
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2007.
Comeback moves: Fired Jeremy Pruitt and hired Josh Heupel; secured a commitment from five-star California quarterback Nico Iamaleava with an $8.5 million collective agreement, the biggest part of the No. 10 class of 2023 at present.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .668
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .813
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .654
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .504
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .435
How hungry are the fans? Jimmy Hyams, radio host on WNML in Knoxville, answers: “On a 1-to-10 scale, the level of hunger for a great season is a 9 for the Tennessee fan. The Vol Nation is tired of being patient. UT hasn’t won an SEC title since 1998 or the East division since 2007. … There is anticipation for a good season, not a great season. That’s evidenced by the fact UT has sold about 59,000 season tickets after selling about 52,200 last year. While the fan base believes the Vols are headed in the right direction, the majority still believe UT is at least a couple of years away from beating the likes of Alabama and Georgia and becoming a top 10 team.”
Expectations for this season: “The majority of Tennessee fans would be satisfied with a nine-win season and 5-3 SEC record,” Hyams said. “For some, anything less than a nine-win season and second-place finish in the SEC East would be a disappointment. … Vol fans would accept 9-3 if those losses are to Alabama, Georgia and LSU. But they would be upset if Florida and/or Kentucky beats Tennessee.”
Few fan bases turn as abruptly on their coaches as this one. The last person to coach more than 57 games at The U was Larry Coker, who went 35-3 during his first three seasons, won a national title, never had a losing season and still was shown the door after six years on the job. Mario Cristobal arrives from Oregon as a big catch and fan favorite after playing during the Miami glory years, but he’ll face the same pressure as everyone who preceded him.
- Last national championship: 2001.
- Last conference championship: 2003 (Big East).
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2017.
Comeback moves: Fired Manny Diaz and hired Cristobal. Landed a commitment from four-star California QB Jaden Rashada for what was reputed to be a seven-figure NIL deal, part of what is the No. 11 recruiting class at the moment. NCAA Enforcement was sufficiently interested in booster John Ruiz’s “NIL” efforts that it interviewed him earlier this summer.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .831
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .773
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .736
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .586
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .652
How hungry are the fans? Susan Miller-Degnan, beat writer for the Miami Herald, answers: “Miami fans aren’t just hungry, they’re over-the-top hangry after being deprived of even a satisfying season the past several years. The five-time national champion Hurricanes [and, of course, Miami fans believe it should be six-time champs after that pass interference call in their 2002 season Fiesta Bowl double-overtime loss against Ohio State] joined the ACC in 1994 and have never won a conference title. The Canes have lost 10 of their past 11 bowl games. And the one almost-great season they had in 2017, when they won their first 10 games and were ranked No. 2, collapsed with three consecutive losses. That season, UM advanced to their only ACC title game and lost 38-3 to Clemson. New coach Mario Cristobal has revived hope, but the hunger is deep.”
Expectations for this season: “Because of Mario’s track record and history with the Hurricanes, fans won’t be flying ugly banner planes if the Canes go 8-4 in the regular season, though they definitely won’t be satisfied, and 6-2 in the ACC,” Miller-Degnan said. “But a nine-win regular season would probably placate most fans. A trip to the ACC title game is the expectation, and a win there would make fans gloriously happy. Bottom line: In Mario the fans trust.”
The Trojans might have the most realistic hopes of an immediate upgrade this season from the dreck of 2021. It will require the melding of many disparate entities from different places, but the talent is there on both the depth chart and coaching staff. And Lincoln Riley has done nothing to tamp down optimism heading into Week One.
- Last national championship: 2004.
- Last conference championship: 2017.
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2020.
Comeback moves: Fired Clay Helton and plucked College Football Playoff coach Riley from Oklahoma with a whopper contract. Also splurged in the transfer portal, landing star Sooners QB Caleb Williams, star Pittsburgh receiver Jordan Addison, star Oregon running back Travis Dye and others. Oh, and the Trojans are bailing on the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .685
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .579
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .779
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .656
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .500
How hungry are the fans? Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register answers: “USC fans tipped their hand in April with an announced attendance of 33,427 at the spring game, the highest since USC began tracking spring game attendance in the late 1990s. Many USC fans tuned out during the final years of the Clay Helton era and are back and engaged with Lincoln Riley bringing a sense of legitimacy and stability to the program again. Los Angeles has not truly rallied around USC in at least a decade, but if Riley gets the Trojans winning again, especially with a bit of style and swagger, you’ll see a lot more cardinal and gold popping up around the city.”
Expectations for the season: “The key thing to remember here is that USC went 4-8 last season and had a historically bad defense,” Grosbard. “The additions of Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison and more talent on offense, plus Riley replacing Graham Harrell as play caller, should net USC a few more wins. The defense should be improved with an influx of transfer talent, led by former Alabama Freshman All-American linebacker Shane Lee. But we still need to see how all the new faces on defense coalesce. With that in mind, a 9-3 record against a favorable schedule and second- or third-place finish in the Pac-12 should give USC fans optimism that things are headed in the right direction.”
Texas A&M (5)
The dirty secret here is A&M has never had a true powerhouse era. The one national title predates America’s involvement in World War II, and there haven’t been many close brushes with greatness since then. But the potential is just sitting there, in plain sight, and the Aggies feel as close as they ever have to reaching it.
- Last national championship: 1939.
- Last conference championship: 1998 (Big 12).
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2010.
Comeback moves: Massive investment in Jimbo Fisher. Signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation in 2022—perhaps the highest-rated class ever on paper—while furiously (but unconvincingly) denying that pay-for-play inducements have been the driving force.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .616
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .766
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .516
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .646
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .773
How hungry are the fans? Olin Buchanan of TexAgs.com answers: “Famished. Ravenous. Malnourished. Like a grizzly awakening from a long hibernation. The 8-4 finish a year ago brought ridicule and criticism from other fan bases and national media. Aggies are hungry to have the last laugh.”
Expectations for the season: Says Buchanan: “Anything less than a 10-win season and a second-place finish in the SEC would be a major disappointment.”
Viewed through the prism of pre-Aug. 27, Nebraska fans had once again gotten their hopes up for The Turnaround. Coming out of the debacle in Dublin, things are different. Scott Frost might as well be on a one-month contract, as athletic director Trev Alberts weighs options.
- Last national championship: 1997.
- Last conference championship: 1999 (Big 12).
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2012.
Comeback moves: Rebuilt the offensive coaching staff and grabbed six 2022 starters via the transfer portal. But—and this is a big but—the Cornhuskers retained coach Frost for a fifth year.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .837
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .868
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .656
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .581
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .300
How hungry are the fans? Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel answers: “Nebraska football fans are in a strange place. They are extremely hungry, but as I wrote for Sunday, many don’t remember what this place is like when they’re playing big games and winning. Or going to bowl games. Or, just playing good football and being competitive. And that’s where most Husker fans are now. They aren’t demanding eight or nine wins. They want to see a football team that is coached well, plays hard, plays smart and is competent and competitive. They want to be in the mix. It’s been too long. … I was shouted down (mostly on Twitter) by fans saying the Northwestern game is the biggest, because if they lose it, they season will be over. I disagree. But that’s the current state of some fans. Fragile.”
Expectations for the season: “I know Trev well and I know what he’s looking for. He’s got a prototype, a model for his vision of Nebraska football and finally, it makes sense. Physical team. Ability to run the ball and move the clock,” Shatel says. “He wants an elite coach and program. He’s said that is what Nebraska football should be. He said he gave Scott a ‘metric’ to meet this year, and he won’t say what it is, but I think it’s more about what the team looks like, how it plays and who it beats. … The last three games, to me, are huge—at Michigan, Wisconsin at home, at Iowa. Can he go 7-5 and go to a bowl game and be OK? What if he loses those last three? Folks will not be in a good mood.”
Florida State (7)
The Seminoles have won a national title in the past decade, something no other program on the list can say. But they also have hit the skids to a shocking degree in the past four seasons, to the point where elite status seems farther away than some others. Dominating Duquesne on Saturday is an improvement over some other recent performances against lower-level opponents, but ultimately doesn’t move the needle much.
- Last national championship: 2013.
- Last conference championship: 2014.
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2014.
Comeback moves: Imported 13 players via the portal, including a number who made big plays in the Seminoles’ opening rout of FCS Duquesne. Haven’t yet made a move on Mike Norvell, who is 8-13 in two seasons, but let’s just say the expectation of great improvement is there this year. There also is no shortage of rumblings about FSU being one of the Atlantic Coast Conference schools willing to relocate conferences if a way can be found out of the league’s grant of rights deal.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .750
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .890
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .624
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .722
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .381
How hungry are the fans? Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times answers: “There’s definitely a level of hunger for FSU, but it’s not as intense as you’d think. I think most rational fans understand it’s a long build because of where the program was at the end of Jimbo [Fisher]/all of [Willie] Taggart, compounded with the fact that Norvell’s first season was the COVID year. I also sense some apathy after five rough seasons. There’s not much of a buzz. That happens when you’re kind of stuck in a long-term build at a program like FSU.”
Expectations for the season: “Satisfying record? 8-4. That means the ‘Noles won the games they should, won a toss-up game or two (Wake Forest if Sam Hartman is out? LSU? Louisville?) and beat either Miami or Florida,” Baker says. “Reasonable FSU fans would, and should, take that for where the program is right now. 7-5 with wins over Florida and Miami would qualify as satisfying, too. 8-4, by the way, is feasible. Not saying it’ll happen, but it’s a realistic goal. The real question is how intense things get if FSU improves but still goes 5-7/6-6 and Deion Sanders wins 11 games again. I don’t think FSU wants to make a coaching change for many reasons (money being a huge one), but there will be a huge push for Prime if all the growth doesn’t show up in the standings.”
The Gators have been close—they were in the CFP mix until the Infamous Thrown Cleat Game against LSU in 2020. They played for the SEC championship that year, and played well. They’ve won the division multiple times in the past decade, but they’ve also shuffled through coaches and seem to be closer to third or fourth in the SEC East than first.
- Last national championship: 2008.
- Last conference championship: 2008.
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2020.
Comeback moves: Fired Dan Mullen and hired Billy Napier, the Gators’ fourth full-time head coach in nine seasons. Produced a team picture with 144 staff members (which was explained as an all-inclusive picture). Opened a palatial new facility that cost $85 million. Currently has the No. 8 recruiting class in the country for 2023.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .668
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .820
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .769
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .638
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .560
How hungry are the fans? Zach Goodall, publisher of AllGators.com, answers: “Napier has tried his hardest to temper fans’ appetites. Since his introductory press conference, Napier has emphasized the need to restructure every aspect of Florida football, and athletic director Scott Stricklin has given him the resources—a largely-expanded budget and what feels like a 500-member support staff—to make it happen. … Post-Urban Meyer, every Gators’ coach has overachieved to begin their tenure only to uniquely crash and burn by the end, providing the fanbase with false hope right out of the gate before the coaches ran out of water bottles in attempts to put out their house fires. It may be in the best interest of fans to endure a true rebuilding year before reaping the benefits of a drastic change in approach, and that very well could be the case in 2022.”
Expectations for the season: “From my perspective, winning eight or more games considering the shape of this roster and the schedule ahead of the Gators would be a success,” Goodall says. “With success on the recruiting trail providing hope for the future, fans would probably accept an 8-4-ish, third-place-or-better finish in the SEC East. But that begs several questions: Will prospects remain committed to the vision of the program if Florida doesn’t play up to its standards in Napier’s first campaign? What would maintaining those commitments require? Are close losses to the likes of Utah, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M acceptable from a recruit’s perspective? How about losing to both Kentucky and Tennessee, which can’t be considered outside the realm? Of course, perhaps Florida could overachieve and, unlike Mullen, Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp, Napier can continue to elevate as a result of that momentum.”
On The Deck To Get Desperate
At the most abnormal football school in America, anything is possible at any time.
- Last national championship: 2010.
- Last conference championship: 2013.
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2017.
Comeback moves: In classic Auburn fashion, the booster cabal ousted Gus Malzahn, tried to promote defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, failed in the attempt, then tried to force out coach Bryan Harsin after one season. That was unsuccessful, but they did push out athletic director Allen Greene last week.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .733
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .639
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .693
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .659
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .500
Virginia Tech (10)
There is a way back, and a formula to follow. But it isn’t easy. What Frank Beamer accomplished looks better and better in the rearview mirror.
- Last national championship: None.
- Last conference championship: 2010.
- Last appearance in a conference championship game: 2016.
Comeback moves: Fired Justin Fuente and replaced him with Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry. Have otherwise remained rather sane and stable for the time being.
- Winning percentage in the 1980s: .584
- Winning percentage in the 1990s: .662
- Winning percentage in the 2000s: .756
- Winning percentage in the 2010s: .632
- Winning percentage in the 2020s: .458
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