Friday Five: College football teams most likely to escape the cellar in the 2019 season
In any sport or competition, if you’re going to have winners, that means you’re going to have losers, too. Nobody likes to lose, which is why teams try so damned hard not to, and in this week’s Friday Five I’m looking for teams that lost a lot last year that have a good chance of losing a bit less this year.
The topic is inspired by a question I received for my weekly mailbag a few weeks ago. I was asked, “Which last-place Power Five team will improve its W-L record most in 2019?” It was a good question but one that demanded more time and attention than a simple 75-word answer. I felt it made a much better debate for a Friday Five, and thus, here we are.
I’m changing it up a bit, though. Instead of looking at the last place Power Five teams (there were nine if we use divisions) and trying to figure out which will improve its record by the most wins, I’ve decided I’m going to rank them based on the likelihood they get out of the cellar. That seems to be a more even assessment since not all divisions are created equally, as some teams won two conference games last season and finished last in their division, while others didn’t win any. So those two-win teams are at a bit of a handicap when it comes to how many wins they can improve by.
In the end, I think the choice for No. 1 was easy, but after that, things got difficult. So difficult that I feel the need to clarify that this is not a prediction that these teams will avoid finishing in last place, but rather an assessment of which have the best odds of doing so.
5. Arkansas: I went back-and-forth on this fifth slot as I was stuck between Arkansas and Illinois. The argument against Arkansas was that, compared to Illinois, this is a team that doesn’t have a lot of returning production and experience in 2019. Also, while Illinois plays in the Big Ten West, which has been known to offer some wiggle room, Arkansas is in the more punishing SEC West. In the end, I went with Arkansas because there’s another factor that will have a significant impact on Arkansas’ chances of getting out of last place: Ole Miss.
The Rebels are dealing with NCAA sanctions that have affected their ability to recruit the last few years, and they’ve also seen a lot of important players move on to both the NFL and NCAA transfer portal. This has affected the team’s depth and left it vulnerable in the toughest division in college football. So even if I don’t know how much of an improvement we can expect from Arkansas in 2019, the decline of an Ole Miss team that went 1-7 in the SEC last season might be enough in itself to get the Hogs out of their hole.
4. Louisville: The 2018 season was a nightmare for Louisville, and it resulted in the end of Bobby Petrino’s second stint with the Cardinals. I happen to be of the opinion that Louisville made a significant coaching upgrade this offseason, both on the field and off it, when it hired Scott Satterfield. Now, will that alone be enough to take Louisville from 0-8 in the ACC and get them out of last place? I can’t be sure. Unlike other teams on this list, the gap between Louisville and other ACC Atlantic teams was wide. Wake Forest and Florida State both finished just ahead of Louisville in the standings, but both did so with three more conference wins.
What’s working in Louisville’s favor is that most of its main contributors return in 2019, and with a coaching staff that seems to give a damn about what’s going on, maybe it can take a step forward. Louisville is still going to need somebody else in the division to bottom out, though, and I’m just not sure who that is. So I can’t rank the Cardinals higher than No. 4 here.
3. Colorado: The Buffs finished last in the Pac-12 South last season, but it may have been a little misleading. They went 5-7 overall, but all seven of those losses came in conference play. Still, of those seven losses, the only ones you can say Colorado wasn’t competitive in were a 24-point loss to Washington State and a 23-point loss to Utah. It lost to Washington 27-13 on the road, but that game was only 17-13 after three quarters.
The problem Colorado faces is it needs somebody else to pass, and I’m not entirely sure who that is. UCLA is the most likely candidate, as it went 3-9 overall and 3-6 in the Pac-12 last season, but it was a younger team transitioning under a new coaching staff with a new style of play. It’s also a team that may have only won one of its last five games, but its last two losses of the season against Arizona State and Stanford came by a combined 10 points.
2. North Carolina: Mack is back, baby. Yeah, OK, so I don’t know how major an impact he’ll have in Year 1, but no matter what you think about the decision to hire Mack Brown, you at least get a sense of competence from the program now, don’t you? If there’s any coach who has shown he knows what it takes to win at North Carolina in the last 30 years, it’s Mack Brown, who is only four wins away from becoming the winningest coach in program history. He might get there this season.
This is a roster that returns a lot of production from last year and has talent. Larry Fedora recruited to Chapel Hill reasonably well, but his team was snakebitten by injuries the last couple of years, and it showed in the results. You could argue that the scales of injury luck balancing out alone could lead to improvement for this team. Also, it’s important to remember North Carolina plays in the ACC Coastal, one of the most volatile divisions in the Power Five; I mean, Pitt won the division last season despite going 7-7 on the year. As we enter 2019, there’s a Georgia Tech team making the transition from an option team, as well as a Duke team that just lost a three-year starter at QB. There are multiple candidates for teams that could replace North Carolina in the cellar, and that more than anything is why I have the Heels at No. 2 on this list.
1. Tennessee: Yeah, this was an easy choice. To be honest, this list feels more like a No. 1 followed by four No. 5’s than a true No. 1 through No. 5. Tennessee seems like the obvious choice for multiple reasons. First of all, nearly everybody who mattered on last year’s team is back, and it’s the second year under Jeremy Pruitt. Then, there’s the fact that the Vols have brought in strong recruiting classes the last couple of years, and that improves the talent level we’re working with. Finally, there are candidates to replace Tennessee at the bottom of the SEC East. Vanderbilt finished a game better than Tennessee in the standings but lost a three-year starter at QB as well as plenty of production from other areas. Missouri is in a similar situation, losing a four-year starter in Drew Lock as well as plenty of critical contributors elsewhere. Still, I think Vandy is the more likely candidate to move down since Mizzou had four SEC wins and at least has Kelly Bryant as a stopgap at QB.
But at the end of the day, given all of these factors, I don’t think there’s a more obvious choice than Tennessee as the Power Five team most likely to leave the basement this season. That doesn’t mean I believe Tennessee’s going to compete for a division title, but it should flirt heavily with bowl eligibility. I don’t know if I can say the same thing about the four other teams on this list.
Honorable Mention: Illinois