The 2016 college football season featured several examples of teams escaping from ruts to achieve breakthroughs, including Pac-12 champion Washington and Big Ten champion Penn State. It's inevitable that the 2017 season will feature at least a few similar achievements.
Pinpointing surprise/breakout seasons for teams is difficult -- although Washington was widely predicted last year -- but there are several candidates that could potentially reach a level of success that they haven't experienced in recent years. "Breakout" is relative depending on the status of a program, but all of the following teams are hoping to make a leap forward compared to where they have been, and they may have the personnel to at least give them a chance to do so.
Not all of them will, but these are the teams to keep an eye on as risers compared to where they have been as they try to break frustrating trends. (This list does not include teams like Notre Dame, Oregon and Michigan State that are trying to bounce back from one down year.)
Trend to break: One top-25 finish in seven years
Upon taking over at Texas, Mack Brown led the Longhorns to top-25 finishes in each of his first 12 seasons. The Longhorns were consistent Big 12 and national contenders, winning at least 10 games every year from 2001-09. And then the bottom fell out after the BCS title loss to Alabama. Since then, their only top-25 finish came in 2012 -- when Texas went 9-4 and finished 19th. Charlie Strong had three straight losing records, and now Tom Herman takes over after one of the most frustrating runs in Texas football history.
Despite all of the recent problems, Herman isn't starting from scratch, or anywhere close to it. According to 247Sports' composite rankings, Strong's recruiting classes ranked 17th, 10th and sixth. Not all the talent has panned out, but this roster is hardly barren of talent. The defense has underperformed but could experience a significant turnaround under new coordinator Todd Orlando, with the potential for a strong front seven led by linebacker Malik Jefferson. And while it's unclear just how well QB Shane Buechele will fit with Herman, the Longhorns have a strong offensive line led by tackle Connor Williams, and a healthy Chris Warren is capable of being a solid replacement for D'Onta Foreman. After the disasters of the past few seasons, Texas has a lot to prove, but it had five close losses last season. Having to play a nonconference road game at USC hurts, but the Big 12 schedule is navigable enough for Herman to take aim at the Longhorns' best AP ranking since 2009.
Trend to break: Zero ACC title game appearances since joining the conference
When Miami joined the ACC in 2004 and was placed in a different division than Florida State, the concern was that the ACC's championship games would repeatedly feature Florida State-Miami rematches. Not only has that never happened in 13 years, Miami hasn't even played for an ACC title, having never won the Coastal Division. From 1980-2005, the Hurricanes finished unranked twice and had 12 top-five teams. Now, they haven't won 10 games in a season since joining the ACC and have had only two top-25 finishes -- 19th in 2009, 20th in 2016 -- in the past 11 years, a frustratingly prolonged period of mediocrity for a team with one of the best recruiting locations in college football.
Last year's team was quietly one of the Hurricanes' best in a while in Mark Richt's debut, with the improvement overshadowed by a midseason four-game losing streak. However, several things pointed to Miami being on the rise: All nine wins were by double digits. Three of the four losses were by a touchdown or less. And the defense improved from 86th to ninth in yards per play allowed despite starting three freshman at linebacker. The Canes now have a loaded defensive front, a promising group of skill players on offense led by WR Ahmmon Richards and RB Mark Walton and a favorable schedule beyond having to play at Florida State. Yes, there's uncertainty at quarterback with Brad Kaaya gone -- the new QB is likely to be junior Malik Rosier or true freshman N'Kosi Perry -- but ACC Coastal foes Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech all have to replace their quarterbacks, too. Miami has the most talented roster in the ACC Coastal and can finally punch a ticket to the conference title game.
Trend to break: Has not won the SEC since 2005
It's not actually going to happen. After all, Alabama still exists as a powerhouse determined to make the rest of the SEC miserable. Georgia may have Nick Saban's protégé in Kirby Smart, but Smart has a lot to prove as a head coach after last year's forgettable 8-5 debut -- made worse by the fact that Mark Richt was fired after back-to-back 10-3 seasons. There are reasons to be optimistic about the Bulldogs, though. The quarterback, Jacob Eason, was a five-star recruit thrown into the fire as a true freshman. Accuracy and consistency are issues, but it's reasonable to hope for a leap from Year 1 to Year 2. Star senior tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returned. The defense is bursting with potential, particularly up the middle with tackle Trenton Thompson, linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Dominick Sanders. Throw in the fact that no one in the SEC East is a sure bet, and there's a lot to like about Georgia.
Of course, the Bulldogs' schedule does them few favors beyond drawing Mississippi State from the SEC West, as the home schedule is abysmal and they must go on the road to Notre Dame, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech on top of the neutral game vs. Florida. Is this staff going to get the most out of Eason? Will the offensive line and receiving corps improve? And, even if everything does break right, is beating Alabama in Atlanta a realistic possibility? Probably not, but the talent is there for this to be the second-best team in the SEC and perhaps take a better shot at Alabama than anyone else from the East has in the past few years.
Trend to break: Hasn't played in MAC title game since 2004
It feels strange to have Toledo on this list. It's been a consistent winner, with at least nine wins in five of the past six seasons, including a 10-2 mark in 2015. Because of that, it sent two coaches (Matt Campbell, Tim Beckman) to Power Five jobs. And yet Toledo hasn't won the MAC or even the MAC West since 2004. The Rockets played in five of the first eight MAC titles games, but they haven't been back, thanks especially to Northern Illinois' dominance. The window is wide-open now, however. While defending champion Western Michigan has outrecruited the rest of the league thanks to P.J. Fleck, the Broncos lost a bunch of key players -- plus Fleck -- and Northern Illinois has finally taken a step back. Meanwhile, Toledo went 9-4 in Jason Candle's first season and scored 38 points per game. The offensive line has reshuffling to do and star tailback Kareem Hunt is gone, but this offense remains loaded, led by QB Logan Woodside (4,129 yards, 45 TDs) and WR Cody Thompson (1,269 yards). This season provides the perfect opportunity for Toledo to get to Detroit.
Trend to break: One top-25 finish in the past 14 seasons
North Carolina State has never fielded a team that finished in the top 10 of the AP poll, and it has had only one team that finished better than 17th since the Lou Holtz era in the early 1970s (12th in 2002, behind Philip Rivers). Only twice in the past 22 years has N.C. State finished as a top-25 team, the most recent being a No. 25 team in 2010. Mediocrity has been in the norm in Raleigh, but patience is already wearing thin with coach Dave Doeren anyway, as he has a 25-26 record in four seasons, going just 9-23 in ACC play. Last year, the Wolfpack improved but missed opportunities to finally earn signature wins, losing in overtime to Clemson and losing by four to Florida State.
There's a good chance that nothing changes in 2017. After all, N.C. State is stuck in the ACC Atlantic instead of the Coastal, where its competition includes the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville's Lamar Jackson), the reigning national champions (Clemson) and one of the most powerful programs in the sport (Florida State). It's possible that N.C. State will have its best team in 15 years and still finish fourth in its division. The Wolfpack return 16 starters, including the entirety of one of the nation's best defensive lines -- led by end Bradley Chubb -- and four of five starters on a rock-solid offensive line. There are questions to answer in the running game and the secondary, but there's a foundation of strong line play here to give this team a chance to break out of a rut and pull an upset or two, especially with Louisville and Clemson both visiting Carter-Finley Stadium.
Trend to break: Hasn't had fewer than five losses in a season since 1984
Kentucky's football team hasn't had fewer than five losses in a season since 1984.... and its basketball team has had fewer than five losses eight times in that span despite often playing three times as many games per season. Obviously, Kentucky is a basketball school, but the depths of its football despair can sometimes be shocking. Tim Couch's teams didn't even appear in an AP top 25 at any point (since 1984, Kentucky's only top 25 appearance was in 2007, when it went from 5-0 and ranked No. 8 to an 8-5 final record). With Mark Stoops treading water and pressure increasing, the Wildcats finally took advantage of a down SEC East to win seven games last year, including a season-making upset of rival Louisville and their first bowl appearance in six years. With the bowl drought a thing of the past, Kentucky can set its sights on further improvement, especially if Georgia falls short of expectations and/or Florida takes a step back because of defensive attrition.
There are still no guarantees in the SEC East, and Kentucky returns most of its roster after finishing a solid 32nd in yards per play behind a stellar running game. The Wildcats loose Boom Williams, but they still have a thousand-yard back in Benjamin Snell, who rushed for 13 touchdowns as a freshman. While the defense is still a huge question mark, it has a lot of experience and an All-America candidate in linebacker Jordan Jones. Kentucky has winnable cross-division games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and Florida (who it hasn't defeated since 1986), Tennessee and Louisville all visit Lexington, so this could develop into a sleeper that pulls off a couple surprises.
Trend to break: Hasn't finished in the AP top 25 since 2011
Bret Bielema stepped into a messy situation after the Bobby Petrino firing and the one-year John L. Smith debacle in which the Razorbacks fell from 11-2 to 4-8. Still, Bielema's results after wining three Big Ten titles at Wisconsin have been maddeningly inconsistent from week-to-week and predictable from year to year. After a down transition year, Arkansas has gone 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6 the past three years, unable to put together a truly complete team. Bielema is now 10-22 in the SEC. Last year, the Razorbacks spent six weeks in the AP top 25, but their first four losses were each by at least 19 points, and their final two were disastrous meltdowns against Missouri and Virginia Tech. The defense will shift to a 3-4 under new coordinator Paul Rhoads, and its most important task is stopping the bleeding against the run after the Razorbacks were humiliated by the Auburn and LSU ground attacks in particular.
Dre Greenlaw and McTelvin Agim are promising building blocks for Rhoads' defense, though, and quarterback Austin Allen had a solid debut as starter beyond throwing too many interceptions. It's hard to feel too confident in Arkansas making a giant leap forward, but if play in the trenches improves, nine wins -- and a top-25 season -- is on the table.
Trend to break: Hasn't won a conference championship since the Sun Belt in 2006
Rick Stockstill is 72-66 as coach of the Blue Raiders, a solid mark that includes a 10-win season in 2009 and six bowl trips. However, he hasn't won a conference title since his first year as head coach, when the Blue Raiders went just 7-6 overall but 6-1 in the Sun Belt to capture a league title. They're 22-10 in four years of Conference USA play, but their ceiling has been limited by the presence of Marshall and Western Kentucky in their division. There could be a window of opportunity this season. Marshall has fallen off, Butch Davis (Florida Atlantic) and Lane Kiffin (Florida International) are in their first seasons, Old Dominion lost its quarterback and Western Kentucky lost its coach. MTSU, meanwhile, has a prolific passer in the coach's son, Brent Stockstill, and a dynamic receiver in Richie James, who has 212 catches in two seasons. The defense will improve, and the passing game can be outstanding. It's just a matter of finding a way to outduel Western Kentucky, which has a lot of turnover but does have a prolific passer back in Mike White.
Trend to break: Hasn't finished with a winning record since 2009
There will be no Colorado-like breakout from prolonged irrelevance to playing for a conference championship. But the Cyclones will be fine with baby steps under coach Matt Campbell, who's in charge of a team that has finished in the final AP poll twice ever. What Iowa State would love soon is merely a winning record. Even the two most recent bowl teams in 2011 and '12 ended up with 6-7 marks because of their postseason losses. After Dan McCarney had four winning seasons in six years from 2000-05, Iowa State has finished above .500 only once. Getting to six wins and winning a bowl game (or winning seven in the regular season) is a tall task for a team that is 11-37 over the past four years, but Campbell's Cyclones got better over the course of last season, beating Texas Tech by 56 and losing to Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma by 10 points or less. There's solid experience on defense and decent talent at the skill positions, led by receiver Allen Lazard, so the hope is that closes losses can turn into a few more wins to get Iowa State bowling again.