College football teams rarely have the luxury to rebuild – like, say, a Major League Baseball club or the Philadelphia 76ers. Boosters want their schools to reload, not rebuild or take a step back, so the seats remain filled and the donors are more willing to open their wallets.
In reality, even some of college football’s most consistently successful programs will take a step back every now and then, whether it’s due to graduation, transfers, the NFL or youth. It’s the nature of the game. Not every program is like Alabama or Ohio State, schools who have no problem getting the elite talent to come their way.
For others of the same ilk, it’s not that easy to reload even when they have no intention of rebuilding. Here’s a look at five teams that could take a step back – not all severely – in their progression during the 2018 college football season.
There are varying levels of decline, and while expectations at LSU will remain high in 2018, it does not seem to have the making of a national championship season. In Baton Rouge, that’s really all that matters. So if the Tigers were to take a step back, that could mean another nine win-season and no titles.
This drop in elite status has been gradual for the Tigers, who last played for a national title during the 2011 season and have yet to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. They’ve been relegated to the likes of the Citrus Bowl, Texas Bowl and Music City Bowl in recent years.
LSU always has talent, but is it good enough to compete with Alabama and Georgia – both of which will travel to Baton Rouge – or beat Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M on the road? Ed Orgeron has a new offensive coordinator in Steve Ensminger and it would seem Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow will open the season at quarterback.
However, LSU’s top four rushers from last season are gone, led by Derrius Guice. NFL-ready cornerback Greedy Williams and linebacker Devin White return, but the defense held only four of its FBS opponents to fewer than 20 points in 2017.
Three straight bowl appearances that produced two 10-win seasons during that span give reason for the Wildcats program to feel good. It would feel even better knowing quarterback Clayton Thorson will be healthy enough to open the season at Purdue on Aug. 30.
Thorson, who suffered an ACL injury in last year’s Music City Bowl, threw for 2,844 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. But if he’s not ready to begin the season, Northwestern could take a step back, especially if it gets off to a slow start. The Wildcats must also replace running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 5,440 yards and 41 touchdowns during his four years in Evanston.
A defense that yielded an average of 16.2 points while the Wildcats won their final eight games will miss safety and leader Godwin Igwebuike.
Then there is the schedule, which features Big Ten crossovers against Michigan and Michigan State and a much-anticipated visit from Notre Dame in November. Northwestern gets Wisconsin at home, but that’s still a major challenge, as will traveling to Iowa and potentially Minnesota.
Replacing quarterback Mason Rudolph and leading receiver James Washington – both drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers – won’t be easy for coach Mike Gundy. Because of that, a fourth consecutive 10-win season is a stretch.
The Cowboys might only win eight games in 2018, so they would take a step back, even with expectations in Stillwater tempered. Don’t expect Oklahoma State to average 45 points as it did last season (fourth in the nation), especially because the quarterback position is up for grabs at the moment. Justice Hill returns after rushing for 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017, but he won’t be able to do it himself.
Ex-Duke assistant Jim Knowles takes over a defense that ranked 85th in the nation allowing 29.4 points per contest and ranked outside the top 70 nationally in total defense for the third time in four years. He must also rely on a young secondary to get the job done in the Big 12.
Four consecutive home games to open the season should help the Cowboys ease into things. However, a finishing slate at Oklahoma, versus West Virginia and at TCU will determine the Cowboys’ fate.
It’s been 20 years since the Volunteers won an SEC title. Not only should that drought continue this season, but a second consecutive losing campaign may very well be a reality.
Tennessee lost seven of its last eight games to finish 4-8 and after a wild and crazy coaching search, is banking on first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt to keep the program from taking another step back. Assuming Stanford transfer Keller Chryst wins the starting quarterback job, there is reason for hope that an offense that averaged just 19.8 points last season will be better.
Still, replacing running back John Kelly (778 yards, nine touchdowns) won’t be easy. Either will a schedule that opens with West Virginia and features road games against Georgia, Auburn and South Carolina. Don’t forget, Alabama is also on the schedule.
The Cougars went 9-4 last season, but ended with a pair of blowout losses. First, was the 41-14 loss to rival Washington. Then a 42-17 defeat versus Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl added to the Pac-12’s postseason misery.
Unfortunately for Washington State, it seems in position to take a step back in 2018. As is the case under coach Mike Leach, the Cougars will throw the football with the run game an afterthought. However, Luke Falk and his 14,486 career passing yards are trying to make it in the NFL. The tragic suicide of backup Tyler Hilinski leaves a question mark at quarterback and more importantly, an emotional hurdle the Cougars program still must find a way to clear.
Tracy Claeys is the new defensive coordinator for a unit that’s sans All-American Hercules Mata’afa and allowed more than 40 points four times last season.