The most wonderful time of the year is finally here. Christmas? Close. College football season.

We’ve got the countdown clock in motion here at Star Tribune World Headquarters. To celebrate the new season, Joe Christensen and myself will have a daily look at the Gophers and national college football scene on our blogs with a series of Top 5 lists. Everyone loves a good list, right?

Joe will post his inside look at the Gophers team on his blog that can be found right here.

My previous blog posts can be found here. Today’s installment focuses college football programs on the rise.

NOTE: We’re not including the Gophers in this discussion but for reasons that we’ve written about many times in the past year, Jerry Kill’s program certainly is moving in the right direction.

Trending upward

  1. Arkansas – The Bret Bielema fan club in the Twin Cities probably won’t like this, but Bielema has done a very good job changing the culture at Arkansas after Bobby Petrino’s disastrous tenure.

The Razorbacks went 7-6 and won a bowl game last season. Optimism is so high that there’s even talk that Arkansas could contend in the SEC West after finishing at the bottom last season.

Bielema brought his power offense from Wisconsin to the SEC.

The Razorbacks lost 1,000-yard rusher Jonathan Williams for the season because of a foot injury suffered in camp, but they have one of the best offensive lines in college football.

  1. Tennessee – Promise, no bias here.

Butch Jones has proven to be a dynamite recruiter who has re-stocked the roster with blue-chip talent.

No team nationally played more true freshmen last season – 23 total – and the Vols finished with a winning record after a victory against Iowa in a bowl game.

The Vols found a quarterback in Josh Dobbs and they should continue to improve as their young talent gains experience. They could challenge in the SEC East this season.

  1. Arizona State

Todd Graham is 28-12 in three seasons as head coach and has led the Sun Devils to back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973.

The Sun Devils have ranked in the Top 16 nationally in scoring offense in all three of Graham’s seasons.

Graham should be able to attract elite talent to Tempe as his program continues to build and become a regular Pac-12 contender.

  1. Penn State – The Nittany Lions are on their way back.

The severe scholarship sanctions levied in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal have been lifted and the Nittany Lions are nearly back at full strength with the 85-scholarship limit. That will help their depth and overall talent.

Second-year coach James Franklin landed a Top 15 recruiting class this spring, a sure sign that can attract the kind of talent needed to rebuild that storied program.

Franklin led Penn State to a 7-6 record and bowl win in his first season. A third-place finish in the Big Ten East this season behind Ohio State and Michigan State is not unrealistic expectations.

 

  1. Cal – The Bears went from 1-11 in Sonny Dykes first season to 5-7 last season.

Can they take another step this season? That depends on whether they make defensive improvement.

Dykes’ offense will score lots points. That’s a given, especially with Jared Goff back at quarterback.

Cal averaged 38.3 points and 495.2 yards per game last season.

Defense is another story. The Bears had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, allowing 39.8 points and 511.8 yards per game.

If Dykes can fix that side of the ball, the Bears will make the Pac-12 even more formidable.

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