10 college football teams not to overlook in 2019

By Peter Burke - Local10.com Managing Editor
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FIU Panthers head coach Butch Davis is seen during a game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on Oct. 27, 2018 in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Here are 10 teams on the rise that could spell trouble for opponents this season.

Army Black Knights

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The Black Knights were the pride of the Army during the 2018 season, setting an academy-record 11 wins and finishing No. 19 in the final Associated Press poll. Army won its last nine games, including hanging 70 on Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Knights own a 13-game winning streak at Michie Stadium, second only to Clemson nationally.

Appalachian State Mountaineers

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There may be a new coach in former North Carolina State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, but the expectations remain the same for a team that won 11 games, the Sun Belt Conference and New Orleans Bowl in 2018. Led by quarterback Zac Thomas, who passed for 2,039 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions, the Mountaineers won their final six games in resounding fashion, including a 30-19 victory over Louisiana in the conference title game and a 45-13 victory over Middle Tennessee to cap the season.

Fresno State Bulldogs

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Fresno State won 12 games for the first time ever last season. The Bulldogs avenged a 24-17 regular-season loss to Boise State (one of two all season) with a 19-16 overtime victory in the Mountain West Conference Championship and beat Arizona State 31-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Head coach Jeff Tedford is 22-6 in two seasons on campus, but the Bulldogs are starting over at quarterback after the departure of Marcus McMaryion and promoted offensive line coach Ryan Grubb to offensive coordinator after Kalen DeBoer left to take the same job at Indiana.

FIU Panthers

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Butch Davis has the Panthers off to a solid start, leading FIU to bowl games in each of his first two seasons. They were one bad game (a 49-14 loss to rival Florida Atlantic) away from playing in last year's Conference USA title game. Senior quarterback James Morgan, the team's top four running backs and four of its top five pass catchers return in 2019, making FIU a legitimate contender for the C-USA crown.

Buffalo Bulls

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Buffalo won a school-record 10 games and played for the Mid-American Conference championship in 2018. Although the Bulls will turn to a new quarterback and lose their top three pass catchers from last season, they've got two young running backs to help carry the load. Jaret Patterson was the MAC freshman of the year after rushing 1,013 yards and 14 touchdowns. Kevin Marks kept pace with 845 yards and 13 scores as a redshirt freshman. Despite a lackluster finish to the season (1-3 in the final four games), the Bulls have an opportunity to surprise with an early trip to Penn State.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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In Scott Frost Nebraska trusts. The former Nebraska quarterback led the Cornhuskers to a 4-2 finish after a 0-6 start to his first season as head coach of his alma mater. Much of the optimism for Nebraska centers on sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, who is already being touted as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. The schedule is such that the Cornhuskers could feasibly be 4-0 when they host defending Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State. Win that game and Nebraska may no longer be considered a fallen power.

Utah Utes

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One of the nation's best defenses in 2018, Utah returns a pair of South Florida natives in starting quarterback Tyler Huntley (1,788 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions) and running back Zack Moss (1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns). Both missed significant playing time because of injuries, but the Utes still won the Pacific 12 Conference South Division. Without Huntley and Moss, Utah wound up on the losing end of a 10-3 defensive battle in the Pac-12 title game. If they can stay healthy, the Utes will be Pac-12 contenders in 2019.

Cincinnati Bearcats

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Cincinnati was one of the nation's surprise teams last year, improving from 4-8 in head coach Luke Fickell's first season to 11-2 in 2018. The Bearcats ranked 15th nationally in rushing, led by running back Michael Warren II. Warren rushed for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018. He and returning dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder (2,445 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 583 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns) are a big reason why Cincinnati got off to a 6-0 start, including a 26-17 win at UCLA.

Iowa State Cyclones

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Matt Campbell continues to build a winning culture at Iowa State. Campbell's 19 wins since taking over in 2016 are the most for a head coach in program history through three seasons. The Cyclones have posted back-to-back 8-5 seasons, but even more impressive is their continued improvement in Big 12 Conference play (2-7 in 2016, 5-4 in 2017 and 6-3 in 2018). Sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy set single-season school records last year in completion percentage (66.4%) and passing efficiency (169.9). The Cyclones were in contention to play for the Big 12 championship until a 24-10 loss to Texas late last season. 

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Minnesota returns the majority of its production from last year's 7-6 campaign, which concluded with a 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. P.J. Fleck enters his third season as head coach, so continued improvement would fit his home-building metaphor to describe the process of establishing a program (year one is the excavation, year two is the pouring of the foundation and year three is the frame of the house). The Golden Gophers already have a quality win under Fleck -- a 21-14 victory against Fresno State last season.

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