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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | August 29, 2021

7 college football programs that could end bowl droughts in 2021

Preseason AP football poll: Breaking down the first 2021 rankings

For many reasons the 2020 college football season was abnormal, including the fact that the six-win minimum for bowl eligibility was waived, which paved the way for teams such as Mississippi State, which went 3-7 in the regular season, to play in the sport's postseason.

But typically, it takes six wins to receive a bowl bid, and depending on the number of bowl-eligible teams in a season, that may not be enough to guarantee a berth.

Here are seven FBS programs that could end a current bowl drought during the 2021 season.

Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports Images UCLA hasn't made a bowl game since the 2017 season.

UCLA

Last bowl season: 2017

As the head coach of Oregon, current UCLA coach Chip Kelly took the Ducks to four bowl games in four seasons, including the BCS Championship, a pair of Rose Bowl appearances and the Fiesta Bowl. As he enters his fourth season in Westwood, he's still searching for his first bowl game with the Bruins.

But there's reason for UCLA fans to be optimistic that this could be the season for a bowl berth. The Bruins went 3-4 last season with the four losses coming by a combined 15 points, including a one-point loss to Stanford and a 38-35 road loss to No. 11 Oregon.

UCLA returns quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, plus preseason First Team All-Pac-12 wide receiver Kyle Phillips and second-team selections in tight end Greg Dulcich and offensive lineman Sean Rhyan. The Bruins' scoring offense ranked 20th nationally last season at 35.4 points per game, the second-best in the Pac-12 behind Arizona State.

UCLA's 2021 schedule is rigorous, with a home, non-conference date with preseason No. 16 LSU on Sept. 4, and four games in October against Pac-12 opponents that are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll — No. 25 Arizona State (Oct. 2), at No. 20 Washington (Oct. 16), No. 11 Oregon (Oct. 23) and at No. 24 Utah (Oct. 30). There's also a trip to preseason No. 15 USC in November. That's six ranked opponents in total.

But the Bruins got off to a good start in Week 0 with a 44-10 home win over Hawaii in which running back Zach Charbonnet rushed six times for 106 yards and three touchdowns.

If UCLA can win the majority of the other half-dozen games on its schedule and beat one or two ranked opponents, then the Bruins could find themselves in a bowl game for the first time since the 2017 season.

Tommy Gilligan | USA TODAY Sports Images Maryland went 2-3 in 2020.

Maryland

Last bowl season: 2016

Maryland ranked 35th nationally in passing yards (264 yards per game) last season with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (61.5-percent completion percentage, 1,011 passing yards, 8.3 yards per attempt) and in the second year of Mike Locksley's tenure. Maryland averaged 15 plays per game that went for at least 10 yards, so the Terrapins showed they're capable of being an explosive offense. However, the Terps will need to improve their red-zone efficiency after finishing 114th nationally, scoring just 72.7 percent of the time, and they were 123rd in touchdown percentage (45.5 percent).

According to Pro Football Focus, Maryland has preseason honorable mention All-Big Ten wide receivers Dontay Demus Jr. (24 receptions, 365 yards and four touchdowns in five games) and Rakim Jarrett (17 receptions, 252 yards and two touchdowns), plus second-team selections on defense in safety Nick Cross and defensive back Tarheeb Still.

The Terrapins beat Minnesota and Penn State in back-to-back games and they were competitive against Indiana and Rutgers.

Maryland ranked 124th nationally in average turnover margin (-1.4 per game) last season, so if the Terrapins even become average in turnover margin in 2021, that could lead to an additional win or two.

Brad McClenny | USA TODAY Sports Images Arkansas went 3-7 last season.

Arkansas

Last bowl season: 2016

Following two winless-in-the-SEC seasons in 2018 and 2019, Arkansas' 3-7 mark in conference play in 2020 was a major step forward in coach Sam Pittman's first season. In Pittman's second game, the Razorbacks defeated then-No. 16 Mississippi State and they completed the sweep of the SEC's Mississippi schools by beating Ole Miss two weeks later.

Arkansas could've flirted with six wins last season, as the Razorbacks lost at Auburn and at Missouri by two points, and to LSU by three. With a non-conference schedule in 2021 that includes home games against Rice, preseason No. 21 Texas, Georgia Southern and Arkansas Pine-Bluff, the Razorbacks can probably expect at least three wins outside of SEC play. Then, all Arkansas would need to do in conference play is to go 3-5 in order to reach bowl eligibility.

On offense, Arkansas has preseason first-team All-SEC wide receiver Treylon Burks (51 receptions, 820 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020), second-team center Ricky Stromberg and third-team lineman Myron Cunningham, and on defense, the Razorbacks have second-team linebacker Grant Morgan and defensive back Jalen Catalon.

Chuck Cook | USA TODAY Sports Images Rice went 2-3 last season.

Rice

Last bowl season: 2014

In an abbreviated 2020 season, Rice went 2-3, which was only one win fewer than the Owls' 2019 win total when they played 12 games. So Rice is arguably on an upwards trajectory as a program, especially when considering one of its two wins was a 20-0 shutout of No. 15 Marshall on the road. The Owls' losses included narrow defeats to UAB (21-16) and Middle Tennessee (40-34).

While Rice's 2021 schedule is extremely difficult in September — at Arkansas, versus Houston and at Texas — the Owls finish non-conference play against Texas Southern before starting Conference USA play. If Rice's defense, which ranked 12th nationally in 2020 in scoring defense (18.8 points allowed per game) and 23rd in total defense (341 yards allowed per game), can continue its stingy play, the Owls could end a bowl drought that dates back to the 2014 season.

Wide receiver Bradley Rozner (55 receptions for 770 yards and five touchdowns in 2019) and offensive lineman Shea Baker were both named to the preseason C-USA watch list, while defensively, defensive lineman Elijah Garcia (28 tackles in five games in 2020) and defensive back Naeem Smith were represented on the other side of the ball.

Trevor Ruszkowski | USA TODAY Sports Images Rutgers went 3-6 last season.

Rutgers

Last bowl season: 2014

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has been the head coach for six of the program's 10 bowl berths in school history and he could soon lead the Scarlet Knights to their 11th bowl appearance. Their 2021 schedule starts with games against Temple (home), Syracuse (away) and Delaware (home), which presents the possibility for a 3-0 start to the season, putting Rutgers just a 3-6 Big Ten record away from bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2014 season.

In 2020, Rutgers went 3-6 in Schiano's return, including a triple-overtime loss to Michigan, a three-point loss to Illinois and a seven-point loss to Nebraska. Now, two of the Scarlet Knights' three wins came by one possession, but their 2020 results show a path to improvement and potentially, a bowl game.

According to Pro Football Focus, Avery Young was named a first-team All-Big Ten honoree, while wide receiver Bo Melton and defensive lineman Ifeanya Maijeh were named preseason third-team All-Big Ten selections. Rutgers could have a strong special teams unit, too. Punter Adam Korsak was a third-team pick, while the Scarlet Knights had the first and second-team kick returners in Aron Cruickshank and Bo Melton, respectively.

Soobum Im | USA TODAY Sports Image Oregon State went 2-5 in the 2020 season.

Oregon State

Last bowl season: 2013

In its last full season, Oregon State nearly reached bowl eligibility, going 5-7 in the 2019 season in its second season under coach Jonathan Smith. The Beavers went 2-5 in 2020, including an upset of rival Oregon, which was ranked No. 9 at the time. Three of their five losses were by six points or fewer.

Last season, the Beavers ranked 33rd nationally in rushing yards per game (197.6 yards/game) but they'll have to replace the production of leading rusher Jermar Jefferson (858 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns), who's now in the NFL. In order to reach bowl eligibility, Oregon State will need to improve on defense after ranking 93rd in scoring defense (33.3 points allowed per game) and 95th in total defense (442 yards allowed per game).

Oregon State opens its season on the road against Purdue, followed by home games against Hawaii and Idaho, which means if all goes well, the Beavers could start the season 3-0, meaning they would only need to go 3-6 the rest of the way to reach bowl eligibility.

The Beavers have a pair of preseason All-Pac-12 picks — offensive lineman Nathan Eldridge and linebacker Avery Roberts, who are both second-team selections.

Paul Rutherford | USA TODAY Sports Images Texas State has never played in a bowl game after joining the FBS in 2012.

Texas State

Last bowl season: Never

Texas State is entering its 10th season as an FBS team, and this could be the year the Bobcats finally appear in their first-ever bowl game. Now, they have reached the six-win threshold that's needed to reach bowl qualification — 6-6 in 2013 and 7-5 in 2014 — but they weren't selected for a bowl game.

While Texas State went just 2-10 last season, beating UL Monroe and Arkansas State, the Bobcats lost at Georgia Southern 40-38, to Boston College on the road 24-21, to UTSA 51-48 and to SMU 31-24, so they're arguably closer to bowl eligibility than a 2-10 record might suggest on its face. Texas State also fully embraced rebuilding its roster with transfers, such as NC State quarterback Ty Evans, Cal wide receiver Jeremiah Hawkins, offensive linemen Charles Fletcher (NC State), Kaimana Wa'a (Hawaii) and Liam Dobson (Maine), defensive linemen Nick McCann (Texas Tech)  and  DeOnte Washington (Independence Community College), Kansas State linebacker DeMarrquese Hayes, SMU cornerback Eric Sutton and Vandy cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams.

With an infusion of former AAC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 talent, and perhaps a correction to the mean in its winning percentage in one-score games, Texas State's win total could double or triple.

Special teams play was one of the few bright spots for the Bobcats last season, as their national ranking among Sun Belt schools was the best in the conference for punt returns (12.3 yards per return), third in kickoff returns (20.7 yards per return) and fourth in field-goal accuracy (75 percent). While Texas State's defense needs to make major improvements (116th nationally last season in scoring defense at 38.2 points per game allowed) and 125th (out of 127 schools) in total defense at 494.9 yards allowed per game, the team's passing offense ranked 56th nationally in yards per game, just behind Cincinnati and a few spots ahead of Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Home games against Incarnate Word, South Alabama, Troy and UL Monroe are potential wins, potentially leaving the Bobcats needing to find just two more wins for bowl eligibility.

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