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College Football's 23 Most Surprising Players, Teams and Coaches of 2011 Season

David LutherFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 24, 2016

College Football's 23 Most Surprising Players, Teams and Coaches of 2011 Season

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    The final game of the college football season will be played tonight when LSU and Alabama meet in the BCS National Championship Game, and we figured that now would be a great time for a quick look back at the 2011 season and some things that impressed us over the past several months.

    Along with the usual performances from the usual suspects, there were a good number of surprises this season, both pleasant and nasty.

    Here's our look back at the 2011 season with the 23 most surprising players, teams and coaches of the year.

Iowa State

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    We're going to start our list with the surprising Cyclones from Iowa State.

    Iowa State finished the 2011 season with a Pinstripe Bowl loss to Rutgers, capping off a 6-7 campaign that included a BCS championship game bust-up victory over then-No. 2 Oklahoma State on November 18.

    If you're a fan of BCS chaos, send your thank-you postcards to the Cyclones.

    Iowa State also had early impressive wins against in-state rival Iowa (44-41, in overtime) and at Connecticut before dropping four straight to Big 12 competition.

    After defeating then-No. 22 Texas Tech on October 29, the Cyclones edged past Kansas before their epic upset of Oklahoma State.

    While 6-7 probably isn't going to be remembered as the greatest Iowa State season of football, there were some moments of this season that will be remembered for decades, and there's plenty to build on for the future.

Penn State

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    There are many reasons we could place Penn State on our list this season.

    First, the surprise could be the fact that Joe Paterno is, after more than four decades, no longer the head football coach at Penn State.

    Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the fact that he was fired.

    But the supreme surprise of all has to be the devastating allegations made against a former Paterno assistant.

    The man that led to the implosion of the program, Jerry Sandusky, stands accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse of minors, some of which allegedly occurred at Penn State football facilities.

    The bungling of the follow-up to the initial reports of this abuse eventually led to the downfall of Paterno—a man whose legendary status as the winningest FBS coach of all time may forever be clouded.

Case Keenum

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    Perhaps Case Keenum's success at Houston shouldn't be that surprising.

    In reality, Keenum had shown brilliance before this season, and his return from injury was a huge but expected boost to the Cougars.

    Against some shockingly weak opposition, Keenum was able to post some eye-popping numbers this season, passing for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns in Houston's 13-1 season.

    Keenum also surpassed some all-time NCAA career marks, making sure that his name will long grace the esoteric pages of NCAA football journals for years to come.

    The surprising thing about Keenum this season was not just his success, but the near-complete dominance of his success.

    Those 48 touchdown passes we mentioned? That's compared to just five interceptions thrown all season. His passer rating of 174.0 was bested by just three other players: Kellen Moore, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. Pretty good company.

Washington

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    When Jake Locker made his exit from campus following graduation, people who feared a downturn in the fortunes of Washington football had plenty of company.

    But as if almost to defy logic itself, the Huskies proved that Locker, as great as he was, wasn't the sole reason for the modicum of success Washington football had enjoyed.

    The Locker-less Washington Huskies managed to post a 7-6 record in 2011, matching the mark from 2010, when he led the Huskies to several improbable wins.

    If anything, this surprising result proves that Washington does have the ability to compete year in, year out in the Pac-12, and head coach Steve Sarkisian is just a few steps away from really kicking his program into high gear.

Stephen Garcia

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    Whatever happened to “three strikes and you're out”?

    Stephen Garcia got five strikes and still found himself as the starting quarterback for the South Carolina Gamecocks.

    While that alone is probably worthy of making a “most surprising” list, the fact that Garcia still couldn't figure out a way to keep his nose clean is even more of a shocker.

    After Garcia's sixth suspension since arriving in Columbia, school administrators had finally seen enough. Garcia was unceremoniously dismissed from the program, and his eligibility exhausted, his collegiate career is over in the worst way possible.

Arizona State

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    Last season, the Arizona State Sun Devils finished 6-6. So why is a 6-7 finish in 2011 such a shocker?

    First, four of the six losses of the Devils last season were by a combined nine points. Now add in the fact that every offensive starter and 10 defensive starters returned for the 2011 season, and you can see why a 6-7 finish in the comparatively weak Pac-12 South division is a bit of a surprise.

    It was apparently surprisingly bad enough for Dennis Erickson to be shown the door.

Nebraska

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    Welcome to the Big Ten.

    For years, Nebraska had been the darling of the Big 12's North division, winning at least a share of four of the last five Big 12 North titles, including all three during Bo Pelini's tenure.

    When Nebraska announced that it was leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten, there were more than a few Nebraska fanatics that believed the Huskers would be able to easily blow through the lowly competition the Big Ten could offer.

    Oops.

    In Nebraska's first-ever Big Ten conference football game, the Cornhuskers were thoroughly embarrassed in front of a prime-time national network television audience by Wisconsin, 48-17.

    The Huskers were able to rebound with wins against Ohio State, Minnesota and then-No. 9 Michigan State before getting caught flat-footed against Northwestern.

    After narrowly defeating Penn State the following week, Nebraska was again handed a humiliating defeat, this time courtesy of the Michigan Wolverines, 45-17.

    The loss at Michigan ended any hope of a Big Ten title run, and the 'Huskers backed into a Capital One Bowl berth against South Carolina (owing to the conference's two BCS invites this season).

    If Nebraska was hoping to do its new conference proud in its first bowl outing against the SEC, it certainly didn't appear so. The Cornhuskers were trounced by the South Carolina Gamecocks, 30-13.

    No one expects Nebraska to be mediocre year after year. But there probably weren't many people who expected a 5-3 conference mark in 2011 either.

Virginia

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    Show of hands—who honestly believed the Virginia Cavaliers would finish the 2011 season tied for second place in the ACC's Coastal division at 8-5 (5-3)?

    After a 4-8 finish in 2010, no one was picking Virginia in 2011, and no one was blaming anyone for not doing so. After all, when was the last time people got excited about the Cavs?

    While Virginia wasn't making any Cinderella BCS runs this season, the Cavs did manage to knock off two ranked opponents (then-No. 12 Georgia Tech and then-No. 23 Florida State) before falling to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on December 31—by far the best bowl invite Virginia has received in over a decade and its first bowl invite since the 2007 season.

Tyrann Mathieu

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    It's not often a primarily defensive player is mentioned in the same sentence as “Heisman,” but Mathieu not only was mentioned, he actually received enough votes to be considered a contender in 2011.

    Mathieu had been spectacular all season in the defensive backfield for LSU, and his spectacular explosiveness returning punts put his name on the highlight reel often enough to ensure that college football fans across the nation knew the name “Mathieu”—or at least had heard of the “Honey Badger.”

Mark Richt

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    You really have to hand it to Mark Richt.

    After his Georgia Bulldogs posted their first losing season in the better part of two decades, and after starting 2011 with an 0-2 record, Richt decided he had heard enough talk about his fanny on the hot seat.

    Over the next 10 games, he engineered 10 straight Bulldogs victories, guiding Georgia to an SEC East championship and a berth in the SEC championship game for the first time since 2005.

    While Georgia came up short in the title game, it's doubtful any team in the nation would have beaten LSU on that particular Saturday. Georgia also suffered a tough 33-30 defeat to Michigan State in the 2012 Outback Bowl, but a 10-4 record is easily enough to get Richt back into the good graces of Georgia fans.

    It also has the effect of silencing his foolish critics. He is 106-37 as head coach in Athens, after all. Do you really want to fire a guy who has a win percentage approaching .750?

Mississippi State

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    If there was a major disappointment this season in the SEC, it had to be Mississippi State.

    After beginning the season ranked in the AP Top 25, Mississippi State climbed as high as No. 16 before the losses began to pile up.

    By the time the season ended, the Bulldogs had gone from a potential conference contender to a team able to win just two conference games—against Kentucky and Ole Miss—and barely escaped the clutches of Louisiana Tech, winning 26-20 in overtime.

    Mississippi State finished 7-6 (2-6), avoiding a losing season with a Music City Bowl victory over Wake Forest on December 30.

Ron Zook

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    Things seemed to be going so well too.

    For the first time in history, an FBS team began the season 6-0 yet finished 6-6. After years of mediocre performance in the Big Ten, head coach Ron Zook was finally fired after seven up-and-down seasons.

    The season, however, ended on a positive note, as the Illini defeated UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, marking the first time in program history Illinois has won back-to-back bowl games.

    In hindsight, maybe the most surprising thing about Zook is that it took this long for him to be fired.

Navy

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    For the past decade, Navy has been the model of consistency.

    The Midshipmen never seem to have a truly great team; how could they with a roster full of athletes that must also comply with military fitness regulations? You'll never see a 300-pound offensive lineman for Navy, so the boys from Annapolis rely on precise execution of their option attack.

    For the most part, that strategy has served Navy well for the recent past, as the Midshipmen had earned their way into eight straight bowl games.

    But that impressive streak came to an end in 2011, as Navy couldn't find a way to beat even lowly San Jose State.

    Navy finished 5-7, although a 10th consecutive win over Army (and signs like this) makes the season seem just a little better, doesn't it?

Clemson

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    When the AP released its 2011 preseason college football poll, the word Clemson didn't appear anywhere on it—not even in the “others receiving votes” category.

    So it's probably safe to say that there weren't many people placing much stock in the 2011 Tigers team, even though it was the team that came closest to knocking off Auburn in 2010.

    Even after a pair of victories, Clemson wasn't popping up on too many radar screens across the nation. It wasn't until a September 17 win against then-No. 21 Auburn that Clemson finally received some national exposure, and the question was raised about just how good Clemson really was.

    As the wins continued to pile up, Clemson's ranking continued to soar, thanks in part to the wins and in part due to losses ahead of the Tigers in the rankings.

    By the October 29 showdown with Georgia Tech, the Tigers were 8-0 and had risen to No. 6 in the AP. There was even some rumbling about a possible BCS title run.

    While the Tigers didn't quite manage to skate though the entire season without a few slip-ups, it was far from Clemson teams of old, where hopes were raised only to be dashed by poor play late in the season. This year, Clemson captured that elusive ACC title and earned an automatic berth to the Orange Bowl.

    Even after a shockingly lopsided loss to West Virginia, it's clear that Clemson was one of the bigger surprises of 2011.

Brady Hoke

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    Even fans of Rich Rodriguez have to realize by now that he was the wrong coach for the wrong program at the wrong time.

    Brady Hoke, on the other hand, looks to be every bit the right man for the right job, and he appears to be hitting his early stride at just the right time.

    Michigan finally has a true “Michigan Man” back in charge of the program, and it didn't take long for the winning ways of old to return to the Maize and Blue in Ann Arbor.

    In fact, Michigan was so successful in Hoke's first season as head coach that the Wolverines received a coveted BCS bowl berth over in-state rival Michigan State (which actually won the division and defeated Michigan earlier in the season).

    In case anyone was wondering if Michigan truly belonged back in the BCS, Hoke found a way to sneak his team a victory against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, despite still refusing to wear a headset and being outplayed for most of the game.

    Beyond the obvious wins-and-losses effect Hoke has had on the program, he's also re-instilled some of the swagger we've been used to seeing from the Bo Schembechler-Lloyd Carr school of Michigan football. Not only did Hoke instantly reestablish some cherished Michigan traditions that had faded under Rodriguez, but Hoke also has refused to name Michigan's chief rival by name, instead only saying “that school from Ohio.”

    That's Michigan football.

USC

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    Was there really any doubt that USC would be back to being USC before long?

    While USC returning to form probably isn't a surprise, the timing of the return certainly is.

    USC was still serving out its second season of postseason ineligibility and scholarship reductions under NCAA sanctions, and another season without generating headlines was expected from the Trojans.

    But a 10-2 record was good enough not only to raise a few eyebrows, but also to announce to the country that the Trojans won't be taking any time off. USC finished the 2011 campaign ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll (the only poll in which the Trojans were eligible to be ranked), and will enter 2012 in most Top 10s and as a legitimate Pac-12 and BCS championship contender.

    Those of you who were hoping for a prolonged downturn in USC football fortunes will certainly be unpleasantly surprised.

Montee Ball

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    Montee Ball was supposed to be good this season.

    He wasn't supposed to be this good.

    In fact, Ball was expected to be just one part of the Wisconsin backfield tandem in 2011, but those plans quickly fall to the wayside when it became apparent that Ball was capable of handling the Badgers' backfield duties singlehandedly.

    When the season was finished, Ball had amassed 1,923 rushing yards and a staggering 33 touchdowns, along with 306 receiving yards and six more touchdowns. Ball even added a passing touchdown on the season for good measure.

    Being a solid performer carrying the football in the Big Ten is hard enough. Setting a new mark for rushing touchdowns in a conference known for its rough-and-tumble ground attack is not only surprising—it's downright impressive.

Michigan State

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    People who have lived in the state of Michigan for any length of time are likely familiar with the nautical acronym SOS.

    While November storms on the Great Lakes have claimed their share of ships and lives on turbulent seas over the years, the SOS we're referring to here means “Same Old Spartans.”

    In years past, MSU had the annoying habit of beginning a season with bluster and gusto only to slip quickly beneath the waves of a ravaging Big Ten gale.

    When Mark Dantonio took over in East Lansing, he began the long and arduous task of changing that perception.

    After 2010's Big Ten co-championship—the Spartans' first in 20 years—the Spartans faithful began to hope it was the sign of things to come. Still, MSU fans had been burned enough times over the years to know not to hold their collective breath.

    But 2011 may have proven the old SOS adage is ready to be retired, at least when it comes to things in East Lansing.

    Michigan State finished the season with another impressive 11-win campaign, topped off with a Big Ten Legends division championship and Outback Bowl victory over SEC East champion Georgia.

Robert Griffin III

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    At season's start, only the most astute college football fans or Big 12 watchers could pick Robert Griffin III out of a lineup.

    Today, everyone across the nation is familiar with this humble, well-spoken quarterback from Baylor with a cannon for an arm and laser-sharp accuracy.

    While Griffin's exploits this season may not come as a galloping shock to those who have been watching him mature at Baylor, people would have laughed had you suggested in August that a quarterback from Baylor would win the 2011 Heisman Trophy.

    As so often happens with pre-anointed Heisman winners, Andrew Luck's solid performance this season was completely overshadowed by a lesser-known phenom, giving Griffin just the edge needed to take home the coveted posed likeness of Ed Smith.

Kansas State

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    From start to finish, there is likely no team that has been a bigger surprise in 2011 than the Kansas State Wildcats.

    No one, and we mean absolutely no one, was picking the Wildcats as a Top 10 team way back in August. Not even the most brainsick Wildcats fan could have imagined that legendary coach Bill Snyder and company could have engineered a 10-3 (7-2) season, which ended with a long-awaited trip back to the Cotton Bowl.

    And just in case anyone thought that Kansas State wasn't for real, the Wildcats were able to hang tough with a very good Arkansas team from the SEC in the Cotton Bowl Classic before losing, 29-16.

    It's not certain if Kansas State will have any staying power, but K-State fans are certainly basking in the glory of an unforgettable—and surprisingly successful—season.

Michigan's Defense

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    The University of Michigan is home to the college football program that can claim more wins than any other team in the nation.

    But that certainly wasn't the case over the past few years under head coach Rich Rodriguez.

    While Rodriguez brought his brand of spread offense to Michigan, he forgot about the other side of the ball. The Wolverines defense in 2010 was amongst the worst in the FBS, tied for 110th in total defense. That's right, folks. Only nine teams across the entire country were worse at defense than Michigan in 2010.

    With much the same player personnel returning for 2011, there wasn't much hope for anything more than a modest improvement in the defense in Ann Arbor for this season, and that's where we find one of the 2011 season's biggest surprises.

    Michigan, thanks in large part to a new coaching staff headed by Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, transformed the woeful defense ranked 110th into one of the nation's very best.

    In 2011, Michigan finished the season ranked seventh in the FBS headed into the 2012 Sugar Bowl. When there are only 120 teams, jumping more than 100 spots in any category is impressive enough. When it's a category as important as total defense, that's just amazing.

Oklahoma

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    When the preseason polls were released back in August, the Oklahoma Sooners were pretty much a consensus No. 1 team.

    In fact, there were so many people picking the Sooners to win it all in 2011 that it seemed as if they would soon be dubbed the team of destiny.

    The funny thing about destiny is that it rarely comes to fruition.

    After an early run of six straight wins, which included victories over then-No. 5 Florida State and then-No. 10 Texas, Oklahoma seemed to be right on track for another trip to the BCS National Championship Game.

    All of a sudden, it seemed as if events conspired to derail the Sooners' season. In a weather-delayed game against Texas Tech, Oklahoma had trouble locating its talent when the game resumed. The Red Raiders not only upset the Sooners, but did so in Norman—a locale where the Sooners are typically unbeatable.

    Oklahoma rebounded quickly, angrily dispatching then-No. 12 Kansas State, 58-17, before breezing past Texas A&M.

    Just as it looked as if Oklahoma could possibly work its way back into the Top Two in the rankings, Robert Griffin III and his friends from Baylor ended any hope Oklahoma had of winning a national title with a thrilling 45-38 final-minute victory over the Sooners.

    With Oklahoma State's loss to Iowa State, OU still found itself with an shot at a BCS berth. The only thing the Sooners had to do was beat their in-state rivals, long viewed as the younger cousin in terms of football.

    But the Sooners were completely overmatched, and Oklahoma State took out years of frustration on the hapless Sooners, putting up 44 points to the Sooners' 10.

    Rather than an undefeated dream season and a run at the national championship, Oklahoma had to settle for a three-loss season and a trip to the Insight Bowl.

The BCS

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    Just when you thought there was nothing more to hate about the BCS, we were handed this travesty.

    If you hate the SEC, you're likely going to hate the next eight months, as it will be all SEC all the time. That's what is bound to happen when the BCS magically selects two SEC teams to play in the BCS National Championship Game, regardless of how many other teams might have been deserving.

    On the other hand, if you're a big fan of SEC football, you're probably in heaven right now. What could be better? Two of the best teams from the best conference in the nation battling it out in a winner-takes-all national championship contest.

    The only problem is that this BCS National Championship Game might turn out to be anything but conclusive.

    First, this game looks pretty similar to the game we all saw on November 5. That “Game of the Century,” which turned out to me more like the “slap fight of the century,” ended up meaning nothing, if you're to believe the BCS.

    The BCS taught us that conference titles mean nothing these days, and the SEC's status as the best of the best has become a self-fulfilling delusion.

    Every season we start with preseason polls based on nothing more than conjecture. Because of the wonderful job done by sports information directors across Dixie, we've all been led to believe that no one can possibly challenge the SEC. It's no wonder the SEC finds itself with several teams in the preseason Top 25.

    As all of these SEC Top 25 teams begin to play one another, a few will have to rise to the top of the conference, and they have to beat a few ranked teams in order to do so. Clearly, if they beat other Top 25 teams, they must be great, right?

    What would happen if there was no preseason polling? What if we didn't rank teams until the first BCS rankings? Where would Alabama and Arkansas and South Carolina and Georgia have fallen then?

    It's certainly clear that LSU is the best team in the nation. But what happens if the Tigers lose to Alabama tonight? Who is the best team in the nation then?

    Alabama lost to LSU once already this season, and the Tide lost at home. If Alabama beats LSU, it will be on a neutral field.

    LSU won the SEC championship this season. Alabama didn't even win the SEC West.

    LSU played eight ranked opponents and was 8-0. Alabama played four and was 3-1.

    Again assuming Alabama defeats LSU, can you really argue that Alabama's résumé is better than LSU's this season?

    What if we're treated to another 9-6 sorority pillow fight of a football game?

    There are plenty of reasons to hate the BCS this season, but the fact that the system got it so wrong this year is pretty shocking.

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