Tennessee and Nine Other Teams on the Road To Respect or Being a Total Train Wreck
As the start of the college football season approaches, let's take a look at ten programs that might be worth watching during the 2009 campaign. There are programs on the rise from obscurity, big name programs trying to get back to the top, and a couple of mid majors that could make some national noise as the season progresses.
Tennessee Volunteers (SEC)
Let's be honest here: You're waiting for a train wreck to come out of Knoxville this season.
Lane Kiffin has become an unofficial "Mouth of the South" since he was hired to take over for Phil Fulmer after the 2008 season.
The talent is there on defense, led by all-world safety Eric Berry and coordinated by NFL legend Monte Kiffin (Lane's father).
The question for Tennessee is can the offense come around and deliver enough points to win games? Tennessee could be bowl eligible...or they could go 3-9. Either way, it will be entertaining on Rocky Top.
Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
The only place for the Wolverines to go is up, right?
After last season's 3-9 offensive train wreck, expect to see a big leap from the maize and blue this season—not necessarily because the schedule gets easier, but because Rich Rodriguez's teams tend to evolve positively in the second season in his offense.
Talented true freshman Tate Forcier (an early enrollee) will be the difference maker.
Baylor Bears (Big 12)
Here's why you should watch Baylor this season:
He is one of the fastest men to ever play the quarterback position (advancing to the semi-finals in the Olympic trials in the 400 meter hurdles). He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 2,091 yards, 15 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Oh, and he rushed for 843 yards as well.
As a true freshman.
If Baylor is going to make a bowl game anytime soon, it will be thanks to Mr. Griffin.
Arizona Wildcats (Pac-10)
In a muddled Pac-10, most people can clearly identify the top four teams (USC, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State) and the bottom team (Washington State).
The other five teams are a crapshoot.
And while Washington has the new coach (Steve Sarkisian taking over for Ty Willingham), I think that the team worth looking at is actually Arizona.
The Wildcats have one of the best tight ends in the country in Rob Gronkowski and a rising star in coaching circles in Spike Dykes. Dykes will truly make his hay if he can groom a quarterback to replace four-year starter Willie Tuitama.
Arizona has to run a bit of a gauntlet at the end of the season, which is why they are worth watching; a return trip to a bowl will hinge on a closing stretch of at California, Oregon, at Arizona State, and at USC.
South Florida Bulls (Big East)
The Big East appears to be wide open again this season, so the team to watch in that conference is the team that was seen as a potential favorite in that conference the last two seasons.
The South Florida Bulls are still (from a history perspective) a young program.
Is this the year that the program gets over the hump and advances to its first BCS game?
With a four year starter at quarterback (Matt Grothe) and an outstanding pass-rushing defensive end in George Selvie, it's not like the Bulls lack name recognition.
But when push comes to shove, can this program seal the deal and not fade down the stretch like it did last season, losing four of its last five regular season games?
Boston College Eagles (ACC)
With the somewhat surreal and controversial departure of former head coach Jeff Jagodzinski (now offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), former BC defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani becomes the third head coach of the Eagles in the last four seasons.
In a balanced ACC, the Eagles are going to be hurting due to the transfer of Dominique Davis after he was suspended and the diagnosis of star linebacker Mark Herzlich with a form of cancer.
Don't count on BC making a trip to Tampa in December to defend its Atlantic Division title.
Notre Dame (Independent)
Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this is a make or break season for Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish.
Look, because of the vagaries of the BCS, I don't think Weis has to guarantee a BCS appearance. But the team has to go 9-3 or 10-2 this season. No excuses allowed at this point.
The program is fully in the hands of Weis and his coaching staff, and Jimmy Clausen will be in his third year as a starter.
The schedule is relatively soft on paper, although dangerous games against Nevada, at Pittsburgh, and (yes) at Stanford loom.
UNLV (Mountain West)
Q: When is a five win season a reason to celebrate?
A: It's a reason to celebrate if you've averaged two wins the previous three seasons.
UNLV head coach Mike Sanford was rewarded with a contract extension after guiding the Rebels to a 5-7 season in his fourth year at the helm. The Rebels were so close to being bowl eligible if not for a couple of very close losses last season.
While most of the attention in the Mountain West will be focused on the trio of TCU, BYU, and Utah, look for a more mature Rebels squad to be in the bowl hunt—although the schedule will be daunting.
Nevada Wolf Pack (WAC)
Look for the Nevada Wolf Pack to make some noise this fall.
Led by junior quarterback Colin Kapernick and running backs Luke Lippincott and Vai Taua, the Wolf Pack will take on two BCS opponents in Notre Dame and Missouri in early, non-conference matchups.
If the Wolf Pack can win both of those games, then it definitely will receive lots more national attention.
Of course, what matters most in the long run will be the end of the season tilt on the blue turf in Boise, Idaho.
Houston Cougars (Conference USA)
A 5,000 yard quarterback, a 1,000 yard rusher, and a 1,000 yard receiver all return to a southern school with a proud offensive tradition.
Meet Case Keenum, Bryce Beall, and Tyron Carrier of the University of Houston.
Kevin Sumlin has a lot of firepower returning on offense in his second year, and the Cougars could contend for the Conference USA title.
Of course, like many teams with high octane offenses, it seems that there are questions about the depth on defense.
It might be a good thing that the Cougars have a great offense, because they may need to score their way to the title game.