Notre Dame, UConn, and Eight Other Teams That Could Surprise Us in 2010
Every season brings surprising play from teams that most people either ignore or leave out of their initial ballots.
All-stars emerge from last year's bench, freshmen make good on their recruiting rankings, and overachievers lift their teams from the middle of the pack.
I've picked out 10 teams I think could surprise us in 2010. Whether they return a lot of players, ended the year strong, or missed out on a few wins by the pitfalls of chance, these 10 teams could be the Cinderella stories of next year.
This was supposed to be the season in which Baylor surprised us.
QB Robert Griffin III was coming off of a stellar Big XII Freshman of the Year campaign during which he passed for 15 touchdowns and added 13 more on the ground.
But, an ACL tear suffered in a blowout at Northwestern State knocked him out of the rest of the season.
The Bears mustered just two more wins without him—against Kent State, and in a shootout over Missouri—but Griffin, was and remains, the player who can elevate Baylor's status from conference doormat to contender.
He'll be back next year in a far more hospitable Big XII South race—with Colt McCoy gone and Oklahoma rebuilding—this might be the year to stage a dark horse campaign for the ages.
That said, I'm sure Baylor fans will also be content to just make a bowl.
Boston College Eagles
Left for dead after both projected starters at quarterback left before the season began, Boston College still managed to scrape together eight wins and a narrow loss to Notre Dame that came down to a late interception.
The Eagles did it with defense, Frank Spaziani's specialty, and should expect the return of Luke Kuechly, the freshman middle linebacker who ended the season second in the nation in tackles.
QB Dave Shinskie was just a freshman, so some experience in a bowl and more offseason prep work will minimize the compunction for throwing multiple interceptions in a game.
He'll get more help from Montel Harris, the RB who ran for 100+ yards in BC's last four games, three of which were wins, and scored 13 touchdowns on the year.
The ACC is always wide open, and the Eagles have as good a shot as any, particularly in the Atlantic Division: Clemson might be missing CJ Spiller more than they realize, and Florida State will be down one legendary coach.
Je deteste Danny Hope.
I consider him short on class, for his habit of gesturing to the crowd and igniting misguided controversies. But man, this guy can coach.
The Boilermakers were slated to be Big Ten bottom-dwellers, and they did lose to Northern Illinois and miss a bowl.
But they also beat Ohio State and Michigan, took Notre Dame to the wire, produced a second-team All-Big Ten rusher (Ralph Bolden), 3,000-yard passer (Joey Elliott), and an 1100-yard receiver (Keith Smith), and brought home the Old Oaken Bucket from rival Indiana.
Plus, the Boilers' recruiting is at or above the level of the Tiller years.
Elliott is gone next year, but Smith and Bolden return. Hopefully, they can help redshirt sophomore Caleb TerBush bring Purdue back into the postseason and flirt with a Big Ten title.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Firing defensive coordinator Carl Torbush came as little surprise: despite the outstanding performance against the Florida Gators, the Bulldogs ranked second to last in total passing and scoring defense in the conference.
The Bulldogs will also lose Anthony Dixon, the senior at running back who produced a near 1400-yard season for former Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, in his first year in Starkville.
Backup QB Chris Relf, who came in for Tyson Lee in the Ole Miss game, showed Tebow-esque flashes at the end of the year, passing for two touchdowns and rumbling into the end zone on a keeper to seal the upset over the Rebels in the Egg Bowl.
Both quarterbacks struggled down field, but Relf's size will add that extra element on the ground next year.
In addition, Mullen has put together outstanding back-to-back recruiting classes in the talent-rich state.
There are officially no losers in the SEC West, but Mississippi State will still play underdog in conference action. Hopefully they can make a few more close games end their way.
The Huskies closed the season on a four-game tear, taking unbeaten Cincinnati to the brink, besting Notre Dame in overtime, running over Syracuse, and outlasting South Florida. The streak paid a fitting homage to cornerback Jasper Howard, who was murdered halfway through the season.
UConn loses the underrated Andre Dixon at running back, but returns Jordan Todman, who split carries with Dixon and took 14 in for scores.
The Huskies will have to choose between Zach Frazer and Cody Endres at QB before the season-opener at Michigan, but if they can pull off the "upset" in the Big House (against that secondary, there are no upsets), it could spur a championship run.
The Big East is wide-open: Brian Kelly has departed to Notre Dame, Pitt loses QB Bill Stull, and West Virginia will be starting over post-Jarrett Brown. This is another chance for Edsall to make a bid to be at one of the top jobs in the country.
Texas A&M Aggies
Ah, if only the Aggies played every team with as much enthusiasm as they played Texas this year, they wouldn't be staring at a 6-6 record.
I still think they have promise. Junior QB Jerrod Johnson, who was second-team All-Big XII (behind Colt McCoy), will return for his senior season, and so might DE/OLB Von Miller, who lacks a prototypical build at outside linebacker in a 3-4, but led the nation in sacks.
The Aggies were wildly inconsistent, but turn those narrow losses to Colorado and Oklahoma State into wins, and you've got yourself a contender.
The same rules apply to the Aggies as to Baylor: the Big XII South will be wide open next year, and I like to think there's a chance the Aggies play that way.
South Carolina Gamecocks
It's hardly a surprise with Spurrier as coach, but the Gamecocks have gotten the reputation as underachievers, perennial "shoulda but didn'ts" that started strong and faded down the stretch.
Still, I think next year really is the year. The South Carolina defense has become consistently fearsome, and Spurrier showed encouraging signs of offensive experimentation in the Gamecocks destruction of Clemson in the rivalry game, deploying ATH Stephon Gilmore as a passer/runner out of the Wildcat.
Strong rushing performances from Brian Maddox and Kenny Miles also helped seal the win.
All four of those players, as well as quarterback Stephen Garcia, WRs Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery, and another RB, Jarvis Giles, return. This could be Spurrier's most talented and seasoned offense at SC to date.
If the defense can continue holding up their end of the bargain, maybe Spurrier's got another run in him.
How does a team with the nation's fourth-overall rusher by yards win only four games?
Answer: when the average margin of victory in five of those losses is by less than a touchdown.
You may remember UTEP as the team that famously upset Houston in an October shootout, but the Miners also went 1/6 in away games and lost to UAB, Tulane, Southern Miss, and Rice in four consecutive weeks.
Donald Buckram, should he decide to return to UTEP, will be building off of a 1546-yard, 18 touchdown season that landed him in the top five in running backs on the year.
He could help UTEP become next year's Houston: the Miners travel to Arkansas and are in the process of scheduling the rest of their out of conference schedule.
Here's hoping they take a prominent opponent with a questionable run defense.
Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State's see-saw season began with a lopsided loss to Iowa and a heartbreaking loss to Kansas State, but rebounded after a win over Baylor and the gargantuan upset of Nebraska, during which the 'Clones forced eight turnovers without giving any up themselves.
They'll return Austen Arnaud and 1000-yard rusher Alex Anderson, but lose their top tackler, Jesse Smith, to graduation.
Coach Paul Rhoads, a former defensive coordinator at Auburn, has to show his defense can persevere, but the Clones showed true grit this year and have given themselves a base on which to build.
They can start surprising us by beating Iowa. Say what you will about Gene Chizik's brief tenure in Ames, he somehow upset the Hawks in 2007, and 2010 would be another for the record books.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Irish lose their quarterback, their top receiver, and part of their offensive line.
The perfect situation for Uncle Kelly to work his magic, then. The Irish have three away games and one at a "neutral" site, in Yankee Stadium, against Army.
Dayne Crist, Shaq Evans, Robert Hughes, Theo Riddick and the indomitable Michael Floyd provide plenty of firepower—indeed, an embarrassment of talent for Kelly, who has done much with much less.
Maybe USC game is slightly out of the question, but the other eleven games will be in play, and it wouldn't shock me if next year was the year the Irish crashed the BCS.