This article is in response in my own article, a list of the "Top Five Biggest Disappointments" in the 2008 college football season. If you haven't read it yet, check it out.
I have compiled the counterpart to that article. In this piece, I'll give you five teams that I think will fly under the radar and make a surprising impact on the nation this season, whether it's by making a bigger bowl than expected, or by making noise for a BCS bid.
Note: I'm ranking these teams by the amount of impact they'll make on the national scene, from smallest to largest at number one.
No. 5: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Although this team has really been in the dumps the past couple of years, they are also only a few seasons removed from being a very competitive team that had a reputation for producing skilled running backs.
The Gophers started the Tim Brewster era in grand fashion last season, going 1-11 and looking completely terrible. However, I believe things are looking up for the Gophers, and here's why.
First off, they recruited very well this offseason, landing the number 17 class in the country. WR Brandon Green and SS Keanon Cooper should all have impacts as true freshmen this fall, and offensive linemen Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders will shed their redshirts to join three returning starters on the offensive line.
I'm not even sure this team will be bowl eligible this season, but I expect significant improvement from a one-victory year. I'll project them at 6-6, and if they can steal a game, maybe they'll even sneak into a bowl at 7-5 in what is a down year in the Big Ten, surprising many people nationally and setting up a bright future in Minnesota.
No. 4: Ball State Cardinals
Now before you jump down my throat, people, hold your horses.
I don't exactly see the Cardinals making a run at the BCS here, but I think they have a chance to make a big splash outside the BCS conferences. I think they could be better than more familiar schools such as Hawaii, Central Michigan, Utah, and others.
If you missed the International Bowl versus Rutgers last year, I'll break it down for you in a nutshell. Quarterback Nate Davis (who is definitely the real deal) kept his team at a respectable margin by hooking up with WR Dante Love (who is also the real deal). On the other side of the ball, the defense got absolutely torched by Ray Rice—something that is quite understandable.
But back from a 7-6 team are 15 starters, including nine from a very good offense. The team has a favorable schedule, with their toughest game being probably at Central Michigan or at Indiana. These are totally attainable games for a team that is certainly on the rise.
I look for this team to make its name more known on the national stage and make a run at the MAC championship—and nobody will have seen it coming.
No. 3: Washington Huskies
Oh boy...this one's definitely going out on a limb. Tyrone, don't let me down.
Here's what I'm thinking.
First of all, Jake Locker is the West Coast Tim Tebow. Period. As a freshman he rushed for almost 1,000 yards and threw for over 2,000. He'll definitely be better this season.
Plus, although there are a lot of new faces on offense, I'm banking that they will be talented new faces. Willingham's latest class is loaded with help at the skill positions.
Tyrone Willingham's talent did surface at ND—it was just a couple years after he left. Now, in his four years on campus at Washington, I think he'll finally benefit from many successful recruiting classes. Combine those kids with some winnable games, and I think the Huskies will pull out some upsets in the Pac-10.
I know it sounds insane, but I really think these guys can pull out at least seven wins or so and turn some heads nationally, possibly landing in the Emerald Bowl or Independence Bowl. Coming off a four-win season, that's a long way. Behind Jake Locker, I think the Huskies take a major step this season.
This is my first team from a BCS conference on this list that I think will make a bowl, so if they seem high on a surprise list, they are. But hey! I'm going slowly. So bear with me.
No. 2: Texas Tech Red Raiders
Some pollsters have this squad in their top 10, and I can see why. If not for a hiccup against Colorado last year, they could have been playing for the Big 12 Championship.
The Raiders return 18 starters from last year—eighteen!—including Heisman trophy candidates Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree. The offense should be just as good as last season, if not better.
Meanwhile, the defense looked improved at times last season and will return all but three starters. Look for transfer McKinner Dixon to make big waves in Lubbock. He was a freshman All-American at Texas in 2005, and is finally eligible after juco and a transfer.
T-Tech definitely doesn't always get the respect they deserve, but their schedule is favorable this year to really do some damage nationally. Barring any surprises, the Red Raiders could be 7-0 going into their game in Lawrence, Kansas against the Jayhawks.
If we're being generous, I can see the Raiders winning 10 games this year, no sweat. Oklahoma hasn't given them trouble in the past, and they don't play down to the level of lower conference opponents (Baylor, Iowa State, etc.).
If anybody thinks this team can't threaten OU or the Big 12 South title, they have another thing coming.
No. 1: Auburn Tigers
First off, I'd love to hear about how Auburn fans, or football fans in general, feel or felt about Brandon Cox. I personally loved him as a person and admired the hell out of him. However, I felt like he was an extremely limited QB. Now that Kodi Burns has control of the offense, I feel like the ceiling is much higher.
With players like Burns and RB Brad Lester leading a new, spread offense-style attack, and stars like DLs Sen'Derrick Marks, Tray Blackman, and DB Jerraud Powers on defense, I think this team could be as good as any they've had in the last few years.
Auburn is always good (and underrated in my opinion), but I think that this is the year they take a step forward and make their name important once again nationally. They return 16 starters from a 9-4 team and have a schedule that is tough (as usual), but not impossible.
With games at home against LSU and Tennessee early on, I see them going 7-0 until their West Virginia game on October 23. Will a tough non-conference game reward them, or bite them in the ass? Only time will tell.
Going balls to the wall here, I predict Auburn will go 11-1, losing against Georgia in their second to last game, finishing in the top 10, and going to the Sugar Bowl. That's quite a surprise for a team that lost their starting QB, will start out around the 20th-best team in the nation, and is used to staying in the shadows of other SEC powerhouses.
***Bonus Homer Pick***: Missouri Tigers Edition
What kind of a community leader would I be without mentioning my school in this article. I'm going to keep it short and sweet, but I wanted to see what people think about my squad and get their name circulating a bit.
First off, the offense is stacked. We know this. Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman—all will probably be drafted next spring. On defense, more of the same—William Moore, Sean Weatherspoon, Stryker Sulak. Both units are stacked.
The question is, can the team continue the games they're supposed to win?
Against OU last year, I really think the Sooners were the better team. Period. But the Tigers took care of business against EVERY team they were better than (something not many other teams can say, especially last season).
If they can do that this year, this team will go 12-0 and play for the national championship. There isn't a team on their calendar this year that is higher ranked, more talented, or better equipped.
Watch out for the Tigers. They could surprise everybody and leave USC, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio State playing for second place.
Well, there you have it. These are teams that I think will be surprises this season. Not all of them will make a big splash nationally. I want NO posts saying, "Wtf? Ball State? They won't beat anybody in the SEC!"
I'm not saying these are my top five teams—they're just five teams I expect to do better then YOU thought they would.
As always, thoughts and comments are welcomed and enjoyed.
I'm Peter Fleischer. Thanks for reading.