College Football: The Top 10 BCS Cinderellas for 2010
Parity in college football is supposedly at an all-time high. If, indeed, a level playing field has been laid, please, someone push me in the right direction.
I don't see any parity. Instead, what I see is perennial dominance by a gang of usual suspects.
Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, LSU, Alabama, Florida, USC, and Boise State. Since the BCS established a separate bowl for the national championship game prior to the 2006 season, these eight teams have accounted for exactly half of the 40 slots allotted for BCS bowl games.
That's not parity. Oh sure, a wandering drifter like a Wake Forest or Hawaii may come along once in a blue moon, but the surprises end there.
So, what will 2010 hold? Will it be known as yet another season when national powers again flexed some serious muscle?
Or will a handful of presumed flashes in the pan catch fire and rudely crash the party?
Forget the big boys. Here are 10 teams who could surprise and catch the BCS off-guard.
(All images provided by Getty Images)
10. Louisville Cardinals (Best-case scenario for 2010: 9-3)
Coming off a 4-8 season, the Louisville Cardinals really have no business being involved in the BCS discussion for 2010. But it’s amazing what a new head coaching hire can do for a floundering program.
As the architect of the Florida Gators’ defense for eight seasons, new Louisville head coach Charlie Strong was one of the more respected assistants in the game, and his hiring in early December has unleashed a renewal of optimism throughout a program and fan base that has endured tough times since the Cardinals capped off a 12-1 2006 season with an Orange Bowl win.
Granted, Strong won’t possess the wealth of talent he had at Gainesville, but it was his ability to prevent those star-studded Gator defenses from splintering into a bunch of independent parts that was most impressive.
He’ll need to preach that same cohesiveness at Louisville, where the Cardinals are starved for elite talent, having been left off the 2009 All-Big East Team on both sides of the ball.
Don’t underestimate the spirit of competition that will highlight Louisville preseason practices. In an effort to see what he has, Strong could open any position to any player who is willing to put forth the effort, which in turn should elevate the play of every member of the roster.
Depending on how the other BCS conferences pan out, it’s possible the Big East could receive just one BCS bid, which would naturally go to the conference champ.
Could that be Louisville? Probably not. But it’s not a radical to think the Cardinals could sneak up on some people.
Pittsburgh, which will host Louisville this season, appears to be the clear-cut favorite, but the other conference powers, Cincinnati and West Virginia, don’t seem nearly as invincible as in the past, and both will travel to newly-expanded Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
9. Michigan Wolverines (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
Eventually, Michigan has to start looking like Michigan again, right? In the two years since Rich Rodriguez seized the reins of college football’s all-time winningest program, the Wolverines have resembled anything but the model of consistency to which most of us have become accustomed.
Michigan is 8-16 over the past two seasons, a mark that is highlighted by embarrassing home losses to Toledo and Utah, as well as continued futility against arch rival Ohio State.
And the strain of Rodriguez’s rocky tenure has been amplified by the NCAA’s current investigation into whether the head coach committed as many as five major rules violations.
Despite this, newly appointed athletic director Dave Brandon has given Rodriguez a vote of confidence, perhaps realizing that the Wolverines are closer to ascending back to prominence than most think.
Tate Forcier has the skills to pilot Rodriguez’s scheme, and the defense, after finishing eighth in the Big Ten last season, should be improved.
The schedule, with road games at Penn State, Ohio State, and Notre Dame, isn’t a walk in the park, but the BCS could take notice if the Wolverines are able to squeeze out a few unexpected wins.
Plus, there’s this: It wasn’t until his third season at West Virginia, prior to which the Mountaineers posted a 12-12 record, that Rodriguez made some headway, guiding WVU to its first conference title in 10 seasons.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks (Best-case scenario for 2010: 9-3)
If Rodriguez’s seat in Ann Arbor is toasty, then Steve Spurrier may as well be suspended above a boiling cauldron in Columbia.
It’s been five seasons since The Ol’ Ball Coach arrived at South Carolina, but the half-decade has been soaked in mediocrity, as the Gamecocks have won eight games or fewer every season since 2005.
The result? An impatient fan base that isn’t exactly willing to tolerate another sub-par finish in the SEC East.
If Spurrier is to prove he is capable of duplicating the type of success he enjoyed at Florida, this would certainly be the year.
Florida, while still loaded, is entering the post-Tebow era. Nobody really knows what to expect out of Georgia, which stumbled in 2009. And Tennessee is undergoing an identity overhaul under Derek Dooley.
All things considered, the Gamecocks are well-positioned to make a run at a conference title and a first-ever BCS appearance.
Stephen Garcia will man the offense, and the defense, even with the loss of Eric Norwood and Clifton Geathers, should be stout. Perhaps the one thing that could trip up South Carolina is the offensive line, which allowed an astounding 37 sacks a year ago.
If the front five becomes a serviceable and cohesive unit, sought-after running back recruit Marcus Lattimore could instantly provide the offense with the playmaker it desperately needs to keep opponents honest and take pressure off the Gamecock defense, which has been relied upon much too heavily in years past.
7. Air Force Falcons (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
Not that losing a bowl game is a death sentence for the season that follows, but ending things on a high note cannot be overstated.
The Falcons pounded Houston by 27 points in the Armed Forces Bowl, but the win did more than just restore some of the luster of a promising season that had been tarnished by three losses of seven points or fewer.
Air Force has won eight games or more in each of the last three seasons, and it’s about time to take that next step.
Given the competitive nature of the Mountain West, securing an at-large bid in the BCS is a daunting task, but the Falcons are by no means a long-shot to get it done.
The entire offensive backfield returns, including quarterback Tim Jefferson, who threw for only 848 yards but ran for 358 in the Falcons’ rush-oriented attack.
On defense, senior defensive back Anthony Wright (7 INTs in ’09) headlines a defense that returns five starters from a squad that ranked 10th nationally in scoring average (15.7) a season ago.
And then there’s the schedule. Chalk up a loss on the road at Oklahoma on Sept. 18. After that, however, things are set up for a run, as the Falcons play MWC powers Utah and BYU at home to offset having to play TCU on the road.
6. Arizona Wildcats (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
Arizona to a BCS bowl is a bold pick, indeed, but anything can happen in a conference that appears wide open this season.
The Wildcats will need some good fortune to effectively navigate both the nonconference and Pac-10 schedules. Iowa comes to Tucson as a top five team, and road games at UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon won’t make for a smooth journey.
But something has to give with this team. Mike Stoops and Arizona have been on the doorstep before, only they haven’t bothered to knock down the door.
The Wildcats have won 16 games over the past two seasons, and narrowly missed out on a share of the Pac-10 title in 2009, so now is the time to capitalize on some momentum.
Led by Nick Foles, a rising star at quarterback, 10 starters return on offense, and it appears the Wildcats are assembling the talent required to make Stoops’ multiple-spread offense go.
But the key to Arizona breaking through lies on defense, where a new trio of linebackers will be among six newcomers hoping to revitalize a unit that ranked No. 53 nationally in scoring defense in 2009.
Couple that with the in-house promotions that were given to replace departed coordinators Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech) and Mark Stoops (Florida State), and there’s a fair amount of unfamiliarity in the UA program.
Will that newness be detrimental to one of the better chances this team has had to win the Pac-10?
5. Texas A&M Aggies (Best-case scenario for 2010: 9-3)
Like most of the teams on this list, the Aggies aren’t necessarily expected to make an inspired run at a conference championship.
Texas and Oklahoma remain the teams to beat in the Big 12, but Mike Sherman is enabling A&M to close the gap in the South ever so slightly.
In a conference revered for its high-octane passing arsenals, the Aggies utilize Sherman’s NFL background to run more of a pro-style offense that is characterized by physical play on both lines.
Offensively, the Aggies have the ability to be as balanced as anybody in the Big 12. Quarterback Jerrod Johnson can may plays through the air and on the ground, and the rushing attack will be entrusted to the legs of Christine Michael, an up-and-coming star at tailback.
The offensive line will be young and may include several talented true freshmen, who were the jewels of the 2010 recruiting class.
Defensively, 2009 was a trainwreck for Texas A&M, as a unit that featured six freshmen and sophomores struggled for much of the season to finish as one of the worst in the Big 12.
Enter new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who hopes a switch to the 3-4 will coincide with the maturation process of those younger players.
The Aggies do have the pieces. In addition to Johnson and Michael, defensive end Von Miller is an immense talent who should be an All-American candidate, and Sherman has quietly ratcheted up the recruiting.
To forecast things, A&M is probably a year or two away from seriously challenging for a Big 12 title, but it is that potential that makes them such a sexy pick to cause some surprising disruption within the conference in 2010.
4. Florida State Seminoles (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
For years now we’ve been wondering what sort of shape the FSU program would take once Jimbo Fisher was handed the controls by the immortal Bobby Bowden.
And given the Seminoles’ robust nonconference schedule, the answer should arrive sooner than later. By the time Fisher has the first three games as head coach under his belt, Florida State will have traveled to Norman to face Oklahoma and welcomed BYU to Tallahassee.
But, since two weeks do not a season make, the ACC slate will be the more telling portion of the schedule.
The Seminoles play at Miami, but North Carolina and Clemson must come to Doak Campbell Stadium in consecutive weeks to provide FSU with a nice measuring stick before Florida comes into town for the season finale.
Personnel-wise, the Seminoles have arguably as much, if not more, pure athleticism and speed as any team in the ACC. These aren’t your Seminoles of the 90s, but the talent is apparent and, more importantly, experienced.
Quarterback Christian Ponder is more seasoned. All five members of the offensive line return a year wiser, as does leading rusher Jermaine Thomas.
The defense returns six starters, and the Seminoles are ushering in a recruiting class ranked in the top 10 nationally for the third consecutive season.
In a weak Atlantic Division, Florida State finished third a season ago, and should be considered a stride behind Clemson in 2010.
But, as they continue on their journey toward regaining national prominence, will the Seminoles find a shortcut to accelerate the progression?
And, if so, will that translate to an ACC title or enough to garner some BCS consideration?
3. Washington Huskies (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
Let’s just put it this way: If the Huskies do earn a BCS bid, they will have definitely earned it.
First, let’s evaluate Washington’s road opponents, who, with the exception of 1-11 Washington State, combined for a winning percentage of .610 in 2009.
And the opponents that will come to Husky Stadium weren’t too shabby either, though the percentage is less impressive at .532.
In what should be an entertaining game, the Huskies kick off 2010 at BYU. Then, in back-to-back games, they’ll host Nebraska and go to USC, which is the first of four Pac-10 road games against teams that won eight or more games last season (California, Oregon, and Arizona).
And the back end of the slate doesn’t provide much relief, highlighted by home contests against upstarts Stanford and UCLA.
The road to the Promised Land is littered with danger, but you have to believe Steve Sarkisian has his team well-positioned to improve upon its five wins from a season ago.
Jack Locker forgoing the NFL was big, but he will be just one of 18 starters that will return for 2010, including leading rusher Chris Polk and the two top receivers, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt will have some work to do, but the high turnover — five starters have departed — will allow the staff to assess what resides at different points in the depth chart.
For the first time in a long time, there is no clear-cut favorite in the Pac-10, and Washington showed last season it is capable of hanging with the conference heavyweights.
But in order for Sarkisian and the Huskies to take advantage of the parity in 2010, they’ll have to prove that they’re way ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process.
2. Nevada Wolf Pack (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
From Oct. 3 to Nov. 21 of last season, Nevada won eight consecutive games. During that stretch, the Wolf Pack scored 413 points, while allowing only 181, outscored opponents by an average of 29, and became the first team in NCAA history to feature three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
And to think all of this succeeded a woeful 0-3 start during which many fans were calling for head coach Chris Ault’s head.
Now, turn the page to 2010, and the immediate future could be bright in Reno, where hopes are that Nevada will be able to supplant power Boise State and unseat the Broncos as the WAC’s perennial BCS party-crasher.
The Pack should be a handful on offense. Two-thirds of the historic rushing trio returns as quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Vai Taua will once again anchor an attack that averaged an FBS-high 344 yards on the ground last season.
Kaepernick, a senior-to-be who would receive Heisman consideration if he played for a BCS program, is the definition of a two-way threat, and his skills are tailor-made for Ault’s unique Pistol offense.
Defensively, however, is where the Pack may come up short. Nevada ranked 86th in scoring defense in ’09, and as well as the Pack imposed its run-first philosophy, it struggled mightily in preventing opponents from doing the same, ranking an abysmal 119th in rush defense.
If Kaepernick can force defenses to respect his arm, the running game will flourish, and the schedule appears to include few teams who are equipped to handle Nevada’s clock-chewing offense.
Tests against BYU and California await the Pack in September, but if Nevada can escape the nonconference unscathed, a run of matchups against weak WAC opponents should provide some preparation time for a Nov. 27 standoff at home with Boise State, the very team responsible for derailing 2009’s midseason tear.
1. Arkansas Razorbacks (Best-case scenario for 2010: 10-2)
Nothing is ever easy in the SEC, particularly the West Division nowadays.
But what makes the SEC the best conference in America is its strength in the middle, where teams who are not considered to be BCS regulars rise up on occasion to challenge their more notable brethren.
Mississippi has played a semblance of that role each of the past few seasons, but it remains to be seen whether the Rebels will sustain that success or if 2010 will lay claim to a new surprise contender.
Could that team be the Razorbacks? The talent is certainly there, especially on an offense that led the SEC in scoring a year ago at 37.3 points per game.
Ryan Mallett is a beast under center, capable of scanning defenses with his 6’7” frame and then delivering the ball on time with the howitzer attached to his right shoulder.
Knile Davis and Ronnie Wingo are a pair of young running backs who should get ample opportunity to showcase their talent and may even supplant upperclassmen Broderick Green and Dennis Johnson as the top two ball-carriers.
Arkansas also welcomes back four-fifths of its offensive line, and receivers Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, who combined for 89 catches in ’09, will require attention on the outside.
The Razorbacks lose a member at each level of the defense, but some new bodies wouldn’t hurt, after Arkansas finished last season ranked dead-last in the SEC in total defense.
So, what about the schedule? Well, it’s hard. After scrimmages against Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe, the ‘Backs play a stretch of games few teams can match.
First, it’s a road date in Athens to face Georgia, followed by a stern test from defending national champion Alabama in Fayetteville, a neutral site game against Texas A&M, and a trip to Jordan Hare to take on a scary Auburn team.
Arkansas rounds out October against Ole Miss at home, and November features away contests at South Carolina and Mississippi State. Finally, the schedule concludes on Nov. 27 with the annual rivalry game with LSU in Little Rock.