College Football Predictions: Five Surprise Teams to Watch This Season
Every season in college football provides its share of surprise teams; teams that exceed expectations and pull off upsets on their way to a successful season.
Some teams pick up a few wins on the way to rebuilding for the future.
Other teams strive for a conference title.
A few programs have goals of attaining a national championship.
All teams strive to improve and to ultimately succeed, but only a select few break through and make an impact on an entire sport.
Here are five sleeper teams capable of winning key games this season and shaking up the landscape of college football.
Coming off a hard-fought game against rival Alabama and an overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, Auburn will attempt to carry their momentum over into this season and contend for an SEC championship.
The Tigers have seven starters on offense returning, including Darvin Adams, who set a school single-season record with 60 receptions last season.
He finished last year with 997 receiving yards. He scored 10 touchdowns and will help transfer quarterback Cameron Newton transition into the offense.
Four starters return on the offensive line should provide Newton and running back Mario Fannin plenty of opportunities to make big plays.
On the defensive side of the ball, seven more starters return, including all three linebackers that should be the anchors for this experienced unit.
Auburn has a favorable schedule in 2010 as they host SEC rivals, Arkansas, Georgia, and LSU. Their toughest test will be traveling to Tuscaloosa to face national champion Alabama in the Iron Bowl, a game that could also decide the SEC West.
The Tigers are an experienced team that has produced stellar recruiting classes. If quarterback play is not a major concern and defensive improvements are made, Auburn could easily make a run for an SEC title.
New head coach Brian Kelly takes over for Charlie Weis, and after a disappointing 6-6 campaign last season, Kelly will attempt to lead the Fighting Irish back to national prominence.
Notre Dame will have plenty of playmakers to help junior quarterback Dayne Crist ease his way into being a starter. None are bigger than junior wide receiver Michael Floyd.
The 6-3, 220-pound Floyd leads six offensive starters returning and finished last season with 795 yards and hauled in nine touchdowns, despite playing alongside Golden Tate, who has since departed to the NFL.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph should also see an increase in production due to Kelly's implementing tight ends into his electric spread-offense.
The defense returns 10 starters to a unit that finished 32nd in the nation in points allowed (30.1). Linebacker Manti Te'o had 63 tackles as a freshman last season and will help the Irish solidify itself on the defensive end.
Notre Dame's schedule includes an early road test at Michigan State. After that, they play back-to-back games at Boston College then home against PIttsburgh. They have a late game against a talented Utah squad and a trip to Los Angeles to face USC in their regular season finale.
If the Irish can win at least two of these games, Notre Dame may win at least eight games this season. They could potentially become the national power it has been striving to be soon after.
North Carolina, lead by the dominant play of its defense, hopes to improve on its eight-win season from last year and compete for its first ACC title since 1980.
The Tar Heels lost two straight games to close 2009, including a 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but will look to rely on the defense and an emergence of the offense for the opportunity to play in, potentially, a BCS bowl game.
North Carolina returns a whopping 21 starters, including nine on a defense in which the majority consist of NFL-caliber players.
Junior defensive end Robert Quinn leads an extremely talented defensive group. The 6-5, 270-pound Quinn amassed 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season, but with teams game planning for other key players he could have an even bigger season.
The offense needs improvement after finishing second to last in the ACC in total yards per game last season. But with 10 starters returning, including a potential quarterback batlle between fifth-year senior T.J Yates and talented redshirt freshman Bryn Renner, the Tar Heels' offense may improve quickly.
Two tough contests against LSU (in Atlanta) and Georgia Tech will be an early indicator as to whether North Carolina can be a contender in the ACC.
If the Tar Heels can get through an early set of games unscathed, this could set up a big battle between the UNC and Virginia Tech for the ACC crown and possibly consideration for one or both to play for a national championship.
Iowa looks to build on their successful season last year which included an 11-win season and an Orange Bowl victory over ACC Champion Georgia Tech.
Their only two losses of the season were with starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi watching on the sidelines. An ankle injury put the then-junior out of commission halfway into their eventual loss to Northwestern and forced him to miss the Big Ten clash against Ohio State.
With six starters returning on the offensive end, including a healthy Stanzi and receiving duo Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, the Hawkeyes should provide better balance between both sides of the ball.
The defense, however, will still be Iowa's primary strength.
Eight starters come back on the defensive side of the ball including Orange Bowl MVP and first team All-Big Ten defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who finished last season with 11.5 sacks.
The Hawkeyes have the luxury of facing their three biggest conference foes, Penn State, Wisconsin, and defending champion Ohio State, all at home. This puts pressure on the other schools to win on the road to lock up the Big Ten title.
Iowa has the playmakers, the defense, and leadership to make a serious run at not just the Big Ten title but for consideration to play for a national title.
Oklahoma overcame a season ravaged by injuries and still managed an 8-5 record and a victory over Stanford in the Sun Bowl, but expectations will once again be sky high for the Sooners.
The 2008 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford and athletic tight end Jermaine Gresham were lost due to season-ending injuries leaving gaping holes in the Sooners' offense.
Freshman quarterback Landry Jones stepped in and played well, throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Now a sophomore, Jones leads eight starters and will still have plenty of options on the offensive side of the ball.
Wide receiver Ryan Broyles and running back DeMarco Murray will be the primary weapons for Jones, as the Sooners' offense is capable of lighting up the scoreboard.
Defensively, six starters return, including Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, defensive end Jeremy Beal. The secondary is also talented and will provide the Oklahoma defense with experience and stability.
The only potential roadblocks for this athletic team is an early home meeting against Florida State, a road test against Cincinnati, and the annual Red River Rivalry game with Big 12 foe Texas.
If the offense puts points on the board and the defense continues to stifle opponents, Oklahoma may already be a frontrunner to play in Glendale, Ariz. for the BCS National Championship.