College Football Preseason Predictions: 10 Most Improved Teams in 2010
College football is split into two divisions over the summer: teams that went bowling and teams that didn't.
Both of these divisions are looking to improve on their performances from the year before, but there is significantly more pressure on the teams that missed bowl games to move in a positive direction.
The jerseys have been unpacked, the helmets have been buffed, and the locker room smells like fresh paint and polished wood. College football season is here, and here is a list of 10 teams that are the most improved in 2010.
After posting a dismal 3-9 record in 2009, the pressure is on for Coach Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini.
Illinois returns 12 starters in 2010 and only loses 16 lettermen, which is the fewest in the Big 10.
The fact that Iowa and Wisconsin are both not on Illinois' schedule this fall also increases the chances that they will scrape out a winning record.
Illinois has its two top rushers back in Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford and returns five of their top eight receivers.
Additionally, Illinois returns seven starters on defense, with all six linebackers from last year's depth chart back.
Coach Art Briles has now posted back-to-back 4-8 seasons in his tenure at Baylor, but with 12 starters returning in 2010, expectations are a lot higher.
The Bears play a favorable schedule, with only five games on the road and only three of those road games against Big 12 opponents.
Kansas, Kansas State, and Colorado are the three Big 12 North opponents that the Bears will face this year, meaning they will avoid Nebraska and Missouri.
Robert Griffin is back after a promising start in 2009 was cut short by an ACL injury. When Griffin is healthy, he has the potential to be an All-Big 12 caliber quarterback.
The defense is the biggest question for the Bears in 2010, but they return three players who started seven or more games along the defensive line. Senior Antonio Johnson also returns to lead an inexperienced linebacker core.
The Colorado Buffaloes fell significantly short of Coach Dan Hawkins' motto of "10 wins, no excuses," as they posted a 3-9 record in 2009.
But Colorado administrators surprised a lot of experts when they decided not to fire Hawkins despite a 16-33 record since taking the job. He will get a chance to succeed in 2010, returning 17 starters from last year's team.
The offensive line will return intact, with nine players having starting experience and two redshirt freshmen adding more depth.
Junior running back Rodney Stewart also returns to run behind that experienced offensive line, and the Buffs should greatly improve on their 88 yards per game average from 2009.
The entire defensive line is back for the Buffaloes in 2010 and will be looking to improve on last year's 27 sacks. Sophomore defensive end Nick Kasa is now healthy and should help add to that sack total.
After several underachieving years, this will probably be Hawkins' last chance to improve and make a Bowl Game.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricanes barely missed Bowl eligibility in 2009, going 5-7. Two of those losses were extremely close setbacks to No. 13 Houston and vs. Memphis in overtime.
Tulsa returns 14 starters in 2010, as well as its top eight rushers and six of its top seven receivers.
The offensive line struggled last year after left tackle Tyler Holmes went down with an injury, but Holmes returns to lead a much improved and experienced unit.
Junior linebacker DeAundre Brown was the leading tackler in 2009, and he will lead a defense that allowed a shocking 27.3 points per game.
Brown has been shuffled around in the 3-4, and with a deeper defensive line, that point average should drop significantly.
Coach Steve Sarkisian proved that he could do a lot more than recruit when he led the Huskies to a 5-7 record in 2009 in his first year as head coach.
Normally this wouldn't be a tremendous feat, but considering the Huskies went 0-12 in 2008, the stat is somewhat bolstered.
Washington returns 18 starters to last year's barely ineligible team, with key players returning at almost all major positions.
Senior quarterback Jake Locker chose to return to college and is considered a preseason Heisman Trophy front runner. Sophomore running back Chris Polk will join him in the backfield and look to improve on a 1,100 yard season in 2009.
With eight offensive lineman with starting experience returning, the rushing offense should be a great weapon in 2010.
Washington's biggest losses came on the defensive side of the ball, as career sack leader Te'o Nesheim will no longer be causing chaos in Pac-10 backfields and leading tackler Donald Butler has exhausted his eligibility.
The secondary will be the best unit for the Huskies in 2010, as they return eight of their top nine from last year and add highly touted freshman Sean Parker.
The Texas A&M Aggies made a Bowl Game in 2009 after barely gaining bowl eligibility with a 6-6 regular season record.
The Aggies were demolished in the Independence Bowl, however, dropping the game to Georgia 44-20.
Texas A&M has 16 starters returning from its 2009 squad, and senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson should be one of the better slingers in the Big 12.
Including Johnson, the Aggies return their top three rushers and three top receivers in 2010.
On defense, the Aggies return eight of their top nine tacklers, including junior safety Trent Hunter, who had 95 tackles in 2009.
Texas A&M gets to play Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas Tech at home this year and play only four games on the road, with a "neutral site" game in Arlington against Arkansas.
4. Michigan State
Michigan State is the other team that actually made a Bowl Game in 2009; they also posted a 6-6 regular season record and suffered a 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.
The Spartans have 13 starters returning in 2010, including junior quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Cousins has six of his favorite seven favorite targets back from 2009, and with a home-favored schedule to start the 2010 season, the Spartans should easily match last year's six wins.
Senior linebacker Greg Jones turned down a chance at the NFL and returns to lead a defense that would have sorely missed his 154 tackles from 2009.
Michigan State avoids playing Ohio State this year, but plays Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State on the road. Still, those should be the three toughest games of the season for the Spartans, so outside of that, they can do damage.
Rich Rodriguez coached the last two seasons with players that weren't recruited for his schemes.
With 15 returning starters and a crop of Rich Rod recruited players, he is out of excuses if he doesn't improve on 2009's 5-7 record.
With a true quarterback battle still being played out in Ann Arbor, the Wolverine faithful have a lot to look forward to for fall camp.
Sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will continue to compete into the season, with highly-touted freshman Devin Gardner possibly throwing his name into the competition.
Five of the top six receivers should benefit from whomever manages to pull ahead in the quarterback race.
Junior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen had five sacks last year and will be a major factor in the run stopping defense if they intend to improve on last year's 172 yards per game.
The secondary loses cornerback Donovan Warren, but returns everyone else. If the secondary helps to improve on last year's minus-12 turnovers, Michigan could be a dangerous team in 2010.
The Wolverines play a tougher schedule this year, but with a more experienced team and several key home games, there should be no reason why they won't be Bowl eligible.
2. Notre Dame
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were Bowl eligible in 2009 after going 6-6.
Notre Dame voted to turn down any bowl offers, and football's most historic team missed a Bowl game for the second time in Coach Charlie Weis' tenure.
Weis was ousted, and Coach Brian Kelly took over a group of talented, highly-touted athletes who underachieved in 2009.
Notre Dame lost two big players in quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate, but return leading rusher Armando Allen and two of its top three receivers, including junior tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Notre Dame has nine starters returning on defense, including three of their top five tacklers and highly-touted linebacker Manti Te'o.
Coach Kelly has posted three straight 10-plus win seasons, and the Irish play only three true away games this year.
The combination of a home heavy schedule and a freshly energized team and fanbase will have the Irish Bowling in 2010.
1. Ball State
Ball State shocked the college football world in 2008 by jumping out to an undefeated 12-0 record before falling to Buffalo 42-24.
In 2009, Ball State felt the weight of player and coaching changes, dropping to a 2-10 record.
The Cardinals return 19 starters in 2010, however, and play the two best MAC west teams at home.
With four of its top rushers and eight of its top receivers back, Ball State has the experience on offense to compete with the MAC.
The offensive line has 92 career starts and return all of their starters from last year, making them one of the best offensive lines in the MAC.
Senior linebacker Davyd Jones and sophomore linebacker Travis Freeman combined for 193 tackles and nine sacks last year and return to lead a defense that has eight starters back.
The Cardinals had four losses by fewer than five points last year and four more by seven points or fewer.
Going from a 2-10 team to a possible MAC championship is enough to warrant Ball State as being the most improved team from 2009.