There are always teams that the coaches and media miss, teams that constantly hover under the radar until they arrive on the national scene with force. Here are five teams that could surprise in 2008.
The Hoosiers appeared in the postseason for the first time in 15 years last season. Expect another trip to a bowl game this season.
Quarterback Kellen Lewis, who is currently practicing with the second and third team offenses after missing spring practice due to academics, will win the starting quarterback job eventually and is a perfect fit for the no-huddle spread offense that Bill Lynch wants to implement this season. He will team with Marcus Thigpen to form a lethal combination in the backfield.
Wide receiver could be a trouble spot after the loss of James Hardy to the NFL—unless the unit, which is deeper than last year's, can find a way to make up Hardy's production.
Defensively, the Hoosiers are led by All-American candidates Greg Middleton and Geno Johnson. Middleton was among the nation's leaders in sacks a season ago, and his pass rush will be key as the secondary may be weak. Without Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule, this could easily be an eight-win team.
4. North Carolina
The Tar Heels are quickly building a contender in the ACC under Butch Davis. In a down year for the conference, don't be surprised if this team makes a run at the Coastal Division crown.
T.J. Yates has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including wideout Hakeem Nicks and former wideout Greg Little at tailback. This team should put up points on a weekly basis, but that will be predicated on Yates' development as a drop-back passer. The recent addition of highly touted receiver Dwight Jones only deepens the talent pool.
The entire secondary returns on defense, but that's about it. Still, there are plenty of solid athletes, including 2007 recruiting prize and future NFL player Marvin Austin at defensive tackle. The schedule is void of Clemson, Wake Forest, and Florida State, so a nine-win season could be in store.
Miami has two major problems: They need to find a quarterback, and all their talented players are freshmen or sophomores. That's okay, because once again, the very forgiving ACC will allow this team to develop.
Javarris James and Graig Cooper will lead the offense from the backfield until a quarterback emerges—if one ever emerges.
Defensively, the Hurricanes will be fast—super fast. The thing that impresses me about this unit is that they seem to have regained the Miami swagger of years gone by (not the logo-stomping arrogance of a couple of years ago, but the type of swagger that has been missing since the BCS title game in 2003).
The schedule is pretty tough early on, with trips to Florida and Texas A&M on tap. After that, however, Miami should be able to grow and mature. I don't think this team will finish with another losing record, something that most seem to be predicting. In fact, this team is a major ACC sleeper, in my opinion.
2. Mississippi State
With all this talk about the greatness of the SEC and how flashy all the coaches are and how many national titles they have all won, Mississippi State and Sylvester Croom are probably feeling left out. That's not a good thing for the rest of the conference.
Wesley Carroll made great strides toward the end of last season and improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio tremendously. Anthony Dixon is a workhorse tailback coming off a 1,000-yard season and should be even better with a sound passing game to take some pressure off of him.
The Bulldog defense is nothing special, but they force turnovers. That alone makes them dangerous.
This team won seven games last year, and I don't have any idea how. They just continued to find a way to win. Now, with another year's experience, the Bulldogs could be a dark horse in the SEC. As well, they avoid Georgia and Florida, which is a huge plus.
1. East Carolina
Skip Holtz has done a remarkable job turning around this program in a short amount of time. This year, they could be poised for a couple of major upsets.
Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass complement each other well at quarterback: Pinkney is a solid athlete, while Kass is a drop-back passer. Both had high completion rates a season ago and should be improved. Chris Johnson left a big hole at tailback when he left, but Jonathan Williams and Dominique Lindsay have been the talk of spring practice.
The front seven on defense is really good and will be able to handle every team on the schedule. There is a big question mark in the secondary, however, as that unit was extraordinarily bad last year. If they can patch up the holes at DB, the Pirates can have a pretty nasty defense.
As far as the schedule goes, the opener with Virginia Tech is interesting. It was a really close game last year in Blacksburg, and with the Hokies searching for answers offensively, this could be a major Week One upset. I see this team pushing for nine or 10 wins and a Conference USA title.
As always, thanks so much for reading! Tomorrow I'll profile the five toughest out-of-conference schedules in the country.
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