College Football’s Most Improved: Five Teams Making The Most Headway in 2010

Colin LobdellContributor INovember 14, 2010

College Football’s Most Improved: Five Teams Making The Most Headway in 2010

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    It's time to acknowledge the programs, coaches and players that have risen to the challenges in 2010.

    After spending the entire offseason thinking about what went wrong in 2009, these teams have circled the wagons to get their feet back up underneath them.  In some cases, having breakthrough seasons indicating being future contenders in their respected conferences. 

    While I have noticed the winning programs such as Stanford, Auburn, Wisconsin, Florida State and even Oklahoma State that have taken the next step from winners to BCS Bowl contenders, the focus of this slideshow is on the losers from a year ago that took lumps, but have been resilient.

    For these programs that blood, sweat and tears of the offseason has been all that much more rewarding. 

5. Maryland (ACC)

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    2009: 2-10 (1-7)

    2010: 7-3 (4-2)

    No doubt a soft non-conference schedule and a down year for the ACC has contributed, as the Terrapins won't get a true test until they face Florida State next Saturday and they even get that game at home.

    Still, losers of seven straight to end the season and suffering the program's first-ever 10-loss season in 2009, it's hard not to notice the Terps rise.  They won just two games a year ago and one was against FCS James Madison.

    Last season, many were questioning the security of coach Ralph Friedgen's job.  Now he controls his own destiny in a BCS Conference.

    Inserted as a the full-time starter in the team's fourth game of the season, redshirt freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien has shown promise by being efficient and making some plays when asked to.

    But where they've most their biggest strides is on defense, where they're giving up a little over nine points less a game.

4. Baylor (Big 12)

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    2009: 4-8 (1-7)

    2010: 7-4 (4-3)

    Baylor probably deserves a higher rating than this, but they were a better team last year than their record indicated.  Once starting quarterback Robert Griffin went down with an injury, their season went into a tailspin.

    Still, the Bears have reached all kinds of milestones this season and are headed to their first bowl game since 1994.  As short as a season ago, many would have considered it unrealistic the Bears could ever be a factor in the Big 12 South in the near future, but they became one this year.

    Art Briles revitalized the University of Houston program by implementing a dynamic offensive attack and mining the state of Texas' talented prep landscape for overlooked but eager talent.  He may be on path to doing the same in Waco.

    While a blow to the Big 12, the one program that had to be rejoicing by the conference shuffle this past summer had to be Baylor, who is no longer stuck in the Big 12 South. 

3. San Diego State (MWC)

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    2009: 4-8 (2-6)

    2010: 7-3 (4-2)

    Perhaps the most underrated coaching job in the country is being done by Brady Hoke in San Diego.

    Hoke coached Ball State through a steady climb from 2003-08 that culminated in a conference championship game appearance in his final season. 

    The rebuilding process is going much more quickly at San Diego State, who closed out last season with four straight losses and gave up over 30 points a game for the year.

    Now in his second season, the Aztecs sit at third in the Mountain West with a game against second-place Utah upcoming. 

    While improvements in the defense are easy to notice, they have been aided, most notably, by a remarkably improved rushing offense. 

    Last season, the Aztecs averaged less than three yards a carry as a team and failed to rush for 1,000 yards total.  This year, freshman running back Ronnie Hillman has 1,000 yards alone and is averaging five and half yards a rush.

    The Aztecs' three losses have have been lost by a combined 11 points.

2. Michigan State (Big Ten)

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    2009: 6-7 (4-4)

    2010: 9-1 (5-1)

    The Spartans currently sit tied atop the Big Ten after a sixth-place tie in the conference a season ago.  A season that, despite squeaking into a bowl game, finished with a losing record including a tough loss to Central Michigan.

    A more balanced offense, as well an improved defense and a fake field goal in overtime against Notre Dame, has contributed to Michigan State's breakout season.    

    The goals of reaching the Rose Bowl and winning the Big Ten remain for the Spartans who haven't won a share of the conference title since 1990 and haven't played in the Rose Bowl since 1988.

    Recruits have taken notice of the Spartans' season so we'll see if this season is just a fluke or if the Spartans, under coach Mark Dantonio, have arrived.

1. Syracuse (Big East)

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    2009: 4-8 (1-6)

    2010: 7-3 (4-2)

    Only winning 30 games their past eight seasons and 10 in their last four coming into the year, the Orangemen have made the biggest leap this year, from last place in their conference to contending for their conference's automatic BCS bid (whether the Big East deserves it is another discussion).

    Coming back to his alma mater after serving as the offensive coordinator for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, coach Doug Marrone's biggest improvements have actually been on the defensive side of the ball where the Orange rank in the top ten in total defense, giving up less than 300 yards a game.

    They've also been tough on the road this year, winning key conference games at Cincinnati, South Florida, and West Virginia.

    Syracuse hadn't been to a bowl since 2004, and when they beat Rutgers last Saturday to become bowl-eligible, it moved some players to tears.  Strange to think that between 1987-2001, Syracuse had a 15-year stretch of winning seasons. 

Honorable Mention

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    Mississippi State

    It's still unclear whether this season will lead to the Bulldogs being a future contender in the very difficult SEC West, but Dan Mullen is laying the foundation.  Thanks to upgraded recruiting, the level of play has escalated in Starkville.

     

    NC State 

    Another team that no doubt benefited from a soft schedule.  They also may not be gaining much recognition had it not been for a miraculous win against Florida State, a game in which the Seminoles coughed up a big lead and fumbled late in the game close to the goal line. 

    That being said, the Wolfpack became bowl-eligible in November for the first time since 2003 and hadn't won more than six games in coach Tom O'Brien's four-year tenure prior to this year.

     

    Hawaii 

    With the Conference shuffle this past summer, there has to be some debate about which program will take control of the WAC.  Much of the preseason hype focused on Idaho after their breakthrough season last year, but lost in the mix was the consistency of the Warriors. 

    After winning three conference games last season, they've won five already this year and look like the best program remaining in the trimmed WAC...if they don't go independent.

     

    Tulsa

    The Golden Hurricane lost some close games last year, so their rise wasn't completely out of the blue.  But, then again, they opened this season by losing on a Hail Mary at East Carolina. 

    A win over Notre Dame may not mean what it used to, but it was still a notch on Tulsa's belt who still hope to play for the C-USA title.

     

    Michigan

    The Wolverines won just one conference game a year ago.  Rich Rod has his system and players in place now leading to much improvement, but with troubles and criticism surrounding him, it still may not be enough to save his job.