College Football Party Crashers: Ten Teams Poised to Defy Expectations in 2011
Last season, 10 teams that started the season in the AP Top 25 didn't finish there.
In effect, 10 teams that didn't start on the list found their way there by the end of the season.
Stanford, Oklahoma State, Nevada, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Missouri, Central Florida, Texas A&M, NC State and Maryland ascended the rankings.
Texas, Florida, Iowa, Miami (FL), Penn State, Georgia Tech, Georgia, West Virginia, Arizona and BYU fell off.
Some of these reversals of fortune were fairly predictable—Penn State and Missouri, for example.
Others—Iowa and Central Florida—weren't.
Nevertheless, these things happen every year. The world of college football is, at least to some degree, not static.
Consequently, there are always a few teams that come out of nowhere in any given year.
This list will focus on 10 teams that are poised to defy expectations in 2011.
Of course, expectations are relative. If a team is expected to win eight games, and they win 11, that team has defied expectations.
This is no more or less the case with a team that is expected to go bowl-less, yet wins eight games.
Regardless, the following are all teams that are in a position to have a nice run next season.
Of course, balls may bounce any which way between now and December, but right now, keep an eye on the following programs.
Arizona State Sun Devils
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After his first season with ASU, Dennis Erickson's future in Tempe looked to be very bright. His Sun Devils went 10-3 and won a share of the Pac-10 championship.
However, that was 2007.
Since then, Arizona State has had a cumulative three-year record of 15-21. They haven't received a bowl bid during that entire stretch, though this season—with a 6-6 record—they were eligible.
Erickson is squarely on the hot seat as he heads into year five, but all the pieces are in place for a major turnaround.
First, last season, the Sun Devils had the third-highest scoring offense in the Pac-10. That is no small feat, when you consider that Nos. 1 and 2 were Oregon and Stanford.
Secondly, they had the fifth-best scoring defense.
With those numbers, one is left to wonder how they lost six games. The answer to that is turnover margin.
Overall, ASU was minus-.50 on the season. In their losses, they were a whopping minus-1.67.
As for those losses, four of them were by four points or less. Two of them were by one point. Three of their losses were to teams ranked in the top 10: Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford.
This season, all 11 offensive starters return. Furthermore, nine defensive starters return.
The out-of-conference schedule is competitive and features a road trip to Illinois and a home game against Missouri. In-conference, they don't play Stanford and Washington—two teams that project to be in the upper half of the conference at worst, and at the top of the conference at best.
Finally, their roadies are at Utah, Oregon, UCLA and Washington State.
If the Sun Devils can get past early games against Mizzou and Southern Cal—both home games—don't be surprised if they are 6-0 when they meet Oregon on October 15.
Virginia Tech Hokies
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Virginia Tech? Under the radar?
Virginia Tech hasn't been under the radar since before Michael Vick.
While that is true due to the graduation of three-year starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the Hokies are probably not very high on the list of potential national title contenders.
However, one look at their schedule might convince people to think otherwise.
Their out-of-conference consists of Appalachian State, at East Carolina, Arkansas State and at Marshall.
Their ACC road games will be at Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Wake Forest. Their ACC home slate will consist of Boston College, Clemson, Miami (FL) and North Carolina.
Right now, there is not one game in that bunch in which Tech wouldn't be favored; in most cases, they'd be heavily favored.
A talented and experienced group of receivers should help ease the new quarterback—probably sophomore Logan Thomas—into the job. Also, four of Tech's starting linemen will be returning.
On the other side of the ball, Frank Beamer's defense is always a safe bet. Six of the back seven will be returning, as will two linemen.
Do the Hokies project to be one of the five or so best teams in the country in 2011? Probably not. In fact, I don't even think they're one of the top two teams in next season's ACC.
But that doesn't mean they won't finish the season at 13-0.
Brigham Young Cougars
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In 2010, the Cougars went 7-6. It was the first time BYU didn't win at least 10 games since 2005, Bronco Mendenhall's first season as the head coach.
Four of the 2010 losses were to ranked teams.
Much of the reason for this was a very large graduating class in 2009. Last season, Brigham Young had six returning starters on offense, and only five on defense.
Among other things, the departing players included three-year starting quarterback Max Hall. Taking his place was true freshman Jake Heaps.
Not surprisingly, Heaps had the lowest quarterback efficiency rating—115.89—of any starting BYU quarterback Mendenhall has worked with.
The closest was John Beck in 2005, who had a rating of 137.6. Of course, he was a junior at the time.
On top of all that, the Cougars got absolutely clobbered by injuries, losing 15.5 percent of their starts.
Next season, BYU will be leaving the Mountain West and beginning life as an independent.
They will also return 10 starters on offense and six on defense. Furthermore, due to experience gained via last season's injuries, they will be extremely deep.
Their schedule is decidedly front-loaded with September matchups at Ole Miss, at Texas and home games against Utah and Central Florida.
If they get through the first month, their toughest remaining games will be at Oregon State in October, and at Hawai'i in December. Other than that, the rest of their schedule is loaded with teams they should easily beat.
In effect, 11 or more wins seems very realistic for the Cougars, with anything less than 10 wins being a disappointment.
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For the life of me, I can't understand why people have decided that last season's 5-7 record will be the new norm for Texas.
After all, look at Mack Brown's record in Austin.
In 13 seasons, he is 133-34. His only losing—and thus bowl-less—season was 2010.
He won at least 10 games every single year between 2001 and 2009. He has been to four BCS bowls and two national championship games.
With all of that in mind, has 2010 become what we can typically expect from the Longhorns?
This season, Texas returns seven on each side of the ball, as well as their kicker/punter.
Unfortunately, the Big 12 is as stacked as it's been for quite a while, with Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri all boasting potential top 10 teams. In effect, I don't see Texas climbing back to the top of the conference, or the top of the rankings.
However, it is probable that the Horns will rise back up from last year's humiliating season, at least enough to garner eight or nine wins and get ranked inside the top 25.
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In Dabo Swinney's second full season with Clemson, his Tigers took a decided step back.
After going 9-5 and winning the ACC Atlantic Division in 2009, Clemson went 6-7 in 2010.
Obviously, Swinney immediately felt the heat from this setback, as he has already fired his offensive coordinator and his running backs coach.
Regardless, next season is looking up for the Tigers. They return nine players on offense and seven on defense, plus both specialists.
They return their top nine pass catchers, their starting tailback, and four offensive linemen.
Also, five of their defensive front seven return. By the way, that defense was the top-ranked scoring defense in the ACC.
Certainly, losing Da'Quan Bowers is huge, but there is talent on this defense. Without Bowers, they will not be as good on D, but they will still be competitive.
All but two of their seven losses last year were by less than a touchdown. Four of the losses were to ranked teams.
If their offense can make some strides with a new and arguably more talented quarterback in Tajh Boyd, more wins are highly likely.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
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Tom O'Brien came to NC State with all the hype in the world. In his first three seasons, he failed somewhat miserably.
However, last year was his big turnaround season.
His Wolfpack went 9-4, including an extremely impressive 23-7 bowl win over always-dangerous West Virginia.
Heading into this season, the Pack will be expected to challenge for the ACC crown, and they look poised to do so.
They return eight on both sides of the ball, including their quarterback and four members of their offensive line.
It is true that that O-line let up the most sacks in the ACC in 2010. However, there is no antidote for sub-par play like experience. This is especially true on the offensive line.
On top of that, the out-of-conference should be very winnable, and their only tough road games are at Florida State and at Boston College.
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2010 ended unfortunately for the Wildcats. After their quarterback, Dan Persa, went down with a torn Achilles tendon, NU just couldn't perform on offense.
Consequently, they lost their final three games, including a valiant loss to Texas Tech in the Ticketcity Bowl.
Next season, Persa should be back.
It remains to be seen if he will recover fully, as those sorts of injuries are tricky. However, Persa's greatest asset really isn't his speed, though he did rush for 519 yards last season.
His greatest asset is his passing accuracy and touch as well as his escapability. Like former Big Ten quarterbacks Drew Brees and Drew Tate, Persa has a preternatural ability to get out of sticky situations, all the while keeping his eyes downfield.
These talents will not be affected by a tricky tendon.
On top of that, Northwestern returns nine on offense, including arguably one of the three best returning receivers in the conference in Jeremy Ebert.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten's eighth-ranked scoring defense returns seven. Needless to say, that is an area where head coach Pat Fitzgerald will need to improve.
Finally, there is the Big Ten, which projects to be down significantly in its first year of division play.
Northwestern finds itself in the Western Division, in which there really isn't one team that looks to be heads-and-tails above the others.
Iowa, Michigan State, and Nebraska all have to replace key players from their 2010 squads, while it remains to be seen how Michigan will respond to new coach, Brady Hoke.
And Minnesota should be better than last season, but still shouldn't be in any serious contention for the division championship.
Moreover, NU misses Ohio State and Wisconsin on their 2011 schedule.
All of this leaves Northwestern with a good chance to slip through the cracks into the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
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The Golden Hurricane will be bringing back 10 starters from the eighth-best scoring offense in the country.
That includes their quarterback, their entire offensive line, and their top three rushers.
Their defense was not quite so good—ranking 85th nationally—and dead last in passing defense.
However, in 2009, they only had five players returning. This season, there will be nine. That should help things out a bit.
Regardless, in 2009, their offense was able to carry them to 10 wins, including a bowl win over Hawai'i.
They also had three losses, two of which were by three points or less. The third one was to Oklahoma State, against whom they got blown out 28-65.
Next season, there are only two problems. The first is the coaching situation.
The man who led the Hurricane last season—Todd Graham—has left Tulsa for the head coaching job at Pitt. However, the coaching change has been a smooth one, with position coach and Tulsa alum Bill Blankenship taking over.
While Blankenship is popular, he has never even been a coordinator, let alone a head man, at the college football level.
The second problem is the Hurricane's out-of-conference schedule. They will be playing Oklahoma State at home, and Oklahoma and Boise State on the road.
In order to be taken seriously as a top 25 team, they will have to beat at least one of those opponents, as well as sweep their in-conference games.
The question is, what if they beat all of them?
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SMU used to be an extremely successful team.
Between 1981-1984 they went 41-5-1. Then they got slammed with the NCAA "death penalty," and they haven't been the same since.
June Jones took over the program in 2008, after nine very successful seasons as the head coach of Hawai'i.
Under Jones, the Mustangs have gone 16-23, though 11 of those losses came in Jones' first year. He has gotten Southern Methodist bowl-eligible for the last two seasons.
Last season, SMU went 7-7 with a decidedly unimpressive 14-16 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.
This season, they will be returning 10 from the ninth-ranked scoring offense in Conference USA. Also, they will bring back eight from the second-ranked scoring defense.
By now, Jones has firmly installed his rather quirky, pass-happy offense, so the numbers there should improve.
On top of that, I am admittedly a proponent of two of Phil Steele's theories: Turnovers equals turnaround and the idea that starts lost to injury equals depth which equals improvement the next season.
In both of these cases, SMU looks to be set up very well. In 2010, they ranked 112th in the country in turnover margin with minus-.86.
Moreover, they got clobbered on the injury front—particularly on offense—losing 12.9 percent of their overall starts.
If SMU can reverse the turnover trend, it is likely that they will generate at least two more wins right there.
Ultimately, the big problem is the schedule. With out-of-conference dates against Texas A&M and TCU, as well as a very strong Conference USA in 2010, it will be a decidedly uphill battle.
In Tim Beckman's second year with the Toledo Rockets, he brought them back to a bowl game for the first time since 2005. Unfortunately, they lost that bowl, but they still finished with an 8-5 record.
Heading into 2011, the Rockets look poised to do more, including winning the MAC and reaching the top 25 polls for the first time since 2001.
To begin with, Toledo brings back their top five rushers, and every single pass catcher from 2010. They also bring back both of their quarterbacks, and three offensive linemen.
While quarterback juggling is always a bad idea in my opinion, Owens did seem to lock the job down for the final four games of the year, including the bowl.
On defense, they return eight from their somewhat controversial—for a Midwestern team—3-3-5 alignment.
On top of that, the MAC will be in something of a state of flux next season, as there will be so many new coaches replacing very successful outgoing coaches. It remains to be seen how that will affect various teams' performances.
Finally, Toledo has an extremely tough out-of-conference schedule that includes a home game at Boise State and road games at Syracuse and Ohio State.
Incidentally, Toledo will be one of the beneficiaries of a decidedly short-handed OSU, who may or may not be looking ahead to their game the following week against Miami (FL).