Every year in college football, we see teams climb up the polls from seemingly out of nowhere. Everyone tries to figure out who these guys are and why they weren't more talked about. I'm going to spare people the hassle of doing that this season and let you know about ten talented teams that aren't getting a lot of offseason publicity.
As always, let me know your thoughts and opinions about my selections.
Dan Mullen has done a remarkable job at Mississippi State during his first two years on the job. Now, Mullen’s Bulldogs appear ready to take a big step forward in 2011. Mississippi State brings back seven starters on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball and will not be lacking SEC experience. Yes, Mullen did lose prized offensive tackle Derek Sherrod to the NFL Draft, but besides that, a lot of the main pieces remain from the team that blasted Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl. Fans in Starkville have been patiently waiting for their Bulldogs to turn the corner and it appears that in 2011, MSU may take their biggest step forward yet.
The Sun Devils only went 6-6 last season, but the potential is there for a breakout season this year under embattled head coach Dennis Erickson. Arizona State returns 19 starters from a team that only lost by one point to Wisconsin and four points to the eventual PAC-10 champ, Stanford. Brock Osweiler played in place of Steven Threet in the Sun Devils final two games of 2010 and threw five touchdowns and no interceptions, which helped result in two Arizona State victories to end the season. Osweiler projects to be the full-time starter in 2011, as he leads an Arizona State team that hopes to turn heads next year.
I know that it’s ridiculous to suggest that the Longhorns could ever fly under the radar, but after a horrid 5-7 record in 2010, many people have forgotten about Texas. It’s important to understand just how much talent Mack Brown and company have stockpiled in Austin, though. Former 5-star recruit Garret Gilbert is back for his second year under center and figures to be much improved in 2011 compared to a 2010 campaign where he only threw 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. In addition, Texas is bringing in yet another top five recruiting class, headlined by running back Malcolm Brown, to provide immediate help. No, Texas doesn’t figure to contend for a national title. With that being said, the Longhorns should never be flying as low as they are now and it’s a mistake not to have the powerhouse program on your radar.
The Spartans ended last season on a sour note, by getting pummeled by Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl. Despite that sour ending, there still should be plenty of optimism in East Lansing. Head Coach Mark Dantonio returns quarterback Kirk Cousins and running backs Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker to help keep a Spartan offense that scored over 30 points nine times last season running strong. On defense, the loss of tackling machine Greg Jones will hurt, but Dantonio has always specialized in defense and should have some good talent waiting in the wings.
The Mountaineers lose do-it-all running back Noel Devine, but there is still plenty of talent to go around in Morgantown. Geno Smith returns at quarterback after throwing 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2010. He will look early and often to wide receiver Tavon Austin, who averaged 13.6 yards per catch last season. Defensive end Julian Miller and cornerback Keith Tandy lead the way for a defense that will have to replace an ample amount of production. The key for the Mountaineers will be to find a running back who can fill some of the gaping hole left behind by the departure of Noel Devine.
I realize that star quarterback Blaine Gabbert has moved on to the NFL, but his departure is one of the few losses for a Missouri team that won 10 games last season. Gary Pinkel’s Tigers return 17 starters, including an astounding 10 starters on offense. Four seniors return on the offensive line, but the one big question mark will be the quarterback position. At least five players could potentially start under center next season for Mizzou, including Tyler Gabbert, the younger brother of the aforementioned Blaine Gabbert. There is reason to be optimistic in Columbia, despite lingering fears of life after Blaine G.
Georgia only went 6-7 last season and loses star wide receiver A.J. Green. This may cause many fans to be nervous about the future in Athens, but surprisingly, the future isn’t as bleak as some might think. Quarterback Aaron Murray ranked 14th nationally in pass efficiency and should improve in his second season starting at quarterback. In addition, Mark Richt got a big lift when highly touted running back Isaiah Cromwell pledged to the Bulldogs. Cromwell is a special talent and figures to play immediately for Georgia. The schedule sets up nicely for Georgia as well, as the Bulldogs only play four true road games and spend the majority of their time inside Sanford Stadium. Linebacker Justin Houston needs to be replaced and a new No. 1 receiver must emerge for Murray, but those are the only two major issues that Georgia must address.
Bo Pelini and Nebraska’s longtime Big 12 stay didn’t end as they hoped it would and their promising season somewhat came apart at the end. Nebraska lost three of its final four games, including a 19-7 loss to Washington in the Holiday Bowl (Nebraska drilled Washington, 56-21, in Seattle in Week 3). Quarterback Taylor Martinez returns after an electrifying first season under center. Brandon Kinnie will fill the void left by departed wide receiver Niles Paul, as Nebraska moves to the Big 10. Rex Burkhead will take over the majority of the rushing duties after showing promise as a sophomore. On defense, Prince Amukamara will have to be replaced, but the Cornhuskers do get to play Big 10 heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State in Lincoln.
Explosive tailback Kendall Hunter is gone, but Mike Gundy’s team still has the pieces in place to be a contender in 2011. On offense, it all begins and ends with wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who returns after amassing 1,782 receiving yards last season. Brandon Weeden returns at quarterback to throw the ball to Blackmon, Weeden threw 34 touchdown passes last season and is expected to hit that mark again this season. Six starters are back for an Oklahoma State defense that will most likely be given some room for error from their high powered offense. With 16 starters returning from an 11 win team last season, it’s amazing to think that the Cowboys can be flying so far under the radar.
Mike Haywood is out as Head Coach and former Michigan State defensive coordinator Don Treadwell is in for the Redhawks. Treadwell will have the pleasure of inheriting a Miami [OH] team that is more than ready to compete at a high level. The Redhawks return 17 starters from team that won 10 games in 2011. Leading the charge is All-MAC quarterback Zac Dysert, who has already thrown for over 5,000 yards in his two seasons under center with Miami [OH]. Running back Tracy Woods returns, along with wide receiver Nick Harwell to accompany Dysert. On defense, the Redhawks return nine starters from a defense that ranked in the top 50 nationally in points against last season. Unlike previous teams such as Texas and Oklahoma State, it’s understandable that the Redhawks are flying under the radar. However, don’t sleep on these birds.