Teams That Could Surprise
By Pete Fiutak
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Teams That Will Disappoint
They're flying under the radar or they're not even on the map at all. These are the teams that probably aren't going to shock the world and win a conference title, but will be better than expected. Some have favorable schedules and some are simply going to turn out to be good. These teams are going to surprise.
If you liked what the nation’s leading running game was able to do last season, then you’ll love what’s about to come next. The defense is too small and will get beaten on, and the O line is way too light and won’t push anyone around, but it’s an experienced team with a nice backfield that should crank out more than the 346.5 rushing yards per game it averaged in 2011. After going 3-9, the pressure will be on to start converting a great ground game into wins, but with Stony Brook, Kent State, Eastern Michigan and Ball State on the slate, along with a slew of other teams that could get caught napping like Temple and Wake Forest, 6-6 and the Military Bowl are possible.
It won’t be back to the good old days of Dan LeFevour cranking out MAC titles on a regular basis, but there should finally be a nice turnaround in the Dan Enos era. All five starters are back on the O line and 12 of the top 13 targets are back for QB Ryan Radcliff to work with. The schedule also works out well with a nice midseason stretch of four straight home games and just two road trips after going to Toledo on October 6. Six wins is possible, but seven would be a huge bounce back.
The Huskies are basically Rutgers without all of the lofty expectations. Connecticut boasts a tremendous amount of talent, enough to silence just about every league opponent on the schedule. They should be able to run the ball behind RB Lyle McCombs, provided the line can gel in a big hurry. However, the situation at quarterback is as messy as a political election. Sound familiar, Scarlet Knights fans? The Huskies figure to have a little more administrative stability now that Paul Pasqualoni & Co. are back for a second year, all of which should add up to a return to the postseason.
After feeling his way through the roster, head coach Ruffin McNeill might finally be ready to turn his Pirates into a winning product on the field. His kids have fully digested the air raid offense and 3-4 D, and were playing their best football toward the end of the 2011 season. Both sides of the ball are flush with returning starters, particularly close to the line of scrimmage. Yeah, East Carolina needs to develop a successor for QB Dominique Davis, but wasn’t he the same guy who threw 35 interceptions over the last two seasons? If the offense needs to exercise a little more balance than usual, it’ll have access to a deep and talented backfield that includes up-and-coming Reggie Bullock, Torrance Hunt and speedy North Carolina transfer Hunter Furr.
Expect better from Maryland in year two under Randy Edsall.
No, a coaching change won’t mean a worst-to-first turnaround in any way, but the Owls should be stronger on both sides of the ball. No, it won’t hurt to have the new energy of Carl Pelini and the young coaches ready to pump up the energy a bit. The problem, as always with FAU, is the schedule with seven road games and just two dates before late October in their nice, shiny new building. The worst offense in college football can’t and won’t be worse, while Pelini will do big things with a good linebacking corps and a defense that should be among the best in the Sun Belt.
New head coach Tim DeRuyter could be just that good. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator might be coming off a rough season when his group never, ever seemed able to come up with a clutch stop, but it was an aggressive group that was always camped out in opposing backfields. Fresno State could use a little more nastiness and more big plays on defense, while the offense should be loaded with QB Derek Carr and RB Robbie Rouse, two legitimate pro prospects who’ll fit in nicely in the new league. It won’t take much tweaking to turn a 4-9 2011 into a 6-6 –- or better -- 2012.
And no, this is not one of those “the-only-way-is-up” sentiments. Yes, the Terps went to hell and back in last season’s 2-10 face plant. However, there’s a feeling around College Park that the worst may mercifully be behind the program. Head coach Randy Edsall had to flush the roster of malcontents in his first year, which was a painful process for everyone. What he has now is a better climate in the locker room, new energy on the staff with the additions of coordinators Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart and a very good recruiting class looking to contribute right away. The offense might struggle, but don’t sleep on the D. Now that LB Kenny Tate and S Matt Robinson are healthy enough to join DT Joe Vellano and LB Demetrius Hartsfield, Maryland is going to be feisty in 2012. Edsall is too good of a coach to allow a repeat of last year with bowl eligibility not out of the question.
Put this in the It's All Relative category. Those thinking the Nittany Lions are going to fall off a cliff right away this year might be shocked, but it's certainly not going to be an easy campaign. The passing game will be a disaster again and scoring points will be like pulling teeth, especially with RB Silas Redd off to USC, but the defensive front seven will be fantastic, led by a linebacking corps that should be among the best in college football. The key will be a schedule with four of the first six games at home and with the biggest Leaders games –- Ohio State and Wisconsin –- also in Happy Valley. Forget about finishing on top of the division, but considering all the problems, issues and changes, 7-5 wouldn’t be bad.
No, the Aggies aren’t going to win the SEC West, and they’re probably not going to mount much of a challenge, but no one is going to be expecting much after a coaching change and with so much turnover on offense. However, A&M has one thing that most of the SEC is sorely lacking –- an offense. With an aggressive D and a Houston-like passing attack, the Aggies will make things interesting for the superpowers in the West. Getting Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Missouri at home should help the cause.
Texas State & UTSA
New coach Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M will make life difficult for SEC opponents.
Welcome to the new guys. Dennis Franchione has a quirky Texas State team with an interesting option attack that’s tough to prepare for. Chase Harper and the tight ends are fantastic and Shaun Rutherford is a strong dual-threat quarterback with the upside and potential to pull off a few huge performances for the ground game. If the line comes together in a hurry, the O should be shockingly decent at times. Larry Coker’s UTSA Roadrunners have a tremendous fan base that will put butts in the seats to see one of the nation’s most experienced teams. 23 starters are back, and while that might not be enough to overcome a mediocre group of talents, this should be an interesting season before becoming a full-fledged FBS team and going off to Conference USA.
It’s all about the consistency. The offense will be the Texas Tech offense, and it should be better with veteran Seth Doege leading the way, but it has to work on a regular basis after going into the tank over the second half of last year. Nothing is a given considering the struggles, but if all goes according to plan, Tech should be able to start out 3-0 against Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico before getting a week off to prepare for Iowa State. With home games against Kansas and Baylor, six wins has to be a given to go along with a blowup game or two when the offense rolls to a win.
Former head coach Rick Neuheisel had no problem attracting talent to Westwood. Coaching those players into winners, though, was an issue. Jim Mora, the beneficiary of the old guard’s recruiting coups, plans to take those young Bruins and transform them into a more competitive product on the field. With the return of RB Johnathan Franklin for his senior year and LT Xavier Su’a-Filo from his Mormon mission, UCLA expects to run the ball with success. The D harbors a mix of youth and experience that’s going to catch a lot of opponents by surprise. The key? As usual it’ll be the play of the quarterbacks, who vexed Neuheisel throughout his tenure. If former blue-chipper Brett Hundley is ready to start earning his label as the savior, the Bruins are capable of taking a quantum leap now that there are fresh ideas coming from the sidelines.
Teams That Will Disappoint