Rising Up - The Breakthrough Programs
Utah RB John White
Which programs are poised and ready to rise up and come up with big seasons?
By Pete Fiutak
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Who's the next Stanford? Who'll be this
year's Wyoming and come from out of left field? Who
might be this year's Baylor and be the team that
makes a lot of noise, even if it's not that great?
There's nothing more fun for a sports fan than to
root for a team on the rise with all the excitement
over what's to come. The below programs aren't
necessarily going to be in the national title chase
and most aren't going to be in the hunt for their
respective conference championships, but they're
improving, emerging and about to make a huge splash
The Bears have had the talent and they have had a little bit of success, but they haven't been able to put it all together over the last few seasons after being afterthoughts in the conference title race and failing to come up with any game-changing wins. This year has the potential to be different in a bit of a
transitional season for the Pac-12 North. While programs all across the league are getting a renewed fire with several new coaches coming in and USC about to take off again, Cal has the
experience and the potential to be a surprise team.
It's impossible to win in the Pac-12 without the
skills stars, and Cal has them in running back Isi
Sofele and receiver Keenan Allen, two of the best
players in the league at their respective positions.
The O line gets three starters back and should be
stronger in pass protection for Zach Maynard, an
up-and-down quarterback with talent, but no
consistency. On the other side, the defense that was
tremendous at getting into the backfield -- finishing
first in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss -- has to
replace a slew of key players, including the top four
tacklers, but strong recruiting classes should make
the 3-4 shine. With Stanford and Oregon having to
come to Berkley, and with relatively easy road games
against Oregon State and Washington State to balance
out the unfair away dates against USC and Utah from
the South, the Bears should be a major factor in the
Sometimes a program just needs a change of direction. Pat Hill was
great at making Fresno State a national name in the early 2000s, but Boise State became the one that took off. The Bulldogs were always decent at rising up against the BCS teams, but couldn't get by the Broncos on a regular basis and couldn't do enough in conference play. This year, new head man Tim DeRuyter should make a big difference with his aggressive and dangerous defense about to make a big splash in the
first season in the Mountain West, while the offense
has the talent to hang around with anyone.
New Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter inherits a team ready to win.
Quarterback Derek Carr isn't his brother David in
terms of his pro potential, but he'll get a long
look from the NFL, while running back Robbie Rouse
has the potential to lead the nation in rushing if
he can stay healthy. If the turnover margin starts
to go in FSU's favor, and if the defense can make a
huge instant improvement after finishing 106th in
the nation, this could be, at worst, the third best
team in the league with trips to Boise State and
Nevada standing in the way.
It's always going to be tough being Iowa State. The program will always be No. 2 in the state behind Iowa, and it's rare that anyone signing on with the Cyclones is choosing the program over Oklahoma and Texas to play in Ames, but Paul Rhoads gets the most out of his teams. Every year
they rise up at least once to come up with a stunner, beating Iowa and Oklahoma State last season and coming dangerously close to ruining Nebraska's 2010 season in a 31-30 loss
after beating the Huskers in 2009.
The problem is
that the Big 12 is going to be really, really good,
and while Iowa State will be fantastic with almost
all the key parts returning on offense and
linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein leading a
plucky defense, it will be tough to make a huge jump
up record-wise with tough battles week after week.
However, with Oklahoma, Kansas State and West
Virginia at home, like last year after the win over
Oklahoma State, Iowa State will throw the season a curveball.
It's only the second season under Charlie Strong, but he appears ready to turn Louisville into a powerhouse again. John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino each did wonders with the program before moving on, and Strong is on the right track with 15 returning starters
including eight on a defense that finished 10th in the nation against the run and was second in the Big East
in both scoring and total D.
The offense might have
to come up with far more pop after averaging a mere
21.9 points and 333 yards per game, but that should come with the expected growth of superstar
quarterback prospect, Teddy Bridgewater working behind a line that gets four starters back. Of the six losses last year, five were by a touchdown or less, and now with so much experience returning and with Strong and the coaching staff coming into their own, the results should be fantastic for the next several seasons.
If you want to look thin, hang out with fat people. If you want to come up with a great season, be an above-average team in the WAC this year.
However, while Louisiana Tech might end up winning
the soon-to-be diminished/defunct football league
simply by showing up, it's going to be good enough
to provide a major push in early-season games
against Texas A&M, Illinois and Virginia.
Dykes high-octane, Texas Tech-like passing game
hasn't exactly clicked over his first two seasons at
the helm, but the offensive production should shine
this season with quarterback Colby Cameron and
receivers Quinton Patton and Myles White about to
explode. The defense gets back just enough good
talent and has just enough strong starters to
dominate the WAC and hold serve against the stronger
non-conference teams. On the way to Conference USA
next year where they'll be a major factor right
away, watch out for a possible 10-win season and
complete and utter dominance in conference play.
Even if Penn State wasn't a shadow of itself after all of its problems, and even if Ohio State was eligible for the Leaders title this season, Purdue would still be considered a key part of the race this season with 16 returning starters and a ton of depth. Head coach Danny Hope hasn't had any luck with injuries since taking over. Last season the team stayed relatively healthy, but it was still a struggle to get to 7-6, needing a miraculous late upset over Ohio State to stay in the hunt for bowl eligibility.
This year there's depth, veteran leadership, and enough playmakers to make a run in what amounts to a four-team division and with Wisconsin having to come to West Lafayette. Is this the year when Hope turns a corner with the program or is this the last chance to show what he can do? It's a bit of a make-or-break year, but everything is in place to come up with the best year since going 9-4 in 2003.
The glass is half empty: Skip Holtz didn't exactly take the Bulls forward in his second season at the helm, going 5-7. The glass is half full: USF lost five games by a touchdown or less and
came this close to beating West Virginia,
Miami and Rutgers, losing all three games by a field
It was a rocky year with no consistency and
little offensive pop in key moments, but everything
is in place this season for Holtz to show what he
can do. A whopping 17 starters return, including quarterback
B.J. Daniels and the top six receivers, while the
defense that finished second in the nation in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks gets five of the top six tacklers back and all the leading pass rushers. With road trips to Louisville and Cincinnati, it's not going to be a walk in the park to come up with the Big East title, but Rutgers and Pitt have to come to Tampa. On a bigger scale, the Bulls host Florida State and have to go to Miami, getting a shot to make a big national statement for themselves and the Big East.
Considering the Utes won 42 games in four seasons from 2007 to 2010, it's not like the program is coming from out of the blue, but after a less-than-scintillating first season in the Pac-12 South, blowing a shot at representing the South in the Pac-12 championship by air-balling the home layup against Colorado, there hasn't been a lot of buzz. Maybe the team really did come up with those great records because it was in the Mountain West, and maybe it won't be able to handle life at the bigger level.
Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn is back after missing most of last season hurt, while John White might be the best back in the Pac-12 coming off a 1,519-yard, 15-score season. Nine starters are back on offense including four starters on the line, while seven starters are back on defense anchored by top five NFL draft prospect Star Lotulelei on the nose.
Basically, the Pac-12's No. 1 scoring defense will be better, while the offense that finished last in the league in yards and passing should be night and day improved. With no Oregon on the schedule and USC coming to Salt Lake City, look out.
There's always going to be a hard ceiling on what Vanderbilt can do considering it's in the nastiest conference in the country and the talent just will never be up to championship snuff. But second-year head coach James Franklin did wonders in his first season, going 6-7 with a bowl appearance, and now might have one of the most dangerous sleepers in the East.
Quarterback Jordan Rodgers leads a group of 17 returning starters that includes a terrific backfield with running backs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman forming one of the league's most dangerous rushing tandems. The defense has to try to replace three
irreplaceable starters, losing linebacker Chris Marve and defensive backs Sean Richardson and Casey Hayward,
but defensive tackle Rob Lohr leads a terrific run
defense that should keep the team in most games.
Throw in an outstanding punting game, home dates
against Florida and South Carolina, and no LSU,
Alabama or Arkansas to deal with, and everything is
set up for the program's best season since going 8-4
In 2009, Western Kentucky went 0-12, finishing 119th in the nation in scoring defense, last in sacks, last in pass efficiency defense, 104th in scoring and 101st in total offense. There were signs of improvement late, but the Hilltoppers kicked off 2010 with six straight losses and ended up 2-10, and followed it up with an 0-4 start last year.
All of a sudden, everything started to turn under Willie Taggart, winning seven of the last eight games and giving LSU a major push for 30 minutes in the lone loss. Taggart, one of the up-and-coming young head coaches, made a name at Stanford as a running backs coach. Now he's the one creating a Sun Belt power that's going to get a long look from Conference USA in the near future if it can keep moving forward. 17 starters are back, highlighted by a loaded defense with the best middle linebacker you've never heard of -- 6-foot-1, 262-pound junior Andrew Jackson. The offense gets four starters back up front, and while it loses heart-and-soul running back Bobby Raines, everything else is there to come up with a solid year. No, WKU won't beat Alabama, but it could screw up Kentucky and should be able to hang around at home against Southern Miss before diving into Sun Belt action.
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