April 3, 2009

Mailbag: Searching for the surprise team of 2009

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Predictions of "surprise" teams have become almost as common as guessing a national champion.

Wake Forest was the surprise of '06. The previous season, the Demon Deacons had gone 4-7 but rebounded to post an 11-2 record and win the ACC championship.

Kansas surprised everyone in 2007; the Jayhawks, who had not managed more than seven wins in 11 seasons, went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl during the '07 season. Alabama went 7-6 in '07, but was 12-2 last season and was ranked No. 1 late in the season.

Projecting this season's surprise team is cause for debate. But one team with that potential would make their fans go hog wild with a good season.

Razorbacks have hope

From Cpl. Phillip Brown in Iraq: I just want to know what place you think the Arkansas Razorbacks will finish this season in the SEC.

First, thank you for your service in the Marine Corps. Second, your Razorbacks will be significantly better this fall and will qualify for a bowl. With some luck, they could be one of the most improved teams in '09.

There are several reasons to be optimistic.

The Razorbacks obviously got better in the second half of their first season under coach Bobby Petrino. Yes, they went 2-4 in the second half and lost to Mississippi State. But one of the wins was over LSU. Plus, they started the season squeezing past Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe, then getting blown out by Alabama, Texas and Florida. Three of the four losses in the second half of the season were by three points or less. And 17 starters return.

New quarterback Ryan Mallett upgrades the offense. He's not mobile, but he has a strong arm. Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm flourished in Petrino's system at Louisville. The guess here is that Mallett will, too. Consider that Casey Dick, last season's starter, passed for 2,586 yards, just 100 fewer than he'd thrown for in the previous two seasons combined. He played better in Petrino's offense. I've got to believe Mallett is a better quarterback than Dick. And so what if Mallett can't run? The Hogs have plenty of guys who can, such as Michael Smith (recovering from injury), De'Anthony Curtis and highly regarded freshman Knile Davis.

Last season, the secondary was suspect (and that's being kind). Three junior college transfers have been brought in to bolster that area.

Seven games will be played in Fayetteville or Little Rock, and another will be at a neutral site (vs. Texas A&M).

South Florida struggles

From Steve in Downingtown, Pa.: Every season, USF seems to start out great, then falters down the stretch. Do you think Jim Leavitt will have his team focused for a full season?

Frustrating, isn't it? When the Bulls are near gaining status as a national power, they always take a step (or two or three) backward. In each of the past two seasons, USF has gone unbeaten in September, then stumbled in October.

The Bulls started 6-0 in '07 and were ranked No. 2 in the nation. Then, they lost to Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati consecutively. Last season, they won their first five, then lost four of the next five.

Will 2009 be different? It could be. The Bulls have enough talent to contend for the Big East championship. Quarterback Matt Grothe will be a senior, top running back Mike Ford and leading receiver Jessie Hester are back and All-America end George Selvie heads a list of six returning defensive starters.

The schedule again will allow for a fast start. The Bulls open with Wofford, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern. That leads to a tough non-conference game at Florida State, but they've fared well in similar circumstances.

Remember, USF pulled off an upset at Auburn in '07 and last year won at home against Kansas and on the road against North Carolina State. It wouldn't be a surprise for the Bulls to prevail in Tallahassee. But that would lead to October with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia looming.

Perhaps USF will finish what it starts this fall. Until the Bulls do, though, there is going to be doubt. I know I have some.

A loss is a loss

From Kaleb in Charlotte, N.C.: If the Oregon State loss was a big-enough mark against USC to prevent the Trojans from going to the national championship game, then why wasn't the loss to Ole Miss enough to keep Florida out? Ole Miss and Oregon State were pretty much on equal ground last season. Plus, Florida's was a home loss. For five or six weeks, USC stayed stagnant in the rankings, never being ranked higher than fifth, while Florida eventually moved from No. 12 to No. 1 after its loss. For some reason, it's not about who has the best team; it's about who is perceived to have the best conference.

No argument that Ole Miss and Oregon State were on equal terms. They both posted nine victories. They both knocked off top-ranked opponents.

But losses are only one part of the argument. Maybe USC did deserve a slight edge of consideration over Florida because the Trojans' loss was on the road, while Florida's loss was at home. Florida fans could counter with an argument about the teams the Gators beat compared to the teams USC beat.

It's true Florida dropped to No. 12 after losing to Ole Miss, then climbed back to No. 2 in the BCS standings. The Gators made that climb by beating seven teams that finished with winning records. Four were nationally ranked when they lost to Florida, and three were ranked in the top six (No. 4 LSU, No. 6 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama).

After falling to Oregon State, USC beat one ranked team No. 21 California and only three teams with winning records.

Furthermore, Florida dominated after its loss. The Gators beat LSU by 30, Kentucky by 58, Georgia by 39, Vanderbilt by 28 and Florida State by 30. All those teams won their bowl games.

USC had close wins against Arizona and California. In addition, five of the Trojans' victories after their loss came against opponents that didn't qualify for a bowl.

Florida had the advantage of getting a boost by beating top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. USC didn't have a chance to post another impressive win. The Pac-10 doesn't have a championship game.

Those are the breaks. Perhaps the Pac-10 should add two teams and stage a conference championship game.

Now, those facts don't mean USC couldn't have beaten Florida. USC was as good as any team in the nation. But the flawed BCS system doesn't necessarily match the two best teams in the championship game. Rather, it matches the teams that can make the best argument.

When comparing the teams Florida beat to those USC beat, it's obvious Florida had a better argument.

Still not convinced? That's OK. But then explain why USC should have been in the BCS championship game over Texas or Utah. Like USC, Texas' only loss occurred on the road, but to a higher-ranked opponent. Utah didn't have a loss and beat Oregon State, which beat USC.

I maintain my opinion that there is no bias against USC.

BCS buster?

From Bob in Las Vegas: Do you think BYU can again be a major player in the national championship picture?

BYU is as much a factor in the national championship picture as any team in a non-"Big Six" conference can be. The Cougars have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons and have a national title (1984), so BYU has some national cachet.

Alas, the Cougars are in the Mountain West Conference, which automatically puts them as a huge disadvantage. Remember, Utah was the only unbeaten team last season, and the Utes didn't get a chance to play for the national crown.

BYU could be different, though. Utah's success in '08 has raised the profile of the MWC, which has a good argument for its champion to be an automatic qualifier into a BCS bowl.

If the Cougars could go undefeated in '09, they will have an excellent chance to get into the national championship game. Of course, that would mean they beat Oklahoma to open the season and Florida State two weeks later.

Would an undefeated MWC team get snubbed again? It's possible, especially if there were multiple undefeated teams. But if an unbeaten MWC team with wins over Oklahoma and Florida State were left out, Congress might really get involved and try to force a change in the process.

BYU projects to have a strong team in '09. The Cougars return eight defensive starters. Quarterback Max Hall, running back Harvey Unga and tight end Dennis Pitta are back, too.

The Cougars will be a team to reckon with. But I'd still pick Oklahoma in the season opener.

Heisman rehash

From Alem in Sacramento, Calif.: Was Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon a lock for the Heisman in '07? And was he better than Vince Young?

Had Dixon not injured his knee against Arizona in 2007, he not Florida's Tim Tebow would have won the Heisman.

Dixon was having an incredible season for Oregon. The Ducks were ranked No. 2 in the nation and he was the primary reason. Through the first nine games, Dixon had passed for 2,074 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 549 yards and eight scores. He'd led the Ducks to victories over Michigan, USC and Arizona State.

But against Arizona in the 10th game of the season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through the first quarter. He already had a 39-yard touchdown run in the game.

Before the injury, he was on pace to pass for almost 3,000 yards and rush for almost 800. Oregon was in good shape to finish 11-1, and likely would've faced Ohio State for the national championship had Dixon not gotten hurt. Instead, the Ducks lost the final three games of the regular season.

Dixon still got 17 first-place votes for the Heisman even though he played only three-fourths of the season. But he was not better than Young, who led Texas to the national championship in 2005. Young was college football's most dominant individual since Georgia's Herschel Walker, and Young is my choice for the best college football quarterback ever.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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