Sports, Thrill of Victory

Ten Teams Not In the Top 25 That May Wind Up There

appollThe college football season is now eight days from starting, and both major college football polls (ESPN, AP) have been released. The pollsters do great work, but of course, the rankings never finish the way they start. For instance, Southern Cal, last year’s preseason No. 1 team, didn’t even finish in the rankings.

One of the really cool things about the season is that teams that most people didn’t expect to wind up in the rankings — Vanderbilt and Northern Illinois last year — wind up there. There will undoubtedly be more un-ranked squads that wind up pulling off the same feat this season. Here’s a look at the 10 teams not ranked in either poll I think are most likely to pull it off.

Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona State
The PAC-12 is not where one generally looks to find an excellent defense, but the Sun Devils may have one. They have an elite defensive lineman in Will Sutton, last year’s PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year who had an improbable 13 sacks from the tackle position, to lead a slew of guys on the front seven who can really get after the quarterback. On offense, quarterback Taylor Kelly (29 TDs, nine interceptions) returns along with two good backs in Marlon Grice and D.J. Foster. The schedule is brutal — there are non-conference games with Wisconsin and Notre Dame — but this seems to be a program on the upswing in its second year under coach Todd Graham.

Key game: at Stanford, Sept. 14. A road game against a top-five opponent should tell us a lot about how good ASU is. A win might well establish the Sun Devils as the PAC-12’s front-runner.

Fresno State
Every few years, some non-BCS-conference team runs the table in its schedule and winds up in the top 10. Boise State has been that team a few times, and this year, it might be the Broncos’ Mountain West neighbors, Fresno State. The Bulldogs’ Derek Carr returns after throwing for over 4,000 yards last year, and a solid defense that gave up 339 yards (and helped FSU record a plus-15 turnover margin) is largely back. Fresno should be favored in every game it plays except Boise State, which might be a toss-up.

Key game: Boise State, Sept. 20. Far and away the biggest contest on the slate, the Bulldogs lost 20-10 to Boise last season.

Georgia Tech
Since going to the Orange Bowl in that 11-3 campaign of 2009, Paul Johnson’s club has gone just 21-19 since. However, the Yellow Jackets return 16 starters, should be improved on defense, and of course run that difficult-to-stop spread-option attack behind an experienced offensive line. Some think that Tech could return to double-digit wins again this year.

Key game: at Miami, Oct. 5. The ‘Jackets have tough home tests against North Carolina and Virginia Tech, but this is the first big road test (there is a previous road tilt at Duke). If Johnson can come through those first four games unscathed, a win at Miami should put the stamp of legitimacy on ‘Tech.

Miami (Florida)
Coach Al Golden turned around perhaps college football’s worst program when he was at Temple, taking a team that had gone 3-31 from 2003-05 to one that went a combined 17-7 in his last two years there (2009-10). He’s been a so-so 13-12 in two years at Miami, but remember, it’s been a program racked with distractions. The Hurricanes’ talent also declined markedly from what it once was — can you believe that Miami hasn’t had a double-digit win season since 2003? — but Golden has started to turn that around with his last two recruiting classes, which ranked No. 10 and 20 in the rankings. The defense was terrible last year, but an offense led by potential All-American running back Duke Johnson is pretty good.

Key game: Florida, Sept. 7. We’ve heard a lot of premature “the-U-is-back” talk over the last few years, but if the ‘Canes can beat their in-state rivals, it might be true this time.

Michigan State
For the sake of purely watching competitive football, perhaps no team was more interesting to watch than the Spartans last year. Of MSU’s 13 games, an incredible nine were decided by four points or less. Of those nine, State lost five, including a one-point loss to Ohio State. The defense was great from start to finish, as MSU didn’t allow more than 28 points in any game, and it should be good again. Sparty’s big issue is at quarterback, where this week coach Mark Dantonio claims four guys are in the mix to start, including true freshman Damion Terry. That’s not exactly what you want to hear if you’re a Spartans fan, but at least Andrew Maxwell is a decent quarterback with plenty of experience to fall back on, plus, the Spartans’ first three games are against Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State, so there’s plenty of time to get it right.

Key game: at Notre Dame, Sept. 21. The Spartans lost 20-3 to the FIghting Irish last year.

Northern Illinois
Okay, the Huskies have some issues. They lose seven starters from last year’s defense, and got waxed by Florida State, 31-10, in the Orange Bowl. But did you realize that NIU has won 11, 11 and 12 games, respectively, the last three seasons? Or that Jordan Lynch, who combined for nearly 5,000 yards last year, is back? The Huskies are the prohibitive favorite to win the Mid-American Conference, and with Iowa and Purdue — neither of which are exactly heavyweights — being the toughest games on the schedule, an undefeated season is a possibility. Remember, NIU didn’t really have any great wins last year, and a two-loss season was still good enough for a Top 25 finish.

Key game: at Iowa, Aug. 31. The 4-8 Hawkeyes beat NIU in the opener last year, 18-17, but that was Lynch’s first game as a starter.

Ole Miss
Excuse the redundancy for those who’ve heard this from me before, but the Rebels were far better than their 7-6 record last year, coming within an eyelash of beating Top 25 foes LSU, Texas A&M and Vandy. The defense got better and returned nearly everybody, and most of the key pieces of a good offense return, also. The guy to watch is quarterback Bo Wallace. Though he led the nation in interceptions last year, he’s by far the Rebels’ best option. The problem is, Wallace is coming off shoulder surgery and reports as of last week were that he was not back to full strength. How will he hold up when he’s hit?

Key game: at Vanderbilt, August 29. In a mild surprise, the Rebels are surprisingly road favorites over a team they’ve lost to in five of the last six years. The game’s just about a toss-up and an SEC road win against a good opponent would be a huge way to kick off the season.

Nobody had the Commodores in their preseason Top 25 last year, even though VU had been to a bowl and had the bulk of its team coming back. This time around, Vandy’s coming off a nine-win campaign, and again, most of the key players return. My guess is that if this same bunch were named, say, “Oklahoma” instead of “Vanderbilt,” it might make the rankings because, let’s face it, Vandy’s history still keeps many from believing that the turnaround James Franklin has engineered is for real. There are other questions, too, like how Vandy will replace quarterback Jordan Rodgers and tailback Zac Stacy, but their replacements appear to have passed the test in August practices.

Key game: Ole Miss, August 29. See comment on Ole Miss.

Virginia Tech
Coach Frank Beamer must be wondering what he needs to do to make believers of people: after winning at least 10 games in each season from 2004-11, the Hokies dropped all the way to 7-6 last season, and consequently were left out of the preseason polls. It’s a bit puzzling, because Tech returns most of an excellent defense, always plays well on special teams, and returns a very talented (if erratic) quarterback in Logan Thomas. The really interesting dynamic here revolves around the offense, which will now be led by offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who replaced Brian Stinespring. Stinespring was constantly a lightning rod for criticism for Tech fans, and Loeffler proves to be a better fit, the Hokies may be a shoe-in for the Top 25. Two cautions, though: it didn’t go well for Loeffler in his lone season (last year) as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, and Tech replaces both offensive tackles.

Key game: vs. Alabama, August 31. I don’t give the Hokies much of a chance of winning, but what I’m eyeing is how competitive this game is. A close defeat to Alabama may say more about Tech than would a victory over anyone on its schedule.

On paper, this looks like the Huskies’ best team in a decade. If quarterback Keith Price can return to form of two years ago, the offense should be great — it has star tailback Bishop Sankey, it has plenty of targets for Price, it returns four starters on the offensive line, plus its tight end. Defensively, UW returns seven starters from a team that yielded 357 yards and 24.2 points, not bad for the PAC-12. This could be coach Steve Sarkesian’s breakout year after three-straight 7-6 campaigns.

Key game: Boise St., Aug. 31. If the Huskies win their opener on their home field, they could be 4-0 heading to Stanford.