My surprise teams list for 2009 scored some direct hits (Alabama, Arkansas, Stanford) and some ugly misses (Illinois, Michigan). Here are my surprise teams for 2010. They aren’t necessarily title contenders, but these squads should do better than most people expect:
Auburn–You don’t see Auburn on too many preseason top 25 lists. But the Tigers went 8-5 last year with Chris Todd at quarterback, which is a testament to the wizardry of OC Gus Malzahn. I see incoming JC star and former Gator Cam Newton as a big upgrade at that spot, plus freshman running back Michael Dyer should make a major impact.
Cincinnati–Lose Tony Pike, Mardy Gilyard and Brian Kelly? No problem. Just plug in Zach Collaros (a budding star), Vidal Hazelton and Butch Jones and I don’t think they’ll skip much of a beat. Will the Bearcats go undefeated? Probably not, but I think most people are expecting more dropoff than what will actually occur.
Indiana–The Hoosiers won’t set the world on fire, but I think they could get to 7 or 8 wins and compete in a lot more of their games, which for them would be a huge improvement. I look for QB Ben Chappell to make some major strides. This could be a stretch, but I’m ready to stick my neck out…it’s only May!
Stanford–Some of you might’ve arched an eyebrow when I put the Cardinal 10th in my post-spring poll. The conventional wisdom out there is that losing Toby Gerhart will set Stanford back a bit. However, I’m a big believer in Jim Harbaugh as a coach and I think the Cardinal are in position to challenge for the Pac-10 title. Andrew Luck is the best passer in the conference and there is a stable of talented backs looking to step in for last year’s Heisman runner up. This is a program with a tough, physical mentality and enough first-level talent to play with anyone. Now, if injuries hit….
Georgia–The consensus has the Bulldogs in the middle of the SEC pack at best. But I like Georgia to surprise and make a serious run at the SEC East title. New quarterback Aaron Murray is a real gamer and he’s got some incredible targets to throw to in A.J. Green and Orson Charles. The defense is going to a 3-4, which is better suited for a schedule filled with spread teams.
Mississippi State–Can three teams in the SEC be all that improved without knocking each other off and hurting this prediction? (Auburn, UGA and MSU all play each other) Well, it may not show up much in the records, but I do like what Dan Mullen is doing in Starksville. I think the Bulldogs will move from 5-7 to 6-6 or 7-5, but will end up better than their final record indicates.
Notre Dame–I have a lot of faith in Brian Kelly’s ability to coach up a roster. And the Irish have some real weapons in place, including the nation’s best wide receiver (Michael Floyd) and tight end (Kyle Rudolph). The defense returns eight starters and the schedule is more than manageable. I see at least nine wins for the Irish.
Temple–The Owls have won 10 games only once in their history (1979), but they’ll have a chance to do so this year behind super soph tailback Bernard Pierce, who put up 1,361 yards as a frosh. Could Temple give Penn State trouble in game 3?
Miami–People think Miami is going to be good this year, but I think the ’Canes are a dark horse national title contender. Jacory Harris is a legit Heisman candidate and there is a bevy of quality running backs available for him to hand off to. More importantly, it’s year two of OC Mark Whipple’s system, which helped the ‘Canes make huge strides last season. I’m also impressed by such talents on defense as Allen Bailey, Olivier Vernon, Vaughn Telemaque and Brandon Harris. The schedule is brutal early, but if Miami can emerge from the first five games unscathed, I think things will end well for this team.
Honorable Mention: Oregon State; Baylor; South Florida; Michigan State; SMU