Since optimism is brewing around Seattle and the Washington Huskies are coming off an 0-12 season, Bob Condotta looks at some of the biggest one-season improvements in college football and detects one key similarity in most of these upstarts:
A soft schedule is one of the biggest common threads among teams that made huge leaps in recent years. Minnesota was the most improved team last season, going from 1-11 to 7-6. But four of those wins came against Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State and Florida Atlantic. Illinois was the most improved team of 2007, going from 2-10 to 9-4, and was helped by facing Western Illinois, Ball State and a horrible Syracuse team.
Obviously, another similarity is that all these teams had to pretty much stink the year before. Many teams probably made significant improvements in going from, say, 8-4 to 10-2, but it doesn't show up as much. This week's top 10 subject is the teams with the best shot to make the biggest jump in wins:
Notre Dame (7-6): How far out on a limb is this? The Irish have tons of three-year starters returning, some very good skill players and one of the softest schedules in the country. They'll face a handful of teams that have suffered some incredibly bad news this offseason. Charlie Weis' team should be favored in every game except for when USC comes to South Bend, and the Irish could go 11-1 without beating a single ranked opponent. If they can become even just a decent running team, they'll be in a BCS bowl game. They could get throttled in it by, say, Texas or Oklahoma, but they'll at least be in it.
Michigan (3-9): The jump in Rich Rodriguez's teams from Season 1 to Season 2 has been well documented, and let's be honest: After going 3-9, the team has lots of room to grow. It also will be much, much more seasoned on the offensive line and will finally have a quarterback with the wheels to add spice to the offense, even if that new quarterback is inexperienced. The Wolverines will open the 2009 season with four straight home games. The nonconference schedule will be very manageable with all four games at home, and the fourth will be against FCS team Delaware State.
Ohio (4-8): No less an expert than Phil Steele picks the Bobcats to win the MAC East title, and there are plenty of reasons to board the bandwagon. Start with Ohio's defense and special teams, which should be the best or close to it in the MAC. The Bobcats also will return almost all their top skills guys from last season. And they won't have to face Central or Western Michigan, the two favorites of the MAC West.
Baylor (4-8): Art Briles' team will have 16 starters back, including QB Robert Griffin, a dynamic talent who has made this program relevant again. Briles has surrounded Griffin with some speedy playmakers, and 350-pound Penn State transfer Phil Taylor will anchor the defense. To say Briles has big expectations for Taylor would be an understatement. When I spoke to the coach a few months ago, he said he'll be disappointed if Taylor doesn't make the All-Big 12 first team this season. My hunch is Baylor will match last season's win total by mid-October.
UCLA (4-8): Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel took over a very inexperienced, undermanned team last year. The Bruins' O-line was a disaster, and it got even worse after being hit hard by injuries. Some transfers and some quality big recruits will make a huge difference up front, and UCLA infused some necessary speed on both sides of the ball. I expect them to come on very strong late in the season.
Washington (0-12): New coach Steve Sarkisian apparently has made a big difference in QB Jake Locker already. The Huskies will have 18 starters back, including one of the West's top defensive linemen in Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Their linebackers also should be solid. They're probably staring at a 1-4 start anyway, but look for them to knock off at least one of the Arizona schools and be competitive in almost all their Pac-10 games.
Southern Miss (7-6): The Golden Eagles are, along with Houston, my dark-horse contenders for that BCS-buster role. USM finished last season strong and will have 19 starters back. Plus, the team added some playmaking potential, as defensive linemen Willie Packer and Joel Ross and OLB-DE Scottie Williams all will be eligible to play this season. USM will travel to Kansas, Houston and ECU, but I still expect it to be a force in C-USA this season and crack the Top 25.
Colorado (5-7): I'm not ready to go as far as coach Dan Hawkins did in December when he predicted 10 wins this season, but CU has a lot of impressive athletes on both sides of the ball. You would think the Buffs, who were 100th in the country in scoring last season, would be due for a major leap in production. (Wait, a Big 12 team was that far down in the country in scoring last season?!?) Special teams also need to make big improvements. The best news on the schedule front is they won't have to face Oklahoma, but they will have to go to Texas and Oklahoma State. They have a good chance to be favored in all six of their home games, although the season finale against Nebraska is very iffy. It should be noted that the home team has won the previous three meetings between the schools.
Stanford (5-7): Jim Harbaugh has shown that he can not only motivate but also recruit. And even so, he'll have 17 starters back, not including hot-shot QB Andrew Luck, who beat out incumbent Tavita Pritchard. The Cardinal open with consecutive road games, but don't be surprised if they win both at Washington State and at Wake Forest and open 4-0. I expect they could go 3-1 in their first four games at worst.
UTEP (5-7): Mike Price again has a potent passing game ready to give opponents fits. He also has an experienced O-line. The Miners also won't have to face Southern Miss or East Carolina.
• One of the biggest challenges for Rick Neuheisel is getting more Los Angeles kids interested in attending UCLA. This past weekend, the Bruins took a big step in that direction. James Washington, a former UCLA great at safety and two-time Super Bowl winner with Dallas, staged a free football camp for more than 500 Southern California kids on Saturday at Los Angeles Southwest College. Neuheisel and his staff coached the four-hour Back to Basics clinic, now in its third year and operated by Washington's Shelter 37 foundation, Brian Dohn reports:
"For UCLA, most of the kids from our area don't know anything about them, unless you see them on TV," said Henry Washington, who coached James Washington at Los Angeles Jordan High. "This is huge for the kids to come out here and rub elbows with UCLA's coaching staff. Rick Neuheisel, I really applaud him for bringing all of his fellows out here.
"Our inner-city kids, when it comes to UCLA, they just know nothing about them. [USC coach] Pete Carroll does a great job in the inner city. Any top inner city really leans toward USC."
Great idea, right? No doubt, but don't get hung up wondering whether your favorite school could stage similar camps. It might be against your conference's rules. The SEC and ACC do not allow such off-campus camps because, as one school official explained, it would prompt every member school to scramble and set up its own roving camps just so it could recruit kids. These conferences are scared of that.
• Interesting comments from a veteran SEC assistant, Brad Lawing of South Carolina, about the validity of recruiting evaluations in this Phil Kornblut column:
In Lawing's opinion, the rating of players and the ranking of signing classes is a scam. "I can take a three-star and make him a four-star, and I can take a four-star and make him a three- or two-star with the contacts I have," Lawing said. "That's how ridiculous recruiting on the Internet is. I took Chris Culliver [USC safety] from a three- to a five-star in three weeks. All you've got to do is talk to the right people."
He is right. Certain schools and coaches have a lot of pull with recruiting analysts, although in fairness to the recruiting people, you probably could make a similar argument for college All-American teams. If one coach really makes a strong case to some media members, he can get a certain player on or off an all-conference or even All-American team, especially if the player is a linemen or defensive back. Those positions are more dependent on the opinions of guys who have coaching insight.To go around the college football landscape with Bruce Feldman, become an ESPN Insider.
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