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June 1, 2010

Ten to watch: From near misses to big hits

Even in a disappointing season, signs of progress can be found.

Rewind to 2007. Alabama finished 7-6 and lost to Louisiana-Monroe at home that season. But each of the Crimson Tide's losses were by seven or fewer points, and most of the starters returned in 2008.

That season, the second under coach Nick Saban, the Tide won their first 12 games. Last season, Alabama won the national championship.

Confidence can be gleaned from a season of near misses. The realization is one or two plays could have turned a close loss into a hard-fought victory. The experience fuels individuals' desire to improve. And maybe the law of averages will catch up; the fluke plays that went against a team one year may help them the next.

Perhaps a new player or two can make a difference and turn a good team into a great one, as was the case with Ohio State in 2002. The Buckeyes lost five games the previous season. Then, with freshman running back Maurice Clarett, the Buckeyes won the national title.

Some times a team gets a big boost from a player returning from injury. For instance, erratic quarterback play doomed Pittsburgh to a 5-7 finish in '07. But when Bill Stull returned from injury, the Panthers posted nine victories in '08. And when Stull raised his performance level in '09, the Panthers won 10 games.

With that in mind, here's a look at several of the nation's "under the radar" teams, ones that may be overlooked or underrated going into this season. With a few breaks, those teams could have memorable seasons in 2010.

If they do, we'll look back and see that the signs of progress were there all along.

Just 15 points were the difference between Connecticut's respectable 8-5 finish in '09 and a remarkable undefeated season. None of the five losses was by more than four points. Both the offense and defense return eight full-time starters from units that were solid a year ago and are aiming to get better. Among the returnees are quarterback Zach Frazer and tailback Jordan Todman, who led the Huskies with 1,188 rushing yards. They also have four starting offensive linemen returning. Defensive veterans include All-Big East selections Lawrence Wilson at linebacker and Greg Lloyd Jr. at end. Should a reliable receiver or two emerge, the Huskies could be even harder to beat than they were a year ago. They may win a few more close games, too, which would put them in strong contention for an appearance in a BCS bowl.
Ask for Pac-10 championship contenders and the list includes Oregon and USC, of course. Stanford often is included, too. Arizona isn't, but perhaps should be. Holes at defensive tackle and linebacker must be plugged, but there are still more reasons to like the Wildcats than not. Defensive end Ricky Elmore is one of the conference's best pass rushers, and cornerback Trevin Wade is outstanding. But offense is where the Wildcats are most dangerous. Quarterback Nick Foles passed for almost 2,500 yards last season despite seeing little action in the first three games. Tailbacks Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin from a nice duo, and five returning receivers had at least 20 receptions last season. The special teams are sound, too. Last season, Arizona lost four regular-season games, but one came before Foles moved into the starting lineup. Another was on a fluke interception at Washington. Still another was in double overtime to Pac-10 champion Oregon. Three were on the road, against Iowa, Cal and Washington. Those teams must travel Tucson this season.
The Boilermakers just need to hold on to the football. A significantly reduced turnover total should lead to a significantly increased win total. The Boilermakers got off to a 1-5 start in '09, and four of those losses were by seven or fewer points. A total of 17 turnovers were committed in those games. In the second half of the season, Purdue went 4-2, which included a victory over Ohio State. Another slow start is unlikely. The first month of the season includes four opponents that were a combined 14-33 a year ago. The schedule includes only three teams that managed winning records in '09. And although some holes along the offensive line must be filled, the offense projects to be good. Leading receiver Keith Smith is back. And though there will be a new quarterback, there is experience there with Miami transfer Robert Marve stepping in. End Ryan Kerrigan, a big-play machine, heads the defense.
The Falcons typically are good -- but not good enough to legitimately challenge the established powers in the Mountain West Conference. This season, the Falcons could mount a challenge if new starters in the offensive and defensive line play well. Quarterback Tim Jefferson and running backs Jared Tew and Asher Clark, who combined for 1,835 rushing yards, lead the offense. The secondary should be solid with Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright, both All-MWC selections. But the loss of coordinator Tim DeRuyter could prove costly. Last season, the Falcons suffered five losses by a combined 23 points. Two losses were in overtime, and four were on the road. The Falcons get BYU and Utah at home this season.
It has been thoroughly documented that Baylor has not made a postseason appearance since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. Yet there's optimism that the 16-year wait may end. The main reasons for all that optimism is electrifying quarterback Robert Griffin's recovery from a knee injury that prematurely ended his '09 campaign and a favorable schedule that offers a real chance to clinch bowl eligibility before Halloween. Six of the Bears' first eight opponents finished 6-6 or worse last season. Four of those games (vs. Sam Houston, Buffalo, Kansas and Kansas State) will be played at home. Keep in mind that four of the Bears' eight losses in '09 were by 10 or fewer points -- and three of those were without Griffin in the lineup. There's also another Robert Griffin, this one a massive junior college transfer who goes by Robert T. Griffin; he's a tackle who will provide a boost to an offensive line that finally has the tackle-to-tackle size of a legitimate Big 12 unit. Highly touted incoming freshmen Prince Kent and Ahmad Dixon, though inexperienced, will upgrade the secondary.
A rash of injuries a year ago forced Tulsa to use eight different starting combinations in the offensive line. As a result, first-year starting quarterback G.J. Kinne too often was scrambling to save his skin. Yet, he still passed for more than 2,700 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing more than 60 percent of his attempts. And despite the struggles, the Golden Hurricane lost to Boise State by a touchdown, fell to UTEP by four points a week later and were victims of a miraculous last-second comeback in a one-point loss to Houston. The offensive line, assuming it stays healthy, will be one of the best in Conference USA, and tackle Tyler Holmes could be special. With better protection, Kinne should be much more effective. The Golden Hurricane have a trio of big-play receiving threats in Damaris Johnson, Charles Clay and Trae Johnson. Last season, Tulsa managed just five wins. This season, the Golden Hurricane should be a strong contender for the C-USA title.
Don't look for the Buffaloes to rebound from last season's 3-9 finish and win the Big 12 North, but they could be improved enough to reach a bowl and possibly save coach Dan Hawkins' job. As bad as last season was -- and it was bad -- the Buffs were much more competitive after Tyler Hansen took over at quarterback midway through the season. Although they were just 1-3 in November, that included a come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M and three losses by eight or fewer points. The Buffs must get better in the offensive line and in pass defense, but with eight offensive and seven defensive starters returning, there is reason to expect some improvement.
The Wolfpack were schizophrenic in '09. Wins over North Carolina and Pittsburgh highlighted the season. Losses to Duke and Wake Forest were low spots. Obviously, consistency is needed. N.C. State hasn't posted a winning record in four seasons and hasn't managed more than seven wins since 2003. Yet this season, the fourth under Tom O'Brien, could be a breakthrough. Quarterback Russell Wilson passed for 3,027 yards and 31 touchdowns last season and again will throw to Jarvis Williams and Owen Spencer. The defense could get a significant boost from the return of linebacker Nate Irving, who missed last season because of injuries suffered in a car crash. Irving will benefit from having Jon Tenuta as his position coach.
It's no secret that teams often make remarkable strides in the second season of a coach's tenure (see Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, Florida, Alabama and Nebraska). With some progress on defense, Washington could join that group. Expect quarterback Jake Locker to build on last season's performance. Running back Chris Polk and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse are big-play threats, too. Last season, the Huskies rebounded from a winless '08 campaign to post five victories. They also had four losses by eight or fewer points. This season, an eight-win season appears realistic. Nine may be possible if either BYU or Nebraska don't take the Huskies seriously in non-conference games.
The Golden Eagles finished third in the East Division of Conference USA last season. If they find a decent tailback (the bet here is they can), the Golden Eagles could win the division. Quarterback Austin Davis is coming back from injury, wide receiver DeAndre Brown is outstanding and the defensive front seven could be exceptional. Furthermore, C-USA East rival East Carolina has huge holes to fill and likely preseason division pick UCF has a shaky offense. All five of Southern Miss' regular-season losses last season were on the road. Four of those teams visit Hattiesburg this season.

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

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