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Anatomy of an Underdog '07

This time last year, in a far, far, less agreeable preseason poll environment, I assessed roughly a dozen recent BCS party-crashers, teams that finished at or near the top of the year-end polls despite scant preseason recognition, with the question:

What traits are common to teams that class-hop the 10-15 spots that separate them from the championship pack at the start of the season?

From those teams, I came up with five steady criteria, from most relevant to least:

• Kick-ass Run Defense (>3 yds. per carry)
• Steady Upper-class Quarterback
• Relatively New Coach (aka "The Big Hire")
• Upward Trend
• Toughest Game(s) at Home

The surprise team of last season ultimately were Boise State and Rutgers, but as the mid-majors sort of have their own category and the Knights finished with two losses and outside the top ten, the elite poll resident in January that could best be described as the "sleeper" of 2007 was Wisconsin: the Badgers began the year unranked, with zero votes in any of the mainstream polls in the summer, then spent most of it unnoticed and finished seventh, at 12-1 with a New Year's Day victory under their belt (albeit a sketchy one).

Re: my projected sleeper criteria:

Kick-ass Run Defense: Wisconsin finished 34th nationally and allowed 3.8 yards per carry. Miss, though not by much.

Steady Upper-class Quarterback: John Stocco was a fifth-year senior who closed his career with a 29-7 record as a starter. Hit

Relatively New Coach: Bret Bielema was in his first year as a head coach. Hit

Upward Trend: Wisconsin won five games in 2001, eight in 2002, seven in 2003, nine in 2004, ten in 2005 and twelve last year. Hit

Toughest Game(s) at Home: The Badgers' toughest games were at Michigan (the only loss) and in the bowl game; though obviously they were undefeated at home, the only winning opponent in Madison was Penn State. Miss, by default.


Should have seen it coming.
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The Badgers are sleepers no more; they're in a vast majority of expert top tens and are a heavy favorite to either win the Big Ten or earn an at-large BCS berth, which we all could have predicted would come to pass before last season if only we'd looked hard enough. And been stinking, filthy millionaires. Instead, we bet the house on Iowa and Purdue and, gulp, Michigan State.

As for my actual suggestions fr a "below the radar" championship contender, Louisville made a great run at it - its only loss was by a field goal, on the last play, on the road, after one of the worst-timed penalties of the year - but California and Nebraska played pretty much as they were expected to play and Iowa bit the dust hard after its loss to Ohio State.

But we sit here today, friends, a year older, a year wiser, not necessarily a year richer, but better for knowing what we know. Wisconsin in general justified the sleeper "formula," if you want to call it that, but it wasn't an ideal example - UW never did actually rise to the level of "national contender," it's final spot in the polls being its highest, and maybe if it had been a little better against the run, it would have beaten Michigan and stormed the gates of an all-Big Ten mythical championship. The criteria stands.

To clarify, here is the list of past overachievers I'm working from, and the specifics of their common assets, pasted from last year (with necessary, minor edits, of course):

Kick-Ass Run Defense: This is le element crucial: eleven of the twelve teams linked above held opponents below 3 yards per carry for the season, and even the outlier, undersized but blazing 2004 Auburn, only allowed 3.3 per carry. This seems to be a crucial element for every big winner, but not an absolute requirement if you're merely decent and have gobs of offensive talent to make up the difference, a la USC and Texas in 2005, who allowed 3.8 and 3.7 yards a pop, respectively (and UCLA, which won 10 with the lowest-ranked run defense in the country that season). For a generally non-dominant, win-the-close-ones team on the rise, though, stuffing pretty much everybody is non-negotiable.
The Exceptions: None

Steady, upper-class quarterback: Notice this doesn't have to be 'experienced' quarterback, and certainly doesn't have to be 'stud,' as Arizona State's Jake Plummer would be the only player in question who could conceivably fit that category entering the fateful season. Josh Heupel and Michael Robinson parlayed big years in the right system into high Heisman finishes, but both came from relative obscurity, to which they quickly returned. Brian Griese and Jason Campbell became hot commodities for mere competence and gumption amidst absurd (or at least very good) surrounding talent after mediocre overall careers. And then there are the Tee Martins, Craig Krenzels and Matt Maucks, first-year starting juniors all (and don't forget Shaun Hill, a freshly-starting senior), who were just good enough in relative anonymity. Oregon State started Jonathan Smith for its best season in school history - you don't remember him? Krenzel's success, especially, should demonstrate that a big-armed slinger isn't a necessity as long as your guy generally makes the right decisions, never gives the big game away, Manning-style (ha!), and understands he's not the star of the show.
The Exceptions: 1999 Virginia Tech (Michael Vick), 2005 West Virginia (Pat White)

Relatively New Coach (Sub-factor: The Big Hire): Ten of our dogs had top guys who had been around less than five years, most of them having arrived in "big splash" fashion as either a previously successful head coach (Nick Saban, Dennis Erickson, Tommy Tuberville, Jim Tressel) or as a hot coordinator with years of well-recognized success as an assistant at at least one major program (Bob Stoops, Rich Rodriguez, Ralph Friedgen). Neither Georgia nor Louisville is represented here, but their 2002 and 2004 teams could conceivably be among this group, and Mark Richt and Bobby Petrino among the high-profile assistants turned BMOC. For Stoops, Erickson and Tressel, it only took two years to hit the magic number; Saban needed four and Tuberville five. Friedgen worked the most immediate miracle turnaround (though also the briefest). Lloyd Carr's mythical title came in Year Three following Gary Moeller's departure. So, as Urban Meyer helped prove again, fresh blood is a good thing.
The Exceptions: 1998 Tennessee, 1999 Virginia Tech, 2005 Penn State

Upward Trend (Sub-factor: The Rebound): Correlated with the new coach factor is a general air of ascendency that's apparent even before the accelerated push to the top. Oklahoma went from 3-8 in 1998 to 7-5 in Bob Stoops' first season and 13-0 his second. LSU had suffered two consecutive, confounding losing years under Gerry DiNardo, and was claiming crystal balls as sacrosanct and inviolable four years after Nick Saban came on. Ohio State fired John Cooper, went 7-5 and made a January bowl in Tressel's first season, and won the MNC his second. Terry Bowden had run Auburn virtually into the ground after his great start there, and Tuberville resuscitated the program in a couple seasons. Oregon State had its first winning season in decades in 1999 (7-5), and then a field goal away from being undefeated in Dennis Erickson's second year. It's important to note the trend is general and not necessarily gradual, and the big year can come off a quasi-mulligan: LSU and Auburn, for example, entered 2003 and 2004, respectively, a year removed coming off disappointing efforts in what was originally scheduled as the "big breakthrough." LSU had won the SEC and the Sugar Bowl in 2001 and was on its way in '02 when Matt Mauck went down against Florida, then ended the season with a ridiculous loss to Arkansas that knocked the Tigers out of the SEC Championship and a bowl whippin' at the hands of Texas to finish 8-5. The next season, with lowered expectations? 13-1, Sugar Bowl/BCS champs. Similarly, Auburn was ranked in a lot of top fives heading into 2003, but got walloped at home by USC and then lost at Georgia Tech its first two games, and that was that. Sitting significantly lower entering 2004, essentially the same players blew up and ran the table. West Virginia, too, was the overwhelming favorite in the newly watered-down Big East going into 2004, and had its highest general preseason ranking in school history. So the Mountaineers went 8-5 and lost the league title in the finale to middling Pittsburgh. The following year, as an inexperienced team picked decidedly behind Louisville and Pitt in every estimation: league champs and a tie for the highest poll finish in school history.
The Exceptions: 1996 Arizona State, 1997 Michigan, 1998 Tennessee, 2001 Maryland, 2005 Penn State

Toughest Game(s) at Home: Toughest game meaning "best opponent," rather than "closest game," as these are (paradoxically?) not the same thing. Anyway, most of these teams had tough games at home and on the road, but all of them played host to at least one of the schedule's heavyweights, and usually the heaviest. Arizona State hosted and stunned defending two-time champs/corn-fed death squadron Nebraska in 1996; Michigan got Ohio State in Ann Arbor in 1997; Tennessee broke the slide against Florida in Knoxville; Virginia Tech hosted Miami in 1999; Oklahoma vaulted to No. 1 with a home win over Nebraska; Ohio State got Washington State and Michigan at home in 2002; LSU hosted Georgia and Auburn in 2003; Auburn, in turn, then hosted LSU and Georgia in 2004; and West Virginia (Louisville) and Penn State (Ohio State) each took down their biggest prizes on home turf in `05. There are a lot of nice road wins among that crew, and a few home losses, too (LSU to Florida in 2003, West Virginia to Virginia Tech in '05) but in general, for the heavy days, there's no place like home.
Exceptions: 2000 Oregon State (at Washington, a loss), 2001 Maryland (at Florida State, a loss)

So, based on all that, on to this year's contenders ("Preseason Consensus" via the humble watchdogs at Stassen.com):

RUTGERS
Preseason Consensus: #18
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The Fates are Smiling: The Scarlet Knights are golden here - the quarterback is a fourth-year junior with a full season under his belt as a starter, the run defense was the best in the Big East at 2.9 per carry (after giving up just 3.3 in `05) and West Virginia comes to Piscataway just before Halloween. Thus marks the first time I've ever typed the word, `Piscataway,' although I get the feeling it won't be the last. Greg Schiano has been around too long now (entering Year Seven) to be considered `new,' exactly, but it took him four years to get the ball rolling on a turnaround that looks solid enough to sustain in the Big East, from where I sit. If Schiano only feels new, it's because the rapid improvement and excitement of the last two years is essentially a "new sheriff in town" sort of environment. Trends don't really get more "upward" that this; either this is a culminating, exclamation point season, or it's time for Rutgers to start sliding down to earth.
It Will Never Happen: Getting off with West Virginia at home is balanced by the finale, at Louisville, which will by far the toughest of the, ahem, four road games. Holding the fort against the run will be tougher minus leading tackler Devraun Thompson and especially disruptive tackle Ramel Meekins, the most active and hostile of the Knights' undersized, penetrating line. Eric Foster has to hold the point of attack inside at 265 pounds.


A little higher, a little higher...then...wait...BAM! You break through.
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NEBRASKA
Preseason Consensus: 19
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The Fates are Smiling: Bill Callahan's progress has been a little slow compared to the lightning rejuvenation efforts Bob Stoops' and Jim Tressel at other fading powerhouses, but it's been sure. Methodical, you might say, making the most of what it can with Zac Taylor, taking what the zone coverage of progress gives it. Each Callahan team so far has been a little better than the last, from 5-6 to 8-4 to 9-5 and a division winner. There is no way yet of knowing whether prodigal quarterback Sam Keller will emerge as "steady," but he is a fifth-year senior with a little more than half a season under his helmet as a starter at Arizona State. The tough game is at home, a fascinating game with USC that gives the Huskers another big stage to play like it's 1999 and Keller specfically an opportunity to repeat the 347 yards and two touchdowns he hung on USC en route to a 21-3 lead in 2005 and to redeem the five interceptions that eventually helped cost ASU the win in the same game.
It Will Never Happen: The Huskers have the fortune of playing the number one and number two teams in my preseason poll, and barely a puncher's chance of beating either of them; they'll play at Texas in October. The run defense was okay, allowing 3.7 per carry, but as I pointed out in the spring, that number rose significantly against USC, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Colorado. Even if I were to put more weight on the solid year-end efforts that stuffed Oklahoma and Auburn, four new starters on the line aren't likely to bring that number down to a championship level.

BOSTON COLLEGE
Preseason Consensus: 33
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The Fates are Smiling: Re: kicking ass against the run, B.C. allowed 2.6 per carry in 2005 and 3.5 last year and returns its entire front seven, including run-oriented safety Jamie Silva, 335-pound tackle Ron Brace and 340-pound tackle B.J. Raji, one of the most underrated troublemaking forces in the country. The Eagles also return longtime coordinator Frank Spaziani, the unfortunately-named holdover on the staff amidst the transition to the Jeff Jagodzinski administration. Fresh blood is generally considered a negative here, because Tom O'Brien was unusually successful by B.C. standards in his consistency, but if Jagodzinski is a risk to undermine O'Brien's stoic regularity, he also represents a better chance of transcending its limitations. Either way, Matt Ryan is another fifth-year senior and one of the headiest quarterbacks anywhere. BC hosts Miami and Florida State.
It Will Never Happen: The running game could be had, by NC State, Wake Forest, even Duke and Navy, teams the Eagles should have overpowered. The toughest game is on the road, at Virginia Tech.

FLORIDA STATE and/or MIAMI
Preseason Consensus: 20 and 26, respectively
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The Fates are Smiling: For all their misfortune, both of these teams were still hellacious against the run: FSU allowed 2.9 per carry, Miami an unholy 2.3, both well within the standard deviation over the the last five or six years. Yeah, so, fine, part of that is that they played against each other and combined for three yards rushing, but maybe the defenses were just that good, did you ever think of that? Smartass. Anyway, they are also both loaded with returning talent along the front seven. It may not be possible to classify quarterbacks who have yet to lock down the starting job - Kirby Freeman is only the man in Miami until things start to go wrong - under the banner of "stable," but it's a wide banner, and there's not an underclassmen among the contestants for the job on either side.

Not surprisingly after finishing 7-6, both coaching staffs are radically different in an effort to stem rapid decay, and in an interesting dynamic: Miami promoted from within while Florida State stayed pat on top but branched out for the freshest, most rejuvenative names it could find. Because it's better-known, FSU's hires have drawn more praise, but Randy Shannon's defenses have remained the one reliable element of an eroding program, and he may have a better opportunity to turn the U around.
It Will Never Happen: The trends on both teams are decidedly downward; they seem like better fits for this feature next year. Again, Drew Weatherford/Kirby Freeman ? stability, despite their age and classification. Whatever the enthusiasm of the new staffs, their bosses are familiar faces with the team and therefore likely slower to the fresh perspective/overhaul that underpins rapid change.

Also Considered: South Carolina, Alabama, UCLA

You're a fool if you pull the trigger on any of these teams number one, but you would have been a fool to peg any of this dozen as a national contender, too, and looked like a genius in the end. So if it's worth the risk to your prognosticative esteem, the last decade indicates these are the ridiculous gambles most likely to pay off in the end. Um, in entertainment purposes only, of course...