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Anatomy of an Underdog '08

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This time the last two last years, in two very different preseason poll environments (2006 was a mashup of unworthy-looking, poor man’s contenders; 2007 was all USC, all the time), I’ve assessed the rogue mythical championship insurgents over roughly the last dozen years, 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?
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Both years, I found the precedent from past underdogs favored some combination of five steady criteria, from most relevant to least:

• Kick-ass Run Defense (less than 3 yards per carry)
• Steady Junior or Senior Quarterback (Although not necessarily game-tested)
• Relatively New Coach (aka "The Big Hire")
• Upward Trend (in connection w/ the new coach, a noticeable upturn in fortune over a 2-3 year period prior to the breakthrough season -- although not necessarily the immediately preceding year)
• Biggest Win(s) at Home

Though this criteria made me correctly high on Louisville in 2006 and on board with Boston College last year, neither really challenged for the mythical championship in the end, and I failed to predict the unsung teams that actually came the closest to pulling off the surprise run, Wisconsin in 2006 and Ohio State, Kansas, and Missouri last year. And, though the Badgers fit the above-listed formula pretty well, OSU, KU, and Mizzou shot it all to hell in various ways:

Preseason rank courtesy’s Preseason Consensus.
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To the old, tattered list of indicators, I added another -- possibly the toughest to predict -- based on the tendency of most of the teams on this list (10 out of 16) to make its run in connection with the leadership of a spanking new addition to the lineup. This is not necessarily a first-year freshman or JUCO transfer, but any player who had contributed essentially nothing to the team in prior seasons yet eventually emerged as a star, or at least an essential spark in his team’s surge -- that includes Travis Henry and Todd Reesing, sophomores who had barely played as freshmen (Henry had two carries for 4 yards in 1997, then fell just short of 1,000 yards in UT’s run-oriented offense after Jamal Lewis was injured in 1998; Reesing, after redshirting in 2005, threw 24 passes in late action in 2006, but began ‘07 as a backup and had shown nothing to indicate he would throw for 3,500 yards and 33 touchdowns), and Brad Banks, who’d played very sparingly as a first-year JUCO transfer in 2001 (68 passes) and was a virtual no-name before finishing second for the Trophy Which Must Not Be Named following Iowa’s near-dream season in ‘02.

As you can tell, indicators along these lines are much more like suggestions than mandates -- if you throw enough categories against the wall, every team is bound to hit one of them, but only Ohio State in 2002 and LSU in ‘03 qualified under every one of them. Many of these teams are also strong, run-first offenses with extremely efficient passing games (Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Ohio State, LSU, Auburn, West Virginia, Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State again), but that is a very loose disitnction and doesn’t describe the particular versions of Arizona State, Oregon State, Oklahoma, Kansas or Missouri in question; the nature of the venture means most of the teams in question will be coming off three, four or five-loss seasons -- they’d be ranked higher if the previous record had been better, and losing teams virtually never have the talent to make such a wholesale turnaround in one year -- but there are far too many three-to-five-loss teams in any given year to count that as an indicator of impending darkhorse-dom. So this year’s candidates are the ones that best fit the profile, because none of them are perfect fits:

I would give Alabama a strong endorsement under Saban 2.0 -- remember, ‘Bama is only a couple years removed from starting 9-0 with a senior quarterback under Mike Shula -- if it didn’t have two killer trips to Athens and Baton Rouge; even if the Tide manages to win one of those games, they’d still have to survive Auburn at home, and the six-game losing streak, etc., so even the prospects of a breakthrough don’t lend themselves to legitimate mythical championship consideration. The Tide are also a little off the mark against the run and are replacing most of the front seven, making the requisite push on defense unlikely.

The most consistent indicator of darkhorse teams over the last decade has been their impenetrable run defense (11 of 16 allowed less than three yards per carry, and only one, the fringe example of Wisconsin in 2006, allowed more than 3.6), and among this year’s candidates -- while I'm still not convinced it's actually a good team -- Wake Forest has the best chance of pushing its opponents’ numbers into that range. The Deacons have been better-than-solid against the run the last two years (3.2 per carry in ‘07, 3.1 in ‘06), which is part and parcel of playing in the all-around lo-fi ACC, and return five of their starting front seven, including fourth-year starter Matt Robinson and third-year starters Boo Robinson, Stanley Arnoux and Aaron Curry, who (along with cornerback Alphonso Smith) is getting a lot of attention from draftniks and all-ACC teams alike and could be the pace-setting defensive star of a temporary Wake ascendency. The Deacons have no apparent game-breakers in their incoming class -- and minus their two best big-play guys on offense and special teams, Kevin Marion and Kenneth Moore, probably need to find one, at least to serve as a threat in the return game and occasional offensive spark -- but they have an experienced quarterback, a potentially smothering defense with eight senior starters, a proven clutch kicker in close games and a favorable schedule that offers up only one game (against Clemson, in Winston-Salem) in which they’re obvious underdogs. For a senior-stocked team that built a lot of credibility last year by sustaining the potentially fluky '06 championship run, in a wide-open conference wherein the window of opportunity figures to begin closing soon, it’s now or never, and if any of this fall’s potential darkhorses screams "now," it’s probably Wake.

As always, let the buyer beware.