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Who Will Be This Year’s Surprise Team?

Do you think it is easy picking a National Champ prior to the year? Since 1994, only 3 times has the preseason #1 team gone on to win the National Title. In 2008, Georgia was the preseason #1 team but I had FLORIDA to win the title and the Gators delivered for me!! Athlon was the only other source to have Florida #1. In 2007 NO Magazine had LSU or Ohio St #1 (USC was the consensus #1). In 2006, National Champ Florida was not picked #1 by ANY magazine and they were picked anywhere from #4 down to #20. They were #7 in the preseason AP Poll and #8 in the Coaches’ Poll. In 2005 everyone had USC again and no one had the actual Champ, Texas. Only in 1999 (everyone with Florida St), 2001 (two magazines) and 2004 (everyone with USC) did any of the Big 9 preseason magazines correctly pick the National Champ.

In 2002, it was yet another Surprise Team taking home the National Title. Ohio St was not even ranked in the preseason Top 10. In fact, only three magazines even picked them to win the Big Ten, let alone contend for a National Title. I am pleased to report I had OSU at #7, which was higher than any other publication and when the smoke cleared, they had beaten Miami, FL in the Fiesta Bowl and took home the National Title.

In 2003, there was another surprise champ and that was LSU. If you read my 2003 College Football Preview, you know I had LSU pegged as my #2 Surprise Team in the country saying they had a great shot at going undefeated and attaining the National Title. At the start of the year, not only did 8 of the Big 9 magazines NOT have LSU as a National Title contender, but NONE had LSU even winning the SEC WEST DIVISION. That year LSU simply won the SEC outright and shared the National Title!! The other half of the National Title went to USC who I had listed as my #5 Surprise Team despite the fact they had to replace their Heisman Trophy winning QB Carson Palmer.

In ’04 almost everyone including myself pegged USC and Oklahoma to play in the Orange Bowl game so there was no Surprise Team in the title game BUT Auburn made no major publication’s Top 10 and almost got to the big game with its unbeaten season. I had Auburn listed as my #7 Surprise Team in ’04.

In ’05 the #1 and #2 preseason teams met in the title game so there was no Surprise Team. Penn St was not ranked in the preseason and finished #3 in the final polls after having a losing season in ’04. While they did not make my Surprise List, they were my #3 Most Improved Team.

The 2006 season was a VERY GOOD year for my Surprise Teams and almost a GREAT YEAR! I say almost a GREAT year because my #1 Surprise Team was Louisville and they came within inches of playing for the National Title. When I wrote the magazine I had expected the “Derby City Duo” of RB Michael Bush and QB Brian Brohm to be one of the top QB/RB combos in the country. Bush was lost in the 3Q of the opening game and Brohm was injured a few games later. Brohm was only a few games back from injury when the #3 Cards blew a 25-7 3Q lead and lost to Rutgers on a FG on the last play (which was a 2nd chance FG after the first one was missed but the Cardinals were penalized for being offsides). Had they held on and won they would have been #2 in the BCS poll and we would have had a pair of unbeatens meet for the title. As we saw, the Buckeyes were greatly affected by their 51 day layoff and were a vulnerable team. Louisville could have been the fourth team in FIVE YEARS to merit National Championship consideration that was one of my Top 10 Surprise Teams. That is a pretty good record considering I do not pick any of the projected preseason Top 10 teams.

In 2007, I had Ohio St listed as my #4 Surprise Team and they entered the season #11 but played in the National Title game. I had USF (unranked preseason) as my #5 Surprise Team and they climbed as high as #2 in the polls. I had Georgia (#13 AP) as my #6 Surprise Team and they finished #2 and almost played in the title game. I had Oregon my #10 Surprise Team and they were #2 when QB Dennis Dixon was injured. Had Dixon not been injured, they likely would have been in the title game. I had Missouri my #9 Surprise Team and despite being UNRANKED in the AP preseason poll, they were #1 when they faced Oklahoma in the Big 12 Title game and finished #4! I also had Hawaii going unbeaten in the regular season and playing in the Sugar Bowl which is exactly what happened!

In 2008, I had Texas Tech my #3 Surprise Team and they got to 10-0 (#2) and came very close (3-way B12 South Division tie) to playing for the Big 12 Championship and possibly the National Title game. Penn St opened the year #22 in the AP poll but was my #5 Surprise team and had they not given away a 9 point 4Q lead vs Iowa they would have been in the title game.

In 2009, the title game was Texas vs Alabama (both top 5 prior to year) so there were no surprise teams.

Last year I had AUBURN my #5 surprise team and despite entering the year #22 in the AP poll they ran the table and won the national title!

So, what have we learned from all this information? Clearly, every year there has been an unexpected Top 10 team and some years there are big surprises like Oklahoma, Ohio St, LSU and Auburn who all took home the title after a 5-loss season (Auburn also had 5 losses in 2003 before going unbeaten in 2004). Now comes the question, “Who will be this year’s Surprise Team?”

The last couple of February’s on PhilSteele.com, I have posted my projected AP Top 10 for the upcoming year. I have hit 9 of 10 the last two years. The last 2 years ESPN has produced its preseason Top 25 and it comes out in April. Here is my expected list of the teams that will likely be ranked in this year’s preseason AP Top 10 and I put them in order of how they will likely be ranked: Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon, LSU, Stanford, Boise St, Oklahoma St, Florida St, South Carolina and Ohio St. It’s likely these 10 teams will make up the Top 10 this year, so I will NOT use any of them. Now let’s take a look at this year’s potential surprise teams.

This year my #1 Surprise Team is the Virginia Tech Hokies! The ESPN April ranking has them at #19 but if you are looking for this year’s Auburn it is Virginia Tech. They have two striking similarities to 2010 Auburn. The first is a QB that is 6’6″ 245 lbs, is mobile and is a first year starter. Auburn had Cam Newton and VT has Logan Thomas. I am not projecting a similar season, but coach Beamer is very high on him. While he wont match Newton’s numbers, VT’s ’11 defense is superior to Auburns ’10 D which allowed 24.1 ppg. Now lets look at the schedule. A big reason Auburn made my surprise list LY was that they had very winnable road games and all the tough games at home (with the exception of Alabama). VT’s road schedule is EC, Marshall, WF, Duke, GT and Virginia. They get Clemson, Miami, BC and NC at home. They have 0 top ten teams on the schedule and have one of the nation’s best head coaches. The ACC title game may be their toughest test of the year. I have them going 12-0 and getting there.

Since they won their last national title in 1988, my #2 Surprise Team the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have been the nation’s biggest underachiever. Only four times in the last 21 years have they actually finished higher than their preseason ranking and 10 times finished unranked in that span many times after opening ranked. They do have a couple of Surprise team factors going for them. First of all 2nd year coaches have been pulling down some titles as of late. A first year HC has to learn the players strengths and weaknesses and the team must learn his new systems. Year two everyone is up to speed. In 2000 Bob Stoops was in his 2nd year shockingly winning the title. 2002 was Jim Tressel’s 2nd year at Ohio St and he was the surprise national title winner! Urban Meyer in his 2nd year at Florida took home a national title in 2006. Last year Gene Chizik (2nd year) took home the title after going 8-5 his first year at Auburn. Third yr HC’s have won 4 in that span ’09-Saban Alabama, ’07-Miles LSU, ’03-Carroll USC, ’97-Carr Michigan. Brian Kelly took a moderately talented Cincy team to 12-0 and a Sugar Bowl berth in ’09. ND won their last 4 last year and this year have 17 returning starters, are in the 2nd year of his systems and they have only 5 true road games (Mich, Pitt, Purdue, WF and Stanford). The only Top 10 team on their schedule is Stanford and ND could be favored in their first 11. All 9 of my sets of power ratings call for DD wins and Kelly had finished above my projection for 6 straight years until breaking that streak in 2010. Remember four Nat’l Champs the last 12 years have been off 5 loss seasons.

Mark Richt does well when expectations are low and my #3 Surprise team the Georgia Bulldogs don’t even figure to be in the preseason top 25 this year! Now I will note that last year I had them in this same spot and they finished an ugly 6-7 with a poor bowl loss to a CUSA team. The Dogs do lose AJ Green (#1 DC) and 3 of their top 4 tacklers but clearly underachieved in ’10 and have had some great recruiting classes the last couple of years with numerous impact players (some JC’s) in this years class. The road slate is manageable with Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vandy and GT all finishing with losing records LY. They have two tough neutral site games but get a bye before Florida and Boise is in Atlanta, not exactly a neutral site. They avoid Alabama, LSU and Arkansas out of the West and get South Carolina at home. Their QB Aaron Murray showed good poise as a rFr and now has experience.

My #4 Surprise Team is the Texas A&M Aggies. Last year they were coming off of 4-8 and 6-7 seasons. TO’s did them in at Okla St as they had a 535-351 yard edge and the ball at midfield at the end but another int turned that into a loss. They switched QB’s and Tannehill cut down on the TO’s and they went 6-1 down the stretch. This year they have one of the most exp’d teams in the country with 18 returning starters one year after ret 16 in ’10. They have just 4 true AG’s this year with Oklahoma the only ranked team among them. Remember Auburn had to go thru Alabama LY on their way to the National Title and the Aggies did beat OU last season. They get Okla St and Texas at home and Arkansas at a neutral site. RB Gray and WR Fuller are one of the best combos in the country and their ppg on defense has gone from 37.4 in ’08, 33.5 in ’09 to 21.9 last year and this years veteran unit may earn the “Wrecking Crew” nickname.

Top Non-AQ Team for 2011

In 2006, my top non-AQ team was Boise St and I PROJECTED THEM INTO A BCS BOWL and they went undefeated and got to the Fiesta Bowl where they beat Oklahoma. In 2007, I called for Hawaii to go 12-0 and grab a SUGAR BOWL BERTH and that is exactly what they did! In 2008 my top non-AQ team was Utah and while they were NOT RANKED in the preseason and no one picked them to even win the MWC at the start of the year except me, they finished unbeaten and #2 in the country! In 2009 my Top non-AQ team was Boise St and when they beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl they finished #4 and the top non-AQ team in the country. Last year it was FIVE in a row. EVERYONE had Boise St as their top non AQ team but I went against the grain and picked TCU and coach Patterson and company did not disappoint as they knocked off Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished #2 in the country, naturally the top rated non AQ team out there (Boise #9!)

That means in the 5 years I have posted my Top non-AQ team ALL FIVE have gone to BCS bowls and ALL FIVE have finished as the best non-AQ team! This year I’m going for SIX IN A ROW, my call is for the Boise St Broncos to go unbeaten and be the top non-AQ team in the country this year!

If you want my complete list of 2011 Surprise Teams (12) and Top Non-AQ Teams (6) make sure you check out pages 20-22 of this year’s magazine!

Only 63 DAYS LEFT UNTIL THE FIRST COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAME!!!

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  • Anonymous

    What about the University of Houston?

  • http://www.philsteele.com Phil Steele

    A definition of a surprise team is that they are a surprise contender for the national title and that is why they did not make the list. They are my #4 non-AQ team for 2011 and my #1 most improved team in the country which means they will no doubt going from a losing season to bowl eligibility. Thanks, Phil

  • http://www.philsteele.com Phil Steele

    A definition of a surprise team is that they are a surprise contender for the national title and that is why they did not make the list. They are my #4 non-AQ team for 2011 and my #1 most improved team in the country which means they will no doubt going from a losing season to bowl eligibility. Thanks, Phil

  • JD

    Phil…was just looking at your combined experience chart.  I applied some very basic standard deviation and mean analysis to it, and assigned a few values.  What I see is that Northwestern should be a team to shock a lot of people this year.  They were a decent team last year, struggling only after their strong QB went down.  Now that QB is back.  So what are your thoughts on Northwestern?

    To a lesser extent, Kentucky has popped up on this analysis.  So I am also interested in hearing your thoughts on them.  They play a tough road schedule (at LSU, at S. Carolina and at Georgia.  But if they can steal one or two of those games,  you think they could be a surprise team?