Who Will Be College Football's Most Surprising Teams In 2006?
By Doc of Doc's Sports Journal
With the 2006 college football season just a few weeks away, everyone has their own opinions about who will be this year's most improved team. Here's my take on some programs that could be poised for successful seasons:
The Washington State Cougars return 14 starters from last year's disappointing 4-7 team and are a trendy pick for a bounce-back year. A closer look into their seven losses last year and I see that five of them were decided by four points or less.
WSU suffered numerous injuries during their 1-7 conference slate, but was still able to move the ball offensively. They ranked No. 5 in the Pac-10 in yards-per-play and return QB Alex Brink, who threw for over 2,800 yards last season. Brink also notched 28 touchdowns while tossing just 13 interceptions. Since the offense remains mostly intact it will be up to the Cougars defense to step up and make plays.
The Illinois Fighting Illini is a team right in our backyard that should see improvement in Year Two of Ron Zook's tenure. Illinois was a very young team in 2005 and started only four seniors. They return 19 of 22 starters, and that experience should pay huge dividends in the rugged Big Ten. The Illini beat a talented Rutgers team last season, and with quarterback Rim Brasic completing over 60 percent of his passes the offense should be able to put points up on the board.
For Illinois to be successful the defense will have to improve. Defense is Zook's specialty, and he also brought in a new defensive coordinator in Vince Okruch. With a favorable home schedule and several winnable road games this team could end up bowling for the first time since 2001.
An intriguing team with a second-year coach out west is the Arizona Wildcats. Led by coach Mike Stoops, the brother of Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops, this team should continue to progress. The Wildcats joined the Pac-10 in 1978 and are the only team that hasn't represented the league in the Rose Bowl. With 17 returning starters and the USC Trojans in rebuilding mode this may be Arizona's best opportunity in years.
The Wildcats will rally behind quarterback William Tuitama, who took the reins midway through last season and went on to tally nine touchdowns to only five interceptions. Tuitama enters the fall as the No. 1 guy but he may receive some competition from Kris Heavner.
What sticks out in my mind about Arizona in 2005 is their game against UCLA, in which the Wildcats mauled the Bruins 52-14. That marked, by far, the most points put up by the Cats in 2005 and they'll need more scoring outbursts like that if they plan to reach a bowl game in 2006. With a wealth of experience coming back they need to believe that game wasn't a fluke and that they are capable of matching up with the best teams in the conference.
Finally, my choice for this year's Most Improved Team in college football is the Arkansas Razorbacks. They certainly have to be excited in Fayetteville with Coach Houston Nutt entering his ninth season at the helm. Arkansas went 4-7 in '05 but had to be the most snake-bitten team in the country. For example, they had Vanderbilt on the ropes in their second game - leading by 11 points late before eventually losing a four-point decision. Arkansas rushed for nearly 2,400 yards last season, which is a blueprint for success. A productive running game allows the Razorback offense to chew up the clock and lets its defense rest.
Arkansas didn't see a drop-off in conference play either as they rushed for nearly 400 combined yards in tough losses against Alabama and Auburn. To put an end to a very disappointing season, the Razorbacks missed two field goals and two PATs in a 19-17 defeat at the hands of LSU in the season finale.
But the 2006 schedule sets up very well for the Razorbacks. They only have to leave the state in four of their 12 games. They are also tied for the most returning starters of any team in the country with 19. Also, 18 true freshmen gained valuable experience playing last year and should contribute again this season.
I expect the Razorbacks to give USC all they can handle in the season opener, and they should easily cover the nine-point line set by the oddsmakers. Could Arkansas pull off the first major upset of the season? My crystal ball says, "Don't be surprised. It certainly has the smell of bacon."