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College Football Surprise Teams

   by Scott Spreitzer - 08/29/2005

This is a great week for sports fans with the start of college football season Thursday. It's the best time of the year for Smash Mouth sports, as college football is my No. 1 interest. Growing up in Nebraska, I got to see all the great things about college football: Rivalries, history, community pride, and top-level gridiron action every Saturday. The wonderful ride rolls again starting this week. Teams don't always play the same as they did the year before. Injuries, coaching changes, or just plain bad luck can hinder a club one season, only to find them playing far beyond expectations the following year. Let's take a look at some college football teams that might have a chance to bounce back with a better season.

TCU: The Horned Frogs had enormous offensive talent a year ago, but poor defense, particularly in the secondary, led to a miserable 5-6 campaign. I closely follow Mountain West football going to many UNLV games here in Las Vegas, and TCU joins the M-West this season, coming over from Conference USA. TCU should be an explosive offensive team again, as they have key returnees in QB Tye Gunn and RBs Lonta Hobbs and Robert Merrill. They might get smacked in the opener at (yikes) Oklahoma, which means the talented Frogs could offer line value after that.

Air Force: Another Mountain West team that disappointed in 2004. But don't ever count a good coach out. Fischer DeBerry has run a successful program for decades and DeBerry has found another gem to run his option attack in sophomore QB Shaun Carney. Carney passed for 1,315 yards, 11 TDs, 6 INTs and led the team in rushing with 596 yards. They have depth, too, as senior Adam Fitch is moving to running back, though he has experience at QB. The Falcons aren't fancy: They're going to run it left, right and up the middle. And when defenses aren't expecting it, they'll throw over the heads of aggressive defenses trying to stack the line focusing solely on the run, a la Barry Switzer at Oklahoma. But you need a veteran running QB to succeed, and this season Air Force has excellent depth and experience behind center.

Alabama: Can Mike Shula coach? That we still don't know. But as he begins his third season at Alabama, expectations are high - much higher than his first two year's of 4-9 and 6-6 records. 'Bama is armed to the teeth with talent with 7 starters back on offense and 9 on defense. The defense was lights out last fall, allowing just 246 total yards and 3.3 yards per rush. The offense was decimated by injuries which led to a .500 campaign. But senior QB Brodie Croyle (6 TDs, no INTs) is back after only playing in the first three games of 2004, along with senior RB Keith Darby. With home games against the SEC's best, Florida, Tennessee, and LSU, don't be surprised if 'Bama is a surprise team this fall.

Florida Atlantic: Who? You may not have heard of Florida Atlantic, but you have heard of their head coach, Howard Schnellenberger (the guy who coached Miami to the 1983 national title over my beloved Huskers). He runs a wide open attack that averaged 266 yards passing last fall. Now they move into the Sun Belt Conference. This team wasn't on anybody's radar a year ago, yet opened the season beating North Texas, 20-13 as a +8 dog, and Hawaii 35-28 as a 25-point dog, both on the road. This is an up and coming program, and if you like to take shots on the money-line with big dogs, put a circle around this little known program.

Oregon: While USC and Cal are getting all the ink, Coach Mike Bellotti's Ducks have some returning offensive firepower that should improve a team that was 5-6. Senior QB Kellen Clemens (22 TDs, 10 INTs) returns to an offense that averaged 158 yards rushing and 238 passing. His favorite receiving targets return, too, along with senior RB Terrence Whitehead (1,144 yards), a back who averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Sometimes teams have losing records because they lost a lot of close games. Oregon lost three games by a total of 15 points last season, including a one-point loss to powerhouse Cal. Don't be shocked to see the Ducks bounce back and go bowling this year.

That's just a few teams to keep an eye on early in the season for potential value. We'll update you each and every week throughout the college football season to pass along potential plays for the upcoming weeks.

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