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Most Improved Teams, Part 1

   by Matt Fargo - 08/20/2007

With the college football season approaching quickly, it is time to look at the teams that had some troubles a season ago but should have turnarounds in 2007. Let’s take a look at three such squads.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2-10 SU; 5-6 ATS

Now is the time for Ron Zook to finally get the Illini moving in the right direction. Losing has been a common theme in Champaign as Illinois has won a total of eight games over the last four seasons including just two Big Ten games. Bad finishes has taken away decent starts as the Illini dropped the final nine games in 2005 and the last seven of last year. Zook is known as a great recruiter and an exceptional motivator but now it must come down to wins.

As bad as it looks to have lost the final seven games of last year, the losses were not bad ones. Four of those came by a touchdown or less and in order for the program to turn around, those losses must be reversed. Illinois is bringing back 15 returning starters overall which is a great amount considering some of the success that was on the field. The Illini finished 10th in the country in rushing with 188.8 ypg and the return of four starters from the line as well as Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield spells more success.

Defensively, Illinois brings back nine starters and that is a very good thing. The Illini allowed 26.8 ppg which certainly is not very good but it was the best averaged allowed in four years. Illinois finished a respectable 51st in rushing defense, 31st in passing defense and 33rd in total defense so the pieces are there for an even bigger improvement. The team is still young and will lose a few games it shouldn't, but it should be talented enough to pull off an upset or two so expect some excellent line value from the start.

NC State Wolfpack

3-9 SU; 3-8 ATS

The hiring of Tom O’Brien to take over the perennially underachieving Wolfpack is a step in the right direction. O’Brien did wonders at Boston College and looks to redefine that blueprint in Raleigh for a team that won just three games last season. Despite the three victories, NC State was not that bad as it actually outgained its ACC competition by 2.3 ypg. Seven of its nine losses were by single digits and its scoring margin was only -4.3 ppg so a few things going the other way could have actually meant bowl eligibility.

NC State is bringing back eight starters on offense and it needs it as it averaged just 17.5 ppg, the lowest output in 21 years. The Wolfpack were 79th in rushing, 81st in passing and 97th in overall so some big improvements are needed. The running game should improve as both top running backs return coupled with the fact that they will get more touches due to the quarterbacks still developing. That is the problem obviously as the passing game could struggle early on but should get better as the season progresses.

The defense has always been the strength but fell off slightly last season. The unit will be better despite just five starters coming back. The Wolfpack allowed 317.2 ypg which was a respectable 36th in the country and their solid 4-3 defense does not allow many points which take the pressure off the offense. NC State does have to travel to Florida St. and Miami as well as Boston College but overall, the schedule is doable especially with seven games at home. With O’Brien on the sidelines, it’s almost guaranteed improvement.

New Mexico St. Aggies

4-8 SU; 5-3-2 ATS

If you like points, tune into these games on local affiliate stations as the Aggies are going to be involved in a lot of high scoring games. Last season, New Mexico St. finished 3rd in the nation in total offense and 15th in scoring offense and while that resulted in only four wins, an improved defense will help shoulder some of that load. 18 starters are back for the Aggies in total including nine on each side. Let’s not forget that the Aggies went 0-12 two seasons ago so a winning record is hardly out of the question.

The Aggies nearly doubled their scoring output from 2006 and it will go up even more. The offense is led by quarterback Chase Holbrook who finished with an amazing 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions and he gets his top seven receivers back this year. The weakness was the running game and head coach Hal Mumme has preached more balance this season. He certainly doesn’t want to take anything away from his “Air Raidâ€쳌 offense but keeping the opposing defense more off balance will only help matters.

The defensive line was the weakness last season as the Aggies finished 90th in rushing defense while registering only 15 sacks but they return intact and experience will play a big part here. The Aggies play seven home games for just the second time in school history and for things to really improve, New Mexico St. must win six of those. Games at New Mexico, Auburn, Boise St. and Hawaii will be tough roadies. The Aggies went 7-3 ATS last year so an improvement will be tough but very possible.

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