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The Best Teams You've Never Heard Of

   by Bryan Leonard - 08/31/2005

Everybody knows the Top 20. Everybody knows the small handful of teams that will be in the running for the national title. Here are a few teams to keep an eye out as the college football season kicks off this week. No, they will not win the national championship and all are long shots to make major bowls. However, good players and coaches reside at small, lesser known schools, not just at football factories rich in tradition like Texas, Florida, Michigan, and USC.

Bowling Green: Growing up in Ohio and attending a MAC school, I keep close tabs on MAC teams and players. Just over a year ago I was talking with a handicapper on the verge of the 2004 NFL draft and mentioned I’d take Miami of Ohio QB Ben Roethlisberger with the No. 1 pick if I was an NFL general manager. I had seen him play many times in the MAC and felt he was good enough to make it in the pros. I was surprised last fall at how fast his success was with the Steelers, though not surprised he was very productive.

The MAC has talented coaches and players. The Bowling Green Falcons are one to watch this season. They’ve gone 20-6 the last two years and last season AVERAGED 44 points and 506 total yards! The guy who makes this offense go is remarkable senior QB Omar Jacobs, who passed for 4,006 yards, with 41 TDs, 4 INTs. You read that right – 4 picks! He’s surrounded by a ton of returning talent, too, led by senior RB P.J. Pope. They were good enough to smoke a talented Memphis team, 52-35, in the 2004 GMAC Bowl.

U.T.E.P: When last we saw coach Mike Price at a big name program, he was leaving Washington State for Alabama, which lasted about a week. Say what you want about his after-hour decision-making, but on the sidelines and in practice, this guy can coach. He took over Texas El-Paso last season and breathed life into the program in incredible fashion (8-4). UTEP had been 2-9, 2-10 and 2-11 the previous last three seasons.

This will be an even more fascinating team to follow. Price reenergized the offense as they averaged 36 points and 251 passing. He has senior QB Jordan Palmer back, along with plenty of holdovers on offense. In addition, RB Tyler Ebell joins the team. Price knew him when he coached in the Pac 10. Ebell, a former Parade magazine All-American, is a UCLA transfer who was very productive in 2002, when Price was at Washington State.

Fresno State: Coach Pat Hill has always had good teams, and this year’s Bulldog bunch is loaded on offense. Fresno is off another terrific campaign (9-3) averaging 40 points per game! With nine starters back on offense and seven on 'D', Fresno is stocked. Senior QB Paul Pinegar leads this experienced, high-octane attack. Last fall Fresno was first in the WAC and 26th nationally in scoring defense.

Toledo: Another high flying MAC team to keep an eye on. They were 2004 Champions of the MAC and have a brilliant coach in Tom Amstultz. The coach has one of his best quarterback prospects ever returning in senior QB Bruce Gradkowski. This kid passed for 3,518 yards, 27 TDs, 8 INTs last season while completing 70% of his passes! He’s surrounded by returning skill position talent, too, with junior WR Steve Odom, and RBs Scooter McDougle and Trinity Dawson. Toledo is 30-1 SU its last 31 home games, and was 5-1 SU, 4-2 ATS at home last year.

Florida Atlantic: All right, this team shouldn’t be on a “bestâ€쳌 list, but they are an interesting group, led by ageless legend Howard Schnellenberger. This group was 9-3 a year ago and pulled off several big upsets early in the season (winning at Hawaii as a 25-point dog!) Like Schnellenberger’s old Miami Hurricane teams, FA runs the spread formation and averaged over 260 yards passing. This team was 3-0 SU/ATS as a dog last fall. They are new to the Sun Belt and if they can get by North Texas at home, they have a chance at winning the conference, which means you may see them up close in a bowl.

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