Citizen Staff Writer
ARIZONA AT BYU, 2:30 P.M. SATURDAY; TV: VERSUS; RADIO: 1290-AM
There was an interesting college football note on ESPN.com recently, and it went like this: In each of the past 10 years, at least two teams unranked in the preseason have finished in the national top 10.
That got me thinking.
First, who were these teams?
Second, what could we learn about these teams that might have some predictive value about this season?
Third, how closely do your hometown Arizona Wildcats fit the criteria of an underrated team?
To start with, there have been 24 total teams to go from unranked to top 10 in the past decade.
Let’s break it down, scientifically . . .
Five cases of severe underranking can be attributed to bias against smaller conference teams – 1998 Tulane, 1999 Marshall, 2003 Miami of Ohio, 2004 Louisville (then of Conference USA) and 2006 Boise State.
The most significant thing those teams had in common was underappreciated star power at quarterback. To wit: Shaun King of Tulane, Chad Pennington of Marshall, Ben Roethlisberger of Miami of Ohio, Stefan LeFors of Louisville and Jared Zabransky of Boise State.
Each team was coming off a winning season and had an abnormally high number of returning starters – an average of 18.
Keeping in mind that Hawaii, TCU and Boise State start the season in the AP Top 25, does any unranked mid-major fit the profile this season?
Utah comes close. The Utes were 8-5 last season, have 16 returning starters and bring back Brian Johnson at quarterback. He sat out last year because of a knee injury, but he was the national leader in passing efficiency when he got hurt late in the 2005 season.
The QB factor
Nineteen of the 24 teams who came out of nowhere had a returning starter at quarterback. That seems like a high number, and likely not a coincidence.
Moreover, most teams had a returning starting quarterback who was really, really good and about to hit the big time.
Cade McCown at UCLA in 1997, Joey Harrington at Oregon 2000 and Brady Quinn at Notre Dame in 2005 are three examples.
The tricky part here is identifying which quarterback from this season is ready to emerge.
Just as with the non-BCS conference teams, the major teams who unexpectedly launched into the top 10 had an above average number of returning starters.
The figure for the BCS-level teams isn’t as sizable, but it’s still noteworthy. Those teams averaged 16 returning starters.
That will be our loose baseline in helping determine our sleeper teams for 2007.
Having a solid base
Most of the unranked teams weren’t flying too far under the radar, having at least a .500 record the year before. Three more teams finished 5-6 the previous season.
The three exceptions were 2001 Colorado (3-8 the previous season), 2001 Washington State (4-7) and 2005 Penn State (4-7).
For the most part, though, we’re looking for teams that are already at .500.
Stop the run
The numbers aren’t complete for the 24 teams – the NCAA on-line stats go back only to 1999 – but none of the 17 sleepers this decade finished worse than 36th nationally in rushing defense.
Eight finished in the top 10.
The average improvement in rushing defense was 24.5 spots in the national rankings, and the average finish was 16.6. Only two sleepers teams were worse against the run over the previous season – and one of those was 2003 Iowa, which had an insignificant drop from fifth to eighth.
What we’re looking for is an unranked team that is at least average against the run, with a chance to be dominant.
Three first-year coaches have led significantly underrated teams in the past two seasons – Charlie Weis at Notre Dame in 2005, Chris Petersen at Boise State in 2006 and Bret Bielema at Wisconsin last season.
Coaches always talk about how their second year is so much easier, with everybody on the same page. Five second-year coaches, including Dennis Erickson at Oregon State in 2000, have led our sleeper teams.
So, one-third of our 24 teams were led by a coach in his first or second year, when the false perception might be that the team is still in transition.
Does luck matter?
It might be counterintuitive, but what we’re looking for in terms of predicting a sleeper is a team coming off a bad season in turnover margin.
That’s because turnover margin can bounce wildly from one season to the next, and a team that has bad luck one season should, based on the law of averages, has better luck the next time.
And, preferably, a sleeper is a team that lost several close games the previous season, indicating that the record is not as bad as it seemed and a turnaround could be at hand.
So, who’s a sleeper?
After analyzing the past decade of sleepers, here’s what we want to see:
A team with an experienced, emerging quarterback coming off a winning record with a high number of returning starters, with a very good rushing defense, preferably with still-new coaching blood that is due for some good luck.
Some of the areas are quantifiable. Some require judgment calls. There are no absolutes, with exceptions to every rule.
Some teams considered but dismissed for various reasons:
• South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Purdue (can they stop the run?).
• Kansas, Georgia Tech, Oregon State, Miami (new starting quarterbacks, although that might be a plus for Tech).
• Wake Forest, Boston College (due for worse luck in turnovers, close games).
Based on the criteria of the past decade, here are the top five teams that have the potential to go from unranked to top 10:
1. Alabama. The Crimson Tide spent enough money for a savior when it hired Nick Saban, and he just might be it.
He takes over a team that went 6-7 and has 16 returning starters, including talented junior quarterback John Parker Wilson. The rushing defense was 46th nationally last season, and should be improved under Saban and coordinator Kevin Steele.
Alabama lost five games by a touchdown or less last season, suggesting just a little improvement could go a long way.
2. Missouri. The Tigers are on the cusp of the Top 25, so this isn’t much of a stretch.
Nonetheless, they neatly fit most of the criteria, with probably not enough voters realizing just how good junior quarterback Chase Daniel is.
3. Virginia. More of a long shot here with the Cavs coming off a 5-7 season. But this list is all about long shots.
Virginia has 20 returning starters, a potential star in dual-threat sophomore quarterback Jameel Sewell and a rush defense that was 41st in the country last season.
A more aggressive defense could tilt the turnover/luck factor more to the Cavs’ favor. They were 44th nationally in turnover margin last season.
4. Arizona State. The Devils are energized by a new coach, 17 returning starters, a better-than-you-think run defense (39th nationally last season) and a quarterback that can be about as good as any in the Pac-10.
The only negative here is that the Devils lost several games by blowout last season. The gap from a 7-6 season to the top 10 might be too great to jump in one season.
5. South Florida. Another team nearly in the preseason top 25. To get to the top 10, the Bulls will have to overcome West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers in the Big East. Watch for QB Matt Grothe and 17 other returning starters to win one or two of those games.
How ’bout them Cats?
Arizona was 6-6 last season, so there is a solid base. Nineteen starters return. Junior quarterback Willie Tuitama, coming off a concussion-plagued season, no longer is surrounded by hype. The call here is that the potential is still there for greatness.
So far, so good.
UA’s running defense was 42nd nationally last season and easily could be a top 20 team in that area.
Arizona was relatively lucky with turnovers last season, losing only five of 20 fumbles and finishing 23rd nationally in turnover margin. Question is, was that just luck or was it good play?
The Cats fit many of the sleeper categories. Could they end up being a top 10 team?
Well, strange things happen every year.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
ZEROES TO HEROES
In the past decade, here have been 24 college football teams that have gone from unranked in the preseason to the final AP top 10.
Year Team Final rank
1997 UCLA 5
1997 Washington State 9
1997 Georgia 10
1998 Tulane 7
1998 Georgia Tech 9
1999 Michigan State 7
1999 Marshall 10
2000 Oregon State 4
2000 Oregon 7
2001 Colorado 9
2001 Washington State 10
2002 Kansas State 7
2002 Iowa 8
2003 Iowa 8
2003 Washington State 9
2003 Miami (Ohio) 10
2004 Louisville 6
2004 Virginia Tech 10
2005 Penn State 3
2005 West Virginia 5
2005 Alabama 8
2005 Notre Dame 9
2006 Boise State 5
2006 Wisconsin 7