Six sleepers ready to stir things up

Six sleepers ready to stir things up

Six sleepers ready to stir things up
August 6, 2007

Matt Hayes

You know it bugs him. How could it not? It has been 11 years since Jim Leavitt and Bob Stoops, then a couple of young assistants, left Kansas State to find themselves as football coaches.

Stoops became Florida's defensive coordinator and then went to Oklahoma, where he is one of the game's top three head coaches. Leavitt left and became -- what?

"Bob and I were a couple of young guys with big dreams," Leavitt says. "It was all a blank canvas."

Now, finally, it's a work of art for both of them. They took different roads to get there but are in the same neighborhood again. In fact, Leavitt -- the coach at South Florida since Day 1 in 1996 -- arguably has a better team than Stoops for the first time since those purple-and -white spring scrimmages long ago in Manhattan.

South Florida went into Morgantown last season and physically beat the snot out of West Virginia. The Bulls won nine games with freshman quarterback Matt Grothe, who won't remind you of Patrick White but had defensive coordinators scrambling to find ways to contain him.

Looking for an early upset? South Florida over Auburn on September 8. Looking for a Big East sleeper? South Florida, which plays league heavyweights West Virginia and Louisville in Tampa.

The Bulls are deep and physical and will have the league's top newcomer in freshman tailback Mike Ford, a beast who could make a good season magical.

Other sleepers in BCS conferences:

ACC: N.C. State. I know, I must be crazy. Walk with me on this one. Former coach Chuck Amato wasn't the best leader or teacher, but he recruited his tail off. New coach Tom O'Brien means business; dude does not fool around.

Trust me, I saw the look in man-child defensive tackle DeMario Pressley's eyes when he admitted he was "afraid of coach O'Brien." And I saw star wideout Darrell Blackman's uneasy response: "He's not the only guy who's afraid of him."

The Wolfpack returns good speed and personnel on both sides of the ball, and if Daniel Evans or Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck produces at quarterback, this team will be more than just bowl eligible in the deep Atlantic Division.

SEC: South Carolina. It's about players, people. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier admitted last month that his defense will be very good -- even though many of the seven returning starters won't be starting.

That's a clear indication of how well South Carolina recruited the past two seasons, including landing potential starters Travian Robertson and Eric Norwood at end and Kenrick Ellis at tackle. But it's all about the offense with Spurrier -- and everything relies on quirky, inconsistent quarterback Blake Mitchell.

If Mitchell plays as well as he did in the last month of last season, this team can win the East Division. If he plays as poorly as he did in the first month, the Gamecocks will have a new quarterback by October and will be bellyfeeding star tailback Cory Boyd.

Big Ten: Illinois. I said it's about players, remember? There is way too much good, young talent -- quarterback Juice Williams, wideout Arrelious Benn, cornerback Vontae Davis -- for this team to muddle through another bowl-less season.

I'm telling you, the Illini will quadruple their win total (from two to eight), and Ron Zook will be the league's coach of the year. Eight wins against a league schedule that includes games against the Big Three (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin) would be gargantuan progress.

Big 12: Kansas. I admit it. I've got a soft spot for the Round Mound of Manginotown. As far as X's and O's go,Mark Mangino is way underrated, and his team plays hard every week.

Yet I got a chuckle when he talked this spring about an open quarterback competition. This is Mangino's most talented team since he arrived in 2002, and the last thing he needs is a flip-flop at the most important position.

Todd Reesing is a tough kid, but he ain't Kerry Meier. Look, Meier wins big games and maybe -- just maybe -- a division title. Reesing gets you a postseason "evaluation" in the big chair in athletic director Lew Perkins' office.

Pac-10: Arizona. Two ends of the spectrum: Bob Stoops in his first three seasons at Oklahoma (31-7 and a national title) and Mike Stoops in his first three at Arizona (12-22 and three horrific offenses).

New coordinator Sonny Dykes will help Arizona's offense become more efficient and versatile. Still, the reason the Wildcats will go bowling for the first time since 1998 is defense. USC and UCLA will have the best defenses in college football this fall. If I extend that list a little further, Arizona -- with three of the Pac- 10's best defensive players in cornerback Antoine Cason, linebacker Spencer Larsen and end Louis Holmes -- falls somewhere from No. 8 to 10.Not bad for the pass-happy conference.

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