Surprise! Searching for next Kansas Print
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Thursday, 07 August 2008 09:35
NCAAF Headline News

 Nobody saw Kansas coming last year.
Missouri? Good, sure. No. 1 in the country? Nope, didn't expect that.
Same goes for Illinois in the Rose Bowl, Arizona State and Oregon challenging Southern California in the Pac-10, and Boston College and South Florida reaching No. 2 in the rankings.
The 2007 college football season was filled with them. All those wild upsets turned the season upside down, but even more intriguing were the teams that went from unranked in the preseason to top 10 during it.
It's hard to imagine seeing another season as unpredictable, but every year produces teams that exceed expectations. And since everybody loves a surprise, those schools become the darlings of the season.
Right about now is when the search begins for the underdogs who will make a run at best in show in 2008.
Maybe this year's Kansas will be ... Pittsburgh.
``If they can do it, why can't we?'' Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop said.
Or North Carolina. Or Iowa. Or Colorado.
Terry Bowden, the former Auburn coach who now works as an analyst for and Westwood One radio, says he can sometimes spot teams headed for a turnaround by checking last year's results.
``You watch a team play and say, 'Why were they 5-6?''' he said in a telephone interview. ``You go back and see they lost two in OT, they had a key player get hurt. Always look for a team that lost games they could have won.''
Bowden mentioned Pittsburgh (5-7) and North Carolina (4-8) as teams that played a lot of close games last season and may be headed for better results this year.
The Tar Heels, in their first season under coach Butch Davis, lost four games by four points, dropped a six-point game to South Carolina and lost 17-10 on the road to Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia Tech.
Pitt came up with the final, and maybe most stunning, upset last year in a season packed with them. They knocked West Virginia out of the national title game with 13-9 victory in its regular-season finale.
That victory helped start a buzz about the Panthers heading into this season.
``If (West Virginia) beat us by four touchdowns, no one is even talking about us,'' said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who has yet to take the Panthers to a bowl game heading into his fourth season at his alma mater.
The Panthers also lost four games by seven points or less and had their offense wrecked by injuries at quarterback.
Anybody who watched Todd Reesing emerge as a star for Kansas or Dennis Dixon develop into a Heisman Trophy front-runner for Oregon could see that nothing can make a so-so team go-go up the charts like a hot quarterback.
Of all last year's surprise teams, none made a more dramatic and unexpected turnaround than Kansas. The Jayhawks went 6-6 in 2006, and were picked for yet another middling finish in '07. Kansas hadn't won a conference title since 1968 and had only one winning record in coach Mark Mangino's previous five seasons.
But Reesing, the less-than 6-foot tall Texan (how much less is debatable), ended up throwing for 3,486 yards and 33 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, and a defense with eight returning starters developed into one of the best in the nation.
Reesing and the Jayhawks fattened up their stats and their confidence early in the season with four nonconference home games against teams from outside the big six BCS conferences.
When Kansas began its Big 12 season with its first victory against rival Kansas State in Manhattan in 18 years, the Jayhawks were 5-0, feeling good and set up for a huge year.
The Jayhawks reminded Bowden of his first Auburn team, which went 11-0 in 1993 a season after going 5-5-1. Those Tigers also got off to a fast start against weaker competition, then went on to beat more talented teams later in the season, Bowden said.
``By the time (the Jayhawks) got to the end, they had so much confidence they won because of outstanding coaching and confidence,'' Bowden said.
The schedule helped, too. A lot.
When Kansas beat Kansas State, the Wildcats were ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25. Not until the Jayhawks finished the season against Missouri in one of the most unlikely big games of the year did they face another ranked opponent.
The scheduling gods were kind enough to cycle the Big 12 South powers Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech off Kansas' slate last year. Which Big 12 North team gets a similar break this season? Lowly Iowa State. The Cyclones probably aren't ready to make a Kansas-like run at a conference title this season, but don't be surprised if they improve on last year's 3-9 record in coach Gene Chizik's second season.
Sometimes experience can make up for shortcomings in talent. Take Boston College, which won a school record 11 games and reached the ACC championship. The stellar play of quarterback Matt Ryan was a big reason why the Eagles took off in '07. Almost as important was the fact that he was one of 17 fifth-year seniors, to go along with eight fourth-year juniors, on BC's depth chart.
So, after examining all the evidence from last year, expect some '08 surprise teams with these qualities:
-lost several close games in '07;
-have quarterbacks with potential for breakout seasons;
-rely heavily on upperclassmen;
-have manageable schedules, especially early in the season when confidence is being built.
If your struggling team fits the bill in at least two of these categories, congratulations, there's reason for hope.

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