Posted by Walter
#5 - Tulsa
Head Coach Steve Kragthrope deserves a ton of credit for the amazing job he has done at Tulsa. Not only was Tulsa one of the worst programs in American when Kragthorpe took over, but they were also moving from the WAC to the ultra-competitive Conference USA. All Kragthorpe did was lead the Golden Hurricanes to a 9 win season, win the Conference Title, and take down perennial giant killer Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl. Now Kragthorpe has some rather lofty expectations to live up, but lucky for him he also has his best returning team ever.
In 2006, Tulsa will be led by the best defense in Conference USA. For the past 3 seasons, Sr. LB Nick Bunting had been far and away Tulsa's best player. While Bunting is still the leader of the defense, the honor of best player is no longer a lock. Jr. MLB Nelson Coleman has played his way onto the NFL radar, and fellow seniors Bobby Blackshire and Kedrick Alexander form one of the best safety duos in America. Tulsa struggled to stop the run at times last season because of inconsistent defensive line play and a calvacade of opposing running backs who will someday play on Sundays (Adrian Peterson, Deangelo Williams and Laurence Maroney to name three). The run defense should be much better this season with the emergence of Coleman, and a much easier schedule.
Though Tulsa will have to replace the NCAA all-time receptions leader for TE in Garrett Mills, the offense will be just fine. Though he doesn't maintain the same profile or put up the same numbers as other Conference USA QB's such as Jordan Palmer and Kevin Kolb, Tulsa QB Paul Smith is much steadier than either. Smith directs the Golden Hurrican offense with precision and rarely makes mistakes. Smith is smart enough to play within himself, but also has the natural ability to make plays when his team needs him to. If players like WR Idriss Moss step up for Smith, Tulsa can expect to at least match their 9 wins from last season.
#4 - Hawaii
As a football coach myself, it took me years to accept Hawaii. Football coaches almost universally believe in running the football and playing defense, and this led to my disdain for the wide open aerial attack of teams like Hawaii and Texas Tech. However, times change and the old school philosophies of pounding the football and controlling the clock have been replaced by notions of vertical passing and offensive creativity. Teams like Hawaii cannot recruit the best players in the country, so they are left picking at the scraps and putting together the best team they can often by resorting to less traditional football means. Head Coach June Jones' offense is certainly that.
It is actually staggering what Jones has been able to do at Hawaii. His teams consistently put up over 40 points a game, and his last quarterback (Timmy Change) set the all time NCAA passing mark. However, since none of these numbers have translated into NFL success, nobody seems to pay any attention. Well that could change in 2006. For the first time in his tenure, Jones has legitimate NFL talent on his roster. It is scary to imagine how many points his offense might put up this season. Quarterback Colt Brennan not only has the perfect name for Jones' run and gun offense, but he also has the perfect skill set. Brennan, only a Jr., is big, fast, and has a huge arm. Not only that, but he also has perfect command of Jones' offense, allowing him to always find the open reciever even when he has 4 or 5 options. In Sophomore Davone Bess, Brennan has an NFL caliber WR and one of the true gamebreakers in the WAC. The scariest thing may be that Hawaii could potentially return Brennan, along with their top 3 receivers for 2007.
While nobody is going to confuse Hawaii's defense with that of Texas or Oklahoma, they really shouldn't be that bad this season (and with their offense, that's all they have to be). Since Jerry Glanville took over the defense they have been steadily improving, and this should be his best unit yet. With senior safety Leonard Peters returning from a knee injury, Hawaii has an all-america caliber player right in the middle of their secondary. Peters plays all over the field and is sure to register over 100 tackles and his share of interceptins and pass breakups. The Hawaii defense doesn't even need to play consistently in 2006. If they can make 1 or 2 big plays a game the offense should score enough to win.
There is one caveat with this team though. Hawaii has never been a road team and with trips to Alabama, Boise State and Fresno State, winning a WAC title could be tough. Still, with their offense they will never be out of a game and a 10 win season could be within reach.
#3 - Arizona
Arizona is probably the least likely of my underrated teams to make a bowl game this season, but a lack of wins should not take away from the overall strength of a team. I want to be clear, Arizona is a young team that is probably a year away from seriously competing for a Pac-10 title. But when they finally break through in 2007 I want to be firmly established as the driver of their bandwagon.
This team has a ton of ability, as evidenced by their 52-14 drubbing of UCLA last season. This team is also maddeningly young and inconsistent, as evidenced by their 38-10 loss to a terrible Washington team a week after beating UCLA. But in 2006, the Wildcats are a year older and a year wiser, and I am betting that it translates into more wins. The star of the show in Tuscon is prized Sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama. Tuitama suffered through an up and down rookie season, but should be poised for bigger things this year and next. He has a solid corpse of recievers led by fellow Sophomore Mike Thomas, and the two should blossom into quite a duo for the next few seasons.
However, anyone who watched Arizona last season knows that Mike Stoops makes his money coaching defense. This Arizona defense is both young, talented and hungry. Junior defensive back Antoine Cason is the best player you've never heard of. He's a great cover corner who boasts safety like tackling prowess. Watch one Arizona game this year and you will see Cason make plays all over the field. Add Sr. safety Mike Johnson, and Jr. LB's Spencer Larsen and Dane Krogstand and the Wildcats have as formidable a defense as anyone in the Pac-10.
The Wildcats' achilles heel this season, though, could be a brutal schedule. In their first 4 games they have to play a very tough BYU team, at LSU and at home against USC. If they can get through that stretch at 2-2, they could easily find themsevles in a bowl game. While this team may be a year away from competing on a national level, with an easier schedule they might be a top 25 team right now.
#2 - Arkansas
See, I don't think all of the SEC is overrated. Arkansas had been a team on the cusp for quite some time now. It wasn't too long ago that Houston Nutt was the hot young coach who was going to lead the Razorbacks back into national prominence. Well, somewhere along the way this master plan got derailed. For the last 2 seasons, Arkansas has been an incredibly young team who has gone toe to toe with the big boys (Texas, Florida, LSU). Like some of the other teams on this list, Arkansas may be a year away from national prominence. However, they played nearly 20 true freshman last season. That means that although their best players are sophomores and juniors, they may ready to contribute like juniors and seniors.
The Razorbacks boast one of the youngest and most talented backfields in all of American in the form of Sophomore tailback Darren McFadden and true freshman quarterback (and top national recruit) Mitch Mustain. Whether Coach Nutt throws Mustain to the fire this season will determine how many wins this team has at years end. Regardless, with Mustain and McFadden on board, Arkansas should be in the hunt for the SEC title in 2007.
Defensively, the Razorbacks should be good enough to stay in every game. Diminutive LB Sam Olajabutu (5'9'' 229 lbs.) is a tackling machine. He makes plays from sideline to sideline and is one of the most devestating hitters in the country. Junior CB Chris Houston is another playmaker who was forced to play a lot as an underclassmen and should be ready to contribute at a near all conference level in 2006.
Last year, the Razorbacks were victims of a brutally difficult schedule. This season it is somewhat easier. Though they open with USC at home (and without McFadden who will be serving a suspension), Arkansas is good enough to win their next two games against Utah State and Vanderbilt before a home showdown with Alabama. With Alabama being down this year, Arkansas could start the season 3-1 which would allow them to make a bowl game simply by beating teams like SE Missouri State, Ole Miss., UL Monroe, and Miss. State (giving them 7 wins). While the Razorbacks are probably not ready to clash with the SEC elite like Auburn (especially at Auburn) and LSU (although the game is at home) , a win at South Carolina or against Tennessee at home definitely seem possible.
#1 - Northern Illinois
Is this the year that the MAC finally gets the credit it deserves as a football conference every bit as good as the BCS conferences (I mean aside from producing NFL quarterbacks)? If it is, Northern Illinois is the team to it. Not 10 years ago, the Huskies were one of the worst programs in America. In 2006, they will open their season against the number 1 team in the nation in as big a "show me" game as a MAC team has ever faced. In fact, Northern Illinois has two "show me" games against Big 10 teams this season: at Ohio State, and at Iowa. If Northern Illinois can put up a good showing in both they could be a top 25 team. If they can somehow manage to win either game, we could be looking at a BCS caliber team.
Northern Illinois appears to me to be by far the best team in the MAC this season. The Huskies have the two best players in the conference in tailback Garrett Wolfe and tackle Doug Free. Wolfe stands only 5'7'' and 170 lbs. but he is one of the strongest and toughest runners in the nation. The comparisons to Warrick Dunn are accurate based not only on size, but on heart and skill as well. Free, on the other hand, is a protypical NFL blue chip tackle prospect. At 6'7'' and 300 lbs. Free has the frame to be a dominant NFL tackle for the next decade. In addition, Northern Illinois boasts two of the best quarterbacks in the entire MAC in starter Phil Horvath and backup Dan Nicholson. Basically, with the depth of NFL talent on this roster, scoring points will not be a problem.
Defensively, the Huskies adhere to a bend but don't break mentality. The coaching staff opts for smaller, quicker lineman who can penetrate and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. The flip side of that is that bigger teams can wear on them as the game goes on. NT Zack Holycross is the biggest Northern Illinoiss lineman and he weigs in at under 300 pounds. Holycross will have to play like a man on every down this season to keep the opposition from steamrolling the Huskies. FS Dustin Utschig is a sure tackler and is capable of making big plays in the secondary. The Huskies won't need to be great on defense during conference play, but if they want to have any chance at beating Ohio State or Iowa they will need the defense to step up and make some plays.
Sept. 2 will be gut check time for Northern Illinois. Ohio State will be bigger and stronger than them on offense, and will try to run right over them. If history has shown us anything it is that Troy Smith and Ohio State can be inconsistent on offense early in the season. If the Huskies can come up with a turnover or two, they have a legitimate shot at staying with the Buckeyes into the 4th quarter. Offensively, Horvath and certainly Wolfe are good enough to put some pressure on an Ohio State defense that had a huge talent exodus and will be playing a lot of kids starting their first collegiate game. It really should be an interesting game because Northern Illinois is just the type of team that could give Ohio State some trouble.
Also, I will go out on a limb right now and say the Huskies take out Iowa in Iowa City on October 28, finish the season 10-2, and are ranked in the top 25.