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August 26, 2006

Undervalued and overlooked: The sleeper teams

Some football teams just need a strategic wake-up call to jump-start a better-than-expected season.

Others seem to doze off at the most inopportune times, losing games they're expected to win or slumping into prolonged losing streaks.

Then, there are comatose programs that post losing records year after year after year.

A few others have aspirations so grandiose that skeptics roll their eyes and huff: "You must be dreaming."

No matter which category they fall into, they are all potential sleeper teams, undervalued and overlooked, but carrying chips on their shoulders just waiting to prove a point.

Sleeper teams might not be national champions (although in some years they have been), but they're very often the best stories in a given year.

That was undoubtedly the case when the 1995 Northwestern Wildcats, perhaps the most memorable sleeper team of all time, awoke from the coma of 23 consecutive losing seasons and stunned the nation by winning the Big Ten and booking an improbable trip to the Rose Bowl.

Another example - on a smaller scale - occurred in 1974 when Baylor rebounded from a 2-9 disaster in '73 to emerge as the Southwest Conference champion.

The Bears had not managed a winning season in a decade, and it was their first conference championship in 50 years.

Rivals.com 2006 Sleeper Teams
1. Pittsburgh: Last season's record: 5-6. Returning starters: Six offense, six defense.
Outlook: All the preseason hype in the Big East centers on West Virginia and Louisville, but the Panthers have a realistic shot at winning their first 10 games before closing with the Mountaineers and Cardinals. The Panthers started slowly in coach Dave Wannstedt's debut season, losing four of their first five. This year, four of their first five games are at Heinz Field, and Notre Dame and Nebraska aren't on the schedule. Until facing West Virginia and Louisville, the only Pittsburgh opponents to win as many as eight games last season are Toledo and Central Florida. Quarterback Tyler Palko and All-American caliber linebacker H.B. Blades are proven commodities and good leaders.
2. Arizona: Last year's record: 3-8. Returning starters: Seven offense, nine defense.
Outlook: Six consecutive losing seasons and back-to-back 3-8 finishes usually aren't conducive to optimistic outlooks, but fans in Tucson believe the Wildcats could have a breakout year in their third season under Mike Stoops. Five of last season's losses were by a touchdown or less, and the Wildcats dealt UCLA one of its two losses. Arizona had one of the Pac-10's best defenses a year ago and its secondary appears to be the best in the conference. The offense features a good group of receivers and sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama, who passed for 1,105 yards while starting just four games last year. The schedule is rugged on the front end with BYU, LSU and USC among the first four opponents, but a bowl game isn't out of the question this season.
3. Utah: Last season's record: 7-5. Returning starters: Five offensive, eight defensive.
Outlook: The Utes did not collapse last year after losing coach Urban Meyer to Florida and quarterback Alex Smith to the NFL. True, they weren't winning a BCS bowl, but they did blast Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. This year they're again aiming at a BCS bowl, even though they've already taken a hit with All-Mountain West Conference quarterback Brian Johnson opting to sit out a redshirt year to continue recovering from ACL surgery in December. Backup QB Brett Ratliff played very well in relief of Johnson in a victory over BYU last season. Cornerback Eric Weddle, who is one of the nation's best, heads up the defense. The Utes face a dicey season opener at UCLA, but their remaining toughest opponents Boise State, TCU and Brigham Young all must visit Salt Lake City.
4. Arkansas: Last season's record: 4-7. Returning starters: 10 offense, nine defense.
Outlook: The Hogs lost four games by a total of 13 points last season. With almost everybody returning, that is reason enough to anticipate major improvement. However, two of the starters quarterback Casey Dick (back) and running back Darren McFadden (toe) are hurt. That clouds the bright outlook somewhat, but not much. Felix Jones is an excellent running back, too, and he'll mind the store until McFadden is ready. Robert Johnson passed for more yards than Dick did last season, and celebrated freshman Mitch Mustain is also waiting in the wings. On defense, Arkansas held its last four opponents to fewer than 20 points last season. Two of those opponents were South Carolina and LSU, and the Razorbacks should be good there again.
5. Texas A&M: Last season's record: 5-6. Returning starters: Seven offense, six defense.
Outlook: If the Aggies can manage a home victory over Texas Tech on Sept. 30 then a 9-0 start isn't out of the question. One of the most disappointing teams in the nation last season, A&M has a favorable schedule that doesn't send them out of the state of Texas until Oct. 7. Their "away" game against Army on Sept. 16 will be played in San Antonio. In fact, the Aggies leave Texas just twice all season to visit rebuilding Kansas and Oklahoma State. Four starters return in the offensive line and quarterback Stephen McGee performed very well when Reggie McNeal was injured last season. The biggest issue, however, is repairing a pass defense which was the nation's worst. New defensive coordinator Gary Darnell has installed a 4-2-5 scheme to try to shore up that area.
6. TCU: Last season's record: 11-1. Returning starters: Eight offense, seven defense.
Outlook: An 11-1 record in 2005 indicates the Frogs are wide awake, but any team in a non-power conference still has a degree of sleeper status. The feeling in Fort Worth is the Horned Frogs can be every bit as good as they were last year. The Frogs have a strong defensive line with pass rushers Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz heading a unit that ranked 25th nationally and forced 40 turnovers a year ago. Quarterback Jeff Ballard and running backs Lonta Hobbs and Aaron Brown pace the offense, which produced more than 30 points six times in 2005. If the Frogs survive a tough three-game stretch against Texas Tech, Brigham Young and Utah from Sept. 16 to Oct. 5, they could be bound for a BCS bowl.
7. Michigan State: Last season's record: 5-6. Returning starters: Six offense, six defense.
Outlook: The Spartans aren't just sleepers, they're narcoleptic. What other explanation is there for last season's snazzy 4-0 start, which was followed by a 1-6 snooze. Coach John L. Smith is 18-18 in his three seasons in East Lansing, and this year's schedule isn't too forgiving with Pittsburgh and Notre Dame leading into Big Ten play. But any team with a quarterback as good as Drew Stanton cannot be dismissed, especially with a good receiver in Jerramy Scott and a rising star in running back Javon Ringer. The defense needs to improve, but Smith is optimistic the Spartans pass rush will be better.
8. Brigham Young: Last year's record: 6-6. Returning starters: Eight offense, four defense.
Outlook: The Cougars have five All-Mountain West players back, including quarterback John Beck - who was named the conference's offensive most valuable player after throwing for 3,709 yards last season. Tight end Jonny Harline is among the best in the nation, and running back Curtis Brown rushed for 1,123 yards and scored 14 touchdowns a year ago. Upgrading the defense that ranked 91st in 2005 is essential. The break-even record of a year ago isn't impressive, but the Cougars lost twice in overtime (to TCU and Utah) and lost by a touchdown in the Las Vegas Bowl to California, which has national championship aspirations.
9. Washington State: Last season's record: 4-7. Returning starters: Seven offense, seven defense.
Outlook: Last year's disappointing season included five losses by four or fewer points, so with just a little improvement the Cougars will be back in the bowl picture after a two-year absence. The loss of All-American running back Jerome Harrison hurts. Cougars quarterback Alex Brink passed for 2,891 yards as a sophomore, and receiver Jason Hill caught 62 passes for 1,097 yards and 13 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Mkristo Bruce is one of three starters back on the defensive front four. Bruce is coming off a season in which he accumulated 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. However, that defense, which ranked 106th a year ago, will determine how much the Cougars improve. Washington State didn't make it easy on itself by scheduling Auburn in the season opener.
10. Rutgers: Last season's record: 7-5. Returning starters: Seven offense, seven defense.
Outlook: Aided by a favorable schedule, Rutgers reached the Insight Bowl last season only its second postseason appearance and first since the 1978 Garden State Bowl. (Both appearances resulted in losses to Arizona State). More good days could await the Knights because the schedule is again forgiving with non-conference games against North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Howard and Navy. The offense figures to be good, and if the secondary improves eight victories are a possibility.
The Rivals Five
Our all-time greatest sleeper teams:
1. Northwestern 1995: The Wildcats went 23 seasons without a winning record, and that included a 34-game losing streak from Sept. 22, 1979, to Sept. 18, 1982. But in '95, running back Darnell Autry rushed for 1,785 yards and coach Gary Barnett directed the Wildcats to nine consecutive victories and into the Rose Bowl. Celebrities who had graduated from Northwestern's prestigious Theater Arts program suddenly were bragging about being Wildcats. Who knew Charlton Heston was one?
2. Stanford 1940: In one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, Stanford bounced back from a demoralizing 1-7-1 season in 1939 to go 10-0 in 1940. Stanford eked by Santa Clara 7-6, UCLA 20-14 and California 13-7 before defeating Nebraska 21-13 in the Rose Bowl to clinch the only football national championship to be celebrated in Palo Alto.
3. Miami 1983: Unlike Northwestern, Miami had been good for awhile. The Hurricanes had posted three consecutive winning seasons, but weren't taken that seriously. They were unranked in the Associated Press preseason poll and were rated No. 19 by UPI. They weren't in any polls a week later after getting clobbered 28-3 by Florida. But the Hurricanes won 10 in a row to get an Orange Bowl berth against No. 1 Nebraska, and then pulled off a stunning 31-30 upset and were crowned national champions.
4. Clemson 1981: Twenty-five years ago, ACC football was still being looked down on by the rest of the nation. Clemson, which was coming off a 6-5 season in '80, was unranked to start the season and did not break into the Top 20 until the fourth week of the season. But the Tigers kept climbing and eventually defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to finish off an undefeated season and capture the national championship.
5. Baylor, 1974: Fifty years had passed since Baylor had won a conference championship, and the Bears didn't figure to end that drought in 1974 after stumbling to a 2-9 finish the previous years. But Baylor rallied from a 24-7 halftime deficit to upset Texas in early November and followed with victories over Texas Tech, SMU and Rice to win the conference championship and make coach Grant Teaff a legend in Waco.

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