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College Football's Ten Most Surprising Teams of 2011

Eight weeks into the season and midway through conference play, we have a fairly solid read on how good teams are compared to how they were perceived coming into the season. Here are five teams that have exceeded initial predictions and five teams that have been notably disappointing.

Kansas State: Bill Snyder may not be college football’s best coach, but how many others would have this collection of players heading to a bowl game, let alone the top ten? We will find out exactly how good the Wildcats are during the next four weeks – they face Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas – but it’s safe to assume no one expected the Wildcats to start 7-0 and Collin Klein to be a compelling candidate for Big 12 Player of the Year.

Eastern Michigan: Eastern Michigan went 2-22 during Ron English’s first two seasons. There were few signs his revolution was afoot. However, this year the Eagles are soaring at 5-3 with a solid running game and an improving defense. Two of the losses were designated victim games at Michigan and at Penn State. They have beaten both directional Michigan schools and look destined for bowl play. Doing that at Eastern Michigan (last 6-win season in 1995, last bowl appearance in 1987), would be an incredible achievement. Last year it looked hard to justify keeping Ron English. This year it looks as though they may have trouble keeping him.

Rutgers: Greg Schiano had plateaued, had run a highly touted quarterback out of the program and lost his last six games in conference to close last season. Things weren’t looking great. However, spurred by a huge year from Mohamed Sanu and a defense that has forced 25 turnovers, the Scarlet Knights are 5-2. The two losses, by a combined four points away to North Carolina and Louisville, were competitive. Schiano should return Rutgers to the 8-9 win range which, at Rutgers, remains an impressive accomplishment.

Wake Forest: Jim Grobe gets paid the big bucks, because he gets more from his team than just about any coach in FBS. Expected to be an ACC doormat, Wake Forest is 5-2 overall and 4-1 in conference with an upset of Florida State. Traveling to North Carolina and Clemson and playing Notre Dame at home, they could fall off, but few would have predicted them controlling their ACC fate this late in the season.

Vanderbilt: Clearly Vanderbilt’s offense – a unit that scored three points combined against South Carolina and Alabama – is not equipped to move the bowl against a great defense. However, the Commodores have won four of the five other games and nearly picked off Georgia at home despite shooting themselves in the foot with four turnovers. They are average, but after three FBS wins and a 1-15 conference record the past two seasons, average is a definite step forward. Beating Kentucky and either Tennessee or Wake Forest would get them to a bowl game, and this is before James Franklin’s offense and recruiting strength has made a meaningful effect.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs entered the season in the Top 20. They didn’t stay long. Dan Mullen’s offense has been far less explosive than the one that overran Michigan at the end of last season. His team is 0-4 in the SEC with Alabama and Arkansas still left on the docket. Wins against Memphis, UAB and Louisiana Tech (at home in overtime) don’t get the saliva flowing. Wins over Kentucky and Ole Miss would save face and get them to a bowl game, but it’s hard not to view this season as an enormous let down. It’s good Mullen is happy in Starkville. He may be there longer than anticipated.

Boston College: Boston College’s offensive transition (99th against FBS) has been rough. Its defense predicted to carry them (84th in FBS) has been soft. Its schedule has been unforgiving. The result has been a disaster of a season. The Eagles are 0-6 against FBS teams. They needed two fumble returns for touchdowns to pull away from FCS UMass. The school’s best effort this season is either a 16-point loss to Virginia Tech or a seven-point defeat to a Persa-less Northwestern. Projected in the seven-win range, 3-9 is now the best realistic scenario.

Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald’s team looked to be a Legends Division dark-horse. They have been a profound disappointment. The Wildcats are 2-5, the one FBS win coming against a putrid Boston College team. They have lost to Army and to their first four Big Ten opponents. Whether it is in-game adjustments, depth or conditioning, the team has fallen apart in second halves. They blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead against Illinois, got shutout 28-0 by Michigan after entering the half with a ten-point lead and allowed Iowa a 24-point fourth quarter. Northwestern needs an upset of either Nebraska or Michigan State just to be bowl eligible.

Air Force: Troy Calhoun could turn the season on its head with five winnable games left to get to 8-4. Though, the way their defense has played that seems unlikely. Expected to buttress them, their unit ranks 110th nationally, terrible against both the run and the pass. They have not held an FBS team with scholarship players under 35 points. They have not beaten a team with an FBS win in regulation. It’s hard to pile on a team that can only recruit players willing to subject themselves to military service and who are smart enough to enter the Air Force Academy, but this team should have been better.

Maryland: Maryland wanted to increase interest its football program. The uniforms have attracted attention. So has Randy Edsall’s coaching. Though, it’s hard to argue either was a positive development. After a resurgence last year, Maryland is 0-5 against FBS teams since an opening win over Miami. The 31-point loss to underdog Temple at home was a particular lowlight. Gary Crowton has worked his magic on the offense, destroying the confidence of last year’s standout freshman quarterback Danny O’Brien. It’s early, but it looks as though the question three years from now will be the same it was today and at the time: “Why didn’t you hire Mike Leach?”

[Photo via Getty]

 

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