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UNDERACHIEVERS LOOKING TO TURN IT AROUND IN 2006
August 16, 2006

SCS.comEvery season in college football, there are teams that build upon the struggles of the prior season and turn the fortunes of the program around. The recipe for these teams normally consists of a roster that returns a great deal of experience and having a favorable schedule that sets the table for a major turnaround. Let's take a look at six teams that were under .500 in 2005, but who I think are poised to have break-out campaigns in 2006. The teams have been split evenly between both BCS and non-BCS conference schools.

BCS PROGRAMS

Arkansas

First up, the Arkansas Razorbacks, who return the most starters of any team in the SEC at 19, this from a squad that struggled to a 4-7 finish in 2005. On the offensive side of the ball, 10 starters return to improve upon last seasonís offensive output. In addition, the Hogs corralled the nation's top-rated QB prospect in Mitch Mustain, who figures to earn major playing time this year, as the Razorbacks new offensive coordinator is Gus Malzahn, who just happens to be Mustain's former high school coach.

The offense will undergo a slight facelift, but looks to be more productive than last year's unit as the Hogs will unleash one of the nation's top combinations of running backs in Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. It should be noted that McFadden suffered a recent injury that may keep him out of early season action, but he is expected to return for the SEC schedule. The offensive line is deep and experienced and will pave the way for a potent Razorback attack.

Over on the defensive side of the football, nine starters return from a group that came on strong last season, giving up 16.6 points per game in their final five contests. The secondary will lead the defense as seven of the unitís top eight players in the backfield return.

Reviewing the schedule, the major test for Arkansas comes right out of the gate, as USC pays a visit to Fayetteville. The Razorbacks will be looking for revenge after the Trojans manhandled Arkansas 70-17 last season in a game that could not have possibly been any worse for the Hogs. The SEC West title could be on the line when Arkansas pays a visit to Auburn on October 7th, and the Razorbacks get a nice break by hosting Alabama, Tennessee, and LSU this year, further strengthening their case for a turnaround season. Overall, Arkansas looks to be a major player in the SEC race and should be playing in a bowl on January 1st, or possibly later, as a double-digit win season is a distinct possibility.

Texas A&M

Next in line are the Texas A&M Aggies who struggled to a disappointing 5-6 record last year. Head coach Dennis Franchione is feeling the heat after compiling a 16-19 record in his first 3 seasons in College Station. Franchione will rely on an experienced team that returns 14 starters, split evenly between the offense and the defense.

Leading the offensive unit will be a stout line that will open holes for the running back combination of Courtney Lewis and Jorvorskie Lane. The Aggies will unleash a new QB in Stephen McGee, but he will not be relied upon to win games with his arm; he will direct the attack that will churn out major yards on the ground.

The defense is not yet a return to the days of the Aggie Wrecking Crew, but this year's stop troops will be much stouter than the 2005 version. The defensive line will be much improved and should provide enough heat on the opposing offenses to reduce the pressure on a still developing secondary.

Overall, the schedule lines up nicely for the Aggies, and the potential is there for a double-digit victory season, as A&M will be favored in all 4 of its non-conference games and they play host to Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Nebraska in always-tough Kyle Field. The Aggie Nation can look forward to a successful 2006 season and a return to the postseason.

Arizona

The third BCS team to be highlighted is the Pac-10's Arizona Wildcats. The Cats continue to rebuild under the leadership of Mike Stoops, who is entering his 3rd year in Tucson, and he has this program heading in the right direction. Although Arizona's record may not be quite as impressive as the other schools' mentioned, the team is poised to make major strides in 2006 and build upon last year's 3-8 record.

Eight starters return to lead an offensive unit that looks to finally be ready to reach its full potential. QB Willie Tuitama is a star in the making after he took command of the offense in the middle of last season, and it does not look like he will relinquish the reins. The overall offensive speed has been greatly improved, providing Tuitama with numerous weapons at his disposal.

On the defensive side, the linebackers look formidable, returning 6 players who have starting experience; the secondary is deep and rates as one of the Pac 10's best units, and they will make life extremely difficult for opposing QB's.

The non-conference schedule is tough as UofA hosts an improved BYU squad and then travels to Death Valley to tangle with LSU. This team is capable of returning Arizona to its first bowl appearance since 1998, and I project the Cats to get the job done and enjoy a return to postseason action.

NON-BCS PROGRAMS

San Diego State

Ready to make a run at a Mountain West title are the San Diego State Aztecs. SDSU is a program that always seems to be on the brink of breaking through in the conference but has yet to emerge as champion. New head coach Chuck Long chose a great situation as he inherits a talented team that returns 13 starters after a solid 5-7 2005 season.

The offense could actually take a bit of a step back compared to last year's unit, but it will remain a productive bunch, highlighted by RB Lynell Hamilton. The Aztecs will rely heavily on Hamilton who will hopefully churn out yardage and open up the passing lanes for returning QB Kevin O'Connell.

Shifting over to the defensive unit, 8 starters return, and leading State will be a stout group of linebackers who return 5 of the top 6 players from last season. A key conference battle will occur on September 23rd, when the Aztecs play host to the Utah Utes in their first conference game on the 2006 campaign. If SDSU can earn a split in their first 4 games, a winning season and the school's first bowl trip since 1998 will be the result, and a conference title is within the Aztecs grasp.

Houston

OK, so technically the Houston Cougars were at .500 and not under last season, finishing the year at 6-6 after getting thrashed in the Fort Worth Bowl 42-13 by Kansas. Coach Art Briles has built a potent offense that will put points on the board in bunches.

The Cougars return 7 starters to the offensive unit that scored 28.1 points per game in 2005. Leading the offense is QB Kevin Kolb, who already owns the school's career total offense mark with 9,752 yards. Kolb will have a tremendous receiving corps to toss to and will provide Cougar fans with major excitement, as the team will make a habit of cruising up and down the football field.

Led by 9 returning starters, the defense should be the best unit at Houston in years. The linebacking corps looks to be tops in the conference, and combined with an experienced and deep secondary, the Cougar defense will be tough to move on. With the overall potential of the offensive unit, the defense looks to be tough enough to allow the Cougars to outscore the opposition.

Looking at the schedule and the talent on the roster, the Cougars have a great shot to reach double-digit victories and to claim the league title in Conference USA.

Hawaii

The Hawaii Warriors had their streak of 3 consecutive bowl trips snapped last season as they finished the year at 5-7. As a young and relatively inexperienced offensive unit, the Rainbows still averaged 31 points per game, and they only look to be improved in 2006.

It will be pitch and catch all year as returning QB Colt Brennan, who led the NCAA in passing yards last season, has a tremendous receiving corps returning to catch his numerous tosses. The 2 All-WAC OL returnees will provide Brennan with the time he needs to dissect opposing defenses.

Only 5 starters return on defense, but after allowing 35.7 points per game last year, that could actually be a bonus. The returning starters will be spending their second season in Jerry Glanville's system and should be adequate, and that is all the Warriors will need with their offensive potential.

Hawaii opens the season at Alabama and must travel to both Boise State and Fresno State, but if they can steal 1 of these 3 matchups, the potential is there for a 10-win season, as Hawaii plays 13 regular season games. A more realistic goal for UH is 8 or 9 victories and a return to the postseason.

I expect the fans of these six programs will have an exciting season and can make plans to follow their teams into the postseason.

U.S.A.
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