As we begin to gear up for yet another exciting season of college football, it is always a good time to take a look at teams that look capable of changing their fortunes after a season of struggle and disappointment. When looking for teams that have the potential to make a huge turnaround from the prior season, the key is to find a roster full of experience and a favorable schedule that sparks a return to winning football. Let’s take an in-depth look at five teams (three BCS and two non-BCS) that struggled to losing seasons in 2006 but could make major improvement and earn bowl bids in 2007.
A program that looks to be on the cusp of a major change in recent fortune is the Fighting Illini of Illinois under the direction of head coach Ron Zook. The Illini struggled to a 2-10 mark in 2006, only earning wins over Eastern Illinois and Michigan State on the season, but played numerous teams close and demonstrated that they are on the upswing. Illinois returns 17 starters and has added some exciting talent in Coach Zook’s recent recruiting classes, and this team will be heard from in 2007.
An area that should show a huge increase in production is an offensive unit that returns 8 starters from last year’s group. The key to the season’s success is QB Juice Williams, a still developing passer who has huge upside, and now has a major talent upgrade at the receiver position to help him progress to the next level. Illinois should improve over last year’s abysmal -15 turnover ratio, and this should be one of the most improved offensive units in the country.
The Illini defense was not bad last year in terms of yielding yardage, ranking 33rd in the nation at 310 per game. But the turnovers by the offense resulted in way too many scoring opportunities for their opponents, as the unit struggled in keeping teams off the scoreboard. The leader on this side of the ball is a talented front seven that will apply pressure and focus on turning around the negative turnover ratio from 2006. Also keep an eye on star recruits Martez Wilson, D’Angelo McCray, and Josh Brent, as all may be too talented to keep off the field this year.
The schedule is not easy, as Illinois misses Purdue and Michigan State in conference play, but they do play host to heavyweights Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Illinois has a great shot to win their 4 non-conference games with their opener versus Missouri potentially setting the stage for a turnaround season. Illinois is not quite ready for the upper echelon of the Big 10 just yet, but the recent talent upgrade has been dramatic and this team is ready to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2001 Sugar Bowl.
The Commodores of Vanderbilt made solid improvement last season, but still finished the season at a disappointing 4-8. Included in those 8 defeats were close losses to Alabama (13-10), Arkansas (21-19), Mississippi (17-10), and Florida (25-19), as Vanderbilt came close to its first winning season since 1982. The Commodores have 18 returning starters and 53 letterman back, and this group is ready to step up in the SEC East division.
This has the potential to be Vanderbilt’s best offense in recent history. QB Chris Nickson should improve with a year of experience under his belt, and he will have one of the nation’s best receivers to throw to in all-SEC Earl Bennett. The Commodores could feature 5 senior starting offensive linemen, and all of the top rushers return to a unit that should vastly improve upon it’s 22 point per game scoring average of last season.
With a great deal of experience returning, led by star linebacker Jon Goff, this defensive group should also make a major improvement after ranking 74th in the nation last year in total defense. This unit will not be great, but there is enough talent in place to cause problems to SEC offensive units.
The schedule is key for Vandy as they look on ending a 25-year bowl drought. The Commodores host all 4 non-conference opponents and could be favored in all of those games, with the last contest versus Wake Forest looming large for Vandy’s postseason hopes. Key home SEC dates versus Mississippi and Kentucky will likely make or break this team’s fortune, as the road schedule is brutal. With 8 home games in total, it is now or never for this program, and this looks like the year that Vanderbilt makes a statement to the league.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
North Carolina State took a nose dive last season, falling to 3-9 overall and costing Chuck Amato his job in the process. Tom O’Brien arrives from Boston College where he established an excellent program that has been to 8 consecutive bowl games, winning the last 6. The Wolfpack had numerous close losses last year and struggled in the turnover category, registering a -11 ratio for the season. With 14 starters returning and the addition of Coach O’Brien, expectations are high in Raleigh for State to return to their winning ways.
In order to improve upon last season’s 17.5 point per game scoring average, NC State figures to rely on a pounding ground attack as the QB situation gets settled. RB’s Andre Brown and Toney Baker rushed for a combined 1,346 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and expect production to be even better this year from this top notch duo. O’Brien is known for developing stout offensive lines, and the Pack has an experienced unit that should only improve under the direction of the new staff. Overall, the improved discipline of this entire group should result in major point improvement in 2007.
The Pack always seems to place strong defensive units on the field, and this season should be no different. Last year, State was 34th in the nation in total defense, yielding 317.2 yards per game, and they were especially tough versus the pass, ranking 13th in the country. The leader of this unit is the defensive line with 3 returning starters, led by veterans DeMario Pressley and Martrel Brown.
The non-conference schedule is workable, highlighted by a home date with Louisville on September 29th and a revenge trip to East Carolina on October 20th. The ACC home schedule features 4 winnable contests and will be critical for the Wolfpack’s quest to return to the postseason. This team was snake bitten last season, and with the level of talent returning, this group looks poised to return to prior form.
Looking to return to their normal perch near the top of the Mid-American Conference are the RedHawks of Miami, Ohio. The Hawks stumbled to a 2-10 record last season, only earning wins over Bowling Green and Buffalo, squads that won a combined 6 games. Before last year, Miami was a combined 28-10 in the prior 3 seasons, earning trips to the GMAC (2003) and Independence (2004) Bowls in the process. MU returns 14 starters this season, and the players and Coach Shane Montgomery have their sites set on reaching the MAC championship game. And this team is capable of doing just that.
Eight starters are back on an offense, led by QB Mike Kokal who threw for 2,419 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. A key for this unit is the healthy return of RB Brandon Murphy, who rushed for 1,070 yards in 2005 but was limited to only 280 yards last year due to injuries. Murphy, combined with Andre Bratton and incoming recruit Thomas Merriweather, provides Miami with a strong running game to complement a solid passing attack that looks to be focused around emerging star Dustin Woods. This unit should easily surpass last year’s 18.5 point per game average, the school’s lowest since 1993.
The defense needs to be vastly improved, but the talent is in place with 6 returning starters for the unit to step up this season. The key looks to be a defensive line that struggled last year to disrupt opposing offenses, but that group now returns 8 players with experience. If the line becomes a force, this defense will make huge improvements over last year’s group that allowed 331.8 yards per game.
The schedule sets up well for the Hawks, as they avoid West Division powers Toledo, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Central Michigan. The non-conference schedule is not easy, but does have winnable home games versus Cincinnati and Syracuse and an interesting road trip to rebuilding Colorado, in the schools' first ever meeting. Look for Miami to make a run at the MAC East title, return to their winning says, and become bowl eligible in 2007.
After a run of 3 consecutive bowl appearances, the roof caved in on the Tiger program last season as Memphis tumbled to a 2-10 campaign, including one win over 1-AA Chattanooga. The Tigers were bitten by the injury bug and lost numerous close games, which forecasts a turnaround season in 2007. There are 16 returning starters, evenly split on offense and defense, as head coach Tommy West takes aim at a return to the upper tier of Conference USA.
Leading what looks to be a much improved offensive unit is QB Martin Hankin, who passed for 2,550 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Hankin will stand behind a deep and talented offensive line and pass to one of the league’s best wide receiving corps, as 6 of last season’s top 7 pass catchers return this season. Memphis is geared to greatly improve on last season’s 23.4 points per game average, the school’s lowest output since 2000.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers have the talent to greatly improve on last year’s unit that yielded 30.4 points per game, ranking 103rd in the nation in that category. Memphis added a couple of SEC transfers in Tony Bell and Dontae Reed to stabilize a secondary that struggled in 2006. This unit is not the league’s best, but it looks to make major progress over last year’s defense.
The Tigers have a shot to run the table in their non-conference games, with the toughest contest being their opener when Mississippi comes to town. Even with playing their two top division contenders on the road in Southern Mississippi and Central Florida, Memphis is ready for one of the nation’s top turnaround seasons and a return to the postseason after a one year absence.