The 2001 college football season has brought many surprises. Will Joe Paterno ever win another game? What happened to Oregon State and Mississippi State? Can Florida State somehow climb back up in the polls and win the ACC again?
Then there are also some good surprises in NCAA football this year. Take Maryland, Fresno State, and Washington State, for example. These three teams are a combined 18-0 (through Saturday 10/13). Although all three were supposed to be a little better than last season, I donít think anyone expected this kind of success.
Maryland is led by first-year coach Ralph Friedgen, who was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech last season. The Terps beat North Carolina 23-7, a win that seems much more impressive now than it did then. After that, they got wins over E. Michigan, Wake Forest, West Virginia, and Virginia.
Then came the Thursday night showdown with Georgia Tech. Maryland led 14-0 for much of the game but allowed GT to come back and take a 17-14 lead. As time was running out, QB Shaun Hill led a drive to put the Terps in field goal range. Kicker Nick Novak, who was only 4 of 11 before this attempt, nailed the kick to send the game into overtime. Maryland took possession first in OT, and after getting one first down, the drive stalled. Once again, Novak came on to hit a clutch FG to give Maryland a 20-17 lead. GT took possession and on their second play, fumbled. The Terps recovered, and coach Fridgen had come back to steal one from his former employer.
So far this season, Maryland has not been spectacular in any one single area, just solid in every aspect of the game. RB Bruce Perry is averaging 145 yards per game and a nice 6.2 per carry. A good ground game only helps QB Shaun Hill look even better. Gary Guilian has been the Terps best receiver so far, averaging almost 70 yards per game and 3 TDs. Although kicker Novak has only made 6 of 13, he made the clutch kicks against GT.
The defense was also very impressive vs Tech, limiting the firepower shown from Georgia Techís best players, QB George Godsey, RB Joe Burns, and WR Kelly Campbell. Tony Okanlawon has 5 interceptions already this season. Punter Brooks Barnard is also having a great season, getting 44.5 yards per punt and pinning the opponent down inside the 20 yard line 10 times. Maryland is bowl eligible in October, something this team, fans, and new coach Ralph Friedgen can be very, very proud of.
Fresno State has also shocked people around the nation. They began the season fast, knocking off top-25 teams Colorado, Oregon State, and Wisconsin. The win over Colorado is very impressive right now, but the win over OSU is not as impressive at this point. Wisconsin has been a very up-and-down team so far in 2001. The Bulldogs then went on to knock off a couple of easy opponents before heading to Fort Collins to take on Colorado State. The Bulldogs were able to win the game in OT, thanks to a clutch FG from kicker Asen Asparuhov, who was 11 of 14 in FGs coming into the CSU game.
QB David Carr leads the Dogsí offensive attack, completing nearly 63% of his passes and throwing for 1,411 yards so far this season (prior to the CSU game). WR Bernard Berrian has made a star of himself, while also returning kickoffs and punts. He has caught 28 passes for 414 yards, while averaging more than 80 yards per game receiving. Berrian has averaged more than 30 yards per kickoff return, and one for a touchdown. RB Paris Gaines has scored 4 TDs this season while gaining 85 yards on the ground each game. Punter Jason Simpson is averaging 47 yards per punt, and has pinned the opponent inside the 20 7 times.
The toughest part of the schedule for the Bulldogs is complete. Fresno State should win all their remaining games, and go to a BCS bowl. If the Bulldogs do finish 13-0, there is no doubt that they should be given a BCS bowl game.
Last but not least, the Washington State Cougars have surprised many people this season. After four easy wins to start the season, the slumping Oregon State Beavers came to visit the Cougars. Washington State jumped out to a big lead and was able to hang on for a 34-27 win. A trip to then-unbeaten Stanford awaited the Cougars next. In a game in which over 80 points were scored, Wasington State hung on for a 45-39 win. QB Jason Gesser has played well, completing 55% of his passes, throwing for 1,306 yards and 14 TDs through WSUís first five games. His favorite targets have been Nakoa McElrath and Mike Bush. McElrath is averaging 17 yards on his 34 catches, gaining nearly 120 yards through the air per game. Bush is averaging more yards per catch, 22, than McElrath, but on 20 catches. He is averaging 88 yards per game receiving. RB Dave Minnich has been the go-to guy in the backfield for WSU, scoring 5 TDs through the first five games. One impressive stat for WSU is that they have intercepted 12 of their opponentsí passes, while only having 4 of their own intercepted. FG kicker Drew Dunning has been solid, connecting on 10 of 12 FGs in 2001.
Washington State still as the most difficult portion of their schedule in front of them. Home games with Oregon, UCLA, and Colorado remain, along with a big road trip to in-state rival Washington on November 17. If the Cougars win 2 of these 4 games, coach Mark Price and the team from Pullman, WA can call 2001 a major success. A 9 win season is definitely possible, and would likely get WSU into a very good bowl.
These three teams have gone in the opposite direction of such teams as Penn State or an Alabama of 2000. They have exceeded preseason expectations, and there is no reason to think that any of the three will win less than 8 games. Both Maryland and Washington State could end up with 9-2 records and content for their conference title. Fresno State has a great shot at a 13-0 season and a WAC title.