College Football: Breakout Teams in 2009

Now that the July Rubicon has been forded and my mourning for Michael Jackson has ended, our attentions can turn in earnest to college football preview magazines and preseason prognostication. Like many of you, I will purchase several terrible college football magazines with outdated information (Jarvis Humphery's development at DT will be key for the 'Horns!), poor analysis (2008 Preview Headline: Can West Virginia prevent the inevitable Ohio State/Georgia national title game?), and uninspired writing (_____ will provide much needed depth and experience). Why do I do it? It's part of my summer ritual and the bright glossy pictures are yarn dangled before a civet.

Plus, I just need it.

If you want to soothsay, it's crucial to be able to identify breakout teams and separate the traditional powers from the traditional pretenders. Last year's prognostications were particulary bad across the board for all of the magazines and online purveyors (see CFN's 2008 Top 10) largely because of a consistent overfascination with name brand skill position talent.

Like Pro-Activ, I don't have many hard and fast rules when it comes to projecting a break out, but here are a few tips for care and maintenance in anticipation:

Experience

Generally, we're for it. However, the value of football experience, like The Dave Matthews Band, is consistently overrated because of its persistence, easy familiarity, and ability to play the harmonica in lengthy self-indulgent jam sessions.


OMG! You're so quirky and real, Dave!

The first fallacy of overvaluing experience is that returning lots of talentless older players is good. See last year's predictions for A&M to go to a bowl. I laughed at every magazine that lauded our LB corps experience in '06 and '07 or bemoaned the loss of "National Championship LBs!" in previewing '08. Trust me, we're not alone in this transgression and if you can discern the dead weight in other programs - and relying on the opinions of their fans or beat writers is generally a terrible idea - you'll be well ahead of the game. Count the experience that matters.

This year's Vanderbilt squad returns 17 starters from a 7-6 team that went 4-4 in SEC play and won their bowl game. A conventional analysis posits that they're on an upward trajectory and will exceed last year's record - perhaps even be a bit of a dark horse in the weak SEC East. Sounds good. But would it be impolitic to point out that they somewhat suck? This is a key consideration, you see.

The second fallacy of fetishizing experience is the idea that it's equally valuable in all positions. It's not.

Look hard at: QB, OL, DB. All things being equal, the value of experience at QB, OL, DB is much greater than WR/TE, LB, DL, RB. Don't misinterpret this, dear internet buffoon: I'm not arguing that the other positions don't get better over time or that it's advisable to start four freshmen DL, I'm simply pointing out that there are certain positions that consistently allow improvement by leaps and bounds with skill development, unit cohesion, and physical confidence. A badass RB is a badass the day he steps on campus. OL and DBs truly play together as units - most of the other positions play in parallel. QBs with twenty starts stifle a yawn when they see a blitz; QBs with three starts avoid blitzes by flinging the ball straight up in the air and digging a trench for their feces.

I can name a half dozen All-American level DBs at Texas who were hard to watch early in their careers (Richard, Huff, Griffin, soon to be Earl Thomas) only to blossom into elite talents with a little seasoning. You can't do that with LBs, RBs, or DL.

Catalysts

For a team to make a jump above expectation they need an individual, a unit, or a new coordinator/scheme to take it to the next level.

If you're looking for a single player catalyst, look hardest at QB. Specifically, a QB with a couple of reliable targets, a returning OL with some quality, and low expectations stemming from mental errors or an injured OL resulting in protection issues. Think Cal's Kevin Riley and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen.

As for unit catalysts, look hardest at the defense - particularly a young one that took lumps, made a lot of mental errors in the passing game, and returns their DBs. That was Florida last year.

If you're counting on a new offense to give a team the edge - have a quick conference with Tommy Tuberville. It's fool's gold. And if it's the solution, it's generally the solution in Year 2 and 3.

Schedule

There are two sides to this coin. First, to deny the importance of a forgiving schedule is foolish. But stressing it too much lulls you into Buckeye-itis - yes, the Big 10 is navigable, but they'll have to play a quality team eventually if they want to claim the prize. The key is to project forward into the bowl season and make sure that your pretender won't be unmasked. The SEC/Big 10, SEC/ACC mid-tier bowl matchups are helpful here.

Coaching

There are certain dudes I trust to deliver the goods. If a coach is prone to a pretty high beta, you have to balance that big upset win with their inexplicable loss to a scrub two weeks later. Public perception doesn't always match the reality here either. Mike Leach's Tech teams are often portrayed as erratic. They're actually incredibly consistent. For that reason, projecting Notre Dame to break out worries me. Weiss has coached like a dickhead for two years in a row. I digress...

2009

So factoring in all of the above, I like the following to turn around or increase their fortunes this year:

Southern Mississippi


This Eagle player was given a small white child to raise as part of his sociology lab

Yes, really. Southern Miss. Mississippi's 3rd school. Ole Miss will get all of the in-state attention, but this is a team flying under the radar. In addition to returning 19 starters, Southern Miss returns their entire OL (four SR, one JR)and their entire DB group. QB Austin Davis is a baller (23-8 TD to INT, 508 rushing yards - a poor man's Colt McCoy). RB Damion Fletcher was 1st team All CUSA in '08 and in '06. They even have a 6-6 WR named DeAndre Brown who had 1117 yards receiving last year. They've got experience in the trenches and weapons at every level. The defense will be better (last year's D had only four returning starters; over their last four games they gave up a total of 35 points) and I'd be surprised if they don't manage a 10 win season and become a surprise BCS contender. Head coach Larry Fedora is the X factor here - he got them off to a slow start last year.

California


Peyote say: ten wins!

All of their OL have started some games, scatbacks Jahvid Best & Shane Vereen are damn good, they return their entire DL intact, and they return all four secondary starters. Kevin Riley has been a disappointment at QB, but he has the tools, an experienced WR crew, and a running game to build off of. This is a double digit win football team that has a good chance of surprising USC when they travel North. If Riley can perform at the level Tedford has gotten out of most of his QBs, this could be a legitimate top 10 team.

Notre Dame


I have a hunch

Yeah, it pains me me as much as you and I don't trust Weiss, but Notre Dame is likely headed to a BCS bowl unless Weiss is as big a failure at college coaching as he is at Jenny Craig. 4/5 OL starters return. Jimmy Clausen - douchebag - will turn the corner this year throwing to an elite WR corps of Floyd and Tate along with a top notch TE in Kyle Rudolph. 3 of the 4 DB starters return. The schedule is forgiving as well. This team will resemble the 10-3 2006 team greatly: very good offense, average defense, whipped in a bowl if they face a real opponent. Still, they're likely to be on your television after New Years.

Arkansas

They return 18 starters, but I've never seen a more brutal schedule: Georgia, @ Alabama, @ Florida, @ Ole Miss, @ LSU. That limits their upside, unlike the teams I profiled above. Like the Miami Hurricanes, I expect Arkansas to improve qualitatively a great deal, even if it's not reflected in a giant leap in record. Unlike Miami, I trust the Razorback coach. They'll go to a bowl and beat the dogshit out of whatever mid-tier opponent they play assuming they're not a walking infirmirary by then. Mallett is a good fit for Petrino's offense and they should be able to scrap together enough defense with ten returning starters who took a beating last year as sophomores and freshmen.

Baylor

Robert Griffin is the truth. Any questions? Baylor will improve on their 4-8 mark and manage a bowl for the first time since 1994. Aside from Griffin, I love their LBing corps, their DL has some potential with key transfers like DT Phil Taylor and they return 3 of their 4 DB starters. They shouldn't pose a threat to the Sooners or Longhorns, but don't pencil Oklahoma State in Waco in their loss column just yet.

Wildcard picks:

UTEP

Possibly this year's Tulsa or Rice. I love QB Trevor Vittatoe, he has some targets, they return an underrated and physical OL and Price is a very solid coach when not being bilked by strippers. The defense is beyond a disgrace, but if they can cobble together even a modest improvement, a strong-armed QB is all you need to take you to a Conference USA championship. If you're a Longhorn fan, you need to become a strong UTEP advocate because our anemic OOC schedule has the potential to submarine us. A team like UTEP winning nine would help our cause immensely.

Nevada

Like UTEP, this is a pick totally contingent on their ability to develop some semblance of a defense. QB Colin Kaepernick is a guy you should familiarize yourself with: a 6-6 white Vince Young wannabe who threw for 2800 and ran for 1100 last year in the innovative Pistol offense. He was the WAC POY. He has an outstanding RB named Vai Taua who topped 1500+ last year on the ground. Like UTEP, Nevada will have to rely on outscoring people. Even a modest improvement in defense will get them to 9 or 10 wins. They also play Notre Dame early, which should be interesting.

One of these two wildcard picks will pan.

Honorable Mentions:

Miami, North Carolina, Illinois

Miami has a tough schedule, but I don't like their head coach. UNC has the right tools on defense and offense and I like Butch Davis, but they need to show more consistency. Illinois is coached by Ron Zook - 'nuff said.

Talk to me.

__________________________

For teams that may struggle a bit this season, see: And They All Fell Down

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