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Friday, February 19, 2010
Non-AQ spring surprises

By Graham Watson

As spring practices get underway, I thought I’d highlight five teams that are worth watching this spring. These are teams that didn’t have great 2009 seasons, but could make some noise in 2010. Some teams have new coaches still trying to figure out their personnel and some are teams with coaches trying to hang on to their jobs.

1. San Diego State: I haven’t been shy in talking about my affinity for what Brady Hoke and his coaching staff was able to do in one year at SDSU. Yes, the Aztecs won just four games, but they showed progress offensively and defensively. This spring is going to be key in developing the running game. The Aztecs are breaking in a new offensive line and have a slew of running backs to try out. This spring also will be key for a defense that was plugging holes last year. This year, defensive coordinator Rocky Long has the athletes to play his 3-3-5 system, so it should be fun to watch.

2. Louisiana Tech: It’s amazing how one coaching move can change the entire outlook of a team. I thought Louisiana Tech would be OK this year under new head coach Sonny Dykes, but adding Tony Franklin as the new offensive coordinator makes the Bulldogs a far more formidable team than they were three weeks ago. Franklin is a proven coordinator and he’s already shown the ability to turn teams around in a hurry. The biggest question this spring will be whether he can find a dynamic quarterback. That was the reason for his success at Middle Tennessee and it will what moves Louisiana Tech forward in 2010.

3. Toledo: The Rockets were one of the more disappointing teams in the MAC in 2009 because despite a new coaching staff, they still returned a lot of talent. Most of that talent and leadership is gone and the Rockets are building with young players. Toledo returns quarterback Austin Dantin and receiver Eric Page, who was a freshman All-American, and has seven members of its recruiting class on campus this spring, including wide receiver James Green and cornerback Taikwon Page. With Central Michigan and Western Michigan rebuilding, the Rockets have a good chance to challenge Northern Illinois for the MAC West this year.

4. Kent State: The Golden Flashes were so close to notching their first winning season since 2001, but slid in their final three games to finish 5-7. The Golden Flashes hold the second-longest drought without a bowl berth (1972), but could change those fortunes this year with a slew of young players such as quarterback Spencer Keith and receiver Tyshon Goode. The Golden Flashes also return running back Eugene Jarvis for a sixth season. The MAC East is going to be tough this year with Temple and Ohio returning several key players and both bringing in good recruiting classes, but Kent State should be able to challenge for a postseason berth.

5. North Texas: Call this a gut feeling. After winning five games in his first three seasons as head coach at UNT, Todd Dodge might have this thing figured out. If he doesn’t, he’ll be out the door. Dodge was spared after the 2009 season because he seems to have the program pointed in the right direction. Despite a 2-10 finish last year, the Mean Green lost five games by four or fewer points. The offense will have more cohesion this year, but the defense will be key. The Mean Green defense has held the team back under Dodge and that will be the difference in turning this thing around. The Mean Green have the talent to win six games and spring will be key in making sure the players believe that.