NCF Nation: 2011-conference-surprise-poll

We're looking for your take on burning questions facing the league for 2011. We'll tally up your votes in the poll below and react to the result later on.

The latest election: Who will be the surprise team in the Big East this year?

It's almost difficult to be a surprise in a league that's so unpredictable. But here are my top five nominees:
  • Louisville: The Cardinals were a surprise team last year en route to winning seven games and a bowl in Charlie Strong's first year. So a surprise this year would have to mean a league title or something close to it. They're young, but it's not out of the question with their improving talent level.
  • Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were awful last year, but people forget just how young they were. They are loaded with skill players and could greatly improve if they get the offensive and defensive lines figured out.
  • Cincinnati: Butch Jones has won everywhere he's been, so last year's 4-8 season looks like an aberration. A strong offensive nucleus returns along with all 11 defensive starters. If the Bearcats decrease their turnovers and improve even marginally on defense, they can contend.
  • Pittsburgh: Expectations are lower this year for the Panthers with an entirely new staff and system. But Todd Graham has won quickly in his last two coaching stops.
  • Syracuse: Just like Louisville, the Orange were a 2010 surprise. Still, a league title would register as a mild shock.

So there are your nominees. Now it's time to let your voice be heard.
Seems like every year a conference team is a surprise contender.

Few saw Stanford coming in 2010, at least not like it did: A 12-1 record with a top-five finish. And Oregon State didn't look like a Rose Bowl contender in 2009 when it started 2-2.

It's almost certain one Pac-12 team will be picked much worse than it finishes. But who?

Will it be one of the new teams: Utah or Colorado? While Utah has won 33 games over the past three seasons, it has some apparent holes, most notably its secondary. The general feeling is the higher level of the competition in the conference will run the Utes down.

Few have high expectations for Colorado, but the Buffaloes have 14 players back from a team that went 5-7 and beat quality teams such as Georgia, Hawaii and Kansas State.

Or what about one of the teams likely to be picked at or near the bottom: UCLA or Washington State? Might the Bruins or Cougars not only climb out of the cellar but climb toward the top of their respective divisions? UCLA has a solid defense, while WSU has a passing attack that will scare most teams.

Another possibility: California. The Bears have been hard to predict in recent years, but Jeff Tedford has collected some intriguing talent over the past couple of recruiting seasons. If Cal gets solid play at quarterback, it could end up a contender.

So what do you think?
They’re the unheralded teams, the overshadowed teams -- the ones who have ample talent on their roster to make significant improvement or a splash in the conference race but not enough fans know about it. Some, like Duke and Virginia, are spoilers. Others, like Boston College and Maryland, are contenders.

All of them have the potential to surprise you.

Wake Forest should be better now that quarterback Tanner Price has had a year of experience, and the entire team has matured a little. The secondary returns all four starters and is two-deep at every position. Boston College is consistently underrated and returns all of its key statistical leaders from a year ago and gains another top contributor in receiver Colin Larmond Jr., who should finally be cleared to play after a torn ACL last year.

Maryland has the ACC’s 2010 Rookie of the Year in quarterback Danny O'Brien and one of the best defensive players in the league in linebacker Kenny Tate. Virginia has one of the top recruiting classes in the nation coming to Charlottesville this summer to give immediate help, and Duke should be better in the fourth season under coach David Cutcliffe.
Last year, Oklahoma State took home this title in a landslide. But who's the surprise team in the Big 12 this season?

Texas enters the season with measured expectations, but in theory, the Longhorns could surprise in one of two ways. What would be more surprising? Another 5-7 season? Or a Big 12 title?

Missouri has been written off as a real contender for the Big 12 title because it lacks a proven quarterback, despite being deep and experienced nearly everywhere else. Can the Tigers rally around James Franklin and surprise the league?

Kansas State has a host of unproven players who could boom or bust. Can the Brown Brothers carry Kansas State to big things, more than just a second consecutive bowl berth?

Baylor got in a bowl last season for the first time since 1994, but hired Phil Bennett to shore up the defense. Can he help push the Bears over the top and help Baylor become a factor in the Big 12 race?

Texas Tech has to replace a lot from last season's team, but so did Oklahoma State in 2010. Can Tommy Tuberville's squad shake things up in his second season in Lubbock?
The sleeper team. If it's not your favorite offseason topic, it's pretty high on the list. I can't keep track of how often I get asked to name the Big Ten surprise team or sleeper team for the coming season. Now I'm putting the question to you.

Although few folks projected Michigan State to win 11 games in 2010, the Spartans probably weren't the league’s biggest surprise last season. Illinois entered the fall with a coach on the hot seat (Ron Zook), a freshman quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase), two new coordinators (Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning) and countless questions. The Illini ended up winning their first bowl game since 1999.

While Illinois might not be as big of a surprise team this year, it is certainly in the mix after losing standout players like defensive tackle Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson and running back Mikel Leshoure. Northwestern has made three consecutive bowl games for the first time in team history, but the Wildcats could qualify as a surprise if they were to, say, win the Legends division.

Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue were the only Big Ten teams not to qualify for bowls in 2010. The Gophers and Hoosiers have new coaches, while Purdue hopes to end a three-year bowl drought. All three teams have a chance to surprise some folks in 2010.

It's your turn to weigh in on the Big Ten's surprise team in 2011.

Poll: SEC's surprise team in 2011

May, 13, 2011
We get asked all the time who we're picking in the Eastern Division and Western Division races and who our surprise teams are.

Well, now it's your turn.

Vote in our poll for the SEC's surprise team in 2011, and I'll take a look at the results next week.

Auburn was the consummate darkhorse a year ago and was barely even ranked in the Top 25 to start the season. We all know where the Tigers ended up -- 14-0 and national champions.

Who's most likely to come from the back of the pack in 2011 and contend for the SEC title?

The East is wide open again and could certainly produce a few surprises. Did anybody see South Carolina making its first-ever trip to the SEC championship game a year ago? Can Florida regroup in Will Muschamp's first season on the job?

The West is loaded again, and as big a surprise as Auburn was last season, the Tigers would be an even bigger surprise in 2011 if they were to repeat.

So get cranking on your homework and tell us who the SEC's surprise team will be next season.

Vote: Non-AQ surprise team

May, 13, 2011
When I thought of candidates for a surprise team, I tried to make a list of teams I thought would make a bowl game or win their conference that missed out last season. I left off teams like BYU, SMU and Houston, because I don't think it would surprise anyone if they had good seasons.

First take a look at Colorado State, a team that should make a bowl game in 2011. If you look at the first five games of the season -- against New Mexico, Northern Colorado, Colorado, Utah State and San Jose State, the Rams could easily start 4-1 or even 5-0 if they can beat the Buffs. That means they would only need to win a few more games in conference play to become bowl eligible. That is possible with a game at UNLV and a home game to close the season against Wyoming.

Southern Miss is a team nobody is talking about right now, but it returns an underrated quarterback in Austin Davis, who came into his own last season. The Golden Eagles have a relatively light nonconference schedule with their most difficult game coming at Navy. They also get UCF and SMU at home. Of the three teams from C-USA West on its schedule, SMU is the only one that is expected to have a winning record.

Fresno State has a difficult nonconference schedule but has just as good a shot as Nevada and Hawaii to win the WAC, especially if Derek Carr lives up to the hype. Louisiana Tech has made big strides under coach Sonny Dykes and could also contend in the WAC. Running back Lennon Creer is poised to have another 1,000-yard season. ULM was one win away from being bowl eligible last season and returns 18 starters on offense and defense, including quarterback Kolton Browning. The Warhawks could be the FIU of this season.

Disagree with me? Write in your choice in the comments section and we will discuss next week.