Commentary

ND, ASU, BYU poised to prosper

Originally Published: July 24, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Stanford, Nevada, Mississippi State and defending BCS national champion Auburn were among college football's biggest surprises in 2010.

None of those teams were ranked in the preseason top 20, but each of them produced breakthrough seasons.

Which teams will emerge with surprising seasons in 2011? Here's a look at a handful of under-the-radar teams which seem to be on the rise heading into this season:

Arizona State Sun Devils

It might be now or never for embattled Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson. Arizona State missed out on a bowl game with a 6-6 record in 2010 -- two of their wins came against FCS opponents -- but the Sun Devils lost four games by a combined nine points.

ASU is expected to bring back all five starters on the offensive line, its top six rushers and four of its top six receivers from 2010. Quarterback Brock Osweiler was red-hot down the stretch last season, throwing for 647 yards with five touchdowns in victories over UCLA and Arizona.

If Osweiler stays hot and the Sun Devils stay healthy, they might be favorites in the Pac-12 South.

BYU Cougars

The Cougars rolled the dice with a freshman quarterback in 2010, and they limped to a 1-4 start with Jake Heaps under center.

But Heaps improved dramatically throughout the 2010 season, leading the Cougars to six victories in their last eight games, including a 52-24 rout of UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.

As BYU begins life as an independent in 2011, it should begin to reap the rewards of a seasoned quarterback and one of the country's best offensive lines.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall overhauled his coaching staff during the offseason, adding three new assistants and promoting quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman to offensive coordinator. Heaps will play under center more, as Doman tries to develop a downfield passing attack.

Michigan Wolverines

New Michigan coach Brady Hoke probably won't field a Big Ten championship contender in his first season, but the Wolverines will look more like UM teams of the past.

Under Hoke, the Wolverines will actually play some defense. Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was fired after going 15-22 in three seasons. Last year, the Wolverines surrendered 21 points or more in 11 games and allowed a whopping 450.8 yards per game.

New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is switching to a 4-3 defense, abandoning the 3-3-5 scheme that Rodriguez preferred. Quarterback Denard Robinson will have to adapt to playing under center more, after working exclusively out of the shotgun under Rodriguez.

Michigan might not win the Big Ten Legends Division, but it will be much more fundamentally sound in Hoke's first season.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The last time Notre Dame fans were excited about a new coach's fast start, the Irish fizzled at the end of Charlie Weis' tenure.

Brian Kelly's first Irish team showed a lot of promise late in the 2010 season, winning its last four games after a 4-5 start, including a 33-17 rout of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

If Notre Dame can settle on a starting quarterback -- Tommy Rees, Dayne Crist and youngsters Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will battle for the job during preseason camp -- it might be even better in Kelly's second season.

A lot of Notre Dame's success will depend on its defense, which should be better after the addition of several young defensive linemen. If the Irish can stop opponents more effectively than they did last season, they might actually have a chance to compete for a BCS bowl game.

Oregon State Beavers

Injuries and a very difficult schedule caused the Beavers to limp home with a 5-7 record in 2010. Oregon State missed a bowl game for the first time since 2005 and had to watch as rival Oregon played for a national championship.

Oregon State lost star tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and defensive tackle Stephen Paea. But quarterback Ryan Katz should be better in his second season as a starter, and Markus Wheaton has the potential to be a solid running back.

OSU's schedule isn't nearly as difficult as it was last season, although it plays at Wisconsin on Sept. 10 and also plays Pac-12 road games at Utah, California and Oregon. The bottom line: Mike Riley is too good of a coach for the Beavers to stay in a tailspin for very long.

SMU Mustangs

It took June Jones nine seasons at Hawaii to crash the BCS party, but he seems to be far ahead of schedule at SMU.

After going 7-7 in 2010, the Mustangs bring back 18 starters, including quarterback Kyle Padron, receiver Cole Beasley and tailback Zach Line. The Mustangs are going to score a lot of points, and they've upgraded their talent on defense the past two seasons.

SMU will have a couple of chances to flex its muscle early in the season; it opens the season at Texas A&M on Sept. 4 and plays at TCU on Sept. 30.

Syracuse Orange

Syracuse coach Doug Marrone turned the Orange into a Big East contender in only his second season, guiding his team to an 8-5 record, including a 36-34 victory over Kansas State in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Syracuse enjoyed its first winning season since 2001 and its first bowl game since 2004.

The Orange bring back 12 starters from last season's team, including seven starters on offense. If quarterback Ryan Nassib can be more effective in the passing game, and if the Orange can find a capable replacement for departed tailback Delone Carter, they might be right back in the thick of the Big East race in 2011.

Syracuse plays three of its first four games at home; the road game is at USC on Sept. 17.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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