Some Surprise Candidates
Every season there seems to be a team or two that comes out of nowhere to pull a big upset or win more games than expected to sneak into a quality bowl game. In looking for teams that could overachieve this season, I've identified three criteria.
1. Plenty of experience as indicated by the number of returning starters.
2. Offensive leadership at the quarterback position.
3. Teams that are becoming more comfortable with new coaching schemes.
Looking around the major conferences:
The Terrapins return 6 starters on offense and 7 on defense, including 4 on each of the lines. Also back is quarterback Sam Hollenbach, a mechanical engineering major. Maryland have their best opportunities to pull upsets October 28th against Florida State and November 11th against Miami; both games are at home.
Also Considered: Wake Forest (19 returning starters)
Big East: Pittsburgh
Dave Wannstedt should see significant improvement in his second year at Pittsburgh. The six returning starters on offense are anchored by Tyler Palko and include four offensive lineman. On defense 6 starters also return, including linebacker HB Blades. The Panthers close the season hosting West Virginia and Louisville on the 16th and 25th of November, respectively. Both games should be tremendous chances to swing an upset and shake up the conference race.
Also Considered: Cincinnati (17 returning starters, 3rd year head coach)
Big Ten: Illinois
Another second year coach is Ron Zook at Illinois. While I'm not a big Zook fan, the Illini do return 9 starters on offense, including senior quarterback Tim Brasic, all five offensive lineman and senior running back Pierre Thomas. On defense 10 starters return. Illinois gets Iowa (Sep. 23rd) and Ohio State (Nov. 4th) at home. The Illini are kind of the like the question: If a rooster lays an egg directly on the peak of a house, which side will it roll down? Will they be bad and win 3-4 games, or will they be mediocre and win six? Of course a smartiepants will point out the third option called reality where roosters don't lay eggs, Ron Zook in his second year is still Ron Zook and having 10 starters back from a terrible defense isn't a good thing. Forget I mentioned Illinois.
Also Considered: Minnesota (12 returning starters, including QB Brian Cupito)
Big XII: Kansas State
The Big XII seems to lack a real surprise candidate, so I'm going with K-State here. Ron Prince is in his first year and the quarterback position is far from a pillar of strength with all the transfers, but the Wildcats do return 17 starters. They host Louisville (Sep. 23rd), Nebraska (Oct. 14th) and Texas (Nov. 11th).
Also Considered: Iowa State (10 returning offensive starters including QB Bret Meyer, but only 4 on defense.)
In his second season at the helm, Walt Harris welcomes back 10 starters on offense, including senior quarterback Trent Edwards. The defense returns six starters, with experience in the secondary. The Cardinal will get their best upset opportunity on the 4th of November when USC visits Palo Alto. Stanford gets an extra week to prepare for the Trojans, with a bye week Oct. 28th.
Also Considered: Arizona (17 returning starters, Mike Stoops in third year)
SEC: Mississippi State
The Bulldogs return 16 starters, eight on each side of the ball. The defense wasn't terrible a year ago and should be a relative strength this season. Sylvester Croom is entering his third season as head coach, so the team should be comfortable with his coaching by now. Mississippi State hosts South Carolina on Aug. 31st, Auburn on Sep. 9th and West Virginia on Oct. 7th.
Also Considered: Arkansas (19 returning starters, Arkansas is probably a better candidate here, but everybody already knows about the Razorbacks).