Earlier this week I made my BCS and Non-BCS Conference Predictions. Today I will be defying the experts in picking 11 (It's 2011, see what I did there?) teams that will do better than the experts predict. Enjoy!
1. Arizona State
I've seen some people rank ASU in their Top 25, and I've seen some say that they will barely make a bowl game this year. But whatever, I'm putting them in this category. The Sun Devils return 15 starters, get USC in Tempe, and skip the Stanford Cardinal this season.
They will have a defense that is one of the best in the nation, led by sophomore defensive end Junior Onyeali and junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Their offense will also be improved with an experienced center in Garth Gerhart and explosive junior running back Cameron Marshall.
Yeah Scotty, here is my BCS buster. The Golden Hurricane return 18 starters this year, including star wide receiver Damaris Johnson. They also get the two other toughest C-USA West teams, Houston and SMU, at home, and have by far the best offense in the conference. And that's saying something with a QB like Case Keenum in your league.
3. Florida International
The Panthers return 15 starters, which is tied for the second-most in the SBC. Their offense will be significantly improved from last year, being led by star wideout T.Y. Hilton and quarterback Wesley Carroll. They do have to go at Louisville and Louisiana-Monroe, but they also get Troy at home. If they defeat the Trojans in that late-October affair, there is a great chance that FIU will win the Sun Belt.
Earlier this year when I picked Auburn to win seven games, I figured it would be way less than everyone else had them winning. Turns out, most of the experts think Auburn will be lucky to get to six wins, and Phil Steele even has Auburn finishing last in the SEC West. I can't see that happening. Even with an un-experienced QB in Barrett Trotter, they still have sophomore running back Michael Dyer and junior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. They won't reach last year's BCS status, but expect Auburn to be way better than what the experts are saying.
The Wildcats are loaded this year with 16 returning starters, including senior left guard Stuart Hines. In addition to Hines, three other starters return on the O-Line, and the only one that doesn't return is still a Senior. The Cats should be favored in six of their games, which means they are an upset away from topping last year's win total.
Most experts are splitting the Big 12 into two divisions this season: Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma State, and everyone else. I think Missouri belongs in the top group, and the main reason is senior tight end Michael Egnew. Egnew had 5 touchdowns and 762 yards last season, and those numbers will only improve this year. Despite returning 15 starters, superstar quarterback Blaine Gabbert does depart, and that could be the only thing stopping the Tigers this year.
Rest of the list after the break
7. Texas Tech
Here is another Big 12 team that I think could challenge the best teams in the conference. Tommy Tuberville returns 14 starters, including senior left guard Lonnie Edwards, from last season's eight win team, and it will help everyone in the Red Raider offense to have another year under Tuberville. The schedule is manageable, but road games against Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri could spell trouble for them.
8. NC State
Could losing quarterback Russell Wilson be a blessing in disguise? Call me crazy, but I think so. Junior signal-caller Mike Glennon will be under center for the Pack this year, and has drawn comparisons to Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan by his coaches. With three senior receivers and a great tight end to throw to, the Wolfpack offense could be as dangerous as ever and cause many problems for ACC opponents.
The Utes draw by far the most favorable schedule of any Pac-12 team, which will help them immensely in the step up in competition from the Mountain West. They have five Pac-12 games in Salt Lake City, and they also miss Oregon and Stanford out of the North, meaning the Utes have a great chance of winning the Pac-12 South division. The only thing that worries me is the fact that they only return 12 starters, but luckily three of those are on the O-Line to give protection to star QB Jordan Wynn.
Sticking in the Pac-12 South, we move to the Colorado Buffaloes. They return 16 starters, the second most in the Pac-12, and will have one of the best O-Line's in the conference with Ryan Miller and Ethan Adkins. My final prediction is a below-par 5th place finish for them, but they are just a couple wins away from moving up.
This is year two under head coach Butch Jones, which already means that the Bearcats will top last year's four win total. They return 15 starters, including senior running back Isaiah Pead and senior receiver DJ Woods, and get Big East contender West Virginia in Cincinnati. The only thing that could stop the Bearcats from a Big East title is the fact that they go at South Florida and at Pittsburgh in back-to-back games, but if they find a way to split that stretch they will be in the hunt the rest of the year.