Here are my ’surprise’ teams for 2009 (in no particular order):
Illinois–Juice Williams throwing to Arrelious Benn, Jeff Cumberland and Jarred Fayson means that Illinois should have the most explosive offense in the Big Ten this year and one of the best passing attacks in college football. If Juice cuts his interceptions in half, I think this team wins at least 9.
Clemson–Always an attractive team on paper. They are strong along both lines and have two of the fastest players in college football in C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford. If Willie Korn can get his act together at quarterback, this could be a very good team and should win the ACC.
Alabama–I know it seems odd to have a team that won 12 games last year in this spot. But I don’t think Bama is getting the respect it deserves due to it having only 4 starters coming back on offense. But I think the Tide will upgrade at quarterback with Greg McElroy and maintain a strong running game with Mark Ingram and the addition of frosh Trent Richardson (who should be a great goal-line back). And don’t forget a saltier Julio Jones at wide receiver. This team is a national title contender in my book, especially with such a great defense.
Arkansas–Bobby Petrino is an offensive genius and it is only a matter of time before it shows in Fayetteville. He has strong-armed Ryan Mallet to work with and some playmakers in Michael Smith, D.J. Williams and Joe Adams as well. They could be this year’s Ole Miss.
Auburn–Wherever Gus Malzahn has gone, he’s done wonders his first year. Auburn should be as stout as ever defensively, so a significant improvement on offense should make the Tigers a bowl team once more. I think they’ll score an upset or two and get to 8 or 9 wins.
Michigan–Rich Rodriguez didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. I think this team has a decent chance to start out 6-1 or even 7-0. By the time it gets to the teeth of its schedule, it should have a lot of confidence and be able to hold its own against the better Big Ten teams. By the end of the year, this will be a good team and will be set up for a very good season in 2010.
Baylor–With Robert Griffin at QB, Joe Pawelek at LB and an improved roster–plus the nation’s most underrated coach in Art Briles–this program looks to be on the upswing. I foresee a bowl bid for the Bears in 2009.
Stanford–I think this will be the Pac-10’s surprise team in 2009. I think Andrew Luck is going to end up as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. The Cardinal have an excellent power running game going with Toby Gerhart and a hard-nosed defense. Jim Harbaugh will have Stanford back in a bowl.
Others to watch: UNLV, San Jose State, Miami (Fl.), Colorado