December 11, 2010
Revisiting the best (and worst) of the season. Today: The year's most pleasant surprises, "There's No 'I' in 'Team'" edition.
5. Miami (Ohio). In 2009, the RedHawks staggered through a rock-bottom, 1-11 disaster under rookie head coach Mike Hayward, limping in dead last nationally in turnover margin and sacks allowed and dead last in the MAC East standings with double-digit losses to fellow doormats Buffalo and Kent State. This year, they opened their second season under Hayward by giving bumbling Florida a run for its money in the Swamp, dramatically slashed the giveaways and sacks and went on to take the MAC championship with a single conference loss.
The included a 4-0 mark away from home in a five-week span from mid-October to mid-November, on the heels of an 11-game road losing streak dating back to 2008. With its wild championship upset over Northern Illinois, Miami moved to 9-4 on the year – a full eight games better than the last-place disaster of 2009, the most extreme single-season swing in the nation.
4. Michigan State. The Spartans have a couple national championships in the books, so the 2010 team isn't going to go down as the best in school history. But it's going to be pretty close, in the face of the usual middle-of-the-pack projections over the summer for a program pundits have learned to inherently distrust. Even before the bowl game, it's already the first 11-win outfit ever in East Lansing, and only the second to win 10 in the regular season. The Spartans beat Notre Dame in thrilling fashion, beat Michigan for the third year in a row – the first time they've taken back-to-back trips to Ann Arbor in 45 years – and won at Penn State for the first time since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.
Most importantly, they bring back a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990 – that is, for the first time in most of the players' lifetimes – and beat the co-champion they played, Wisconsin, by 10 points. It's not bound for the Rose Bowl, but depending on what happens against Alabama in the
Citrus Capital One Bowl and with Wisconsin and Ohio State in their respective BCS games, this could still be the first Michigan State outfit to go out as the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the final polls since 1987.
3. Stanford. The Cardinal roared emphatically out of a string of six straight losing seasons in 2009, trouncing USC and eventual Pac-10 champ Oregon en route to a solid, 8-5 finish behind Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. The consensus among the punditocracy: Meh. With Gerhart off to the NFL, the Cardinal were almost unanimously snubbed by top 25 polls and relegated to the middle of the pack in the preseason, writers' way of saying, "We'll believe a real brainiac breakthrough when we see it."
Now they've seen it. Stanford put the pedal down this fall on easily its best season since World War II, turning in three shutouts, obliterating Pac-10 opponents by 19 points per game, setting a new school record with eight conference wins and finally landing a top-five national ranking heading into a major bowl game. The last time Stanford finished in the top five: 1940, when the Cardinal were voted No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll. If everything goes according to plan in the Orange Bowl (Stanford is an early favorite over Virginia Tech), this group has a good chance of matching that when the final ballots come out next month. The only question then is whether coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck decide to hang around for the chance to go even higher next year.
2. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were supposed to finish at or near the bottom of the Big 12 South in the wake of massive attrition from the 2009 team, arguably the most hyped outfit Stillwater has ever produced. In one swoop, Oklahoma State lost a prolific three-year starter at quarterback; a 1,200-yard rusher in the backfield; first-round draft picks at wide receiver and left tackle; six of its top seven tacklers on defense; and, with them, the brief window for an on-field breakthrough after years of raising the stakes off of it. By Phil Steele's count in his annual "experience ratings," the Cowboys began the season as the greenest team in America, bound for a third or fourth-tier bowl game for 6-6 stragglers at best, and mega-booster T. Boone Pickens' trigger finger was beginning to twitch, ever so slightly.
Instead, the offseason decision to bring in former Mike Leach protégé Dana Holgorsen to resurrect an offense that imploded at the end of '09 has paid off with the most prolific attack in the nation and, with one more 'W' in the bowl game, the most prolific win column in school history.
1. Auburn. Cam Newton is many things; obviously, for a five-star mega-recruit pursued by half the country out of high school and again out of junior college, an "overachiever" is not one of them. As a team, though, even the most optimistic forecasts of Newton's impact this summer couldn't have imagined the scorched-earth trail he'd blaze for Auburn to the BCS Championship Game, officially the longest by any team in the BCS' 13-year history when you consider where the Tigers started: They opened the year ranked 22nd in the initial AP poll and 23rd according to the coaches, edging out Oklahoma (No. 21 in 2000) as the lowest-ranked team ever to storm its way into the title game.
They may be slight favorites to win in Glendale, and they may be blessed with a force of nature in the backfield. But the Tigers still faced enough obstacles to 13-0 to lay claim to their status as the year's quintessential upstart.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.