Who's going to play much better than expected, and who'll likely end up pulling off the big upsets, throw wrenches into the system, and hang around conference races longer than anyone thought possible like Idaho, Stanford and Wyoming did last year? What teams in each conference have a shot to go from irrelevant in the offseason to potentially great in November? What teams could go from being underappreciated to elite?
Here are the programs most likely to surprise in 2010.
ACC - Boston College
It might not seem like a big surprise for a team that won two of the last three Atlantic Division titles to be good again, but Boston College will be flying under the radar in what's expected to be a strong ACC season.
North Carolina will be everyone's hot team, Georgia Tech could be even better after winning the title, Miami and Florida State will get plenty of love, and Virginia Tech is expected to be in the national championship chase from the start. BC will be picked to finish around third in the Atlantic and will be expected to get to a bowl game and have a few nice moments, but this team has the schedule and the potential to do far more and be in the title game.
Eight starters are back on both sides of the ball, and that doesn't include LB Mark Herzlich, who's expected to make an inspiring return from cancer to be a star again sooner than later. Offensively, RB Montel Harris will work behind a strong offensive line, and veteran QB Dave Shinskie should be a wee bit better considering his age and experience.
There are some nasty games to deal with, but Virginia Tech and Clemson have to come to Boston, while there's only one road game against a team that went to a bowl last year (Florida State). Making things even better, five of the final six games are against teams that were home for the holidays in 2009.
Big East - Cincinnati
The conventional wisdom will be that the Bearcats can't help but fall a bit after the loss of head coach Brian Kelly and star QB Tony Pike, and the hot teams going into the Big East season will most certainly be West Virginia, Pitt, and Rutgers. Throw in the expected emergence of Connecticut as even more of a player and there's a chance the Bearcats could be picked fifth by many preseason prognosticators. As last year showed, don't assume Cincinnati can't be special.
Last year UC was in the Teams That Will Disappoint section of the CFN Spring Preview with 10 starters needing to be replaced on defense, and while the D was hardly anything great (finishing last in the Big East in yards allowed), it wasn't a total disaster. This year's team welcomes back a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, and the key losses, like Pike and WR Mardy Gilyard, have replacements ready to roll.
Gone is Pike, in is Zach Collaros, a mobile quarterback who might be a better fit for what new head coach Butch Jones wants to do. Gone is Gilyard, in is Vidal Hazelton, the USC transfer who was one of the nation's top recruits a few years ago, and into a bigger role will be Armon Binns and D.J. Woods.
No, this might not be a team good enough to challenge for a spot in the BCS Championship, but it has the talent and the schedule, with Rutgers and Pitt coming to Cincinnati to offset road trips to West Virginia and Pitt, to be in the hunt for a fourth straight double-digit win season.
Big Ten - Purdue
The loss of RB Ralph Bolden to a torn ACL this spring hurts, but the Boilermakers should still have a high-powered offense that should have a puncher's chance against anyone and everyone on the schedule. Remember, last year's team was able to beat Ohio State, and head coach Danny Hope, armed with a contract extension, should have an even more dangerous squad this year.
The 2009 season was about rebuilding and reloading, and while going 5-7 might not seem like an impressive performance, it really was fantastic considering the preseason expectations. This year's squad has some major reloading to do in the defensive back seven, but the front four, led by Ryan Kerrigan, should be great at getting into the backfield. The offense, led by soon-to-be-superstar WR Keith Smith (and either quarterback Robert Marve, a transfer from Miami, Caleb TerBush, or Rob Henry bombing away), should be good enough to win plenty of shootouts even if the defense isn't playing well. And even if there's still some major patching to do, there will be time for the newcomers to get their feet wet.
If the Boilermakers can somehow get by Notre Dame to start the season, there's a chance for a huge start with home games against Western Illinois, Ball State, and Toledo to follow. With a trip to Northwestern and a home date against Minnesota to follow, don't fall on the floor if the Boilermakers bomb their way to a 6-0 start. With no Iowa or Penn State to face, and with at Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana in the second half of the slate, there's no reason not to demand a bowl game.
Big 12 - Texas Tech
It's not like Mike Leach was the only person on the planet who could be the head coach at Texas Tech, and, lost in all the controversy, it's not like he actually won anything. Oh sure, there was a split South title in 2008, but there weren't any Big 12 Championship appearances and the program didn't take the next big jump needed to get over the hump.
The simple and undeniable truth might be that Texas Tech just can't be good enough to finally break the Texas-Oklahoma stranglehold on the division on a regular basis. But that doesn't mean it can't combine what has already been established and be improved upon. And that's where Tommy Tuberville comes in.
It's not like Tuberville is some rube who just blew in with the tumbleweed; the guy succeeded at a high level in the SEC for a long, long time. He has a terrific offense to fall into with some great quarterback options, even if Steven Sheffield has a foot problem that won't go away and Taylor Potts has to undergo hand surgery. The defense might not be a rock, but Tuberville knows how to get the most out of the talent he has to work with and should do wonders with an athletic group returning. And then there's the main reason why the Red Raiders should be in for a big year ... the schedule.
There's a trip to Oklahoma that will be a problem, but the second toughest road game is at Texas A&M. The third toughest? Um, uhhhh, at Iowa State? Colorado? New Mexico? Missing Nebraska from the North is a huge break, while Texas, Oklahoma State, Missouri, and Houston all have to come to Lubbock.
Conference USA - Marshall
Why is Marshall going to be better? According to most surrounding the program, there are two main reasons. 1) Mark Snyder isn't the head coach, and 2) Mark Snyder isn't the head coach.
John "Doc" Holliday is a West Virginia guy who knows the state, knows the program, and has the potential to be the coach who finally makes the Herd a Conference USA player. He has great backs in Martin Ward and Andre Booker to work behind a fantastic offensive line to allow the running game to establish the groundwork for the offense. There's a nice problem to have at quarterback with veteran Bryan Anderson and Clemson transfer and one-time superstar recruit, Willy Korn, to work with. For a team that lost three games by a touchdown or less with a defense that finished second in the league, and should be solid again, this could be a dangerous sleeper in the Conference USA title race.
Helping out the Herd will be a not-that-bad schedule (at least outside of a few killers). Starting out at Ohio State and against West Virginia isn't going to be fun, and games at Southern Miss, East Carolina, and SMU will be taxing, but four of the last five games are against teams that didn't go bowling last season, and home dates against Ohio and UCF are winnable.
MAC - Ball State
It seems like 10 years ago, but it was only 2008 when Ball State was undefeated in the regular season and playing like a team legitimately good enough to play with some of the big boys. And then head coach Brady Hoke left, the wheels came off, and 2009 was a complete and utter disaster.
The offensive lumps taken last year should pay off. There are plenty of veterans and lots to get excited about with all five starters returning to the still-emerging line, the top five receivers coming back, RB MiQuale Lewis getting a sixth year of eligibility, and good options at quarterback to hope for more consistency. Defensively, the Cardinals won't be a rock by any stretch, but they should be stronger after finishing last in the MAC in pass efficiency D and 106th in the nation in sacks.
The schedule should all but ensure a rebound and a winning season with SE Missouri State and Liberty to start the year, and with home games against Eastern Michigan and Akron, to go along with winnable road dates against Kent, Toledo, and Buffalo.
Mountain West - San Diego State
Brady Hoke's first season with the Aztecs might have been disappointing record-wise, finishing 4-8, but the team showed some good pop, more fight, and lost two late games against Wyoming and UNLV that could've gone either way. SDSU isn't going to win the Mountain West title, but this could be a very, very dangerous team to worry about.
QB Ryan Lindley has the potential to be the most dangerous and the most talented in the league (yes, even with Andy Dalton back at TCU), and he has seven other starters returning around him on offense, including star WR Vincent Brown, who missed the bulk of last year with a broken thumb, and four starters from a good O line. The defensive lost defensive starters won't be missed, and there's good potential among the six who come back including three good veterans for the front line.
With Nicholls State, at New Mexico State, and Utah State in the first four games, there's a good chance to get off to a hot start with home games against Colorado State and UNLV that could give the Aztecs a shot at a nice base of wins. Throw in a winnable road game at New Mexico and maybe an upset here and there, and the first bowl appearance since 1998 is a reasonable expectation.
Pac 10 - USC
A 9-4 record really isn't that bad a record for a team that supposedly suffered a disaster of a season. There might be many Pac 10ers who saw 2009 as the beginning of the end for the big superpower up top, but rumors of USC's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Considering all the hubbub surrounding Lane Kiffin and his mediocre resume, what he did in his one year at Tennessee has been completely blown off. Kiffin and his great coaching staff took a program that's in turmoil and turnover and created a competitive team that, despite being badly outgunned talent-wise, battled Florida in a dogfight and almost came up with a huge win at Alabama. Now he has a ton of talent to work with and with more on the way from a phenomenal recruiting class.
Yeah, the Trojans might have lost a few games against teams they should've throttled, but it's not like it would be a shock if they started the season 6-0 with road rips at Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington State, and Stanford, and home games against Virginia and Washington before getting three home games in a row against Cal, Oregon, and Arizona State. Can a team that couldn't handle Arizona at home last year win on the road? How will it deal with three road games in the final four, including a beartrap at Oregon State and a pressure-packed home game against Notre Dame? At the very least, USC will be better personnel-wise than everyone on the slate.
Alright, so the entire secondary has to be replaced, WR Damian Williams will be missed, and yeah, Kiffin taking over for Pete Carroll really might be a problem early on, but considering USC might be picked by some to not win the Pac 10 title, getting to use the underdog, nobody-believes-in-us tag might turn out to be just what the program needs.
SEC - Kentucky
In case you weren't paying attention, Kentucky came up with a whale of a season going 7-6 with a team ravaged by injuries and struggling to find a live body to line up under center. Fine, so the Cats got to beat up on a bunch of bad teams like Eastern Kentucky, Louisville, and Vanderbilt, but they also beat Auburn on the road and beat Georgia to secure a bowl bid. This year, new head coach Joker Phillips has a solid base of veterans to work with and yet another schedule filled with enough lightweights to make more noise out of the East.
With Louisville, Western Kentucky, Akron, Charleston Southern, and Vanderbilt on the slate, the Cats should have a five wins to count on before strapping on the helmet. Games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State on the road will be challenging, and Auburn should be better, but missing Alabama and LSU from the West is a big scheduling break. The Florida game is probably a loss no matter what, so the game might as well be on the road in the SEC opener.
The lumps taken by Morgan Newton last year at quarterback should pay off. A great talent who just needs a bit more time, Newton could be special with help from underappreciated stars like WR Randall Cobb and RB Derrick Locke. The defense loses some star power with CB Trevard Lindley and LB Micah Johnson done, but seven starters are back on a defense that allowed a not-that-bad 22.69 points per game.
Sun Belt - Arkansas State
Last year the Red Wolves were a disappointment for three reasons: schedule, a bad year from QB Corey Leonard, and schedule. Leonard is gone, and new projected starter Ryan Aplin should be a great fit for an offense that will change to a no-huddle attack. And while last year's slate was brutal, this year's is a bit better.
The Red Wolves have to go to Troy and to Louisiana as part of a tough start with three of the first four games on the road, but Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee have to come to Jonesboro during the key midseason section. Going on the road to deal with North Texas and FIU isn't all that bad, and while there's a tough road game at Auburn to face, on the right day, ASU could hang around in the other non-conference games against Louisville, Indiana and Navy.
The defense was the best in the league last year in both yards and points allowed, and enough pieces are back to be great again. Pass rushing star Alex Carrington is gone, but the ends are solid and there's enough experience and athleticism among the outside linebackers to expect more plays in the backfield. The secondary is the weakest part of the D, but it's not all that bad with good corner prospects and some good options at safety, especially if M.D. Jennings is back from a knee injury.
WAC - Utah State
Utah State hasn't come up with a winning season since 1996 and has only one winning campaign in the last 16 years. Making matters worse, the program hasn't won more than four games since 2000. So why is there any real reason to believe Gary Andersen can finally turnaround one of the nation's most woeful teams?
In his first year at the helm, Andersen created a more dynamic offense, led by the explosive Diondre Borel at quarterback and Robert Turbin at running back, and making the team far more competitive. While the Aggies only won one more game than it did in 2008, and that was against Southern Utah from the FCS, but there's a real, live buzz about what the future holds four starters returning to the offensive line and the defense gets seven starters back. Is it going to be enough for the Aggies to finally get over the hump? If the goal is to finally get another five win season, then it's possible.
Utah State should be able to beat Idaho State and New Mexico State at home, and it has winnable games in Logan against Hawaii and Idaho. While it'll be tough to come up with too many road wins with dates at Oklahoma, Boise State, and Nevada to fight through, going to San Jose State might be a toss up, and Louisiana Tech shouldn't be a world-beater.