Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There are surprising teams each year that after they finish with a successful season people will claim to have seen it coming all along.
Sometimes, the hindsight is valid because said team had underachieved previously or just needed the maturation of young talent. Of course, other times, a surprising team comes from off the radar.
One of the bigger surprises on the FCS level a year ago occurred in the tiny 4.3-square-mile town of Boiling Springs, N.C., where Gardner-Webb's Big South Conference program is located.
The Runnin' Bulldogs' turnaround wasn't just surprising because they had gone 2-4 in Big South games for three straight years, with a 3-8 overall record in 2012 and 4-7 marks the two prior seasons. They had a new head coach, Carroll McCray, and had been simply awful defensively in 2012, ranking 101st in the FCS in total defense and 105th in scoring defense.
Yet with the new coaching staff and much of the same team, Gardner-Webb opened last season with a win over a Furman squad that went on to tie for the Southern Conference title and win an FCS playoff game, and the Runnin' Bulldogs later defeated three Top 20-ranked teams in Richmond, Wofford and Charleston Southern. They finished 7-5 under McCray, a 1983 graduate of Gardner-Webb.
With McCray's younger brother Randall serving as defensive coordinator, Gardner-Webb enjoyed exceptional improvement on that side of the ball. They ranked fifth in the FCS in total defense - a 96-spot improvement - and tied for 29th in scoring defense.
With Buck Buchanan Award candidate Shaquille Riddick and nose guard O.J. Mau returning up front and two-time tackler leader Tanner Burch back at middle linebacker, the Runnin' Bulldogs won't sneak up on anybody this year.
So it's time for some other teams that have not drawn much attention in recent years to surprise some opponents. Here are five hopefuls:
South Dakota (4-8, 3-5 Missouri Valley Conference) - What's working against the Coyotes is a brutally tough schedule, but they may be ready for it considering they beat Northern Iowa and lost close games with Top 25 opponents Northern Arizona (22-16), Youngstown State (38-34) and Montana (31-27) last year. Quarterback Kevin Earl is a hidden talent and the Coyotes know how to run the ball. The front seven on defense will be strong, with linebacker Auston Johnson getting his share of sacks, but the Coyotes need to shore up a new secondary. Third-year coach Joe Glenn is making the Coyotes competitive in the rugged Missouri Valley and a .500 season would be nice.
UC Davis (5-7, 5-3 Big Sky Conference) - With four straight losses to open last season, it was easy for the Aggies to be overlooked the rest of the way in the 13-team Big Sky. But they won their first two conference games under first-year coach Ron Gould and finished tied for fourth in the standings. The Aggies return 19 starters, including their specialists, and one of them is an overlooked gem in running back Gabe Manzanares, whose 1,285 rushing yards last year were the third-most in UC Davis single-season history. Like South Dakota in the Missouri Valley, the Aggies are feeling their way along in the Big Sky after leaving the defunct Great West Conference following the 2011 season.
Lamar (5-7, 2-5 Southland Conference) - Coach Ray Woodard's Cardinals are seeking their first winning season since returning to football in 2010 and it's possible with plenty of winnable games, including against the three newcomers to the Southland (Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word). Quarterback Caleb Berry threw for 3,332 yards and 32 touchdowns with only eight interceptions last year while running back Kade Harrington was named the conference's top freshman. Craig McGallion was recently elevated to defensive coordinator, but he has only three returning starters from a unit that was fairly strong a season ago.
Holy Cross (3-9, 1-4 Patriot League) - The Crusaders' run of seven straight winning seasons has been buried the last two years by close losses. They are 5-18 in that time and have lost 11 games by seven or less points. Dual-threat quarterback Peter Pujals was the 2013 Patriot League Rookie of the Year and running back Gabe Guild is another young talent, so the offense is legitimate. Junior strong safety Matt Bhaya will try to motivate the defense, which allowed too many points last season.
Western Carolina (2-10, 1-7 Southern Conference) - If you're really thinking rags-to-riches, go with Western Carolina, which has lost 29 of their last 30 SoCon games. Quite simply, it's time for the Catamounts to put some pieces together under third-year coach Mark Speir. The coaching staff has given significant playing time to a bunch of youngsters in the skill positions and junior-to-be wide receiver Karnorris Bensen has taken off for quarterback Troy Mitchell. The schedule agrees as there are winnable non-conference games against Brevard, Catawba and Presbyterian, and second-year program Mercer and struggling VMI will be part of a weakened SoCon this year. Who knows, maybe the Catamounts will be peaking for their regular-season finale - at Alabama.