Feature: AP Picks Arizona as 2008 'Surprise Team'
Aug. 7, 2008
These six teams, one from each of the BCS automatic qualifying conferences, didn't break .500 last season. But they could be poised for a big leap forward.
Last season: 6-6, with two losses of seven points of less.
Experience: 13 returning starters, and 52 returning lettermen. In the Big Ten, only Ohio State has as many players with game experience on its roster. All five of the starters on the offensive line are back and both defensive tackles are senior three-year starters.
Quarterback: Jake Christensen is a senior entering his second season as starter. Injuries gutted his receivers last season and the line didn't provide much protection. Still, he tossed 17 TD passes and only six interceptions.
Schedule: No Ohio State. No Michigan. OK, so not playing Michigan isn't the break it usually is, but it's a lot better than missing Indiana.
Last season: 6-7, three losses of seven points or less, including in the Independence Bowl to Alabama.
Experience: 14 returning starters. Could have as many as nine seniors and two juniors starting on defense. The offense, though, is relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores.
Quarterback: One of those sophomores is Cody Hawkins. The coach's son has some similar physical traits to Todd Reesing of Kansas. Undersized, quick feet, good on the move.
Schedule: This is the area that really works against the Buffaloes. They miss Oklahoma and Texas Tech in conference, but the nonconference is tough - hosting West Virginia and getting Florida State in Jacksonville. Plus Big 12 road trips to Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
Last season: 4-8, with six losses coming by seven points or less.
Experience: 18 returning starters. Lots of sophomores among those returning starters, so still a relatively inexperienced team.
Quarterback: Speaking of sophomores, T.J. Yates started great but faded last season. Then he had shoulder surgery in the offseason, which might explain the late-season struggles.
Schedule: All the Tar Heels' ACC Coastal Division rivals are in transition years and North Carolina doesn't play Clemson or Florida State from the other division. Nonconference games against Rutgers, UConn and Notre Dame are no cakewalk, however.
Last season: 5-7, four losses by seven points of less, including one in overtime.
Experience: 15 returning starters, 53 returning lettermen - second only to South Florida in the Big East. Coach Dave Wannstedt has received high marks for recruiting the past few years. Those guys are now ready to play.
Quarterback: Pat Bostick was a big-time recruit, but he wasn't ready to play (eight TDs, 13 INTs) in '07 as a freshman. He was forced to because of injuries to Bill Stull and Kevan Smith, who also came into the season with little game experience. The upshot of last year's disaster is they should all be better prepared this season.
Schedule: Beat Iowa at home on Sept. 20 and the Panthers should be 4-0 heading to South Florida for a big Thursday conference game. Win that, and team confidence goes through the roof.
Last season: 5-7, four losses by seven points or less, including a 20-13 loss at Southern California.
Experience: 13 returning starters, 10 on offense, which is good. Only three of those returning offensive starters are seniors, which is bad.
Quarterback: Willie Tuitama is one of those three seniors, which is a very good thing for the 'Cats because he's been starting since his freshman year. Staying healthy has been his biggest issue. When he's running their spread offense, the Wildcats can put up big numbers.
Schedule: First six games are winnable so maybe Arizona can build some momentum heading into back-to-back October home games against Cal and USC.
Last season: 6-6, ended season with five straight losses, including two by three points or less.
Experience: 17 returning starters, 10 on defense that will rely mostly on juniors. A bonus: Star LB Jasper Brinkley, who probably would have jumped to the NFL early had he not lost most of last season to a knee injury, is back for senior year.
Quarterback: There's a new starter but it's not even hot-shot recruit Stephen Garcia. He put himself out of contention for the job by getting suspended in the spring. For now Tommy Beecher is the man for coach Steve Spurrier. But for how long?
Schedule: There's no such thing as a light schedule for SEC East teams, and the Gamecocks get LSU out of the West. The traditional rivalry against Clemson is another game against a potential top-10 team.
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