How many times have we heard the statement “I never saw that coming” after college football teams have much better seasons than expected? Before the start of each season, we all look for the obvious strengths and weaknesses of each team, beginning with returning starters, QB, coach, etc. But I believe there are 3 underlying factors that can determine if a team is getting ready to have a breakout season. Almost every single team that “surprises” will have at least a couple or a combination of all 3 of these factors.
1.An Offensive or Defensive Coordinator change…There are many teams out there that linger in mediocrity for years. They never make changes with their head coach or staff. And never really make drastic changes to their system. But when these teams finally decide that 6-6 or 7-5 seasons aren’t good enough and start making some subtle changes with their coaching staff, it’s when I start taking a closer look. Clemson was a good example of this in 2011. They brought in a new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was a very successful coordinator at Tulsa before coming to Clemson. With his teams averaging over 41 ppg. You add to it the experienced offense he inherited with 9 returning starters, and you’re looking at a great chance at instance success. Clemson went from being picked second in their division to the ACC title. I don’t believe any of this success would have ever happened without this team and these offensive players being pointed to a different and more positive direction. It goes to show you just how important that coaching can be in college football. And it doesn’t always start at the top. Look for coordinator changes. They aren’t all going to be successful. But a coach who comes in with the right resume and having something to work with like the blue chippers Clemson had in 2011, could be a good recipe for success.
2.The Schedule…Almost every team who has a breakout season has a somewhat favorable schedule. Sometimes their success has as much to do with the weakness of their road opponents than it does the real strength of the team. If the majority of the teams in a particular conference are either rebuilding or bringing in new coaches or QB’s, I start looking elsewhere for teams in conference who could have possible breakout seasons. Especially the experienced stable teams with good overall coaching. The road part of a school’s schedule is the big deal here. The part that you have to figure will be “are the better teams that you play on the road really going to be that good, or do they have issues of their own like new coaches, QB’s or other obvious weaknesses?” Again, Clemson is a good example this past season. Their early in-conference road games consisted of Virginia Tech (new starting QB & only 12 returning starters), Maryland (1st year coach), Georgia Tech (a team coming off a 6-7season and only 12 returning starters). Definitely all winnable games by a talented team like the Tigers who were heading in a new positive direction and positive outlook after upsetting both FSU and Auburn at home. With that said, Clemson going into these houses and pulling off a win shouldn’t have been THAT much of a shock in these early games given their momentum at the time after playing well at home. It also didn’t hurt that Clemson never had to play two ACC road games back to back all season. Thus a favorable schedule that maybe looking at it at the beginning of the season didn’t look all that favorable. The key here is not judging how hard or easy a team’s schedule will be based on last year or previous years success or non-success of their opponents, but based on the current form of their opponents. Especially in the early games before they have all of their dominoes in a row.
3.The Overlooked and Underrated factor…Most conferences have your usual suspects that are up towards the top of the league every year either winning the conference or competeting for the title. You’ve got Ohio State in the Big 10, USC, Oregon in the Pac-12, Virginia Tech in the ACC, and OU and Texas in the Big 12. The Big 12 was a perfect example of a conference with a team (OSU) getting overlooked this past season. The preseason experts just can’t help themselves. If they don’t pick OU to win the conference, they are going to pick Texas, because it’s the safest rum dum route to take given the history of the conference the past 10 or so years. But 2011 was the perfect storm season for a conference that was both downsizing and going through some major changes, while one of their two top teams (Texas) was also in a way re-inventing itself. Mack Brown basically fired his entire coaching staff after the 2010 season, so they were working with many new faces on the coaching staff, and also a couple young untested QB’s. Not usually a good combination in BCS conference football. The Oklahoma Sooners, though figured to not only win the Big 12 title, but compete for the national championship, started losing defensive players right and left even before the season with the tragic death of a star linebacker. The injuries just mounted from there on both sides of the ball. It left the door open for by far the most underrated team in the conference, Oklahoma St. A team that was picked no better than to finish 4th in the conference. So basically the Pokes were the “overlooked” team that didn’t have that proverbial target on their backs. Which in many cases can be a big deal when it comes to college football.
Of course it would have been very difficult to have eliminated a loaded OU team before the season started. But there should have been some subtle hints that steered your radar onto OSU having a punchers chance to take OU and the rest of the conference down.. One of the most important starting at the top with T.Boone Pickens, who has poured a ton of money into this program for the last few years. Much like what Oregon has done with their program for the last few years. It has been pretty obvious that OSU was very serious about upgrading it’s football program. Including upgrading their stadium and workout facilites, which are now some of the best in the country. All signs pointed to a team that was not regressing, but on their way up. Very talented returning starters at key positions like QB, WR and just as importantly a deep offensive line that was top 5 in the country. Plus a very good DC Bill Young, who can get the most out of the talent he has on hand. When you combine this great offense with faciing some of the most attrocious defenses the conference has had in years, your looking at the conference getting ready to be turned upside down. OSU’s toughest road contests came against Texas A&M (good offense, average defense, bad coach), Missouri (new QB) and Texas, who had a better than average defense, but they had a disadvantage in every other phase of the game. And then OSU’s last potential stumbling block came at home against OU. Again, a team that had lost many key players on defense over the season, and ended up ranked only 41st in total defense in the country by the time the dust cleared. Along with losing their best WR and RB. Which led to their loss to Baylor just a couple weeks earlier. So limping into Stillwater with the Pokes first chance to win the Big 12 title on their homefield was too much to overcome for the slumping Sooners. But much of OSU’s success could have been predicted before the season given the state of the conference and the general weaknesses of the other teams. OU and Texas A&M were basically OSU’s only stumbling blocks. And once OSU took care of business against the Aggies on the road, it was “game on” the rest of the way.
In summary my advice when looking at the upcoming 2012 season is to watch for those subtle changes where schools are trying to upgrade their programs by bringing in some primo offensive or defensive coordinators to bring in that spark that they were needing, and having the amount of quality players returning who can get the job done. Look for the favorable or easy schedule. Just because a team plays another school on the road who is normally a powerhouse school, doesn’t necessarily mean this is going to be an instant loss. Ask yourself, does this normally powerful team have weaknesses of their own like coaching changes, or a new QB and other key personnel to break in? And finally the overlooked and underrated aspect. Look at the team as a whole and the intangibles. Do they appear to be a program stuck in mediocrity and will probably finish pretty much where predicted. Or are they a school who has poured money into their program and have the appearance of seriously upgrading their team? A few subtle changes you can look for in schools like this is a coach getting paid well, or steady raises over the years in his contract. And bringing in prestigious and well paid sought after coordinators. Along with their win/loss records either not regressing too much from season to season, but staying at least the same or getting better as each season goes. When you see these kinds of “possible improvement” signs, you know the school is at least making a huge effort to build something special. And once the majority of key players/coaches/coordinators are finally in place, don’t be surprised when that breakout season is not far behind.