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Friday, July 29, 2011

Sleepers in 2011 (SEC)

This Kentucky squad fits the description of a sleeper better than any other team I’ve discussed thus far. Second-year head coach Joker Phillips has room to improve after his Wildcats posted a so-so season in 2010, which was capped off with a trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl. It’s not always easy to take a team to a bowl game after your first season at the helm, but that’s exactly what Phillips did. Now the task becomes trying to transform his mediocre Wildcats squad into a legit SEC contender. I believe Kentucky fans; more so than anything else, just want their team to have some relevancy in the SEC. The last time Kentucky was relevant in the conference was back 2007 when the Wildcats were ranked as high as #8 nationally. They even knocked off a number 1 ranked LSU program in a triple overtime thriller that year! Sadly, the Wildcats haven’t been ranked in the top 25 in over the last 38 games. Their last victory over a ranked opponent was in fact against that same LSU squad on October 13, 2007. 

However, what the 6-7 record doesn’t reveal is that Kentucky was within a touchdown of the win against national champion, Auburn. The Wildcats also played tight games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. This team could have very well been on the verge of a 10-win season in 2010. Talent isn’t the issue because these guys can compete against some of the top dogs in the conference. However, UK’s inability to finish games has been what’s hindered this team in the past. Kentucky ranked 27th in total offense last season, but will have to rely on new playmakers at the Quarterback and the Running back positions. Whoever fills those voids will definitely benefit from a veteran offensive line blocking in front of them. 7 starters return on defense, all looking to improve as a unit, which ranked 45th a year ago. On paper, I think the Wildcats will win all its nonconference games. Kentucky should also be able to handle Ole Miss and Miss State, after dropping both of those games last season. UK will beat Vandy too, but the real test will come on the road against LSU, South Carolina, and Georgia

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sleepers in 2011 (Big Twelve)

The Baylor Bears make my watch list because despite capping off 2010 with a Bowl trip there’s still some doubt whether or not this team can be consistent in the future.  I mean, let’s just be for real here, before last season the Bears hadn’t gone bowling since Snoop Doggy Dogg’s hit single, “Gin and Juice” was tearing up the charts...

 However, Baylor has recently benefited from landing some top recruits, which is also becoming a bit of a trend amongst college football programs everywhere. More and more it seems as if players are shying away from going to those prestigious powerhouse schools and taking their talents elsewhere not only in hopes of earlier playing time, but also for creating their own lasting legacy in the sense that they had a hand in building a winning tradition. QB Robert Griffin really sparked this same movement off at Baylor.  The reason why Griffin is such a recruiting draw is because he raises his teammates’ level of play. He possesses a similar trait to that of Vince Young when he was at Texas, the mentality of “We can’t lose.”  

In 2009 the Bears went 2-7 after Griffin was sidelined by injury but last season with him in the huddle Baylor went bowling.  A lot of people feel as if Texas will make a dramatic turnaround this season but I think it could take at least a couple seasons before we see the Longhorns dominating the Big 12 again. With that being said, Baylor needs to jump on the opportunity now while Texas is down.  I like their chances of beating Texas at home this season. I also feel as if this team is talented enough to just sweep through its former Big 12 North opponents. But if Baylor can just steal a win from A&M or Tech, then the school should be in line to reach its first 8-win season since 1991. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sleepers in 2011 (Big Ten)

Last year, this squad was on the verge of doing something great in the Big Ten before the team got hit with injuries. In the first 6 games of ’10, Purdue went 4-2; however, the second-half was pretty abysmal as the Boilermakers dropped the last six of its games. I believe the return of QB Robert Marve should bolster the Boilermakers offense. The Florida native has dealt with adversity before in the past but the senior is still waiting to make his mark in college football. He was a prized recruit back in 2007 and I still believe Marve has all the intangibles to be an elite player in the Big Ten next season. RB Ralph Bolden also returns to West Lafayette. The junior exploded onto the scene in 2009, rushing for nearly 1000 yards during his sophomore season before being sidelined by knee surgery. You’ll definitely want to keep your eyes glued on those two guys this fall. The Boilermakers will miss not having the services of All-American edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan but new stars will emerge. But even with such a loss, the defense is still pretty stacked as the team welcomes back a Big-Ten best 9 returning starters. If this team can just stay healthy then maybe this will be the season head coach Dan Hope envisioned for Purdue when he arrived two seasons ago. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sleepers in 2011 (ACC)

One sleeper team to watch out for in the ACC will be the Virginia Cavaliers. Sure, posting a 1-7 conference record last season might have you thinking the exact opposite from me, but I believe this team is headed in the right direction. Despite the dismal record, there were several bright spots for Virginia in 2010. In Week 2, the Cavs went on the road to SoCal and held the then #16-ranked Trojans to only 17 points (Virginia ended up losing that contest 17-14). Another bright spot for Virginia was in its victory against #22-ranked Miami. In that game, the Cavaliers defense knocked QB Jacory Harris out of the game while also snagging in 5-INTs, tying a school-record! This squad will definitely be one of the more experienced teams in the ACC with 17 returning starters. Senior DTs Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins are not only big imposing forces, but they’re also experienced at their positions. The secondary is also deep and features ALL-ACC CB Chase Minnifield. The dude is a ball hawk; he pulled in 6 INTs last season! Second year head coach Mike London is slowly changing the culture down in Charlottesville. London’s not content with mediocrity; he wants his team to dominate all phases of the game. I could definitely envision Virginia “BOWLING” in 2011. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

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5 Names to Remember in 2011: SEC

1)    Auburn: Sophomore Running Back Michael Dyer
Now while I think Auburn’s a long shot to repeat as National Champions in 2011, I do believe the key to the Tiger’s success will be through its rushing attack. Last season, the Tigers had the 5th best rushing average per game (284.8), and despite losing Mr. All-Everything Cam Newton, to the NFL, 1000-yard rusher Michael Dyer does return. Dyer performed extremely well under pressure during his freshman season. More specifically, during those close conference games against South Carolina and LSU. Do you remember the end of the National Championship game against Oregon? Dyer’s quick instincts put the Tigers in position to win the game when things were getting tight at the end…

2)    Florida: Senior Running Back/Wide Receiver Chris Rainey
It’s the start of a new era down in Gainesville with the arrival of Will Muschamp. Quarterback John Brantley returns for his senior season but I’m not entirely sold on him. I truly think offensive playmaker Chris Rainey will have to produce in order for the Gators to be successful. He’s an all-around threat rushing, receiving, and returning punts. Rainey is an explosive player similar to that of a former Gator, Percy Harvin. Rainey ran into some domestic issues last season and was benched for a few weeks. The Gators could have benefited from his services during that stretch of time as the team went 2-3 without him. Though when Rainey was in action, the team went 6-2. Rainey is definitely a player the Gators cannot afford to be without, and I expect him to rack up some serious stats this season.

3)    Mississippi State: Senior Running Back Vick Ballard
Even after posting 9 wins in ’10 and returning 16 starters this season, I believe the Bulldogs will be a sleeper team in the highly physical SEC West. However one player who dramatically helps this team’s chances of winning 10 games and even stealing the SEC crown is RB Vick Ballard. The workhorse just barely missed cracking 1000 yards (968) but he still managed to cross the end zone 19 times (an MSU record)! A lot of people are hoping Chris Reif can develop into an elite quarterback to take the Bulldogs to the promised lands, but I truly believe the team needs to hop on Ballard’s back. 

This team went 1-4 against teams in the SEC West last season and Ballard only mustered out an average of 67.75 yards in those losses. Offensive Coordinator Les Koenning needs to make sure Ballard is getting the rock early and often. Taking a closer look at the stats, Ballard only carried the ball 5 times for a measly 13 yards in the tight-3 point loss to Auburn in Week 2. The following week in the loss to LSU, he only got the rock 11 times…How do you expect to win any games by only giving your best player 11 touches? It’s Mission: Impossible.


Ole Miss: Senior Running Back Brandon Bolden
This Ole Miss team returns the most offensive starters among its SEC West opponents (9). And among those players, RB Brandon Bolden returns in hopes of helping his team win more than just 1 SEC game in ’11. Last season, the Louisiana native nearly rushed for a stack (976) and scored14 times. A new QB and a depleted defense (only 3 returning starters) have me believing that it won’t be all ‘Peaches and Cream,’ or even CherryPickin’s for the Rebels this fall; but having a player as talented as Bolden in its backfield certainly helps this team’s chances.

5)    Tennessee: Sophomore Quarterback Tyler Bray
I felt sorry for Coach Dooley last summer. The new head coach was entering into a messy situation down in Knoxville. The previous head coach left the team in shambles and fled under the cover of darkness to USC! This team only returned 3 starters on its offense, playing in a very physical SEC East division. The odds of this team heading to a bowl game were slim at best. I originally though the Vols would post a 5-7 record in ’10, but the team ended up pulling it together and went to a bowl game (The Vols ended up going 6-7). One of the reasons Dooley and his Volunteers had some success can be attributed to QB Tyler Bray. When thrust in the starting role he went 4-1 at the end of the season. He lost his composure in the (wacky) loss to UNC by throwing a career high 3 INTs to the Tar Heel defense. So there’s some speculation as to whether or not Bray can be the man, but I say, “The Future is Now, Young Buck!” This season we’ll see whether or not Bray can restore Tennessee’s winning tradition again. It all begins on September 3rd against Montana.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

5 Names to Remember in 2011: Big Twelve

1)    Baylor: Junior Quarterback Robert Griffin
Baylor is beginning to make some noise in the Big 12, and one of the reasons why is because of its playmaker Robert Griffin. The pieces are starting to come together for Head Coach Art Briles but he knows that everything revolves around his star quarterback. Griffin has become a better passer since coming to Waco as a freshman in 2008. His 3501 yards and 22 touchdowns helped guide the Bears to a 7 win season in 2010. And keep in mind, the Baylor Bears hadn’t gone “bowling” in over 16 years, so 7 wins was huge!

2)    Kansas: The Offensive Line
This team took a step backwards in 2010 and if Coach Turner Gill hopes to climb out of the Big 12 basement this fall, his offense is going to need to improve. Statistically this team ranked near the bottom nationally in total offense. One problem could be attributed to the fact that Kansas QBs weren’t getting enough time to make plays. The line gave up way too many sacks (37) last season. I’m interested to see how hogs Trevor Marrongelli, Jeremiah Hatch, and Tanner Hawkinson have improved from 2010.

3)    Missouri: Senior Tight-End Michael Egnew
This 6’6” 235 lbs Texas native was a big part of Mizzou’s offense last season. In addition to being a good blocker, opening up holes for backs such as De’Vion Moore and Kendial Lawrence, Egnew is a solid receiver. In fact, he was the second leading pass catcher on the team with 762 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. This team returns most of its playmakers this season besides QB stud, Blaine Gabbert, but I still believe Missouri has all the tools to be successful. As long as Egnew remains a focal point in this team’s offense, then the Tiger’s potential will be limitless.

4)    Oklahoma: Junior Quarterback Landry Jones
If you like offense and watching teams score a lot of points then the OU Sooners is a team you’ll want to pay close attention to this season. Landry Jones is on pace to set a lot of records in 2011. With him at QB, the Sooners averaged 343.4 passing yards per game last season, which was 3rd best in the NCAA. The New Mexico native threw for over 4700 yards last season and hooked up with OU receivers in the endzone 38 times. Jones has total control over this team and does not have to worry about playing underneath anyone else’s shadow. He’ll go H.A.M. this season and I can’t wait to watch the show.

5)    Texas: Senior Linebacker Emmanuel Acho
I don’t think anyone envisioned Texas losing over half its games last season. I mean this team was just a season removed from playing in the BCS National title game against Alabama. Now while I don’t see Texas threatening for the Big 12 crown this season, I do think this team is capable of returning back to a Bowl game. One guy I’m keeping my eyes on is LB Emmanuel Acho. Sam Acho’s little brother had 79 tackles last season with 2.5 sacks and an INT to go with it. Despite their record, this team boasted one of the top defenses in ’10. The strength of this team will still be its defense and I believe Acho will be a key player to watch.