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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

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ESPN.com's Pat Forde attempts to break down the intagibles that make up an underdog run to a championship (or very close), and comes up with eight criteria and five teams who fit the profile. Forde's list:

1. A reason to be overlooked
2. A championship bond
3. Upperclass leaders
4. First-round talent
5. An experienced, intelligent QB poised for a career year
6. A potentially dominant defense
7. Special teams that can win games - or avoid losing them
8. A few breaks from the scheduling gods

SMQ is of course dubious of several of these criteria, not because they don't describe a sleeper, but because these features are too broad to forecast: in the preseason, all teams are staking claims to a championship bond and special teams that can avoid losing games. All teams have upperclass leaders, and 90 percent have a reason to be overlooked. They can't all be sleepers, though it's a good bet (an obvious one, really) that the one who is will have six or seven of these features - the hard part is figuring out who will when so many teams potentially fit the bill. Of Forde's best guesses, SMQ likes Alabama and Purdue, maybe Oregon; he could have added, based on the Forde plan, Virginia or Boston College from the ACC, and maybe Penn State. Maybe "maybe" should have been the headline to Forde's column.

Okay, smart guy, the reader mentally directs at his or her screen, what are SMQ's criteria for a sleeper?

SMQ is most interested in identifying not the potential championship come-from-nowheres, as Forde seems to be intent on doing, because these teams don't actually come from nowhere - they're always recognized as pretty good before their run, a Top 25 kind of team that crossed the line into contender status by winning a couple more games than expected. SMQ would rather find the real come-from-nowheres, projected bottom-dwellers who win five or six more games than anyone thought they would. Think Maryland or South Carolina in 2000, Washington State in 2001, UTEP last year and, Forde's king of all underdogs, Northwestern in 1995. SMQ has a couple good indicators that can potentially project a couple of these teams:

1. A new coach or system (or, a reason to think there will be a difference),
2. An identity as either a) a high-flying team that throws all over the place and outscores people or b) a hard-nosed team that takes care of the ball, plays good defense and is opportunistic

Most surprise teams do so under a new coach, or a coach in his second year, like Maryland under Ralph Friedgen, South Carolina under Lou Holtz, Oklahoma State under Les Miles, California under Jeff Tedford, Joe Tiller at Purdue, Kentucky with Hal Mumme, Utah and Bowling Green under Urban Meyer, Colorado under Gary Barnett, etc. who brings a new attitude that turns a sinking ship around. Coaches who start chucking the ball everywhere, like Mumme, Tiller, Price, Mike Leach in Oklahoma (as offensive coordinator in Bob Stoops' first year, 1999) and Texas Tech, Gary Crowton at BYU, June Jones at Hawaii, John L. Smith at Louisville and Meyer (to an extent) can also drum up a couple upsets with a dangerous offense, though these teams - with the exception of Oklahoma - tend to do it with smoke and mirrors and rarely take the next level to championship contender. It always helps, as Forde points out, to have a smart, experienced quarterback poised for a career year, but a young talent will do, especially if you're going to throw a lot.

Teams who might be a lot better than anybody thinks, using these scant selectors:

Stanford: There's a new coach, Walt Harris, who won with good passing attacks at Pittsburgh. Stanford usually has a decent passing game, too, and has a returning starter (Trent Edwards) who's yet to reach his potential.

Washington: Staying in the PAC Ten, Tyrone Willingham is back with a team that seriously, seriously hit the skids last year and is going to be a lot better than 1-10 regardless. Plus, we've seen Willingham produce immediately at Notre Dame and succeed also at Stanford using whatever system is necessary - at Washington, he'll probably need a hard-nosed, take-care-of-the-ball kind of team. His old team, Notre Dame, will need to win the same way under new man Charlie Weis.

South Carolina: Yes, Steve Spurrier is that good, remember? He's a master of the passing game, and didn't have a bunch of first round draft picks running the show at Florida. The Gamecocks can throw it with smoke and mirrors until the blue chippers start coming in.

Houston: SMQ has seen Art Briles' passing attack in person, and it can be dizzying. Quarterback Kevin Kolb is good enough to be a star, and looked like he was on his way as a freshman when the Cougars won seven in 2003, but his offensive line needs to be better than it was last year.

Air Force: The Falcons come out of nowhere every two or three years, and they're due. Shaun Carney might turn into the next Beau Morgan.

As always, SMQ could be totally, totally wrong. But you'll be hearing plenty later on if he's not.
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10:23 AM

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