TOP FOUR SURPRISE TEAMS FOR 2006

by Todd Helmick
NationalChamps.net

August 1, 2006

OK, maybe this group is not headed for a national championship run. But do not be surprised if they wind up pushing for a BCS bid when nobody believed in August.

PENN STATE - So many seniors abounded last season in the Nittany Lion's run for a Big Ten title. The biggest senior surprise came in the form of QB Michael Robinson, in particular with his feet. Happy Valley fans are going to miss those QB draws in crucial situations, but from what occurred this spring, do not be surprised when the incumbent, Pittsburgh-native Anthony Morelli, makes his name known on the national scene. Last year, Joe Paterno handed offensive coordinator Galen Hall a great deal of room from which to work, and with Robinson, Hall was able to adapt a system based on the skills available at QB. Expect much of the same once again as he makes the necessary transformations with Morelli, a purer drop-back QB. Penn State finally has a large supply of top quality receivers, an aspect that doomed their passing game in years prior. The only question marks remain within a depleted offensive line. Penn State is not likely to repeat as conference champion, especially with a crucial trip to the Horseshoe in Columbus heavily circled on the revengeful Buckeye calendar. But they should still be in the thick of the Big Ten race at the midway point.

CALIFORNIA - When fans think of a Jeff Tedford team, the first aspect that comes to mind is an Aaron Rodgers or Kyle Boller tossing the pigskin. Truth be told, the Tedford offensive system has been producing top rated running games with Bear backs often making short Heisman lists. This fall will be no different as one of our top Heisman Candidates, Marshawn Lynch, combines efforts with Justin Forsett in the Cal backfield. This is one of the best dual RB systems across the land after taking this group to the 9th-rated rushing attack last season. Gone, however, are some of the big reasons the ground game has been so successful - offensive linemen Marvin Philip and Ryan O'Callaghan have moved on to the NFL. Every other unit seems to be more than solid, and it's just a matter of who plays QB and whether that QB can elevate his play enough to push Pac Ten powerhouse USC. The offensive ground numbers should be good enough, though, to make them a contender.

CLEMSON - Why isn't Clemson favored to win the ACC Atlantic Division? After all, they have more players back than FSU; they have more All-Conference players back than FSU; and more important, they put a beat down on FSU in Death Valley late last season that Papa Bowden is not likely to soon forget. Do the logic. OK, so Clemson has to travel to Tallahassee this September. Truth be told, Tommy Bowden has not fared well in recent years when expectations have been placed on his Tiger program in the preseason. His teams seem to thrive best when given less respect so that no one sees them coming. On the hot seat/off the hot seat/back on the hot seat…sheesh, the roller coaster has been rough for this coaching staff. The key falls in replacing four-year starter Charlie Whitehurst at QB. Do not be surprised when senior Will Proctor takes over without much of a drop off. The reason for such a smooth transition has to do with Clemson's dedication to getting more physical up front and therefore running the football better, the prime reason this team is set to push for their first ACC Championship since 1991.

TEXAS TECH - The Red Raiders are not a newcomer to this arena. Coach Mike Leach has become famous for his high-octane gunslingers at QB. B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges seemed to throw for 600 yards every week. Get ready for the next arm in line with Graham Harrell (2003 Texas H.S. Gatorade Player of The Year). But their QB is not the only position making a name. As insane as it may sound, four receivers on this year's depth chart were tabbed All-Conference in 2005. Just call it the “Lubbock Aerial Circus” or “Air Raid” as they term it down there. Though their total defense improves with each passing season (30th last year; 45th in ’04; 106th in ‘03), it still may not be enough to put them in the Dr. Pepper Big 12 Championship Game. Regardless, their offensive numbers are astonishing, and this team has been in the bride’s-maid position before all too often. Mike Leach needs some kind of championship ring before anyone can mention his program with the big boys. But they are good enough to make a Top 10 appearance and push for an at-large BCS invitation.

OTHERS TO WATCH: ARKANSAS, UCF, BOISE STATE, UTAH, NEVADA