College Football's 10 Most-Improved Teams in 2011

David Fidler Correspondent IAugust 1, 2011

College Football's 10 Most-Improved Teams in 2011

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    The ebb and flow of college football demands that some teams improve substantially, while other teams fall from grace. That is the nature of a sport in which every player has a four year shelf life.

    One of the most improved teams of 2010 was Auburn, which went from 8-5 to 14-0. Michigan State was another team that made great strides. In 2010, the Spartans went from the previous season's 6-7 to 11-2. Then there was Miami (Ohio). The Red Hawks went from 1-11 in 2009 to 10-4 in 2010.

    To some degree, these improvements were predictable. After all, Auburn returned almost its entire offense and a substantial portion of its defense. Plus the Tigers fielded a pretty good Juco transfer under center.

    Meanwhile, in 2010, MSU didn't even leave the state of Michigan until the end of October. On the other hand, 2009 saw the Spartans playing two ranked opponents and two away games before September was out.

    Finally, Miami (OH) had a ridiculous turnover margin of minus-24 in 2009. As the Red Hawks started a freshman at quarterback and turnovers tend to fluctuate from year-to-year, it was a safe bet that they would be much better in this capacity in 2010. This would logically lead to more wins.

    Certainly, these clues didn't give any sort of guarantee that Auburn, Michigan State and Miami (OH) would improve quite as much as they did, but one had to expect a bump in the win column.

    As we head into 2011, there will be a new group of teams that will improve.

    In my opinion, every team on this list is a safe pick for more wins. Just how many more wins is where it becomes sketchy.

Texas Longhorns

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    Texas' troubles have been well-documented by now.

    Following nine straight seasons with double-digit wins, Mack Brown's Longhorns went 5-7 and failed to make a bowl in 2010.

    That also ended Brown's streak of 18 years of bowl eligibility between his time at Texas and North Carolina.

    Expect that to change in 2011.

    First of all, there has been a semi-overhaul of the coaching staff. Secondly, the Horns return seven on offense and seven on defense.

    Thirdly, a big part of the reason that Texas fell apart was turnovers. With a turnover margin of minus-12, they were 116th in the country. Texas has had a positive turnover margin every season since at least 2000 (beyond which I cannot find the statistics). Expect them to get back into the positive in 2011.

    The only problem is that the Big 12 is top-heavy this season with at least three teams having a reasonable shot of running the table.

    Still, the likelihood of Texas winning less than eight games next season is about as likely as the city of Dallas hosting the Democratic National Convention.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    Danny Hope is entering his third season in West Lafayette. In that time, he has compiled a record of 9-15. In his first season, he went 5-7 and last season he went 4-8.

    He is at Purdue, not Ohio State, so he has a little breathing room. Still, this year he has to show some progress or his seat will catch fire.

    One problem that has plagued the Boilers has been a substantial streak of bad luck.

    Last season, injuries took Purdue's top running back, quarterback and receiver. Overall, PU lost 22.7 percent of its offensive starts.

    The season before that, Danny Hope inherited a team with a somewhat bare cupboard that played a somewhat brutal schedule.

    This year, things are looking up.

    He returns nine defensive players and eight offensive players along with both specialists. He also has a quarterback that the team can invest in and an experienced offensive line. Lastly, tailback Ralph Bolden will return. Bolden won second team All Big Ten honors in 2009, but was sidelined last year with a torn ACL.

    I'm not calling for Purdue to win their conference or even their division. But they will be bowl eligible.

Houston Cougars

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    Last season, following four straight years of eight wins or more, Houston slumped to a 5-7 record.

    Much of the reason for that was the injury to starting quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum, who began the season as a Heisman contender, was lost for the season following an ACL tear in the Cougars' third game.

    At that point it seemed like his collegiate career was over, but apparently the NCAA's official decision maker came up heads on that particular day and Keenum was granted a sixth year.

    This is good news for the Cougars, who will be in a decidedly competitive Conference USA in 2011. Luckily, Houston's schedule sets up nicely, as two of the other three front runners to win the conference—Southern Miss and Central Florida—are not on their schedule.

    On top of that, three of Houston's 2010 losses came by a touchdown or less, with two of them coming by a field goal or less.

    Next year, expect them to turn those close games around.

    I'd be willing to bet on Houston reaching double-digit wins in 2011.

Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Dennis Erickson's record with Arizona State has been less-than-stellar. In four seasons, he has posted a 25-24 mark. His Sun Devils have not made a bowl since his first season with the team, at which time they went 10-3. Last year, ASU went 6-6, but did not get selected for a bowl.

    However, that 6-6 record is a bit misleading.

    To begin with, they were the third-best scoring offense in the conference that included Oregon and Stanford. Secondly, they were the fifth-best scoring defense. With those numbers, they should have had more wins.

    Three of their six losses were to top 10 teams—Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford. Four of their losses were by a touchdown or less. Three were by a field goal or less. Two were by one point.

    In 2011, every one of their offensive starters return and nine defensive starters return.

    Though they have tough out-of-conference games against Missouri and at Illinois, they miss Stanford and Washington from the Pac 12 northern division. Also, though they have to travel to Oregon, they get Southern Cal and Arizona at home.

    In 2011, ASU will win at least nine games.

Georgia Bulldogs

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    Did somebody say hot seat?

    Well, Mark Richt sits squarely on one of the hottest seats in the country.

    Over the last two years his Bulldogs have gone 14-12. Last year, they went 6-7. They have not won the SEC or the SEC East since 2005 and have not been to a BCS bowl since 2007.

    These might seem to be trifling offenses. After all, three years without a BCS bowl? Two years without double-digit wins? But this is the SEC and this is Georgia. There is no excuse for what is perceived as mediocrity.

    Besides, Richts' record against arch-rival Florida is a damnable 2-8. To further rub salt in the wound, he is 1-2 against Ron Zook.

    It remains to be seen if Richt will do enough to appease Dawg fans, but he will have 15 returning starters, including freshman (now sophomore) phenom quarterback Aaron Murray.

    Furthermore, the schedule will work in the Bulldogs favor, as their only tough away game is at Tennessee, and they miss LSU, Alabama and Arkansas from the west.

    This season, UGA will get back to double-digit wins, and if they can get by their opening game against Boise State, they will be a darkhorse contender to make the national championship game.

Brigham Young Cougars

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    In 2010, BYU went 7-6. It was the first time the Cougars didn't win at least 10 games since 2005, Bronco Mendenhall's first season as the head coach.

    Four of the 2010 losses were to ranked teams.

    Much of the reason for this was a very large graduating class in 2009. Last season, Brigham Young had six returning starters on offense, and only five on defense. Among other things, the departing players included three-year starting quarterback Max Hall. Taking his place was true freshman Jake Heaps.

    Not surprisingly, Heaps had the lowest quarterback efficiency rating—115.89—of any starting BYU quarterback Mendenhall has worked with. The closest was John Beck in 2005, who had a rating of 137.6. Of course, he was a junior at the time.

    On top of that, the Cougars got clobbered by injuries, losing 15.5 percent of their starts.

    Next season, BYU is leaving the Mountain West and beginning life as an independent.

    They also return 10 starters on offense and six on defense. Furthermore, due to experience gained via last season's injuries, they will be extremely deep.

    Their schedule is decidedly front-loaded with September matchups at Ole Miss, at Texas and home games against Utah and Central Florida.

    If they get through the first month, their toughest remaining games will be at Oregon State in October, and at Hawai'i in December. Other than that, the rest of their schedule is loaded with teams they should easily beat.

    In 2011, expect BYU to get back to double-digit wins, and also expect them to be one of three teams with the best chance of being a BCS buster.

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

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    And speaking of BCS busters, Southern Mississippi is the second Conference USA team on this list. Given that there are at least three more high quality teams in the conference, C-USA, and not the Mountain West, might be the best non-AQ conference in college football next season.

    Last season, Southern Miss went 8-5. Larry Fedora's squad finished the year poorly with losses to Tulsa and then Louisville in the Beef O'Brady Bowl.

    Two things to consider in the Golden Eagles' situation are they were hurt by injuries down the stretch, particularly on the defense.

    Also, four of their five losses came by a touchdown or less, with three coming by a field goal or less and two losses coming by one point.

    In 2011, they'll return eight starters on each side of the line. This includes their all-conference quarterback, Austin Davis, and six of their front seven on defense.

    On top of that, they miss Houston and Tulsa on their conference slate; and they get SMU and UCF at home. Finally, their toughest out-of-conference games are at Virginia and at Navy, both of which are winnable.

    In arguably my most aggressive pick, I'm calling for Southern Miss to reach double-digit wins for only the third time in their 92-year history as a football program, and for the first time since 1988.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Notre Dame is a program that has been "returning to glory" since Lou Holtz left the program in 1996. Even the last three years of Holtz's program weren't that notable. And that was four coaches ago.

    Part of the problem is that it is Notre Dame. As the program with the second-best winning percentage of all-time, there is a lot to live up to. Eight-win seasons, like first-year coach Brian Kelly had last year, will only cut it for so long. National titles and prestigious bowl games are expected almost every season.

    I don't know if Kelly will return the Irish to their former glory. I don't know if a modern program can have the enduring degree of success that erstwhile Notre Dame coaches Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian had. The football landscape may be too different than it was in their heydays.

    Regardless, I like Notre Dame's outlook in 2011.

    Firstly, they return 10 offensive starters and nine on defense. Secondly, Notre Dame was crippled by injuries down the stretch last season, yet they still kept improving and won their last four. Also, they allowed a total of 13 PPG in those final four games. This was despite the fact that two of their four opponents were offenses that averaged over 30 PPG. Brian Kelly is generally associated with offensive teams, but that is good defense. Three of their five losses last year were by a touchdown or less.

    Finally, Notre Dame's schedule is competitive, but the only opponents that project to be elite next season are Stanford and maybe USC. And the latter will be a home game for the Domers.

    In closing, look for the Irish to win at least 10 games and receive a bid to a BCS bowl.

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    The team Brian Kelly left high-and-dry for the 2010 Sugar Bowl fell off the map last season.

    After posting a 33-7 three-year mark with Kelly, the Bearcats went 4-8 last year under new head coach Butch Jones.

    Part of the reason was the transition. Part of the reason was because Kelly is that good a coach. Part of the reason was a defense that was depleted by graduations. But the biggest issue was turnovers.

    Cincinnati was second-to-last in the country with a minus-15 turnover margin. That is tantamount to giving away more than a possession a game, and giving that extra possession to their opponent.

    With every defensive starter and five offensive starters returning, including all-conference quarterback Zach Collaros, the Bearcats should be able to turn the ship around.

    I don't know if Davis, or any coach, will ever get the program humming like Kelly did. Nonetheless, in 2011, the least Cincinnati will achieve is bowl availability.

Central Michigan Chippewas

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    In 2010, former Michigan State quarterback coach Dan Enos took over head coaching duties at Central Michigan.

    The previous year saw the Chippewas go 12-2 with a conference championship under Butch Jones. In fact, the previous four seasons saw them win three conference championships under Jones and before him, Brian Kelly (it's amazing how often his name is coming up in this list).

    Under Jones and Kelly, the Chippewas ran a spread offense that focused on balance. Under Enos, the Chippewas run an offense with multiple looks that focuses on passing.

    On top of that, Enos broke in a new starter at quarterback. The quarterback in question—Ryan Radcliff—was a sophomore with all of 21 passing attempts worth of collegiate experience. This, among other things, led to turnovers. In fact, CMU came in 113th in the country with a turnover margin of minus 11.

    Complicating that was an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries and a schedule that saw them travel to six bowl eligible teams and five teams that won eight games or more.

    Finally, the Chippewas' kicking game was a battle between three decidedly unsteady freshmen. This led to a cumulative team field goal percentage of 50 percent. That is a pretty big deal for a team that lost three games by a field goal or less. 

    In 2011, Central Michigan returns eight offensive starters and six defensive starters. They also settled on one fairly steady kicker by the end of last season, which will help in the close games. Due to the injuries on the line last season, the new starters have more experience than they otherwise would. Lastly, CMU will now have had a year to transition to Enos' system.

    In closing, look for the Chippewas to get back to bowl eligibility at the very worst.