With the season now just a few short weeks away, its time to answer some real questions... Today's question for the three of us is, what team outperforms expectations in 2014.
Zach: I know Florida is kind of the stock answer here, but I'm going with Florida anyway. I think Florida is good this season. Not 7-5/8-4 good, but 10-2/9-3 good.
The Gators' last three recruiting classes have ranked third, fourth, and eighth nationally, so the talent is there. I can't explain the injury bug that inflicted the team last season, other than that injury gods must have put Florida's protective forcefield on autopilot while they got caught up on Breaking Bad. All I know is that can't possibly happen again this year, although they did dodge a bazooka shot with Vernon Hargreaves on Thursday. The biggest reason I believe Florida turns it around in a big way is coaching. Will Muschamp made a massive upgrade in exchanging Brent Pease for Kurt Roper. There aren't many quarterback tutors in football better than Roper, and fixing Jeff Driskel will in turn fix about 80 percent of Florida's problems.
Predicting a 9-3/10-2 type season doesn't leave much room for error with Alabama and Florida State on the schedule, but I think Florida benefits massively in getting LSU, Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina at home.
Doug: My pick for a program primed for a big season this year lies in Big Ten country with Northwestern.
There are a few reasons that I really believe that this will be a special season for B1G Cats. For one, they may have been the unluckiest team in the country during one particular four week stretch last season, just weeks after giving Ohio State all they could handle in one of the Big Ten's best knock down, drag out games of the year.
Starting in mid-November, the Cats lost by 3 to Minnesota, lost in OT at Iowa, dropped a triple OT heart breaker to Michigan after they hit a game tying field goal at the buzzer, and then lost to Nebraska on a last second Hail Mary. I know coaches say that "you make your own luck", but that's a brutal stretch of tough breaks.
Secondly, they've pulled in a respectable recruiting class on the heels of a 10-win 2012 season and news that their new Lake Michigan training facility will open in the next few years. They also return super-talented tailback Venric Mark is back after highlighting a list of injured contributors in 2013. Mark took the country by suprise in 2012, rushing for over 1,300 yards after making the switch from receiver. He'll pair up with fellow senior Trevor Siemian to create one of the Big Ten's most talented backfield's when it's all said and done. "Mark" it on your calenders (see what I did there?).
Finally, their schedule is stacked in their favor with Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan all coming to Evanston to play, and two of the favorites to win the Big Ten (Ohio State and Michigan State) are completly off the schedule this year. I'd consider Northern Illinois and Notre Dame are their two tests on the non-conference schedule.
Long story short; don't ever underestimate Fitz and his staff. Everything I've heard from Evanston this off season says that the team has become closer than ever in part to the "unionization" talk that dominated the off season. I think they're ready to explode on the scene in 2013 with 9 or 10 wins well within reach.
Scott: Last year, in Kliff Kingsbury's first season as head coach, Tech won their first seven games and then lost their final 5 regular season games (they went on to beat Arizona State 37-23 in the Holiday Bowl). To be blunt, the Red Raiders just ran out of depth as the year wore on. Kliff and his staff have addressed depth as much as they could in the past 17 months; but the team is still lacking some degree of depth, particularly up front on both sides of the ball. Largely for that reason, national expectations are good; but not great for Texas Tech in 2014 (Paul Myerberg has them at #28 entering the season).
I visited Lubbock a few months back and observed & interacted with both the staff and the players. This is Davis Webb's team and I think that's a good thing. Webb and Kingsbury work well together and I can see them getting on a hot streak and winning way more than people think. There is not an "unwinnable" game on the schedule this year and Kliff will have this team playing loose, having fun and playing with a lot of confidence.
If the team can stay healthy, I think Texas Tech finishes the season in the top ten.
PS - This team could be scary good in 2015. Prepare accordingly.