Posted: Wednesday May 18, 2011 12:09PM ; Updated: Wednesday May 18, 2011 12:40PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Sun Devils' sleeper potential, cause for concern in Stillwater; more mail

Story Highlights

With a loaded offense and manageable schedule, Arizona State could surprise

Don't underestimate what losing Dana Holgorsen could do to Oklahoma State

Plus: Fiesta backlash, Eighth Year Senior Team, a nightmare playoff scenario

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Brock Osweiler, who passed for 647 yards and five touchdowns in the final two games of last season, will lead a loaded Arizona State offense in 2011.
Brock Osweiler, who threw for 647 yards and five touchdowns in the final two games of last season, will lead a loaded Arizona State offense in 2011.
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIRE

Every year around this time someone asks the following, admittedly intriguing question, which inevitably sets me up to look like an idiot by midseason. I swear I don't throw darts to come up with the answer -- though that may well be a more accurate method.

Since 2000, there have been several national title winners that were not in the almighty preseason top 10 (i.e., 2000 Oklahoma and 2010 Auburn). If you were told that a team with a preseason rank somewhere between 15 and 25 would win the national title this year, who would you guess would be ranked in this range and would have a shot at the title?
-- John, Houston

First, a disclaimer: To say there have been "several" national title sleepers since 2000 is a bit misleading, because the two John mentioned are the only two that started outside of the top 15 and went on to win it all. So basically, it happens about once a decade, which means I'd bet the house that the 2011 national champion will be Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, Oregon or another team likely to be ranked high this preseason. But if I have to attempt to defy history...

When looking for a team likely to improve by several wins, the single biggest factor generally is finding a squad that performed better last season than its record indicates. Arizona State certainly fits that description. The Sun Devils went 6-6 overall last year and 4-5 in Pac-10 play, but they had only one truly bad loss, a 50-17 defeat at Cal. They lost 20-19 at Wisconsin on a blocked extra point; they lost by a point at USC and held Stanford to a season-low 17; and they played Oregon tough for three quarters before ultimately being done in by a staggering seven turnovers.

Another common thread among sleeper teams is that they're coming off a coaching change that may have required adjustment time. Dennis Erickson has been ASU's head coach since 2007, but last year he brought in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to remold the Sun Devils into a spread passing team. Since leaving the NFL in 2008, Mazzone has immersed himself in the Mike Leach/Dana Holgorsen-style passing attack. As a result, ASU passed a lot last season, but not very efficiently. That is until quarterback Brock Osweiler took over for an injured Steven Threet in the second-to-last game against UCLA and proceeded to throw for 647 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Bruins and Arizona.

Threet has given up football due to multiple concussions, but Osweiler is back, along with nearly every other offensive starter from a year ago. Sophomore tailback Deantre Lewis flashed star potential the first half of last season before a shoulder injury slowed him down. He and classmate Kyle Middlebrooks should dramatically improve ASU's running game. And gifted (though absurdly combustible) linebacker Vontaze Burfict returns to lead a potentially dominant rushing defense.

The schedule is very manageable, save for a daunting Oct. 15 trip to Oregon. It may take a colossal upset, or a rematch opportunity in the Pac-12 title game, for ASU to deliver on its sleeper potential. Or, ASU could wilt under the hype, go 5-7, and cost Erickson his job. But hey, John wanted a sleeper, and I assumed Florida State didn't count.

In honor of the fabulous job our Navy Seals did recently, what are Navy's chances Sept. 17th at South Carolina? Navy has had good success in recent years against top competition: beat Notre Dame three of the last four years, beat a good Mizzou team in a bowl game and took Ohio State to the wire.
-- Randy, Wilmington, Del.

By now it should be obvious that Navy needs to be taken seriously, no matter how many five-star athletes the competition has, or what conference it plays in. The Midshipmen run their unique offense incredibly well, and if a team is not prepared to stop it, Navy will run wild. See last year's Notre Dame game: Navy found a hole inside and just kept pounding away with fullback Alexander Teich, who finished with 210 of the Midshipmen's 367 rushing yards. And that was a Notre Dame defense that went on to dominate its last four opponents.

Navy will have a chance to catch South Carolina off guard, especially with the Gamecocks coming off their always-important clash with Georgia the week before, but two things will be working against the Midshipmen. For one, dynamic quarterback Ricky Dobbs is gone, and while successor Kriss Proctor is not inexperienced (he filled in for Dobbs and ran for 201 yards against Central Michigan), he's not likely to provide the same passing threat as Dobbs, which helped keep foes honest. But more notably, the Navy defense -- which returns just five starters -- is going to have a hard time handling guys like Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Navy will have to hope the Gamecocks come out flat on both sides of the ball.

The Mandel Initiative Podcast
Miami coach Al Golden joins the show to discuss his Hurricanes and the state of college football; Stewart and Mallory debate what the Hall of Fame is doing wrong and answer your listener mail.


Mandel Initiative Archive | Find on

Stewart, I am a die-hard SEC fan, I am in the U.S. Army and follow football with a passion. That being said, I am baffled by the lack of attention to a team that I feel may just make a splash as a contender ... wait for it ... wait for it ... Oklahoma State. Eww, did I just say that? I do vaguely remember the Cowboys having a good team with a very good quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and outstanding receiver (Justin Blackmon), both of whom have returned this year. I admit that I am not sure how their defense is, but given the high-power nature of their offense it may offset their defensive deficiencies. Do you think they should at least be looked at as a potential BCS contender?
-- David A. Horn, Irvington, Ala.

I certainly think the Cowboys should be viewed as a potential BCS bowl contender. They weren't that far off the past two years (9-4 and 11-2 seasons, respectively), but season-ending Bedlam losses to Oklahoma kept them just short. And I'm certainly salivating over the possibilities of another year of Weeden-to-Blackmon. Running back Kendall Hunter is gone, but Joseph Randle showed as a freshman that he can be a capable replacement. There's no question this team is stacked offensively.

But I'm more inclined to think the Cowboys hit their ceiling last year. For one, there's no understating the impact Holgorsen had in his lone season as offensive coordinator. Mike Gundy had some highly productive offenses before, but nothing close to last year's unit, which ranked third nationally in total offense (520.3 yards per game), second in passing (345.9) and third in scoring (44.2). SI.com contributor George Schroeder visited Stillwater this spring and told the unique story of new coordinator Todd Monken, who literally had Weeden teach him the offense from scratch. It's one thing to learn the terminology, but it seems almost impossible for someone with no previous experience in Holgorsen's offense to replicate his play-calling ability. Meanwhile, there's no evidence to suggest Oklahoma State's defense is anywhere closer to championship level. Last year it ranked 88th nationally in yards allowed (409.5).

The Cowboys don't have the same overall talent level as Oklahoma, Texas or even Texas A&M, so they have to try to outscore them. Last year showed they may be able to do that most weeks, but at some point they'll have to stop somebody if they want to go undefeated.

 
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