clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 20 Best Surprises Of The 2011 College Football Season

Looking at the biggest happy surprises of the 2011 season, from out-of-nowhere surges, to quick rebounds, to some mach-speed maturation.

Getty Images

20. West Virginia Scored 70 In The Orange Bowl

Seventy! As mentioned in The Numerical, they alone scored more points than two teams had combined to score in all but two Orange Bowls. We knew that a Dana Holgorsen offense can light up the scoreboard when it gets hot. We knew that Clemson would struggle to get pressure on Geno Smith. We knew there would be plenty of points and yards to go around. But ... seventy!

19. A Month Of Georgia Tech Flexbone Porn

When it is humming, there might not be anything more enjoyable to watch than the Flexbone. You know what the offense wants to do, and you just ... cannot ... stop it. Georgia Tech rode Paul Johnson's Flexbone to the 2009 ACC title, but they faded in 2010 without receiver Demaryius Thomas. You need to be able to (very) occasionally stretch the field vertically so defenses cannot pack the line of scrimmage, and Tech couldn't in 2010. But for the first five games of 2011, the Yellow Jackets found their mojo. They gained 297 rushing yards and 365 passing yards (in just 11 completions) against Western Carolina; 382 rushing yards and 214 passing yards (in six completions) against Middle Tennessee; 604 rushing yards and 164 passing yards (in four completions) against Kansas; 335 rushing yards and 184 passing yards against a solid North Carolina defense. The Jackets averaged 587 yards and 52 points per game in their first five contests. Even though most of the damage was done against poor defenses, and even though they faded as the year progressed (101 passing yards, 24 points per game over their last eight games), it was fun while it lasted.

18. Hot, Hot MACtion

October 29: Western Michigan 45, Ball State 35 (Total Yards: 1,165)
November 1: Northern Illinois 63, Toledo 60 (Total Yards: 1,121)
November 2: Ohio 35, Temple 31 (Total Yards: 958)
November 5: Ball State 33, Eastern Michigan 31 (Total Yards: 876)
November 8: Northern Illinois 45, Bowling Green 14 (Total Yards: 957)
November 8: Toledo 66, Western Michigan 63 (Total Yards: 1,439)
November 10: Ohio 43, Central Michigan 28 (Total Yards: 954)
November 15: Northern Illinois 41, Ball State 38 (Total Yards: 1,108)
November 16: Ohio 29, Bowling Green 28 (Total Yards: 794)
November 18: Toledo 44, Central Michigan 17 (Total Yards: 857)
November 25: Toledo 45, Ball State 28 (Total Yards: 902)
December 2: Northern Illinois 23, Ohio 20 (NIU overcomes 20-0 deficit, takes first lead when time expires)

The national title may have been won by some historically good defense, but the MAC (and its major-conference equivalent, the Big 12) reminded us that sometimes football just needs to be a lot of fun.

17. Free-Falling Georgia Won 10 Straight

Georgia's Mark Richt entered 2011 on one of the hottest seats in the country. Despite having won at least nine games in seven of 10 seasons (they had done so seven times in 18 seasons before Richt arrived), the grumbles that began when the Dawgs didn't win the national title in 2008 (after beginning the season No. 1), grew considerably when Georgia fell to 6-7 in 2010. The perception was that things could totally fall apart if and/or when Richt began 2011 poorly. And sure enough, Georgia was picked apart by Boise State and lost via some crazy bounces against South Carolina. Georgia was 0-2, and Richt was supposedly on his last legs in Athens. But anyone who looked at Georgia's schedule knew the Dawgs could go on a major run if they held together. They did, and they did. The defense clicked, and the offense did just enough. Georgia held all but one of its final 10 opponents under 21 points and, when South Carolina stumbled offensively, they not only caught the Gamecocks in the standings, but surpassed them for Richt's first SEC East title since 2005.

16. Mid-Majors Surprised, As They Always Do

It is a constant in college football that some minor teams are going to surprise you; it is also consistently enjoyable. This year, you had Utah State losing a series of brutal heartbreakers (four points to Auburn, one point to Colorado State, three points to BYU, one point to Ohio) but still winning seven games for the first time since 1993.

You had Wyoming pulling a repeat of their 2009 magic act and winning five one-possession games to somehow reach eight wins despite a poor point differential.

You had Marshall pulling upsets of Southern Miss and Louisville to reach bowl eligibility, then upsetting Florida International for their second bowl win since 2002.

You had Arkansas State rolling to 10 wins and a conference title under a young, first-year head coach.

You had Louisiana Tech fielding a legitimately solid defense (despite head coach Sonny Dykes' offensive background), winning the WAC, whipping Ole Miss, and nearly taking out Mississippi State and TCU as well.

And, of course, you had Louisiana-Lafayette, almost unanimously picked to be one of the worst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision's worst conference (the Sun Belt), ripping off nine wins for the first time since 1976 and not only making their first ever bowl appearance, but winning it in dramatic fashion.

That there were unexpectedly successful team was no surprise, but the names are always different.

15. Better Late Than Never, Terrance Ganaway

Robert Griffin III most certainly deserved to win the Heisman Trophy, but he may not have done so without the boost that Terrance Ganaway gave the Baylor offense during the season's home stretch. Four games into Ganaway's senior season, he had gained 846 yards in his two-plus year career in Waco. His career long run was a 41-yarder against Stephen F. Austin. But then he ripped off 200 yards against Iowa State. And after a couple of steps backwards (122 combined yards versus Texas A&M and Oklahoma State), he took off. Twelve carries for 186 yards (including an 80-yarder) versus Missouri. Forty-two carries for 246 yards against Texas Tech. Twenty-three carries for 152 yards against Texas. Twenty-one carries for 200 yards (including an 89-yarder) in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He gained more yards in his three final games (598) than he did in his first two years (510); he put the Bears over the top in some otherwise tight games.

14. Virginia And Vanderbilt Had Their Moments

In terms of advanced stats, neither the Cavaliers (65th in F/+) nor the Commodores (46th) were amazing teams in 2011. And they did combine to go just 14-12. But both programs took significant steps forward after mostly dreadful recent histories. Virginia had gone just 2-8 versus FBS teams in Mike London's first season in Charlottesville in 2010; they went 7-5 versus such teams this fall, handing the previously en fuego Georgia Tech their first loss, winning at Miami, and, of course, pulling a jarring 14-13 upset of Florida State in Tallahassee. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, was more of an "almost" story. They fell to Georgia by five points, to Arkansas by three, to Florida by five, to Tennessee by six and to Cincinnati by seven. Whereas Virginia was getting outscored by eight points for the season while finishing 8-5, the Commodores posted a healthy plus-66 point differential while finishing 6-7 (2010: 2-10, with a minus-171 point differential). Still, every college football fan's nerdy younger brother acquitted himself very well in James Franklin's first season in Nashville.

13. Texas' Cornerbacks Were Awfully Good, Awfully Quickly

For the season, only 13 players in the country defended (intercepted or broke up) at least 17 passes. Texas had two of them: freshman Quandre Diggs (four interceptions, 15 passes broken up) and sophomore Carrington Byndom (two interceptions, 15 passes broken up). The Longhorns' defense improved from good to fantastic in coordinator Manny Diaz's first season in Austin; while good things were expected of a blue chip-laden front seven, it was still conceivable that a young secondary might hold the 'Horns back a bit. Not so much. Texas ranked eighth in Passing S&P+ and second in Passing Downs S&P+, two young, ferocious cornerbacks were a primary reason for that.

12. Tino Sunseri Kept Getting Up

In 2011, pass happy offenses Boise State, USC, Texas A&M, Toledo, Stanford and Oklahoma allowed a combined 57 sacks. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, allowed 63. Sixty-three! Only one team had allowed more than 58 in the past five seasons (Rutgers 2010), but Pittsburgh surpassed even that. Still, quarterback Tino Sunseri didn't miss a game and attempted all but 41 of the Panthers' passes. He is clearly tough. Now he needs to learn how to get rid of the damn ball a little faster.

11. Louisville Grew Up

Before the season, it wasn't hard to see Louisville taking a significant, if temporary, step backwards.

Like Steve Lavin at St. John's, Strong inherited an experienced team of Petrino and early-Kragthorpe leftovers and was able to offer significant, immediate improvement on both sides of the ball. His success prompted this Varsity Numbers column about race and college head coaches (and this NPR story), one of my favorites. But this year's encore will come with a much younger squad. The test has only just begun. [...]

I thought Strong was a wonderful hire, and with some of the recruiting battles he has been winning, it's safe to assume this program is on an upward trajectory. But signs point to second-year regression. It's common with teams that take a huge, one-year leap forward anyway, and when you look at the lack of experience involved, it becomes even more likely, even if correlations between experience and success are not as strong as we might think. The schedule is pretty rough, with road trips to Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati, West Virginia, UConn and South Florida, meaning Louisville will have to either sweep the home slate or pull an upset or two to reach another bowl. It's certainly doable, but I'm thinking no amount of Will Stein Positivity™ can make Louisville too successful in 2011.

When the Cardinals fell to both Florida International and Marshall in the first four games of the season on their way to a 2-4 start, it certainly looked like the rebuilding season was in fifth gear. But then a funny thing happened: Louisville almost won the Big East. They knocked off Rutgers, 16-14. Then they went to Morgantown and tripped West Virginia, 38-35. In all, they won five of their last six in the regular season and not only avoided disaster, but made a bowl game. Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the way, but freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores absolutely littered the depth chart on both sides of the ball.

10. Robert Griffin III Won The Heisman Despite Being A Baylor Bear

Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, USC. These are the schools that had taken home 15 of the previous 16 Heisman Trophies. National powers, all. Depending on how you feel about BYU, you had to go back to 1989 (Houston's Andre Ware) or 1990 (BYU's Ty Detmer), actually, to find a Heisman that didn't go to at least a marginal power. Griffin had the stats, the flash, and the scalps (Baylor took out both Oklahoma and Texas in November), but it was still a bit of a (happy) surprise when he not only became the favorite in the final week or the season, but actually outright won it. And among other things, it was proof, both that a) Heisman voters actually watch college football, and b) they don't just watch the game of the week.

9. Michigan's And Oklahoma State's Defense Were … Good?

In their own ways, of course. Oklahoma State cracked the code for how to thrive in the advanced stats while allowing miles of yards. (Hint: start by playing a lot of really, really, really good offenses.) They turned bend-don't-break into an art form. Meanwhile, Michigan went 10-2 and made the 2012 Sugar Bowl because the defense finally began to carry some weight again. The Wolverines improved from 119th in Def. F/+ (119th!) to 12th in their first year under head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, and they were young enough that they could expect to solidify their gains in 2012.

8. Devon Still And Whitney Mercilus Went From Interesting To Ridiculous

In two seasons as a reserve, Illinois defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus had shown some potential, racking up 6.5 tackles for loss. To put it lightly, potential turned into production in 2011. Mercilus led all major conference defenders with a ridiculous 22.5 tackles for loss (16 sacks). The Illini may have fallen apart offensively over the last half of the season, but the defense was consistently solid, and Mercilus was the primary reason why. Somehow, he lived up to his lofty name.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that defensive tackles aren't usually all that explosive, Still almost caught Mercilus in the TFLs department. After a solid 2010 season (10 tackles for loss, four sacks), Still raised his game: 17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 42.0 overall tackles. Penn State went 9-3 in the regular season despite scoring just 244 points; the primary reason: a defense that allowed over 18 points just three times in that span. Still was a star.

7. The Sun Belt Was Really, Really Fun

I billed the MAC as a socialist utopia last spring, and to be sure, it lived up to its reputation throughout a crazy autumn. But it isn't the only mid-major conference that has figured out how to put an interesting, balanced product on the field. The Sun Belt has made some strong hires in recent years (Mark Hudspeth at UL-Lafayette, Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State, Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky, Dan McCarney at North Texas, etc.), and it is fair to say that six of its nine teams improved in 2011, some significantly. Arkansas State went from mid-table to conference champion. Western Kentucky won seven games after winning a combined four in the last three seasons. Louisiana-Lafayette won the aforementioned nine.

The Sun Belt's progress might be most accurately measured by the lack of progress from previous conference heavyweights. Middle Tennessee made bowls in both 2009 and 2010 but went just 2-10 in 2011. After back-to-back bowl wins in 2007-08, Florida International went winless in conference and 1-11 overall. And the ultimate stalwart, a Troy program that had made five bowls in seven years and won or shared five consecutive conference titles, finished just 3-9. Even last year's darling turnaround story, Florida International, managed to only go 5-3 in conference despite returning most of its 2010 squad. The standings virtually flipped in 2011 ... and for all we know, the same thing might happen next year.

6. Henry Josey And Dom Whaley Came Out Of Nowhere

In Week One of the 2011 season, Missouri's starting running back, Kendial Lawrence, was lost to injury for a month. The next week, new starter De'Vion Moore went down, too. Sophomore Marcus Murphy had gone down for the year back in August. What was supposed to be an interesting, four-headed running back suddenly just had one head: Henry Josey. Turns out, that was enough. In his first start, Josey rushed for 263 yards in the first half versus Western Illinois. Then he posted 133 yards against Oklahoma, 129 against Iowa State, 138 against Oklahoma State, 162 against Texas A&M and 132 against Baylor. He began the season on the third string, and he was on pace to break Missouri's single-season rushing record; then, against Texas, he went down with what Missouri's doctor called a "one in a million" injury: a torn ACL, a torn MCL and a ruptured patellar tendon. He had surgery the next day, and he faces another surgery in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, what was supposed to be the biggest question mark for a highly-ranked Oklahoma squad -- the running back position -- was quickly becoming an exclamation point. Former Langston University star, and Sooners walk on, Dom Whaley quickly emerged as a dual-threat back. He combined for 143 rushing and receiving yards versus Tulsa, then 140 versus Missouri, 127 versus Ball State, 117 versus Texas and 172 versus Kansas. I had written 2,981 words previewing Oklahoma in August, and "Whaley" was not one of them; but he was becoming the difference maker in a potentially wonderful run. But when the injury bug bit in Norman, it bit hard. On October 17, Sports Illustrated wrote a wonderful "out-of-nowhere star" article on Whaley. On October 29, he was lost for the season with a broken ankle.

5. N.C. State Saved Tom O'Brien's Job

While Mark Richt's emergence from hot seat to conference title game was somewhat notable, the fact that Tom O'Brien will be coaching in Raleigh next season is almost downright shocking. N.C. State began the season 2-3, and despite a run of decent play they still stood at just 5-5, 3-5 versus FBS teams, needing to win out to make a bowl game. They had been smoked by Cincinnati on national television -- that Thursday night broadcast on ESPN basically turned into three hours of "Can you believe O'Brien let Russell Wilson go???" -- and rumors were flying that O'Brien would be dumped following what would almost certainly be a postseason-free season. Then they whipped 9-1 Clemson (albeit without Clemson star Sammy Watkins).

Still, they fell behind Maryland, 41-14, and that was it, right? Somehow, no. The Notorious T.O.B. and the Wolfpack pulled off 43 unanswered points to win, 56-41, then looked downright exciting in a 31-24 bowl win over Louisville. In just a few weeks, N.C. State went from looking like they would be starting over, to looking like a potential preseason Top 25 team in 2012.

4. LSU's Defensive Line Grew Up

In one of my favorite previews of last summer, I wrote that while I was not nearly as concerned as some about the LSU secondary in Patrick Peterson's absence -- "The depth here is potentially incredible, as is Tyrann Mathieu. (I mean, come on, almost 10 tackles for loss as a 5-foot-9, 175-pound freshman? Seriously?)" -- I was legitimately concerned about the Tigers' front four, which had struggled at times in 2010 despite the presence of the since-departed Drake Nevis. "The tackle position has a load of potential but is all sorts of young." I needn't have worried.

Tackles Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan (combined: 16.5 tackles for loss) dominated, and ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo (combined: 28.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks) teed off on passing downs. As good as the secondary was, and it was indeed spectacular, LSU defensive backs never had to work very long, as the front four was eating up more than its share of blockers. To an extent, there will be a little more rebuilding in 2012 with the loss of Brockers and end Kendrick Adams, but Montgomery, Mingo and Logan return.

3. USC Surged, Then Kept Surging

With the scholarship limitations they will continue to face, USC's margin for error is rather slim. A few injuries or recruiting busts, and they could be in trouble in a given season(s). But they will quite possibly enter 2012 as the preseason No. 1 team, in part, because of a lack of recent busts. For much of the first half of the season, the Trojans were rather disappointing. They were winning for the most part, but they weren't necessarily looking good doing it. They beat Minnesota by only two points at home, needed a late blocked field goal to beat Utah, got rocked by Arizona State, and only beat Arizona by seven points at home. The Trojans had plenty of star power -- quarterback Matt Barkley, receiver Robert Woods, tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Nick Perry -- but they were breaking in far too many young players.

Then, those young players started to figure things out. A defense that by the end of the season was starting three freshman linebackers, allowed more than 17 points just twice in the final seven games, and a somewhat one-note passing game (Barkley to Woods, then Barkley to Woods, and for fun, Barkley to Woods) transformed into something spectacular when the light bulb went on for blue-chip freshman Marqise Lee. Lee caught 27 passes for 440 yards in his first seven collegiate games (not a bad total for a freshman), then went crazy. In the last five games, Lee caught 46 passes for 703 yards and seven touchdowns, and USC went from averaging 30.1 points per game to 43.6. In the span of a few weeks, USC went from stagnant to surging, from directionless to, again, potentially preseason No. 1.

2. Freshman Receivers Dominated

As a whole, we drastically overestimate the impact of incoming freshmen. For every four players we think will make a difference-making impact on their team in the coming fall, three will fail to live up to immediate expectations. It makes sense, really; moving from high school to FBS college football is an extraordinary leap, and it takes a while to get your sea legs.

At least, it did unless you were a freshman wide receiver in 2011.

Clemson's Sammy Watkins (124 targets, 84 catches, 1,225 yards) was far and away the No. 1 target for the ACC champion Tigers, and he was a difference-making kick returner to boot.

As mentioned above, Marqise Lee (94 targets, 73 catches, 1,143 yards) turned USC from solid to something fantastic.

Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas (61 targets, 46 catches, 605 yards; 55 carries, 595 yards, 18 total touchdowns) was a devastating receiver, runner, and kick returner, even before he lit up Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

Florida State's Rashad Greene (54 targets, 38 catches, 596 yards) carried a young, banged up Seminoles receiving corps at times.

Needless to say, the bar has been set pretty high for Dorial Green-Beckham, Stefon Diggs, Nelson Agholor, Chris Black, and the rest of the crop of 2012 blue-chip receivers. No pressure, guys.

1. Kansas State Won 10 Games Somehow

As both a football writer and stat nerd, I find myself in an interesting conundrum sometimes. I want the numbers I use to be right as much as possible, and I want to show others how useful and interesting they can be. At the same time, I really, really enjoy being wrong. The fun really begins when the unexpected plays a major role.

By all indications, Kansas State was destined to hover around .500 in 2011. And in large part, they should have been. The Wildcats were plus-50 in point differential, played nine one-possession games, and went just 2-2 in games decided by more than one possession. Their ratings -- 31st in Off. F/+, 50th in Def. F/+, 33rd overall -- were, in large part, somewhere between average and above average. And yet ... they kept winning. They beat Eastern Kentucky by just three points, then knocked off Miami with a late goalline stand. They put the clamps on Robert Griffin III late in a one-point win, then held off late charges by Missouri and Texas Tech to take two seven-point wins. After an obliteration of Kansas (a win that, alone, contributed 38 points to their plus-50 point margin), the Wildcats were somehow 7-0 and ranked eighth in the BCS standings.

At this point, things became more predictable ... and then less predictable. KSU was absolutely smoked by Oklahoma in Manhattan, 58-17. Finally the odds had caught up to them, the curtain had been pulled back, the Wildcats' general lack of elite athleticism had been exposed, et cetera. This was surely the beginning of the end. Only ... they damn near knocked off Oklahoma State in Stillwater the next week. Then they beat Texas A&M by three, Texas by four and Iowa State by seven. In all, Kansas State went an improbable 8-1 in close games on their way to a 10-3 season. Their only losses were to teams that finished the season ranked third, fifth and 16th in the country.

The thing about defying the odds is that it is equally difficult to defy the odds the next year, too. With losses in the trenches, I think KSU will most likely fall back toward .500 in those close games next year (after all, despite his general wizardry, Bill Snyder had still managed to manufacture only a 6-4 record in one-possession games in 2009-10). But a) with Collin Klein returning, the regression is far from guaranteed, b) I was certainly wrong about them once before, and c) regression in 2012 still wouldn't change the exhilarating, enjoyable run the Wildcats made in 2011. Whether this is the start of a new run by Bill Snyder or a one-time-only development, it still makes for one hell of a highlight package, and it still made for one hell of a story in 2011.