Daily Blog - Tuesday June 16th

Who will be this year’s Vanderbilt?

Last Monday I noted how Alabama had slipped thru cracks and a team that was #1 at the end of the regular season did not make my Surprise Teams list mostly because they had 4 tough road games. If you go back over the previous 7 years (since I started listing my Surprise Teams) almost EVERY SINGLE TEAM that was not in the AP’s Top 10 poll at the start of the year, that moved up to the Top 2 or 3 in the polls, had been on my Surprise Team list. In 2002 my #1 Surprise Team was Ohio St who was not even picked to win the Big Ten and was #13 at the start of the season but won the National Title! In my June 8th blog I compared this year’s Iowa to last year’s Alabama CLICK HERE.

This blog is not about surprise teams, it is about most improved teams. I have been publishing a Most Improved Teams list since 1999. Just like the Surprise Teams list, the Most Improved list hit a home run that very first year. I pegged Hawaii as my #1 Most Improved Team and they were coming off an 0-12 record in 1998. The then “Rainbow Warriors” simply set an NCAA record for largest improvement ever by going to 9-4 in 1999!

This year there are 22 teams on my Most Improved List and these are all teams that had losing records last year but ones I believe will be bowl eligible this year. Last season I had 23 teams on the list and SIXTEEN of them were bowl eligible at the end of the year! Do you think it is easy picking teams with losing records that will have a winning record the next year? I went back to 1992 and there have been 867 teams that had a losing season. Of those 867 teams only 246 had a winning record the next year which is 28.4%. That means that if coming off a losing season there is over a 70% chance that they will have another losing record the next year!

Over the last 7 years 84 of the teams that made my Most Improved List have been bowl eligible the next year. In that same 7 year span there have been 362 teams with a losing record and of those 362 only 94 have gone onto a winning record the next season (25.9%). Now you do the math here but as you can see VERY FEW teams go from a losing record to a bowl the next year if they are NOT on my Most Improved list.

This blog is about one that got away. It is not like I did not do my homework on Vanderbilt last year. In 2007 I liked them enough to put them #20 on My Most Improved list as they had 18 returning starters including their QB. Vandy appeared on their way at 3-1 but against Georgia, with the game tied, they fumbled at the UGA7 with 2:43 left and UGA was able to drive for the last play FG to beat them. Vandy missed two FG’s and an xp vs Kentucky and despite a 432-351 yard edge they lost at home by 7. A game-winning FG bounced off the upright and they lost to Tennessee by 1. Change one play in any of those 3 games and Vandy would have been another team off a losing season (4-8 in ‘06) that became bowl eligible.

Last year Vandy had 3 career starts returning on the offensive line, by far the lowest total I had ever seen from that position. They had just 9 returning starters and I figured their window of opportunity had closed. Vandy did benefit from some great fortune last year. After 5 games they were #12 in the SEC on offense and #10 in the SEC on defense, much as I had expected. Amazingly they were 5-0! Somehow, someway, despite being outgained by an avg of 320-256 on the year (yes, 64 ypg!) they finished 7-6! I am not upset about not picking Vandy as their -64 ypg overall was the worst of any SEC team for the year and they just caught a lot of breaks during the year.

There is a team this year that I feel will finish last in their league but when I was doing their write up I felt the circumstances were very similar to Vanderbilt. Duke was a team I had high expectations for in 2008 and despite the fact that they were 3-61 in the ACC during the decade I called for them to top Virginia in the ACC Coastal Division. Things looked GREAT for that forecast as they opened the year 3-1 and walloped Virginia, 31-3 and at this point, Virginia was not only 1-3 but was outscored by an avg of 32-9. The rest of the season did not go as I expected as Virginia rallied for 5 wins. Duke meanwhile led Miami, FL 24-24 and lost but they did beat the same Vandy team I talked about above on the road to go to 4-3. They lost in OT to Wake Forest (missed a 41 yd FG in regulation that would have won it), and then lost their star QB Lewis vs Clemson. They lost to rival UNC by 8.

Last year’s Duke squad had 16 returning starters and this year they have just 11 with their offensive line having just 25 career starts which is the 5th fewest in the NCAA. They will be a dog in roughly 9 games this year. When I picked Vandy as a Most Improved Team in 2007, I was calling for them to get to their first bowl since 1982 and they accomplished that a year later with a less experienced squad. Duke has not been to a bowl since 1994 and is just 14-90 this decade and less experienced than the 2008 version. Very few teams with losing records turn it around and have a winning season the next year if they do NOT make my Most Improved list. I still feel Duke will finish last in the ACC Coastal and have their 15th straight losing season but there are plenty of parellels between the Duke of 2009 and the Vanderbilt of 2008.