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It's that time of year again -- time to prove my worth as a sports prognosticator. Alright, I'm clearly not Jimmy the Greek. However, if I'm right at the end of the year, I'll boast that I told you so as well as anybody in the business.
To keep me honest, the five teams I picked to surprise last year were Ole Miss, Colorado, Nebraska, Miami and Notre Dame. The Rebels were clearly my best pick, going 9-4 after a 3-9 campaign in 2007. They topped off their season with a dismantling of Texas Tech in their bowl game.
Nebraska also went 9-4, following up on a 5-7 season in 2007. Notre Dame (3-9 in 2007 to 7-6 in 2008) and Miami (5-7 in 2007 to 7-6 in 2008) both went from winners to losers.
Only Colorado was a bad pick last year, going 5-7 after a 6-7 bowl season in 2007.
This year I am picking five more teams to go from losers to winners. They are Michigan, Washington, UCLA, Colorado and Texas A&M.
MICHIGAN (3-9 2008 to projected 8-4 in 2009) was a miserable team in 2008. Rich Rodriguez, in his first year in Ann Arbor, didn't have a quarterback to run his system. Injuries hurt whatever running backs he had in his system, too. This year, Brandon Minor is healthy and incoming freshmen quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are intriguing options. They can run and throw in Rodriguez' spread attack, and Forcier was in for the spring. The defense should be sound as it traditionally is.
WASHINGTON (0-12 2008 to projected 7-5 2009) didn't have anything go right last year. Even a team the Huskies should have defeated, rival Washington State (which gave up 58+ points 6 times in '08), found a way to hold down UW's scoring and win the Apple Cup, 16-13. This year, Jake Locker, a less accurate Tim Tebow with far worse luck, is healthy. New head coach Steve Sarkisian has always been a winner, whether under center at BYU or on the sidelines at USC. The schedule, while difficult, is far more manageable. The Huskies will win in South Bend against Notre Dame.
UCLA (4-8 2008 to projected 7-5 in 2009) struggled to maintain any kind of consistency. From a season opening win against Tennessee in the Rose Bowl, to a 59-0 drubbing in Provo, it was hard to get a feel for what the team was going to do next. Any offensive system led by Norm Chow relies on good quarterback play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince just may be that guy. The schedule is a little more favorable and the Bruins should be able to manage a 3-game leap.
COLORADO (5-7 2008 to projected 8-4 2009) was the nemesis of my predictions last year. For whatever reason, it didn't happen. This year a young offensive backfield featuring Cody Hawkins, Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott has another season of experience under its belt. Several key conference games are in Boulder.
TEXAS A&M (4-8 2008 to projected 8-4 2009) is another year into the Mike Sherman System. Quarterback Jerrod Johnson returns after throwing for 2,435 yards with 21 touchdowns versus just 10 interceptions. There are several talented running backs in Sherman's system as well. The non-conference slate of New Mexico, Utah State, UAB and Arkansas looks like 4 wins. The Aggies are capable of going .500 in the Big 12.
MWC and Utah State
Once again, BYU, TCU and Utah appear to be in a three-dog race for the Mountain West Conference crown. Senior QB Max Hall is back, and I'd never bet against a BYU team with a senior quarterback. The defensive line returns in tact, and early feedback about the secondary sounds encouraging. TCU and Utah visit Provo. Give the Cougars the conference title. 11-1 for the year sounds awfully bold. I do think BYU is capable of that kind of season and a BCS berth. How about I say 12-0 or 10-2. If the Cougars are good enough to beat Oklahoma, they're good enough to take care of Florida State at home. If speed kills against the Sooners, the Seminoles also have plenty of it. 10-2 and a MWC crown seems a little more likely.
I'm picking TCU to finish second. Andy Dalton is back under center. The defense returns enough stars, including DE Jerry Hughes, to be very good if not great. The Horned Frogs should win at Virginia in the opener, but I'm saying they're coming up short in roadies against Clemson and BYU. Utah visits Fort Worth. Give the edge in that game to TCU. Horned Frogs should go 10-2 this year.
After an amazing, undefeated season that ended with a 31-17 shellacking of national title contender Alabama, it's hard to pick Utah third. The defense once again should be good, despite the loss of Paul Kruger to the Baltimore Ravens and Sean Smith to the Miami Dolphins. The two problems facing the Utes are an inexperienced quarterback, and an absolutely brutal schedule that does them no favors. Chalk up losses at Oregon, at TCU and at BYU. The game at UNLV could also be dangerous. It's simply a bowl season for Utah at 8-4.
Last but not least, I'm excited about Utah State. Maybe it's that I think the Aggies made a great head coaching hire in Gary Andersen. I also liked Diondre Borel's potential last season. The non-conference schedule again does no favors with trips to Utah, Texas A&M and BYU. I'll say the Aggies, though, are one upset away this year from going 6-6 and becoming bowl eligible. Nevada on Oct. 17 or the game at Hawaii on Nov. 7 look like the best opportunities.