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April 15, 2011

Mailbag: Finding the overlooked stars

One tremendous season can transform individuals into legends.

Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders posted arguably the greatest individual season in college football history when he rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns in 1988. Georgia's Herschel Walker always will be remembered for his amazing freshman season of 1980.

Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett always will be remembered for his phenomenal 1976, while the performance of Texas' Vince Young in 2005, Auburn's Cameron Newton in 2010 and Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997 gave them legendary status.

Even if a player doesn't attain legendary status, a brilliant individual season at least typically results in postseason honors and some measure of national - or at least regional - acclaim.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, some players turn in excellent individual seasons and still fly under the proverbial radar, which we will discuss in this week's mailbag.

Got a question? Click here to send it to Olin's Mailbag

Unsung heroes

Every season, there are guys who have very productive seasons, but go basically unnoticed. Who are some players that flew under the radar in 2010 that will be receiving a lot more attention in 2011?
Maynario in Atlanta

That's a tough question because there are so many who had excellent seasons, but were overlooked or upstaged by teammates. I could make a list of 10 and someone else could make a list of 10, and our lists might be completely different.

Here's my list of 10 outstanding players who were overlooked or underappreciated last season.

LB Ryan Baker, LSU: The praise for LSU's strong defense last season centered on All-SEC selections Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard and Patrick Peterson. But Baker deserved some recognition, too. Although he missed the opener with a broken jaw, Baker still led the team in sacks and was second in tackles and tackles for loss.

LB Damontre Moore, Texas A&M: Moore spent his freshman season as the understudy to Aggies star Von Miller. Although playing behind Miller, Moore still posted 40 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. He'll step into the starting lineup and figures to ease the loss of Miller.

DE/LB Junior Onyeali, Arizona State: Though he did not enter the starting lineup until midseason, Onyeali had 6.5 sacks. He had 18 tackles overall and 11.5 went for a loss. He figures to be even better as a sophomore this season.

RB Tauren Poole, Tennessee: It was easy to be overshadowed in the running back-rich SEC. Poole rushed for 1,034 yards behind a freshman-heavy offensive line, with little help from a passing game. He had 162 yards against Oregon, 109 against LSU and 117 against Alabama.

WR Theo Riddick, Notre Dame: Although Michael Floyd is the Irish's primary weapon, Riddick averaged six catches and nearly 66 yards through the first six games before suffering a severe ankle injury. When healthy, he can be electrifying.

WR Kenny Stills, Oklahoma: Most of the attention was focused on Sooners WR Ryan Broyles, an explosive player who led the nation in receptions. But Stills caught 61 passes and proved himself to be a big-play threat, too, as a true freshman. He should be more dangerous this season.

S Kenny Tate, Maryland: Though he did earn All-ACC acclaim, Tate wasn't mentioned among the country's premier defensive backs. He had 100 tackles, three interceptions, seven pass breakups and four forced fumbles. He's such a big hitter that he's expected play a kind of safety/linebacker hybrid position this season.

RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: Though Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards, he was a background figure. There were reasons for that. He was overshadowed by Cardinal QB Andrew Luck. He was replacing '09 Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. The Pac-10 had other big-name backs, such as Oregon's LaMichael James and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers.

RB Ed Wesley, TCU: Most of the attention on TCU was directed at the defense, on QB Andy Dalton and on WR/KR Jeremy Kerley. But Wesley rushed for nearly 1,100 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in '10.

WR Marquess Wilson, Washington State: The biggest reason Wilson was overlooked was he plays for a bad Washington State program. He averaged more than 18 yards on 55 catches as a freshman. He had four touchdown catches between 33 and 74 yards and an 83-yard reception that did not result in a score. Yet, he wasn't even the Pac-10 freshman of the year.

Early ballot

Originally from Eugene, Ore., I'm a Ducks fan. Have you made early Heisman predictions and is Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas in your top five?
Sean in Phoenix

Thomas certainly is a gifted quarterback and he was a major reason Oregon reached the BCS national championship game last season. A player with his talent and experience cannot be dismissed as a possible Heisman recipient.

That said, I wouldn't rank him among the top five Heisman candidates for 2011. Although he did throw for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, Oregon still is a running team. I would be more inclined to put Ducks tailback LaMichael James in my top five preseason contenders.

My top five also would have Stanford QB Andrew Luck, who was the Heisman runner-up last season; Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson; and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

I couldn't say exactly where I'd put Thomas now, but he would be among my top 20 candidates.

Full disclosure here: Auburn's Cameron Newton wasn't among my top 20 preseason candidates last season.

Bayou questions

What are your major concerns - other than quarterback - about LSU being in the BCS title hunt?
Barney in Las Vegas

LSU likely will be ranked among the top five in preseason polls and definitely will be in the BCS hunt. But I do have reservations about them making it to New Orleans for the national championship game.

Yes, quarterback is the major concern. Jordan Jefferson has been inconsistent throughout his career. He could make significant strides as a senior; many quarterbacks have. He should benefit from working with new coordinator Steve Kragthorpe.

I also have doubts about the defense. The Tigers were good in 2010, but it's not like they shut down every team they faced. Arkansas and Ole Miss both scored more than 30 points. North Carolina was inside the 5-yard line with a chance to win on the final play of the game.

How can LSU lose three all-conference players (Nevis, Peterson and Sheppard) and not have some kind of decline? Sure, talented players will follow them, but is Peterson's successor going to be as good? I have my doubts.

The schedule also is a concern. We all know LSU is the only team to win a BCS national championship with two losses, but that's not likely to happen again.

LSU opens in Arlington, Texas, against Oregon, which also projects as a possible preseason top-five team. The Tigers also have early road games against Mississippi State and West Virginia and later face Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Home games against Florida and Arkansas won't be picnics, either.

Going unbeaten against that schedule is a tall task, especially for a team with an inconsistent quarterback and big stars to replace on defense.

Again, LSU will be in the BCS hunt. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Tigers lost two or three games, either.

Let's try this again

It is not arguable that the SEC has produced the best teams over the past three to five years, but I believe the league as a whole is overrated. Why is it that no commentators mentioned that the league was only 5-5 in bowls, including losses by some of its better teams (South Carolina and Arkansas)? Never once last season was Utah's BCS rout of Alabama just two short years ago noted. Generally, the SEC plays weak non-conference games, so it's hard to gauge how tough the league is. Let's be careful this season not to put the league as a whole on such a platform.
Glenn in Bend, Ore.

Here we go again.

I've often debated with overzealous SEC fans who truly believe football played in other parts of the country is grossly inferior. If that were true, every SEC team would win all non-conference games in blowout fashion.

But I don't think it's any kind of stretch to say that the SEC clearly is the strongest conference in college football.

The SEC's bowl record was discussed in this space on Feb. 25 (Mailbag: How far is too far?).

I'll recount the nuts and bolts of that story, but I don't think you'll like them.

The fact is the overall non-conference schedules of SEC teams aren't much different that those of most Big Six conferences. Look it up. I did.

And it's also true that SEC teams went 5-5 in bowl games last season. But the SEC had more difficult matchups than most conferences.

Don't believe it? Well, four of the SEC's five bowl losses were to opponents that won conference or division championships (Ohio State, Florida State, Pittsburgh and UCF). And in most cases, the losses were close games.

Three of the SEC's five bowl wins were victories over Pac-10 champion Oregon (in the BCS championship game), Big 12 South co-champ Texas A&M (Cotton Bowl) and Big Ten tri-champ Michigan State (Capital One Bowl).

Look how the other Big Six conferences fared in bowl games. The Big Ten (1-3 vs. the SEC) and Big 12 (0-1 vs. the SEC) each went 3-5. The ACC had two wins over SEC teams, but was 4-5 in bowl games. The Pac-10 was 2-2 in bowls and 0-1 vs. the SEC. The Big East was 4-2 in bowl games and had a win over an SEC team.

If you want to use Big East tri-champ Pittsburgh's 27-10 bowl victory over Kentucky, which finished fifth in the SEC East, as evidence that the SEC is not the dominant conference, go ahead. But you'd be wrong.

By the way, Utah's win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 2008 season was discussed and written about often - in 2009. But after Alabama won the '09 national title, that became old news, don't you think?

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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