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April 26, 2009

Teams that could surprise, good and bad

Alabama fans probably drew a few chuckles last summer if they said the Crimson Tide would finish the 2008 season as a top-10 team.

Who's laughing now? Alabama improved from 7-6 to 12-2. While critics pointed at the Tide's embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe in 2007, Alabama fans believed that a bounce here and there would have made all the difference in the season.

Each of Alabama's six losses in 2007 was by a touchdown or less. In 2008, the Tide turned those heartbreaking losses into wins on the way to a 12-0 start.

The opposite was true for Virginia. The 2007 Cavaliers won five games by three points or less and that was with star defensive end Chris Long. But the 2008 Cavs couldn't always find ways to win and stumbled from 9-4 to 5-7.

Which team will be this year's Alabama or Virginia? We'll give you a look at whose luck may turn and whose luck may run out in 2009.

Luck is turning: North Carolina (8-5 last season). The Tar Heels are inching closer and closer to national prominence under third-year coach Butch Davis. North Carolina went 0-4 in games decided by three points or fewer last season but was 4-0 in games decided by between four and eight points. There's room for improvement in 2009: North Carolina kickers converted only two-thirds of their attempts and the Tar Heels used three starting quarterbacks.
Luck is running out: Maryland (8-5). Maryland did not look like an eight-win team last season. The Terrapins lost to Middle Tennessee one week, then beat California the next. Give credit to Maryland for eking out wins, but that might not happen in back-to-back seasons. The Terps went 6-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer. With eight defensive starters gone, as well as big-play wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, winning those close games will get a little tougher.

BIG 12
Luck is turning: Baylor (4-8). A season after Vanderbilt ended its long bowl drought, Baylor could do the same in 2009. The Bears weren't that far off last season. They were 0-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer. In two of those losses, to Connecticut and Texas Tech, Baylor led in the fourth quarter. With 16 returning starters, including sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, Baylor is poised to turn some of those close losses into narrow victories.
Luck is running out: Texas Tech (11-2). The Red Raiders can't blow out everyone they play, especially once the conference season starts. Texas Tech went 3-0 in Big 12 games decided by seven points or fewer in 2008, including a victory over Nebraska in overtime and another in the final seconds against Texas. Without senior quarterback Graham Harrell and star wide receiver Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech will be hard-pressed to match its 11-2 record. The drop-off for the Red Raiders might be steeper than you'd think.

Luck is turning: USF (8-5). West Virginia and Rutgers lost their share of close games despite staring senior quarterbacks. USF senior quarterback Matt Grothe hopes he got his heartbreaks out of the way last season, when the Bulls went 2-3 in games decided by less than a touchdown. All three losses came against conference opponents.
Luck is running out: Cincinnati (11-3). The Bearcats made a stunning run to the Big East title despite starting three quarterbacks. Cincinnati can thank its defense and an ability to win close games. The Bearcats went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including three wins by three or fewer points.

Luck is turning: Iowa (9-4). It may be a reach to say Iowa could improve despite losing 1,850-yard tailback Shonn Greene, but the Hawkeyes return 14 starters. Iowa's four losses came by a total of 12 points, with three of them by three points or less. The flipside: There are road trips to Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State.
Luck is running out: Northwestern (9-4). The Wildcats have increased their win total in each of Pat Fitzgerald's three seasons, from 4-8 to 6-6 to 9-4. Don't bet on the trend to continue. The Wildcats went 5-2 in games decided by eight or fewer points last season, and four of those nail-biters came against opponents who missed the postseason.

Luck is turning: Southern Miss (7-6). The Eagles' turnaround started in November. Southern Miss lost five in a row from Sept. 20 through Oct. 25, but only one of those losses was by more than a touchdown. Southern Miss enters this season on a five-game winning streak.
Luck is running out: East Carolina (9-5). The Pirates - the defending conference champions - return a veteran team, so a repeat is possible. But East Carolina needed to eke out its fair share of games last season. The Pirates went 6-2 in games decided by six or fewer points last season. They beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia early in the season, but they also needed overtime to beat UCF and Marshall and had to rally to beat UAB.

Luck is turning: Bowling Green (6-6). One of four 6-6 teams to miss out on a bowl, Bowling Green replaced coach Gregg Brandon with Dave Clawson even though the Falcons weren't too far away from winning the MAC West. Bowing Green's last four losses and each of its MAC losses were by seven points or less. That includes the 40-34 double-overtime loss to Buffalo that cost the Falcons a MAC title game appearance. Unfortunately, that also included narrow losses to MAC bottom-feeders Eastern Michigan and Miami.
Luck is running out: Buffalo (8-6). The Bulls were one of the feel-good stories of 2008, spoiling Ball State's undefeated season in the MAC title game, winning the MAC championship and going to their first bowl in school history. Buffalo also caught some breaks. The Bulls went 3-1 in overtime games. Each of the three OT victories came against teams that missed the postseason. Half of the Bulls' wins came by six or fewer points.

Luck is turning: New Mexico (4-8). Only 10 starters are back, including specialists, while Mike Locksley replaced longtime coach Rocky Long. But the Lobos lost all three of their games decided by seven points or fewer, including a 13-10 setback at home to Utah. With five bowl games in seven seasons, this is one of the more consistent programs in the league.
Luck is running out: Utah (13-0). News flash: Utah will have trouble repeating its 13-0 season. The Utes were remarkable under pressure last season, going 4-0 in games decided by three or fewer points. Utah's signature victories during the regular season at Michigan, at Air Force, against Oregon State and against TCU came by a touchdown or less. Beating Alabama by 14 in the Sugar Bowl must have felt like a four-touchdown rout.

Luck is turning: Stanford (5-7). Arizona lost more close games in the Pac-10 last season, but Stanford has a better chance of building on its 2008 victory total. Stanford was 3-3 in games decided by eight or fewer points, with each of the losses on the road.
Luck is running out: Oregon State (9-4). Behind Rivals.com Freshman of the Year Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State led the Pac-10 until the final day of the regular season. Along the way, the Beavers beat USC by six and the Arizona schools by two points each. Then, Oregon State capped its season with a 3-0 win over Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl. Rodgers is back, but the defense is rebuilding for the second season in a row.

Luck is turning: Ole Miss (9-4). A Cotton Bowl upset of Texas Tech and a 9-4 season have Rebels fans wanting more and there could be more this season. Each of Ole Miss' losses came by seven points or fewer, and the combined losing margin was just 19 points.
Luck is running out: Vanderbilt (7-6). The Commodores' come-from-behind, 16-14 victory over Boston College in the Music City Bowl was a fitting finish to their first bowl season since 1982. The Commodores had a knack for winning games by a razor-thin margin. Vanderbilt won just twice against Miami University and Rice by more than one score, and each of Vandy's SEC wins came by seven or fewer points.

Luck is turning: Florida International (5-7). Third-year coach Mario Cristobal quickly has turned FIU into a respectable Sun Belt program. After going 1-11 in 2007, the Golden Panthers won five games last season and could have built on that total: FIU went 1-3 in games decided by eight or fewer points.
Luck is running out: Florida Atlantic (7-6). FAU is the first Sun Belt team to reach consecutive bowl games since North Texas did it from 2001-04. But the Owls have gone 8-2 in one-score games in the past two seasons, including 5-2 in league play. The Owls were 4-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points last season.

Luck is turning: Nevada (7-6). Each of Nevada's final four losses last season was by a touchdown or less, including setbacks against Boise State and Maryland. The Wolf Pack return 14 starters, including the No. 1 and No. 3 rushers in the conference in running back Vai Taua and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Luck is running out: San Jose State (6-6). The Spartans were bowl eligible, but their season teetered on disaster. They went 3-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Over the final three weeks of the season, San Jose State could have clinched a bowl bid. Instead, it lost its last three games by a total of 59 points.

Luck is turning: Notre Dame (7-6). This likely is a make-or-break year for Charlie Weis, and hopes are high. The Irish improved from 3-9 in 2007 to 7-6 last season, when they were 3-3 in games decided by eight points or less.
Luck is running out: Navy (8-5). Coach Ken Niumatalolo kept the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in Annapolis and continued Navy's six-year bowl streak in his first season. The Midshipmen were 4-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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