Jay Christensen covered college football, among other sports, for the Los Angeles Times and produces the popular college football blog TheWizofOdds.com.
There it was, buried in the corner of my garage, wedged between boxes of old magazines and clothes that should have been dropped at the Salvation Army months ago.
Carefully I reached down, picked up the crystal ball, blew off the dust and held it in my hands. There was a rush of anticipation as I lifted it toward the light. Gazing into the magical orb, I held its power in my hands.
Weeks before the start of the 2009 college football season, I can see it all — the first kickoff, the first pass, the first penalty.
Bettors, as a whole, are a superstitious bunch. We seek clairvoyance amid a world of information overload. Sometimes it's easier to let a higher power take over. So maybe that thing buried in my garage was actually a dusty, neglected bowling ball. But I can still predict the six most undervalued and underappreciated teams entering the 2009 season. And this is what I see:
Northwestern Wildcats - Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats start the season 6-0. There's no Ohio State on the schedule and this was a team that won nine games in 2008. Pat Fitzgerald has to find playmakers on offense, but the cushy early schedule will allow Northwestern to work out the kinks before it gets to the meat of the schedule. Seven starters return on defense, including all four members of the secondary, giving Northwestern arguably the best defensive backfield in the Big Ten. Fun fact: Since 1999, the Wildcats are 43-16 when rushing for more yards than the opposition.
North Carolina State Wolfpack - There were doubts about Tom O'Brien's rebuilding project when the Wolfpack started 2-6 last season. November came and North Carolina State went 4-0, including victories over then-No. 24 Wake Forest, then-No. 22 North Carolina and Miami. The turnaround was fueled by the spectacular play of freshman quarterback Russell Wilson. Fourteen starters return this year and it's easy to get excited about O'Brien's team rising up in the balanced Atlantic Coast Conference. Having eight home games will certainly help.
Nevada Wolf Pack - Tim Tebow aside, there is no better running quarterback in the country than Colin Kaepernick. He’s sneaky fast with his 6-foot-6 frame and long strides. The Wolf Pack, operating out of the Pistol offense, scored 489 points last season and should surpass that total in 2009. The success of Nevada will rest with the defense. The stop unit returns seven starters including safety Jonathon Amaya, who led the team in tackles (68) last season. However, it’s never a good thing when your leading tackler is a safety. The opener at Notre Dame should be a shootout and if things break right for the Wolf Pack, the Western Athletic Conference title will be on the line in the season finale at Boise State November 27.
Missouri Tigers - All indications point toward a rebuilding season for the Tigers, given that Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman are gone and only nine starters return. But with expectations dialed back, the Tigers could have opponents right where they want them. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who had 155 tackles last season, returns and the secondary can’t be any worse than it was in 2008 when it gave up nearly 290 passing yards per game. The Big 12 North isn’t exactly murderers’ row and there is no Oklahoma on the regular season schedule. The biggest games — Nebraska on Oct. 8 and Texas on Oct. 24 — are in Columbia.
Stanford Cardinal - Jim Harbaugh inherited a mess when he took over a Cardinal team that finished 1-11 under Walt Harris in 2006. His first squad went 4-8 but stunned USC, 24-23, at the Los Angeles Coliseum as a 41-point underdog. Last season, Stanford was 5-4 and on the cusp of its first bowl berth since 2001 only to lose its last three games. Nonetheless, progress has been made and this would appear to be the breakthrough season Harbaugh is looking for, with 15 starters and 50 of 60 lettermen returning. The Cardinal have a punishing running game behind Toby Gerhart and that should take considerable pressure off new starting quarterback Andrew Luck. Stanford plays its first two games on the road but finishes with seven of 10 at home.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Granted, expectations are always high at Notre Dame. But the Fighting Irish finally appear to be set for a return to the national spotlight — if not this season, then certainly next. The offense has 10 returning starters and priority has been put on developing a running game to compliment quarterback Jimmy Clausen. That should not be a Herculean task because Notre Dame returns 100 combined starts on its offensive line, tied with Virginia Tech for most in big-time college football.