Leave it to Phil Steele to find the nuggets among the dust heap of ordinary to losing major college football teams last year.
Steele publishes Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, and for the last 14 years he has been the most accurate prognosticator among 12 preseason publications.
Find the link to my recent story (Who Will Be Major College Football’s Surprise Teams This Year?) to find out why you should be listening to what Steele predicts.
Here are just a few of his gems regarding Steele’s Most Improved Teams:
Last year he liked Houston coming off of a 5-7 record. The Cougars went 13-1, the largest turnaround in the NCAA, and just missed out on a BCS bowl bid. His No. 2 pick, Georgia, went from 6-7 to 10-4, losing the SEC title game to LSU.
In 2010 he liked Tulsa coming off another 5-7 season. The Golden Hurricane went 10-3, and ended up #24 in the final AP Poll. Another pick, Cincinnati, went from 4-8 to 10-3 and Rutgers went from 4 wins to 9 wins.
In 2009, SMU went from 1-11 to 8-5.
In 2007, Steele’s No. 2 Most Improved Team, Illinois, went from 2-10 to the Rose Bowl. No. 1 Memphis went from 2-10 to a bowl game, and Central Florida went from 4-8 to the Conference USA champions. Minnesota was 1-11 and Northern Illinois was 2-10 and both teams went to bowl games.
In 2006, he had Arkansas as the No. 1 MIT, and the Razorbacks went from 4-7 to the SEC West champions and rose as high as #5 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Wake Forest went from 4-7 to 11-3 to become the Atlantic Coast Conference champions. Houston went from 6-6 to Conference USA champions. Ohio went from 4-7 to Mid-American Conference champions. Troy went from 4-7 to Sun Belt Conference champions.
In 2005, Steele picked Oregon, and the Ducks went from 5-6 to 10-2 and #6 in the final AP Poll. Western Michigan went from 1-10 to 7-4. None of Steele’s top 16 Most Improved Teams had winning records in 2004, but 11 of them became bowl eligible in 2005.
In 2003, his No. 1 pick, Texas A&M, went from 4-8 to the Cotton Bowl. UTEP went from 2-11 to 8-4, and Iowa State went from 2-10 to 7-5 and a tie for the Big 12 North title.
In 2002, USC went from 6-6 to 11-2 and #4 in the final AP Poll.
In 2001, Colorado went from 3-8 to just missing out on the National Title game. Washington State, picked for last in the old Pac-10, went from 4-7 to 10-2 and just missed the Pac-10 title.
In 2000, the No. 6 MIT pick South Carolina went from a winless 0-11 in 1999 to beating Ohio State in a bowl game. Northwestern went from 3-8 to become the Big 10 champions.
In 1999, Steele’s No. 1 Most Improved Team pick, Hawaii, had the largest turnaround in NCAA history, going from a winless 0-12 to 9-4 and a bowl victory.
So let’s just say it: Steele is better at picking Most Improved Teams than anybody on planet Earth. Some people want to tell you that they can pick them just as well as Steele–the only problem is, they do not publish their picks up front for all to see weeks before the season begins.
Steele has his misses too. In 2009, he did not pick the Washington Huskies because he thought they would not make it to a bowl game, and they did not, however, the Huskies went from a winless 0-12 in 2008 with the worst coach in college football, Ty “It’s all about the players” Willingham, to 5-7 under new coach Steve Sarkisian.
In 2010, Steele had Miami of Ohio rated as his No. 1 MIT but did not pick them. The Bobcats became the first team in NCAA history to go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins.
So, who are Phil Steele’s Most Improved Teams for the 2012 season?
No. 1 is Central Florida, followed by Ohio State (#2), South Florida (#3), Bowling Green (#4), Troy (#5), Tennessee (#6), Miami of Ohio (#7), Fresno State (#8), Army (#9), East Carolina (#10), UCLA (#11), Texas Tech (#12), San Jose State (#13), Navy (#14) and Pittsburgh (#15). Steele sees the Central Florida Knights, 5-7 last year, winning the Conference USA title.
In the last 10 years, 120 of the 192 teams with losing records on Steele’s Most Improved Teams list became bowl eligible (62%).
I personally think that Ohio State, Steele’s No. 2 pick, is going to start winning a lot of football games. New Buckeye Coach Urban Meyer has a career 104-23 record (81% winning percentage), a 7-1 bowl record (87%), and 2 National Championships while coaching at Florida.