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August 26, 2008

UConn continues to surprise under Edsall

RELATED: Rivals.com preseason countdown - No. 50 Connecticut

The work of coach Randy Edsall at Connecticut never is fully appreciated. A recent visit with an NFL director of college scouting underscored that notion.

My buddy recently made an unsolicited point of how impressed he has been with the way Edsall has built the UConn program from scrap. He pointed out that he timed Edsall's entire team 10 years ago, and there was just one player who ran under a 4.6 in the 40.

"Now, Edsall has a top-20 program," he says. "And I also think he's a sleeper candidate to be a head coach in the NFL."

And his players? Yes, they are faster. Much faster.

Edsall's Huskies won a share of the Big East last season, building momentum for a program that has some of the nation's most sparkling facilities. And he returns most of the key personnel from that team. Still, UConn isn't picked highly in any preseason polls. Let's blame it on lack of "name brand" appeal.

That got me thinking: What other programs that have been picked to finish in the bottom half of their leagues are primed to surprise? Here are my choices from each "Big Six" conference.

Georgia Tech, ACC: The great "Triple-Option Offense Experiment" will be fascinating to watch. And I think it's going to work. Paul Johnson is a master at teaching the scheme, which isn't overly complex but does need repetition. This change-of-pace offense being run by BCS-caliber athletes will work right out of the gate, as I envision Tech going to a bowl.

Indiana, Big Ten: Don't laugh. The Hoosiers look to be on course to earn back-to-back bowl bids for the first time since 1990-91 and finish at least 4-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2001. The offense will be dangerous with quarterback Kellen Lewis. Further buoying hopes is the schedule: IU is the only Big Ten team that plays eight home games. Oh, and Michigan and Ohio State are off the schedule for the second season in a row.

Kansas State, Big 12: With a contract extension in hand, Ron Prince is motivated to show he has the program on track. He loaded up with 19 junior college transfers, bolstering a roster that already features a talent at quarterback in Josh Freeman. K-State could be 4-0 with Texas Tech strolling into Manhattan on Oct. 4. After that, the Wildcats' season will be made or broken, as they play four of the next five on the road. And the one home game from Oct. 11-Nov. 8 is against Oklahoma.

Stanford, Pac-10: The offense should be effective under Jim Harbaugh and coordinator David Shaw. The real reason for optimism is that the Cardinal defense could be better than average. The arrival of Ron Lynn as co-coordinator offers more hope that the defense will have a bit of bite.

Arkansas, SEC: Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Bobby Petrino is a heck of a coach. His pass-oriented offense isn't a perfect fit for the ground-pounding personnel Petrino inherited from Houston Nutt, and no one ever will confuse Casey Dick with, say, Brian Brohm. But I have a sneaky feeling Petrino is going to make it all work in Year One.

BIG MONEY IN I-AA

You may not have noticed, but North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl recently signed a new deal that could net him $300,000 per year if he leads the Bison to a I-AA national title. Bohl will earn a base salary of $174,000, and the contract also gives Bohl 3 percent of all gross single-game and season ticket sales.

That makes it official: The crazy salaries that are proliferating in the I-A ranks are trickling down to the I-AA level.

Bohl's salary is believed to be among the highest in the I-AA ranks. Others thought to be in the same pay range are Georgia State's Bill Curry, Delaware's K.C. Keeler, Georgia Southern's Chris Hatcher, Samford's Pat Sullivan, James Madison's Mickey Matthews and Richmond's Mike London. A few of those likely will one day lead a I-A program. Remember, Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson and Washington State's Paul Wulff are current I-A coaches whose preceding job was at a I-AA school.

Before taking over at North Dakota State, Bohl was an assistant at Nebraska from 1995-2002, including serving as defensive coordinator his last three seasons in Lincoln. He has made North Dakota State a strong program, forging a 43-12 record in five seasons. The Bison have gone 10-1 in each of the past two seasons, with a highlight being a 27-21 victory at Minnesota last season. And Bohl has done this while shepherding the program through a five-year process of shifting from Division II to I-AA. The transition will be complete this fall, and the Bison have a good chance to make the I-AA playoffs.

Don't be shocked if Bohl becomes a hot commodity on the I-A coaching market.

WHO'S BETTER, WHO'S BEST?

It's an ongoing debate in the plush and palatial offices of the Rivals skyscraper: Who is better Missouri's Jeremy Maclin or Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree ?

Sure, it's akin to picking between steak and lobster you really can't go wrong with either of the third-year sophomores.

Maclin accounted for an NCAA Division I-A single-season freshman record of 2,776 all-purpose yards last season. He also was the only player in the nation to score TDs receiving, rushing, returning punts and returning kickoffs. Last season, Crabtree caught 134 passes for 1,962 yards and 22 TDs last season setting Division I-A freshman records in each category. Crabtree also was a consensus All-America and the Biletnikoff Award winner.

I asked an NFL scout who canvasses the Big 12 who he would pick. His choice: Maclin.

"I just think he's faster and more of a playmaker," the scout says. "Plus, Maclin returns kicks, which makes him more valuable."

Don't be surprised if both go to the NFL after this season.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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