- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Teams such as Georgia, Iowa and Miami usually don't fly under the radar. Louisville and TCU are more accustomed to that position. All those teams have something in common this season. Take a look at seven underappreciated teams that could make some noise in 2006:
California Golden Bears
The Bears' spotty play at quarterback last season was an aberration. It won't happen again under coach Jeff Tedford, one of the best teachers of the passing game in the country. Quarterback Nate Longshore takes over after missing nearly all of 2005 with a broken ankle. Tailback Marshawn Lynch could explode if he stays healthy -- he ran for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2005 despite being plagued by a hand injury. Cal goes to Tennessee for its Sept. 2 opener and could crush the Vols' rebound hopes. Cal gets Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA at home, but goes to Southern California on Nov. 18.
A quarter-century after the Tigers won their only national title, they might be poised to win the ACC. Florida State and Miami aren't what they used to be, and Virginia Tech has questions at quarterback. Defensive end Gaines Adams disrupts offenses, and linebacker Anthony Waters is rock solid in the middle. Coach Tommy Bowden will know whether his team is a legitimate contender early: The Tigers play consecutive road games at Boston College and Florida State in September.
If the Bulldogs can settle on a quarterback, they might have the rest of the ingredients for a surprising run. Georgia has a deep stable of running backs; the offensive line should be more athletic; and tight end Martrez Milner and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi are potential stars. The Bulldogs also might have the country's best pair of defensive ends: Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson. The kicking game is spectacular, but the linebackers and secondary need to get better. The schedule is favorable because Georgia doesn't play Alabama, Arkansas or LSU from the SEC West.
Last year, the Hawkeyes failed to win 10 games for the first time in three seasons, but they were only an overtime loss to Michigan and a one-point loss to Northwestern from tying for the Big Ten title. Quarterback Drew Tate enters his third season as a starter and should put up big, big numbers. Tailback Albert Young should be even better than before a full year after undergoing knee surgery. But star linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge will be missed.
It could be argued the Cardinals have the best team in the Big East. Quarterback Brian Brohm and tailback Michael Bush are as talented as West Virginia's Pat White and Steve Slaton, and Louisville might have a better supporting cast. Coach Bobby Petrino was the game's hottest coach before Rich Rodriguez became a household name. Plus, the Mountaineers will visit the Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 2 (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Led by LB Jon Beason and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips, Miami might have the best -- and fastest -- defense in the country. Quarterback Kyle Wright will be more seasoned and has good targets in wide receivers Lance Leggett and Ryan Moore.The six new coaches on the staff will need to jell, and the offensive line must replace four starters. The Canes get Florida State, Virginia Tech and Boston College at home.
TCU Horned Frogs
The Horned Frogs have a higher winning percentage than Florida, Florida State and Tennessee since 2000. TCU has 13 starters back from a team that finished 11-1 in 2005 (its only loss was an inexcusable 21-10 defeat at SMU). Most of the weapons are back on offense: Quarterback Jeff Ballard was 8-0 in 2005; and three running backs, led by seniors Lonta Hobbs and Robert Merrill, return. But gone are leading receiver/kick returner Cory Rodgers and four offensive linemen. TCU generates a good pass-rush with ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, and all three linebackers are back. The biggest hurdles to an undefeated season? Texas Tech comes to Fort Worth on Sept. 16, and the Horned Frogs play at Utah on Oct. 5.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2dKevin Stone, ESPN.com