This week's top 10 list subject is college football's best-kept secrets. Obviously, with the power of the Internet and the increased number of televised games, very few things truly are secrets anymore. But it sounded better to name this list accordingly rather than calling it "the 10 most underrated things."
1. Chip Kelly, Oregon offensive coordinator: The New Hampshire product came to Eugene one year ago and helped turn Dennis Dixon from a major question mark into a Heisman front-runner.
I'd first heard about Kelly from a coaching buddy who raved about him after word surfaced that he was coming to the Pac-10. Kelly, the mastermind behind I-AA power New Hampshire, employs a spread-based system he put together after consulting with, among others, Rich Rodriguez and the Wake Forest staff. (One of LSU assistant Gary Crowton's best calls might have been his recommending Kelly to Ducks coach Mike Bellotti.) Anyone doubting Kelly's worth needed only to see how his Ducks, playing with a third-team QB, shredded the vaunted South Florida defense in the Sun Bowl in a 56-21 victory. More impressive was the way Kelly's offense completely short-circuited USF's zone blitz package, which many coaches consider the best in the business and which had generated more takeaways than any other school in the country in 2007. Kelly's new challenge is replacing a backfield that loses Dixon and first-round draft pick RB Jonathan Stewart.
When you're in the same state as Alabama and Auburn, it's not hard to get lost if you're one of the "other" programs, especially Troy, which has bounced around a lot.
Larry Blakeney, who took over the Troy program in 1991, has shepherded the school from its evolution from Division II to Division I-AA in 1993 and then up to I-A in 2002, and he's done a masterful job. Blakeney's program has done more than merely accept payday thrashings from the big-boy conferences, as it has won nationally televised games over Mizzou and Oklahoma State. (Two years ago, Troy almost beat Florida State.) Better still, the Trojans have cranked out two of the best players in the NFL in DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora, not to mention 2008 first-round CB Leodis McKelvin. This fall, Troy again will embark on a nasty nonconference schedule with games against opponents from both sides of the national-title game (at LSU and at Ohio State) and will do so with two of the youngest coordinators in the country (28-year-old offensive coordinator Neal Brown and 34-year-old defensive coordinator Jeremy Rowell).
3. Tom Brandstater, Fresno State QB: He is the latest WAC gunslinger, and thanks to a loaded Bulldogs schedule, Brandstater figures to become a lot more famous before he gets ready for the NFL draft. During the past two years, Brandstater has transformed from a big, athletic QB to a guy who has "future in the NFL" written all over him. His arm is strong, he can move, and he's coming off a season when he threw for 2,654 yards and 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He also carved up Jon Tenuta's Georgia Tech D in the Humanitarian Bowl. In that game, Brandstater won MVP honors after connecting on 23 of 30 passes, and he did not take a sack against a blitz-happy Tech team. Not bad for a guy who is adjusting to his fourth offensive coordinator in four years. Brandstater's newest OC is former NFL QB Doug Nussmeier, who has been a stickler for refining the 6-foot-5, 225-pounder's footwork, which should make Brandstater more accurate this fall.
4. Boston College's defensive tackles: Obviously, losing top-five draft pick Matt Ryan is a huge blow to the Eagles' ACC title hopes, but BC will regain a huge force on its defense with the return of massive tackle B.J. Raji, who sat out the 2007 season for academic reasons. The impact of Raji's absence last year was lessened thanks to the improvement of 325-pound Ron Brace, who ate up double-teams and became the Eagles' new anchor up front. Raji is back, and he has shed 20 pounds from the 340-pound frame he displayed two years ago. The tandem should make running up the middle against the Eagles a very risky proposition.
5. Mark Nelson, Louisville special teams coordinator: There wasn't much for the Cards to be excited about in 2007, but they did go from near the bottom of the Big East in kickoff coverage to second-best. A big reason is Nelson, who came to U of L from Baylor, where his special-teams units often were ranked among the nation's best. Before his time in the Big 12, he was at Kentucky, where his group set or tied five Division I-A records in 2002.
6. Eugene Jarvis, Kent State RB: Pound-for-pound, the 5-foot-5, 170-pounder from Pittsburgh might be the toughest guy in college football.
Jarvis apparently is still ticked off that many of the bigger schools in his area didn't believe he could play major college football, and he's determined to stick his skills in their faces. Last season, as a sophomore, he ran for a school-record 1,669 yards.
He rushed for more than 100 yards in Kent State's win at Iowa State and 131 in a loss at Kentucky, and he was more than respectable in a loss at Ohio State, gaining 84 yards on just 16 carries. Despite his small size, Jarvis loves to run inside, where he often gets lost in the traffic.
7. The middle of the Stanford defense: Don't scoff. Although everyone talks about USC's Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, Stanford's three-man LB attack of Clinton Snyder, Pat Maynor and Chike Amajoyi is one of the best trios in all of college football. All three run very well, and Snyder, a certain future NFL player, is as tough as they come. Safety Bo McNally is a heady playmaker and one of the top secondary men in a conference loaded with great safeties. The defense showed flashes last season, and it could become very salty as a group if DT Ekom Udofia can consistently match the intensity level that his linebackers play with on a weekly basis. "Ekom is a freakish talent," says Alex Fletcher, Stanford's center. "He's actually even stronger than [former USC all-American DT] Sedrick Ellis, and he's so explosive, but Sedrick plays from whistle to whistle, and that was the difference. But now Ekom's dropped 20 pounds from 330 to 310, and he's finally 100 percent. He could really be special."
8. The Sun Bowl: Not the bowl game per se, but the stadium itself. Rival coaches say the place where UTEP plays is one of the loudest places in the country, regardless of crowd size. "You're in a hole," one coach says. "The place has really weird acoustics where everything echoes. You definitely need to have a silent count in there."
9. Tailgating at The Grove, Ole Miss: It's one place every college football fan needs to visit at least one time. The food is great. The sights are even better. And it takes only about 10 minutes to realize that the Ole Miss crowd takes its tailgating more seriously than any other school in the country.
10. Brannan Southerland, Georgia FB: A buzz saw of a blocker who also is a pretty good short-yardage back, Southerland helped pave the way to a great debut season by UGA phenom Knowshon Moreno. Rival coaches wince as they watch Southerland take defenders off their feet time and time again in scouting sessions. His toughness and technique also can get into a lot of defenders' heads and slow them down before they even try to make a play. It will be interesting to see just how much the Dawgs miss the 240-pound senior who had offseason foot surgery and will be sidelined until midseason.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.