PHOTO: USA Today Sports
Yesterday, we talked about the most disappointing teams in college football this season. Now it's time to take a look at the teams that surprised us the most (in a good way). First, go back and check out the most surprising teams at the mid-way point of the season and then come back and see which teams were able to continue that trend for the entire year….
American Athletic Conference: Houston Cougars (8-4, 5-3)
Coming off of a 5-7 season, the Cougars turned it around this season by going 8-4 and had a better record this year in the AAC then they did last year in Conference USA. A great 7-1 start aided the Cougars and helped them secure a BBVA Compass Bowl birth against the Vanderbilt Commodores. The Cougars lost four games but their biggest defeat was by just seven points.
also considered: Cincinnati Bearcats, UCF Knights
ACC: Duke Blue Devils (10-3 overall, 6-2 in ACC)
What can you say about the Blue Devils? What a season they had. After starting 2-2, they ripped off eight straight victories including wins over two Top 25 teams. Duke finished 6-7 last year and lost their starting QB to the NFL Draft. It didn't seem to be a problem as David Cutcliffe had them prepared every week and against all odds took Duke to the ACC Championship Game.
also considered: Boston College Eagles
Big 12: Baylor Bears (11-1 overall, 8-1 in Big 12)
Over the last two years, the Baylor Bears have had to replace their starting QB twice. No problem for Art Briles as he kept things rolling this year as the Bears won the Big 12 Championship. I had them pegged at 8-4 before the season started and Phil Steele had them finishing fifth in the conference. This is the first time Baylor will play in a BCS bowl game and it doesn't look like they are going away anytime soon.
Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4 overall, 4-4 in Big Ten)
The out of conference schedule for Minnesota was a cake walk as they breezed to 4-0 to start the season. Early conference losses to Iowa and Michigan brought the Gophers back to earth but then they won four straight over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. This was the most wins since 2003, when the Gophers went 10-3.
also considered: Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans
Conference USA: Tulane Green Wave (7-5 overall, 5-3 in C-USA)
The last time Tulane had a winning season was way back in 2002. That was also the last time they went to a bowl game. Second year head coach Curtis Johnson debuted with a 2-10 record in 2012 but he turned things around this season. The Green Wave also beat bowl bound North Texas and East Carolina this year. The key? A defense that allowed just 21.2 points per game (they allowed 38.4 in 2012).
also considered: FAU Owls, North Texas Mean Green, Rice Owls
MAC: Akron Zips (5-7 overall, 4-4 in MAC)
Just two years into the job, Terry Bowden has the Zips on the right track. After going 0-8 in conference play, Akron won four conference games this season. They stated out just 1-6, but the Zips persevered and won 4 of their last 5 including solid wins over Kent State and Toledo.
also considered: Buffalo Bulls
Mountain West Conference: UNLV Rebels (7-5 overall, 5-3 in MWC)
When Bobby Hauck was hired from Montana, everybody thought it was a great hire. Then UNLV won just six games in three years and Hauck found himself on the hot seat. This year, the Rebels finally found themselves and while they didn't have any big upsets they did beat every team on the schedule that they needed to beat in order to make a bowl game and all five of their losses.came to teams with records at 6-6 or better. UNLV finally appears to be headed in the right direction and sticking with Hauck after last season was the right decision.
also considered: Colorado State Rams
Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils (10-3 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12)
The Pac-12 season played out like most thought it would. There weren't any huge surprises and I even had Arizona St in the Championship Game in my pre-season picks but I didn't think they'd win ten games. With their difficult schedule I had them pegged as an eight win team but they pulled off wins against Wisconsin, Washington and UCLA to finish the season with seven straight victories before they fell to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game. After a tumultuous couple of seasons, Todd Graham seems to have found his niche.
also considered: Colorado Buffaloes, USC Trojans, Washington State Cougars
SEC: Auburn Tigers (12-1 overall, 7-1 in SEC)
The Gus Bus is now boarding but if you don't already have a ticket you might have to catch the next one. After a dismal season in 2012 in which the Auburn Tigers didn't win a conference game, Gus Malzahn has them playing as well as any team in the country this year and has them in the National Championship Game. The LSU game was the turning point of the season, the Tigers didn't give up in that game and since then they've been a team of destiny and now they look like a team that is going to be very hard to stop in the National Championship Game.
also considered: Missouri Tigers
Sun Belt: South Alabama Jaguars (6-6 overall, 4-3 in Sun Belt)
In their final transitional year in 2012 (from FCS to FBS), the Jaguars took it on the chin winning just one conference game. This year Joey Jones squad turned the corner winning four conference games and beating up on Sun Belt Champion Louisiana in the season finale 30-8. Overall, the Jaguars beat two bowl teams this year (Tulane and Louisiana) and beat two other bowl-eligible teams (Louisiana-Monroe, WKU). South Alabama missed out on a bowl this year, despite being bowl eligible but things are look up for South Alabama.
also considered: Texas State Bobcats