Wake Forest, Rutgers among season's big surprises

Notre Dame and Auburn won't finish the 2006 season where they hoped -- playing in the Jan. 8 BCS championship game in Glendale, Ariz. Ohio State will be there, which we all expected, and the Buckeyes probably will play Southern California, a team everyone should have expected to be there.

Wake Forest, of all teams, will play in the Orange Bowl if the Demon Deacons beat Georgia Tech in Saturday's ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla. The Demon Deacons would be perhaps the most unlikely BCS participant, a bigger surprise than undefeated Boise State or even Rutgers.

Here's a quick look at 10 overachievers and 10 underachievers, many of whom are now looking for new coaches:


1. Wake Forest -- Guiding Wake Forest to an ACC championship and BSC bowl games are daunting feats. Accomplishing those goals without your starting quarterback, tailback and left tackle is unfathomable. But that's what Jim Grobe will do if the Demon Deacons beat the Yellow Jackets to win the ACC title and corresponding BCS spot. Grobe, a former Air Force assistant, long has been considered one of the best coaches in the country, and college football fans are beginning to find out why.

2. Rutgers -- Last season, coach Greg Schiano accomplished what many thought was impossible, leading The State University of New Jersey to a 7-5 record and its first bowl game in 27 years. He followed that with a 10-1 record going into Saturday's finale at West Virginia, and can win the Big East championship and earn a BCS bowl spot by beating the Mountaineers. Schiano believes he has only scratched the surface at Rutgers -- star tailback Ray Rice and quarterback Mike Teel are only sophomores -- so don't expect him to leave for Miami.

3. Oklahoma -- Sooners coach Bob Stoops might have done his best coaching job this season, after dismissing quarterback Rhett Bomar in the preseason for violating NCAA rules and losing star tailback Adrian Peterson to a broken collarbone in midseason. The Sooners took the backdoor to Saturday's Big 12 championship game against Nebraska, after losing to Texas, and can claim a spot in the Fiesta Bowl if they beat the Cornhuskers.

4. USC -- The Trojans are supposed to win 10 games each season with the way coach Pete Carroll has recruited in Los Angeles. But the accomplishment of possibly reaching another BCS title game, which is where the Trojans probably will end up if they beat UCLA on Saturday, can't be ignored. USC lost quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush, the previous two Heisman Trophy winners, and a boatload of other players to the NFL. But the Trojans won the Pac-10 Conference an unprecedented fifth consecutive time and lost only once against one of the country's toughest schedules.

5. Kentucky -- Wildcats athletics director Mitch Barnhart must be commended for his patience with coach Rich Brooks, who had a 9-25 record in his first three seasons at the school. Kentucky finally showed signs of improvement this season, beating Georgia and nearly beating Tennessee to finish 7-5. Quarterback Andre Woodson is one of the most improved passers in the country, and tailback Rafael Little is as dangerous as any player in the SEC when healthy.

6. Cincinnati -- The Bearcats quietly were establishing themselves as one of the country's sleeping giants early this season, especially after they played No. 1 Ohio State to a 13-7 halftime deficit before losing 37-7 on Sept. 16. Cincinnati then upset No. 7 Rutgers 30-11 on Nov. 18 despite playing with quarterback Nick Davila, an emergency starter. Bearcats coach Mark Dantonio parlayed his team's 7-5 record into the Michigan State job.

7. Wisconsin -- All Bret Bielema did in his first season replacing Barry Alvarez was lead the Badgers to an 11-1 record and a spot in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. If Wisconsin didn't play in the Big 10, it probably would be in position to receive a BCS at-large berth (Michigan and Ohio State are expected to play in BCS bowls; rules stipulate only two teams from one conference can play in the BCS).

8. Arkansas -- Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt entered the season on the hot seat, but managed to win the SEC West despite playing with a freshman quarterback for much of the season, and after hiring Gus Malzahn, a high school coach, as his offensive coordinator. The Hogs were knocked out of the BCS title game race after their 31-26 loss to LSU on Friday, but they can win the SEC championship by beating Florida in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Saturday night.

9. Rice -- After enduring a 14-game losing streak and finishing 1-10 in 2005, the Owls were picked to finish last in Conference USA's Western Division this season. But under new coach Todd Graham, the former Tulsa defensive coordinator, Rice finished second in its division. With Saturday's 31-27 win over SMU, the Owls finished with a 7-5 record after winning their last six games and are eligible to play in a postseason bowl game for the first time since 1961. With former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite calling plays, receiver Jarett Dillard has emerged as one of the country's best players, with 20 touchdown catches this season.

10. Virginia Tech -- After losing quarterback Marcus Vick, who was dismissed after the 2005 season for troubles on and off the field, the Hokies weren't expected to contend for an ACC championship this season. Besides breaking in sophomore quarterback Sean Glennon, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer had plenty of holes to fill on the offensive line and defense. But after losing badly to Georgia Tech and Boston College early in the season, the Hokies regrouped to become one of the most-improved teams in the country. They finished 10-2 and will probably end up in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, not a bad destination for what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

1. Florida State -- The Seminoles' collapse over the last two seasons has been more than alarming. FSU went 8-5 in 2005, but still won the ACC championship and lost to Penn State in triple overtime in the Orange Bowl. No such luck this season. After the Seminoles narrowly beat Miami in the opener, the wheels came off quickly. The Seminoles lost to Clemson, North Carolina State, Boston College and were shut out by Wake Forest 30-0 in Tallahassee on Nov. 11, the first time coach Bobby Bowden's team had ever been held scoreless in Doak-Campbell Stadium. Bowden's son, offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, was the scapegoat and last week resigned under pressure. But FSU's problems are bigger than one man and more changes probably are coming.

2. Miami -- Hurricanes coach Larry Coker won a national championship in his first season at Miami, but hasn't won more than 350 games, so he didn't get the benefit of doubt Bowden receives. Coker was fired Friday, a day after the Hurricanes salvaged a 6-6 record and probably a spot in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho. Miami endured the murder of defensive lineman Bryan Pata and an ugly melee against Florida International in what was a very difficult season in Coral Gables.

3. Iowa -- With so many coaching openings around the country, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's name surely would have emerged as a candidate somewhere. But not after the Hawkeyes limped to a 6-6 record in a season in which they were expected to challenge Ohio State and Michigan for the Big 10 Conference championship. Worse, Iowa finished 2-6 in Big 10 play and lost to Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota.

4. Arizona State -- This was a disaster from the start, when Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter flip-flopped on his quarterbacks during the preseason. Koetter first named senior Sam Keller the starter, then abruptly switched to sophomore Rudy Carpenter. Keller left for Nebraska, and Carpenter struggled mightily in his first full season as a starter. The Sun Devils finished 7-5 and lost to California, Oregon and USC by an average of more than three touchdowns. Koetter was fired on Sunday.

5. Alabama -- Big things weren't expected from the Crimson Tide until 2007, after they lost a slew of top players to graduation. But nobody expected Alabama to finish 6-6 and 2-6 in the SEC this season. Alabama came within a couple of eyelashes of finishing 0-8 in the SEC with close wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. The Tide lost to Auburn for the fifth straight season, and coach Mike Shula was fired Monday.

6. North Carolina State -- The Wolfpack long have been underachievers under coach Chuck Amato, who was fired Sunday after his team lost its last seven games to finish 3-9. Despite having a backfield full of former prep All-Americans such as Toney Baker and Andre Brown, the Wolfpack finished 2-6 in the ACC and went 0-for-3 against teams from North Carolina, losing to the Tar Heels, Wake Forest and East Carolina.

7. Pittsburgh -- The Panthers seemed like one of the sport's upstarts early in the season after a 6-1 start that included victories over Virginia and Cincinnati. But the Panthers collapsed just as quickly, losing their last five games to finish 6-6. Coach Dave Wannstedt's team gave up more than 40 points in each of its last three losses to Connecticut, West Virginia and Louisville.

8. Texas -- The Longhorns not only played their way out of a chance at the BCS title game, but they lost their last two games to get knocked out of the Big 12 championship game. Perhaps too much was expected of Texas after losing Vince Young, but the defending national champions were surprisingly porous on defense in losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M and a close win at Texas Tech.

9. Clemson -- Considered among the favorites to win the weak ACC and even a dark horse to play for the national title, the Tigers once again faded down the stretch, losing three of their last four games to finish 8-4. Clemson was plagued by poor special teams throughout the season, and quarterback Will Proctor buckled under pressure late in the season. Saturday's loss to rival South Carolina added insult to injury.

10. Notre Dame -- The Fighting Irish began the season ranked among the top five teams in the country, but played very poorly in losses to Michigan and USC. The Fighting Irish's best victories came against Penn State and Georgia Tech, good but not great teams, and they had to come from behind to beat Michigan State and UCLA. The Irish were good enough on offense to stay in most games, but the defense continues to be the team's Achilles' heel.

On (and Off) The Mark

On the Mark
Can the Wolfpack go from "The Chest" to "The Chin?" After Amato was fired Sunday, don't be surprised if NC State athletics director Lee Fowler makes a serious run at Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, a former Wolfpack linebacker. The Wolfpack talked to Cowher when Amato was hired in 2000, but the longtime NFL coach indicated the timing wasn't right. Now that the defending Super Bowl champions are essentially out of the playoffs with a 4-7 record, the timing might be right for Cowher to return to his alma mater. His wife, a former NC State women's basketball player, already lives in the Raleigh, N.C., area in a home they purchased within the last year.

Off the Mark
Yes, maybe it was time for Alabama coach Mike Shula to go. There's no way a Crimson Tide coach can survive a 0-4 record against rival Auburn and 2-14 record against Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee. But the Crimson Tide once again failed miserably in handling a coaching change, leaving Shula's future open to speculation for more than a week before finally telling the coach and his staff late Sunday night that they were being fired. Shula's replacement will be the Tide's eighth coach since Paul "Bear" Bryant retired after the 1982 season and the fifth since 2000. And Alabama fans wonder why the Tide hasn't played for a national championship since 1992.

On the Mark
If you're a fan of a 6-6 team such as Kansas, UCLA, Pittsburgh or SMU, curse Northern Illinois, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette while you're worrying about your school's dim postseason hopes. Because the latter three teams might all finish with 7-5 records, they'll be in line to receive at-large bids to bowl games before any team with a 6-6 record. Teams such as Alabama, Florida State and Miami, which also finished 6-6, will receive bowl invitations because their conferences have enough tie-ins to accommodate them. But teams in conferences with too many bowl-eligible teams for their allotted spots are in danger of being left out for schools from the Sun Belt and Mid-American conferences that finish with 7-5 records.

Off the Mark

Criticizing Boise State's selection in the BCS. It's no longer a choice, after the Broncos finished 12-0 and moved to No. 8 in the BCS standings. Because Boise State finished in the top 12 of the BCS standings, it is guaranteed a spot in one of the five BCS bowl games. And with the way Arkansas, Auburn, Louisville, Rutgers, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia played down the stretch, Boise State is probably as deserving as any team.

On the Mark
USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett. USC quarterback John David Booty. Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm. Kentucky quarterback Woodson. East Carolina's strong finish. Boise State running back Ian Johnson. Wake Forest tailback Kenneth Moore. South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe. Georgia linebacker Tony Taylor. Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. Miami's Coker going out a winner. Oklahoma tailback Allen Patrick. Texas A&M's big win. Virginia Tech's defense. North Carolina's Brandon Tate. Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan. LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell's accuracy. Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor. BYU quarterback John Beck's touchdown pass at the horn.

Off the Mark
Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball. Florida's kicking game. Clemson's collapse. West Virginia. Notre Dame's defense. Virginia's offense. Duke and Florida International, each finish winless. UTEP's finish.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.