Don’t count out little known college football dogs

Oct 7, 2003 3:43 AM

College football always offers all kinds of surprises, especially early in the season. Hats off to the Mid American Conference, which was a great story in September. Northern Illinois upset Maryland and Alabama, while Marshall shocked Kansas State 27-20 as a 22-point dog. Two of those three upsets were on the road.

What often happens is that smaller, lesser known conferences can put together some fine, quality teams. Check an NFL roster some time. You’ll see top NFL players from schools such as Nebraska, USC and Florida, but also plenty from less-recognizable programs such as Troy State, McNeese State and South Florida.

Here are some NFL names you will recognize, but their colleges you might not: Hugh Douglas (Central State, Ohio), Donald Driver and Steve McNair (both from Alcorn State), and Terrell Owens (Tennessee-Chattanooga).

Marshall has been strong for several years, producing NFL stars like Randy Moss and Chad Pennington. Despite this, smaller colleges don’t always receive the respect from line-makers they might deserve.

Last month Marshall was a 19-point underdog at Tennessee, and got the money in a 34-24 Volunteers win. Marshall QB Stan Hill passed for 242 yards with three touchdowns and no picks as the Thundering Herd trailed 28-24 after three quarters.

Yet, just two weeks later Marshall was a +22 dog at Kansas State, even though K-State was without star QB El Roberson. Marshall had 210 rushing yards and Wildcats coach Bill Snyder elected to try a fourth-and-seven in their own territory because he had little faith in his defense to stop the run.

Here’s the other side of the coin: Small schools can cover or even win against the big boys early in the season, but it can be more difficult to do later on. What happens is, small schools have less depth, making them more susceptible to getting worn down because of injuries. This can present problems when small schools face bigger schools in late-October and November.

Sometimes teams can be better prepared for conference play by taking on big schools in September. North Texas has been a great example of this the last two seasons. The Mean Green went a combined 1-10 straight up to start the 2001 and ’02 campaigns against such schools as Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Alabama, South Florida and Arizona. They suffered, but were tough enough to then rip through conference play and win the Sun Belt title each season. North Texas went 8-4 ATS each of those years, as well.

Remember that teams can get physically beat-up playing big schools early in the season, which can become a disadvantage. Take a look at what Louisiana Tech did last season. The Bulldogs surprised Oklahoma State of the Big 12 in the opener, 39-36, then had games against Clemson, Penn State and Texas A&M ”” all in September! La-Tech started the season 2-1 against the spread, but finished 1-8 ATS including going 0-3 SU/ATS against those big name schools.

Last year, Arkansas State opened against Virginia Tech ”” and got flattened 63-7 as a +38 dog. The Indians later played road contests at Illinois and Ole Miss and went 0-2 SU/ATS, losing by an average score of 55-12!

Northern Illinois has been a great story. The Huskies have a tough defense and a dynamite one-two offensive punch in QB Josh Haldi and RB Michael Turner. They went to the air game to stun Maryland, 20-13 as a +7½ dog, then silenced any doubters with a stunning 19-16 win at Alabama as a +12 dog. Turner had 156 yards rushing against the Crimson Tide, putting an early ending to the honeymoon between Alabama fans and first-year coach Mike Shula.

Northern Illinois came out of September unscathed, which is a big plus. Remember that last season the Huskies went 2-1 SU/ATS to start the year, then ripped off seven straight wins (and ATS covers) during its 8-4 SU/9-2 ATS campaign. Don’t count out those little known dogs, but remember small dogs can fair better early in the season than later when stepping up in competition.