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Kolton Browning looks to lead ULM to its first bowl bid.
With the completion of Athlon's 2011 preseason Top 25, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings, continuing with No. 101through No. 120. Previous rankings - Top 25, No. 26 through No. 40, No. 41 through No. 60, No. 61 through No. 80 and No. 81 through 100.
101. Central Michigan
Central Michigan’s grasp on the Mid-American Conference figured to end sometime. Three championships in four years — which CMU won from 2006-09 — hadn’t happened in a league defined recently by its parity and coaching instability since Marshall’s run in the late 1990s and, before that, Miami in the mid-’70s.
Dan Enos’ first season as head coach never really had a fair shake at making it four titles in five years. Enos is hoping the frustration that came with having 19 players make their first collegiate starts pays off this fall. An early season road test at rival Western Michigan, Sept. 17, will be telling.
102. UL Monroe
ULM exceeded expectations in Todd Berry’s first season. The goal now is to contend for a league title.
Youth was ULM’s biggest foe last season, but it could be a benefit this year. “A player’s biggest jump comes from his first year to his second, so we’re expecting a large growth rate for these young players this season,” Berry says.
Highs and lows were too far apart for ULM last season. The Warhawks nearly swept the Sun Belt co-champions, beating Troy (28–14) and falling in double-overtime to FIU (42–35), but they lost the season finale to rival UL Lafayette (23–22) with bowl eligibility on the line.
“It left some bad tastes in our mouth,” Berry says. “This is a league of parity, so the teams that rise up are the ones that adjust well week to week. Hopefully, we learned that last year.”
Speaking of frustrating misses, ULM has routinely fallen short of breaking through by a narrow margin. The Warhawks have missed either bowl-eligibility or a winning record by one win in four of the last six seasons. To finally break through, ULM must sustain a run in Sun Belt play or pull a non-conference upset. The latter will be especially difficult with road games against Florida State, TCU and Iowa in the first month of the season.
The Vandals hope to get back on the winning track after falling a game short of a bowl last season. The key could be the development of the offensive line. Idaho’s defense has improved each year in the Robb Akey era, and if that trend continues, the Vandals are capable of being successful on that side of the ball.
The schedule is challenging with two games against BCS foes, but two open weeks should help the team stay healthy.
104. Utah State
Entering his third year at Utah State, Gary Andersen is aware that fans are expecting more wins. He does as well. With Boise State gone from the WAC, the league could be more evenly balanced.
Consistency was an issue a year ago. The Aggies gave nationally ranked Oklahoma a scare in Norman, then collapsed in the fourth quarter at home against Fresno State after holding a seven-point lead. They beat BYU, only to lose the following week at Louisiana Tech. Better depth will be counted on to finish games.
Once again there are six home games, which is not common. Utah State must take advantage of those opportunities and will have several chances in league road games to pick up some wins.
105. Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee has gone to bowls in back-to-back years, but last season was a disappointment because of costly turnovers and an NCAA suspension of Dwight Dasher. With tempered expectations and the Dasher drama in the past, don’t be surprised if the Blue Raiders again contend in the Sun Belt race. The Sun Belt slate should be manageable. Aside from an 0–5 mark vs. Troy, Rick Stockstill’s teams have posted a 25–7 record against the rest of the league.
Adding a non-conference win over Memphis or season-opening upset of Purdue could yield a third-straight bowl bid. A rare trip to Tennessee is also circled on every Blue Raider fan’s calendar. “People are going to predict what they think, but we can compete with every team we play,” Stockstill says. “So we’ll just play the season out. I know this, that my expectations for this program have always been higher than anybody else.”
Bob Toledo has won 13 games in his first four seasons at Tulane. Obviously, that’s not good enough. Defining a successful season in his fifth year in New Orleans is simple: Tulane needs to reach bowl-eligibility or the pressure on Toledo to keep his job will increase. The good news is that Tulane is better equipped to win games than at any time in Toledo’s tenure. Now let’s see if that results in the wins he needs.
The rebuilding project continues for UNLV, which finished 2–11 in the first year of the Bobby Hauck era. The Rebels, who played 23 freshmen in 2010, will once again lean heavily on another strong recruiting class that includes eight junior college transfers. The schedule, which features seven road games and four teams (TCU, Boise State, Wisconsin and Nevada) ranked in the top 11 a year ago, is once again difficult. The Rebels will be improved but are still probably a year away from making a legitimate run at a rare bowl game.
Throughout Mike Price’s first seven seasons at UTEP, the Miners’ formula rarely varied: They hoped that their high-powered offense could compensate for a porous defense.
If UTEP is to break a five-year string of losing seasons and qualify for its second consecutive bowl, it may have to lean on its veteran defense to reverse that formula.
“Wouldn’t that be great?” Price says. “With the players we have, the depth we have, expectations for the defense are much higher than they’ve been in the past.”
The presumption that 2011 is a rebuilding year in El Paso could tip the other way if those expectations become reality.
109. North Texas
With a new coach, new stadium and a hint of progress late last season, UNT may be on its way back. But Dan McCarney knows it will take time.
“Everything needs to change,” McCarney says. “When you’ve gone 8–40 in the last four years, my gosh, what in the world doesn’t need to improve?”
McCarney has made a career of resurrection projects, both as an assistant at Iowa and head coach at Iowa State. He also was the assistant head coach on Florida’s 2008 national title team, so he knows how to win and how to turn around programs.
There are early opportunities on the schedule to make a statement. UNT plays at FIU, the defending Sun Belt co-champion, in the season-opener, and then hosts non-conference games versus Houston and Indiana. But aside from that, the Mean Green need some moderate success in conference play this season and then recruit a talent-rich area in Texas to revive the program. That will take more than one season.
110. Western Kentucky
Willie Taggart knows how to build a program. He joined Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford in 2006 following an 1–11 season, then helped build the Cardinal into a winner. And the former WKU quarterback was offensive coordinator for the Hilltoppers under Harbaugh’s dad, Jack, when the team won the Division I-AA national title in 2002.
The Hilltoppers aren’t quite ready to contend for a league title, but they are headed in that direction. Taggart has signed two straight recruiting classes that have been ranked as the best in the league. He will soon have the talent that rivals — or even surpasses — the top teams in the Sun Belt.
In the meantime, the Hilltoppers will continue to climb the conference ladder. A .500 record in league play should be the goal in 2011.
111. Ball State
Pete Lembo inherits a program that won only six games in the last two seasons — and has only two winning seasons in the last 14 — so it’s not like the Cardinals are poised for a rapid turnaround.
On the other hand, there are a few seniors who contributed significantly to the 2008 team that opened 12–0 and rose as high as No. 12 in the BCS standings.
That means a good chunk of the squad knows what’s necessary to win games, but it’s going to take time as the Cardinals digest the new offensive and defensive schemes.
The win total might be similar to last year’s, but Ball State is on the right track. Lembo is a proven winner who should have his program relevant in the tough MAC West in the near future.
112. Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan may finally have some pieces to improve after producing a 2–14 league mark the previous two seasons. With the defensive upgrades made through recruiting and a tougher overall approach, the defense may show enough to give the Eagles’ offense a fighting chance. That’s where Alex Gillett taking the next step comes into play.
This season, with more experience on defense and a confidence level Ron English says is at its highest since he arrived, there is a hope for a bump in the win column. “We do have team goals and much higher expectations than we have ever had before here,” he says. “This is the best I’ve felt about the team because of the culture of the team and the attitude of the team.”
While English is convinced he has done enough to raise expectations, the Eagles may struggle to escape the MAC West Division basement.
113. San Jose State
San Jose State suffered through an injury-plagued 1–12 season in Mike MacIntyre’s first year as the boss, fielding only 43 healthy scholarship players for the team’s 26–23 season-ending overtime loss at Idaho. But the shorthanded Spartans lost four of those games by a combined 10 points and gave Big Ten heavyweight Wisconsin all it could handle before losing 27–14 in Madison. A deeper, stronger and more experienced San Jose State team is worth keeping an eye on in 2011.
114. UL Lafayette
The arrival of the effervescent Mark Hudspeth pumped life into the UL Lafayette program in the offseason, and the Cajuns are ahead of the public relations game entering the 2011 season. But all that goodwill won’t be enough to cover several shortages that could carry over from last year, including an inconsistent offense and a defense that struggled mightily. If the running game doesn’t emerge and several newcomers don’t contribute heavily, the Cajuns will have a tough time winning more than two games in the Sun Belt.
If Jeff Quinn keeps up his early pace of recruiting, he’ll have quite a collection of talent in Buffalo before long. His recent signing class may be the best in school history. So the future looks bright.
The present, however, isn’t looking so good. Buffalo will be better, but it’s tough to envision this club making too big of a leap in the MAC East standings. The Nov. 19 home game vs. Akron could be a showdown to see which team escapes last place.
The Zips have nowhere to go except up after winning only one game in Rob Ianello’s first season. The offense must take a major step forward, and that begins with better play from the quarterback position. On defense, improvement in the secondary is the biggest priority.
Akron should be better in 2011, but don’t expect this team to be a factor in the MAC East race. Another last-place finish is a possibility.
117. New Mexico
After consecutive 1–11 seasons, Mike Locksley must win now. He has his most talented team since he arrived at UNM and says a bowl berth is a realistic goal. For that to happen, UNM must show major improvement at quarterback, on the offensive line and in the secondary. Even then, the Lobos’ schedule will make winning more than two to three games an arduous task.
Memphis has won only three games the past two seasons, the lowest win total during a two-year stretch since 1985-86, and Larry Porter faces another challenging task as he implements a new offense with a new quarterback. Defensively, the Tigers are in a two-year slide, too. The growth of a young secondary will be key to a reversal of fortune on that side of the ball. Memphis appears headed for another last-place finish in C-USA’s East Division.
119. New Mexico State
The Aggies should be better in 2011 — they really can’t get any worse. Coach DeWayne Walker is a worker and, despite being outmatched from a talent standpoint on most Saturdays, his teams remain in line and play hard.
The key to the season will be the play up front along the offensive and defensive lines. NMSU will need to stay healthy on the offensive side of the ball and record more than nine sacks on defense. The Aggies will also rely on the continued development of Manley, who looks to be the real deal at quarterback.
But even if the defense improves and the offense adjusts quickly to Doug Martin’s scheme, it’s tough to see the Aggies making too much of a move in the WAC.
After a recent decline, there is hope again for the FAU program, as Howard Schnellenberger’s dream of a stadium comes true in his 11th season. Eventually, some high-level recruits might come from a talent-rich region, as Schnellenberger expects, but the current team is too short on offensive talent to compete for a conference title. Nor is a winning record likely, with a five-game road slate to the start the season that includes trips to Gainesville, East Lansing and Auburn. Barring another surprise win against local rival FIU, or unexpected construction delays, the Oct. 15th stadium opening will likely serve as the season highlight.