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Ole Miss looks to rebound after a disappointing 2010 season.
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. 61 through No. 80. Previous rankings - Top 25, No. 26 through No. 40 and No. 41 through No. 60.
Heading into Year 4, Rick Neuheisel took a scalpel to his coaching staff, and the success of that tinkering will go a long way in determining if there will be a Year 5 of the Neuheisel Era. UCLA, his alma mater, has underperformed, with a 15–22 record since he took the reins in 2008. The Bruins have fallen victim to bad luck, particularly at the quarterback position, but the program also has lacked a sense of urgency.
Now with Neuheisel on an increasingly warm seat, you better believe there is a pep in the Bruins’ step. Mike Johnson and Joe Tresey have brought a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the job, but both will learn the hard way if the injury bug continues to plague UCLA.
Tulsa finished No. 24 in the final AP poll, and with 15 starters returning, expectations would typically be high. But the non-conference schedule is a chore. The Golden Hurricane will play at Oklahoma (Sept. 3), host Oklahoma State (Sept. 17) and travel to Boise State (Sept. 24) in the season’s first month.
The important thing is to avoid letting the tough early stretch dictate what happens the rest of the year because the road is paved for Tulsa to perhaps win its first C-USA title since 2005. The Golden Hurricane have only one cross-division game (UCF) on the road, and they host SMU and Houston, the two teams they will be battling in the West.
63. Iowa State
The defense should be able to hold its own and make enough plays. Offense is where the real work is needed. It’s been years since there’s been this kind of uncertainty at quarterback, and that can be unsettling for everyone around the program, even more so when those around candidates Jerome Tiller and Steele Jantz aren’t very experienced.
The schedule again is a killer, with trip to defending Big East champ UConn and a home date vs. Iowa to go along with the new nine-game Big 12 slate.
If the Cyclones do indeed make it two bowl appearances in three years under Rhoads, they will have earned it.
Injuries were a reason for the team’s 4–8 finish last season, but there is little room for error this season. The Boilermakers haven’t been to a bowl game since 2007, the last season they finished with more than five victories. Danny Hope says he doesn’t feel pressure to win to keep his job — “That doesn’t creep in because the desire to win comes from within,” he says — but he knows the program needs to make strides. There is some talent at the skill positions, and the defense has some playmakers, but it may not be enough to overcome a challenging Big Ten schedule and reach .500.
A repeat of Nevada’s historic 2010 is unlikely with the loss of key players and a murderer’s row schedule that includes road games against Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State. But Nevada’s offense should still be able to move the ball, although not at the same pace as in recent years, and the Wolf Pack’s defense should be improved.
If both are true, a favorable conference schedule that includes home dates against fellow WAC favorites Fresno State and Hawaii could lead to another conference championship and a seventh consecutive bowl appearance.
66. San Diego State
Rocky Long seeks to continue the momentum after a 9–4 season that concluded with the program’s first bowl victory since 1969. Long, who spent 11 years as the coach at New Mexico before joining the SDSU staff in 2009, replaces Brady Hoke, who wasted no time cashing in on the surprise success by lobbying for and getting the Michigan job. Top-notch offensive coordinator Al Borges departed with Hoke, but the defensive philosophy remains the same with Long still on board.
The Aztecs have some star power on offense with Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman and should be solid on defense once again. Winning the MWC title will be tough — Boise State and TCU are the teams to beat — but SDSU should be back in a bowl game for the second straight season.
With Boise State off to the Mountain West — one year ahead of Hawaii — the path to the WAC title is more manageable than ever. The Warriors return several key pieces from last year’s 10-win team, but the offensive line is a major question mark. If that unit delivers, Hawaii should be in the hunt — along with Nevada and Fresno State — for another conference championship.
Most teams would have been rejoicing and striking up the band after winning eight games and playing in a bowl, but Tim Beckman saw to it that the celebrations were modest following Toledo’s 2010 season. He wants his team to know the bar sits higher. “That’s a great accomplishment, but the bottom line is we were not in the MAC Championship Game and we didn’t win the bowl game,” Beckman says. “These players understand that they’ve accomplished something, but at the same time they have not accomplished all their goals.” Beckman has 50 lettermen and 17 starters back, and he has Toledo positioned to take that next big step.
69. Ole Miss
If the offensive line is what Houston Nutt believes it to be, the Rebels will be good enough in the run game to get by with an inexperienced quarterback. Whether they have a winning season and get back to a bowl game will turn on whether Keith Burns has the right read on his secondary talent and what the Rebels can get from a young defensive line.
On the day he was hired to coach the Gophers in 2007, Tim Brewster proclaimed that “our expectation is to win a Big Ten championship now.” On the day he was hired last December to replace Brewster, Jerry Kill said, “I can give you all those promises. But those are false promises.”
Kill’s candor has captivated his new audience, even as he makes it clear that the Gophers’ roster is short on Big Ten talent, because he has a track record of turning around decrepit football programs. Still, Kill has never faced a brutal Big Ten schedule. The Gophers have no experienced quarterback, only one tested receiver, and a defense that managed only nine sacks.
“I can’t promise you wins,” the straight-talker says, “but I can promise you we’re going to get better every day.”
For now, that’s enough for Minnesota.
Can the line protect and run block? Savon Will Huggins be as good as advertised? Will all the changes pay dividends immediately? Answer those questions and you’ll be able to get a better handle on the type of season Rutgers will have. The non-conference schedule is reasonable, and while a run at the Big East title may be a reach, a return at least to bowl- eligibility at 6–6 is expected.
Odd-numbered seasons are the ones when the schedule tilts against the Cardinals. They’re on the road against Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Connecticut and South Florida (a spot where they have lost all four visits).
The key on offense will be the ability of either Will Stein or Teddy Bridgewater to make defenses respect the passing game, because the personnel isn’t there to duplicate the power running game that carried the 2010 team to a 7–6 record. The run defense should improve from seventh-best in the Big East, but Charlie Strong will have to rush two young cornerbacks into the rotation.
Louisville is clearly on the right track under Strong, but the Cardinals might take a step back in 2011 before taking a big leap in ’12.
73. Kansas State
The potential is there to improve in Bill Snyder’s third season back, but it will take a unique mixture of elements for Kansas State to see big dividends on the field. K-State has enough promising young talent to make a run at a winning season, but the margin for error will be small against a tough schedule that includes a road game at Miami (Fla.) and all six of the Big 12’s old South Division teams. Coaching and player discipline will be key.
74. Northern Illinois
The season hinges on whether quarterback Chandler Harnish can stay healthy. He had trouble staying on the field in his first two years before playing in 13 of 14 games last year. The Huskies don’t have a backup with Harnish’s experience and ability to run and pass with equal efficiency.
Northern Illinois navigated a tough schedule to win a school-record 11 games in 2010. This year, the Huskies have a more favorable schedule, with four of their first seven and final two games at home. The energy from a new coaching staff and desire for the senior class to play in a fourth straight bowl game should spur the Huskies to another strong season.
Mike London has changed the culture at Virginia, re-energized the fanbase and restored in-state recruiting ties. With so many players back on both sides of the ball, and a forgiving non-conference schedule, the Cavaliers appear capable of taking a step or two forward, with the promise of bigger things down the road.
There’s excitement around the program with the arrival of a new coach, CU alum Jon Embree. But this is largely the same team that went 5–7 last year.
Colorado faces one of the most challenging schedules in the nation. The Buffs play 11 teams from BCS Conferences, and their 13-week schedule lacks a bye.
Anything but a last-place finish in the Pac-12 South would be a surprise.
The Blue Devils can throw the ball with anyone in the ACC, and David Cutcliffe can X-and-O with the best. The problems, in Cutcliffe’s fourth season, are largely still the same from his first season — a relative lack of talent compared to the rest of the league and a dearth of athleticism on defense.
If Duke can complement the passing game — and Sean Renfree should be even better a year removed from major knee surgery — then the Blue Devils might be able to scrap back to the five-win level that Cutcliffe achieved in ’09. But with the defense still a step behind the offense, the program’s first bowl bid in 17 years will have to wait.
78. Fresno State
Mindful of his recent run of eight-win seasons, Pat Hill unveiled a new mantra during the offseason: Taking the program from good to great. But it’s hard to overlook this team’s youth and the rugged non-conference slate that includes Cal, Nebraska, Ole Miss and Boise State. Great might be a year away.
James Franklin has injected some much-needed enthusiasm into the Vanderbilt program. But enthusiasm and energy, while helpful, do not win football games. The Commodores need more talent. “We are here for a reason,” Franklin said during the spring. “There is no doubt we have work to do. We have to recruit. We have to go out and provide for the future of our program.”
In the present, the Commodores figure to have trouble escaping last place in the SEC East. They should be better, but better might not be good enough.
The Cadets broke through in Rich Ellerson’s second year, enjoying their first winning season since 1996 and earning their first bowl win since ’85. It will be a challenge to maintain that level of success — in the short term — due to the heavy losses suffered on the offensive and defensive lines. Army will need a big season from its two leaders, Trent Steelman on offense and Steven Erzinger on defense, to return to a bowl game for a second straight year. The schedule — which begins with three bowl teams (Northern Illinois, San Diego State and Northwestern) and also features road trips to Miami (Ohio), Air Force, Vanderbilt and Temple — is not easy.