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Washington State is making slow progress in the Pac-12.
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. 81 through No. 100. Previous rankings - Top 25, No. 26 through No. 40, No. 41 through No. 60 and No. 61 through No. 80.
It would be highly unlikely for the Kansas offense to be as bad again as it was in 2010, when it ranked 113th in the nation. But don’t look for a sudden return to those glory years from 2007-09. The Jayhawks will be starting either a freshman quarterback or a sophomore who threw more interceptions than touchdowns last year.
Defensively, the Jayhawks will still be near the bottom of the Big 12 in talent, especially on the defensive line, where they aren’t especially big or especially athletic.
If Kansas is to win more than the three games it won last year, the Jayhawks will need breakout seasons from freshmen or returning players who haven’t done it yet. Fortunately for KU, it got help at positions of need from the recruiting class. Unfortunately, it is going to need a lot of those freshmen to play right away, and play well.
82. East Carolina
Ruffin McNeill took over a two-time championship program that lost 28 seniors. The Pirates went 6–7, falling off down the stretch due in large part to poor play from the defense. But while rebuilding on both sides of the ball, McNeill got his alma mater to the Military Bowl. The Pirates broke school attendance records and nearly every ECU offensive record, and then followed up with a solid recruiting class.
McNeill didn’t like losing so many games last year, but he lost a lot of weight this summer after undergoing bariatric surgery. Improving the defense is another weighty issue, though. The transition to the 3-4 scheme needs to go smoothly.
The schedule is not kind: East Carolina opens with South Carolina in Charlotte and hosts Virginia Tech and North Carolina early in the season. If they survive, the Pirates may be ready to raise their sails in conference play.
83. Wake Forest
For the first time in coach Jim Grobe’s 10-year tenure, Wake Forest often wasn’t competitive last year. Grobe points to the lack of talent in his junior and senior classes, which forced him to rely on young players.
“If we end up with 16 or 18 juniors and seniors out on the field starting for us and playing their very best football, then we’re going to be a good football team,” he says. “We have to get back to a lot of veteran-type players that are playing their best football in their last year.”
Grobe won’t get all the way back there (at least seven sophomores should start), but he’ll be closer. The Deacons return 14 starters and many others who saw significant action.
Indiana was three plays from an eight-win season last year with one of the best offenses the Hoosiers have had in years. But dropped passes (Iowa), blown coverages (Michigan) and other mistakes (Northwestern) left the Hoosiers with five wins and a coaching change.
This team has a solid collection of receivers and backs (if running back Darius Willis is healthy), but the king-sized hole at quarterback will test Kevin Wilson’s creativity and patience. Tre Roberson could win the job, but the Big Ten can be unkind to a 6'1", 180-pound freshman.
The defense returns five starters but few stars or big-time playmakers. After coaching at Oklahoma, Wilson is conditioned to seeing speed from his defensive unit. The Hoosiers don’t have much of that quality.
85. Washington State
If he were almost anywhere else, Paul Wulff would have been fired by now. Coaches who are 5–32 in three seasons, regardless of the extenuating circumstances, don’t survive.
But Wulff returns for a fourth season at Washington State because athletic director Bill Moos believes that his head coach deserves another year based on progress made by the team last year. Yes, the Cougars went 2–10, and record-wise, that isn’t the definition of progress. But the team showed several signs of life late in the season, smacking Oregon State in Corvallis and nearly taking Washington to overtime before losing in the Apple Cup.
For the most part, the Cougars were competitive last year. Washington State has speed, size and athleticism now. Wulff believes his team should be good enough to go to a bowl game this year. Anything short of that will not be acceptable to Cougar fans.
This will be Ohio’s 50th season since joining the major-college scene in 1962. The Bobcats are still looking for their first bowl win, though they’re coming off back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school annals.
If Tyler Tettleton is as accurate and as solid as he appeared during the spring, then the Bobcats should put up plenty of points. With Noah Keller and Gerald Moore healthy, the defense should be good enough to have Ohio in the thick of the race for the MAC East title.
One of the first things that Tommy West did after taking over the defense was simplify things for his group. If simple means better, then Neil Callaway could have his first winning season as UAB’s head coach. Of course, only time will tell if the defense is ready to help the Blazers become a winner.
UAB’s offense is good enough to carry the Blazers. But is it good enough to help them reach bowl-eligibility after maneuvering through a rugged schedule that includes road games at Florida, East Carolina, Troy and Tulsa? If not, then Callaway might not be around for a sixth season.
88. Western Michigan
If it’s possible to reach a point where excitement and uneasiness collide, Western Michigan’s football program may be there. Two impressive performances to close the 2010 season, as well as the return of so many pivotal players, have undoubtedly created a buzz heading into 2011. However, a 6–6 record last fall and a fifth straight loss to rival Central Michigan have also placed serious pressure on Bill Cubit entering his seventh year.
Cubit, who’s 40–33 at WMU with trips to two bowl games, has a team he believes is capable of contending in the difficult MAC West. He’ll know soon enough. The Broncos’ MAC schedule begins with an anxiety-packed Sept. 17 home date against the Chippewas.
Troy has won or shared five straight Sun Belt Conference titles and whipped Ohio 48–21 in the New Orleans Bowl last year. Unless Corey Robinson hits a sophomore jinx or the offensive line fails to jell, ranking in the nation’s top 20 in passing and total offense (11th and 17th last year) won’t be a surprise. But Troy’s defense ranked 89th nationally in 2010, the lowest of any conference champion, and gave up over 45 points per game during a four-game midseason stretch. If the Trojans are going to contend for a sixth title, they may have to win some shootouts along the way.
Mario Cristobal inherited a winless team, one saddled with NCAA sanctions. Last season, after dealing with tragedy (running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus), and then losing four games to BCS conference programs, Cristobal rallied his team to the program’s first winning season — and then, first-ever bowl victory. That success and consistently strong recruiting classes have made the former University of Miami lineman, at age 40, a hot coaching candidate around the country. For now, he has a roster that can contend in the conference again, and the Owls could have a better overall record, with a much less daunting out-of-conference schedule. Much will depend on Wesley Carroll’s efficiency, and whether the defensive line can apply consistent pressure.
91. Colorado State
After posting back-to-back 3–9 seasons, Steve Fairchild knows the heat is on him to produce. The good news is that four years of recruiting have greatly enhanced the team’s overall talent, particularly when it comes to speed, and Pete Thomas is an emerging star at quarterback.
The schedule, which includes win-friendly non-conference dates with Northern Colorado, San Jose State, Utah State and UTEP, is designed to get Fairchild and the Rams into the postseason. Anything short of that, however, could spell the end of Fairchild’s run.
92. Louisiana Tech
The offense will take a step forward, with Lennon Creer and Colby Cameron poised for breakout seasons. That may keep the Bulldogs competitive, but a suspect defense — unless there’s a major turnaround — will keep Lousiana Tech from crashing through and being a factor, even in a new-look, Boise State-free WAC.
93. Miami, Ohio
Don Treadwell, a former Miami walk-on wide receiver who became a team captain, has big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Mike Haywood, oversaw the most dramatic improvement from one season to the next in college football history, going from 11 losses in 2009 to 10 wins last season.
Treadwell, who filled in last season as Michigan State’s coach while Mark Dantonio recovered from his heart attack, faces the pressure of not only replacing a successful coach, but also doing it with a roster loaded with depth, talent and experience. In other words, if the RedHawks struggle, guess who will be blamed?
After losing 18 of their last 24 games, the Owls are looking for a turnaround. Three new coaches, a new quarterback and a different outlook on defending the pass should help. So should a hefty group of returnees on the offensive side of the ball.
Rice won its first bowl game in 54 years in 2008, but things haven’t gone so well since. Coach David Bailiff needs to shore up the defense to bring Rice back into Conference USA contention.
Even though it’s hard to imagine the Herd challenging for C-USA laurels, this is a program on the rise. Marshall played 28 true or redshirt freshmen last year and won four of its last five games. Coach Doc Holliday used his Florida connections to grab one of the top recruiting classes in the league, so the future is bright.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns this season, especially with a non-conference schedule that includes West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Louisville. The Herd’s offense needs A.J. Graham or Eddie Sullivan to become a reliable signal-caller, and the ground game has to wake up. Defensively, Marshall should be in good shape, but some more playmakers have to emerge from a talented group of youngsters.
Al Golden made Temple football relevant, winning a total of 22 games over the last three seasons — the best three-year stretch at the school since the late 1970s. He took the Owls to their first bowl game since 1979 and guided the program to a 20–12 record in its first four seasons in the MAC.
Golden is now the boss at Miami (Fla.), but don’t expect the Owls to disappear. New coach Steve Addazio, the former offensive coordinator at Florida, has everything in place — a stout defense, All-America-caliber running back and solid offensive line — to compete for a MAC championship.
97. Arkansas State
Hugh Freeze was Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator last year before taking over for dismissed nine-year boss Steve Roberts, and even though the Wolves have new run-game and pass-game coordinators, Freeze will still call plays. That’s a plus for a unit that has many weapons in the skill positions, but ASU won’t go far unless a thrown-together offensive front jells quickly. That may put more pressure on a realigned defense, one that will have multiple looks and will try to limit the big plays that were too frequent from opposing offenses last year.
A freshman quarterback led the Cowboys to a bowl victory in 2009 and a freshman will have to do the same if Wyoming is to get back to that position in 2011.
The Pokes’ defense should have the pieces to keep its inexperienced offense out of shootouts.
A much more favorable schedule should help the Cowboys’ cause as well, though a trip back to the postseason is a pipe dream unless a quarterback emerges from the pack.
99. Kent State
The Golden Flashes will have a dose of renewed energy under new coach Darrell Hazell, who joined the program after seven years as an assistant at Ohio State. Hazell replaced Doug Martin, who resigned last November after his seven seasons produced a 29–53 record.
Kent State will have little margin for error in Hazell’s first season as it aims for the program’s first winning record since 2001. Early away games against Alabama and Kansas State will test the team’s mettle. The offense has potential, but Spencer Keith must be steadier as a junior than he was as a sophomore. The defense, under new coordinator Jon Heacock, will be fast and physical, but will need help from newcomers to approach last year’s success.
100. Bowling Green
Coach Dave Clawson finally has his stamp on the program in his third season. It’s still a very young group, but there are enough strengths in the right places that the Falcons should be able to make a jump after suffering through a 2–10 season a year ago. The Falcons have 38 lettermen and 13 starters back, and there is continuity on the coaching staff.
Clawson built powerhouse programs at Richmond and Fordham and was named the D-I-AA Coach of the Year twice, once at each stop. He has a lot more work to do in order to contend for similar honors at Bowling Green.