Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2012 season.
101. Western Kentucky
Third-year coach Willie Taggart received a four-year contract extension after guiding WKU to the best turnaround in Sun Belt history. Yet, the sting remains of being snubbed for a bowl invitation despite posting a 7–5 record that included a 7–1 mark in the Sun Belt. Taggart has used that snub to motivate his team in the offseason. The Hilltoppers can no longer sneak up on the rest of the league. Last season proved that WKU is now a program that can compete in the improving Sun Belt. Contending with Bobby Rainey no longer around will be tough, but the Hilltoppers should still be one of the better teams in the league.
Read the full 2012 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Team Preview
102. Ball State
Pete Lembo admits that his team might have overachieved last year, but he thinks they deserved it after buying in so readily to their new coaches. With virtually the same coaching staff in place for the second year in a row — a first for Ball State’s veterans — the arrow should keep pointing upward as long as the intangibles remain in place. “We won five close games,” Lembo says. “We scored on seven or eight two-minute drives. We were the least-penalized team in the conference. There were a lot of good signs, but we know we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Read the full 2012 Ball State Cardinals Team Preview
103. Eastern Michigan
Last year’s six wins represented the most the program has posted in a single season since 1995. Ron English has seemingly moved past many of the distractions that hindered his team early in his tenure, making it possible for him to focus solely on on-the-field matters. Despite the relative success last year, EMU struggled down the stretch, losing three of its four games in November. All three losses were by six points or less, and all were defined by the missed opportunities that come with the kind of inconsistency English harps on. “As a team right now, we do not consistently do what we’re coached to do,” says English, the MAC’s reigning Coach of the Year. “So that’s going to be the biggest emphasis.” The schedule won’t be as friendly in 2012. There are two road games against Big Ten foes (Purdue, Michigan State) in September, and the Eagles have to play both Toledo and Western Michigan, two of the top teams in the MAC’s West Division. Eastern Michigan might be a better team in 2012 but not win as many games.
Read the full 2012 Eastern Michigan Eagles Team Preview
104. North Texas
Dan McCarney has plenty of believers, and for good reason. A 5–7 record in a new stadium last season brought optimism. But now the Mean Green must try to be a dominant running team without a proven running back, and they must slow down opposing passing attacks without their best pass-rusher and all four starters in the secondary. Road games at LSU, Kansas State and Houston offer little breathing room. McCarney’s plan appears to be on track, but it will take baby steps, and he knows it. “Thirty scholarship players were out the door last year, so we have depth issues, and we’re still 11 under the 85 scholarship limit,” McCarney says. “But that’s why I’m here, to fix a lot of the problems at North Texas. But we believe in our plan.”
Read the full 2012 North Texas Mean Green Team Preview
UTEP’s unspoken formula — to win three nonconference games and cobble together three more victories to get to bowl eligibility — is rendered just about impossible by a slate that includes Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ole Miss. On the bright side, the five wins a year ago were more than many predicted in a complete rebuilding season, and 2012 could see the fruits of that in the final year of the 66-year-old Mike Price’s contract. The offense returns most of the key pieces, and the defense seems poised to make another incremental improvement, but the Miners will have to overachieve to put themselves in position to become bowl-eligible.
Read the full 2012 UTEP Miners Team Preview
UAB received a scare in the spring when Garrick McGee was rumored to be returning to Arkansas to replace his mentor Bobby Petrino. That didn’t happen, and the Blazers surge forward with an excitement level from the fan base that hasn’t been seen in Birmingham since the year after UAB played in the 2004 Hawaii Bowl. Playing with a quick tempo will be an emphasis for the Blazers. McGee and offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm have installed an offensive system that should produce a lot of points. But will UAB be able to stop anybody? The Blazers seem to have taken a step forward on the defensive side, but it will be hard for defensive coordinator Reggie Johnson to completely turn things around in one year.
Read the full 2012 UAB Blazers Team Preview
If you believe David Bailiff, the Owls are coming on. Well, they had better be improving, because following up 2008’s 10-win season and Texas Bowl triumph with a 10–26 record over the next three campaigns has made even the most patient Rice fans a little antsy. The offense must become more proficient, especially through the air. Taylor McHargue will benefit from last year’s experience, but if the line doesn’t perform, he could be a target. The defense must get tougher up front, or teams will again gash Rice on the ground and have plenty of time to attack through the air.
Read the full 2012 Rice Owls Team Preview
At his introductory press conference, broadcast live statewide, Norm Chow declared he had come home to “chase championships.” But given the difficulty of the move up to the Mountain West, a nonconference schedule that sends Hawaii on the road to USC and BYU in the first month and the amount of retooling necessary to install a new offense, Chow has his work cut out for him. Just getting to a break-even mark on its 12-game schedule, which would assure an invitation to the Hawaii Bowl, would be quite an accomplishment in Chow’s inaugural season.
Read the full 2012 Hawaii Warriors Team Preview
A lot of Trojan faithful want to either forget 2011 or cast it aside as an anomaly. Troy won at least eight games in the five seasons before last year’s collapse, and with a skilled offense and an influx of new talent on defense, there’s little doubt the Trojans should be improved in 2012. Improvement, however, might not be enough to make a big jump in the Sun Belt standings. The league is better than ever, with Arkansas State, FIU and UL Lafayette expected to contend for the conference title. A realistic goal for Troy, in the short term, should be to beat out the likes of UL Monroe, Western Kentucky and North Texas for fourth place.
Read the full 2012 Troy Trojans Team Preview
110. Central Michigan
CMU has put together one of the better home schedules in MAC history for the 2012 season, with seven home games — a rarity in the mid-major world. It features Navy, rival Western Michigan and, most notably, Michigan State. “Just because you’re playing them at home, you’re still playing them,” Dan Enos says, laughing, at the prospect of facing the Spartans. It’s the sort of home slate that’ll put butts in seats and put eyes on Enos’ program, which probably needs a .500 season to take the heat off of the third-year coach. That, however, isn’t likely to happen. The MAC West is loaded, with Western Michigan, Toledo and Northern Illinois at the top and improving Ball State and Eastern Michigan not far behind. It will be a struggle for the Chips to escape the cellar.
Read the full 2012 Central Michigan Chippewas Team Preview
A 5–19 record over the last two years is not what the Buffalo faithful expected after hiring Jeff Quinn away from Cincinnati three years ago. The program’s biggest adjustment has been on offense, where players haven’t fully taken to Quinn’s pass-heavy spread. While Branden Oliver is one of the MAC’s premier tailbacks, Quinn is breaking in another quarterback, a position where results so far have been a mixture of wild inconsistency and occasional doses of promise. Defensively, Khalil Mack could emerge as the conference’s best player, and there’s enough talent to keep Buffalo competitive until the offense grows. Nevertheless, this is a critical year for Quinn. Warde Manuel, the man who hired Quinn, is now the athletic director at Connecticut, and new AD (Danny White) probably won’t be enamored with five wins over two seasons. It doesn’t help that the schedule is more challenging than it was last season.
Read the full 2012 Buffalo Bulls Team Preview
Bobby Hauck hasn’t taken any shortcuts in trying to build UNLV’s football program, sticking almost exclusively to high school recruiting. That has meant taking a lot of lumps with a young squad in back-to-back two-win seasons. Expectations around Glitter Gulch are for a run at bowl eligibility in Year 3. That, however, could be asking for too much too soon. The Rebels will be better, but they could be another year away from returning to the postseason.
Read the full 2012 UNLV Rebels Team Preview
What would be a successful season for a Tulane program stuck in neutral since playing in the 2002 Hawaii Bowl? The honest answer would be a one- or two-game improvement over 2011, when the Green Wave went 2–11 and lost their final 10 games. New coach Curtis Johnson has some experienced players in key areas, and the change at the top has created some excitement on the Tulane campus, something that’s been missing for a while. But he’s also a first-year head coach, and anything more than a small step forward would be a pleasant surprise.
Read the full 2012 Tulane Green Wave Team Preview
Middle Tennessee played in three bowl games in five years under Rick Stockstill before plummeting to last season’s 2–10 record, the program’s worst mark in more than 30 years. The extent of the letdown suggested that there were more issues with chemistry and character than talent. To turn the tide, Stockstill made some staff changes, implemented a new offseason weight program and put positions up for grabs more than in previous seasons. Stockstill hopes lessons of last season have been learned. “We had a sense of entitlement, and that can never happen again,” Stockstill says. “We flushed away 2011, but we can never ever forget it. That was gut-wrenching, and we never want to go through that again.” Aside from all the mind games, Middle Tennessee must correct its horrendous turnover margin of the last two seasons to return to past success. The Blue Raiders will play only five home games, but they can build some much-needed confidence with a soft early schedule against McNeese State, Florida Atlantic and at Memphis. A 3–0 start is not out of the question before the competition stiffens.
Read the full 2012 MTSU Blue Raiders Team Preview
A former quarterback at Oklahoma and Murray State, Justin Fuente faces the challenging task of resurrecting a program that went to five bowls in six seasons under Tommy West but has won only five total games in the past three years. Fuente also has the added responsibility of bulking up a team that joins the Big East in 2013. Fuente understands that he has taken command of a program in disrepair. The number of scholarship players is low, and depth is practically non-existent. But the first-year coach brings an innovative offensive mind and has put together a solid staff that includes former North Texas head coach Darrell Dickey as offensive coordinator. Fuente also will be helped by a forgiving schedule that makes winning four games a realistic goal.
Read the full 2012 Memphis Tigers Team Preview
116. New Mexico State
The Aggies took a big step forward a season ago. They were a much more competitive team and could have won more than four games with a few breaks. It’s critical that NMSU continues to move forward under coach DeWayne Walker, who’s entering his fourth year at the school. If the Aggies improve as much this year as they did last year, bowl-eligibility isn’t out of the question thanks to a much kinder schedule in a new-look WAC that no longer includes Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada.
Read the full 2012 New Mexico State Aggies Team Preview
117. New Mexico
Bob Davie, who last coached at Notre Dame in 2001, knows what is in front of him. He is taking over a team that ranked 120th in scoring offense and 119th in scoring defense and has had 34 of the 67 players signed in the last three years leave the program. “This is a complete rebuilding job,” Davie says. “No one is going to argue that point. I’m comfortable with that. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity.” Discipline and attention to detail have been the themes since he took over, two areas that were apparently non-existent in the disastrous Mike Locksley era. The Lobos are lacking in personnel to make any sort of an immediate jump, but it is imperative for Davie to make some progress in the statistical rankings and in the win-loss record. He needs to be able to sell his next recruiting class on the hope that the program is headed in the right direction.
Read the full 2012 New Mexico Lobos Team Preview
After a pair of disappointing seasons, the pressure is on Idaho to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2009. A watered-down WAC should help, as the Vandals drop Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii from their schedule and add FBS newbies UT-San Antonio and Texas State. Still, with only five home games and two games at BCS conference schools, the schedule isn’t exactly easy. Idaho will need its offense to improve significantly and for its defense and special teams to carry the load until the offense starts clicking. If things do fall into place, the Vandals could contend for a top-four finish in the WAC.
Read the full 2012 Idaho Vandals Team Preview
Akron is headed for its seventh consecutive losing season. The 1–11 marks in 2010 and ’11 under Rob Ianello represented the worst two seasons for the Zips since they joined college football’s top division in 1987. That’s a big hole to climb out of, and even the presence of the much-ballyhooed Terry Bowden will not change the fortunes that quickly. The offense has some potential playmakers, but they will get a chance to produce only if the line develops. Chuck Amato must perform some magic on defense for the unit to be successful. Bowden seems to be a good fit for the job, but Zips fans must be patient.
Read the full 2012 Akron Zips Team Preview
Howard Schnellenberger will be long revered in Boca Raton, as he is in Coral Gables, for what he did to establish a program. Yet, while he built what would become a perennial power on the field at the University of Miami, his legacy at FAU will be the field itself. The product on it has slipped over the past five years, and now it’s up to Carl Pelini, who has only been a head coach at the high school level, to reverse the direction. He replaced all but one assistant, and he has tossed out the old schemes on offense and defense. “We have come a long way,” Pelini says. “We still have a long way to go, though.” That will be evident this season, especially in visits to Alabama and Georgia. Some Sun Belt progress would be sufficient.
Read the full 2012 FAU Owls Team Preview
121. Texas State
After a 5–2 start last season under coach Dennis Franchione — in his first year in his second stint at the school — the Bobcats stumbled down the stretch to finish 6–6 as an FCS independent. Texas State now takes another step forward in 2012, joining the WAC for one season before moving on to the more stable Sun Belt Conference in ’13. The schedule will certainly be more challenging this season for the Bobcats, who will play only one FCS opponent — local rival Stephen F. Austin — after facing nine FCS foes and one Division II school last year. This season’s first two weeks include a Sept. 1 opener at Houston and Sept. 8 home game against Texas Tech. Texas State has been preparing for its move to the FBS ranks and expanded the seating capacity of Bobcat Stadium from 16,000 to 30,000 in the offseason. Franchione took New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M to bowl games before arriving in San Marcos. The Bobcats may eventually find similar success, but there will likely be some growing pains in the short term.
Read the full 2012 Texas State Bobcats Team Preview
Under the hyper-energetic Charley Molnar, the Minutemen are taking a unique approach to their transition to the FBS. They aren’t scheduling any FCS opponents, and every nonconference game they will play over the next few years is against a BCS conference opponent. On top of that, the Minutemen will play home games in Gillette Stadium, hoping that the allure of playing in an NFL stadium will counter the fact that “home” games will be almost 100 miles from campus. UMass won’t be eligible for a MAC championship or a bowl appearance until 2013 as it completes its transition, but just being competitive figures to be challenge enough in 2012.
Read the full 2012 UMass Minutemen Team Preview
123. South Alabama
After going undefeated in its first two seasons of football, South Alabama went 6–4 last year against a more difficult schedule that included its first games against FBS opponents (losses at NC State and Kent State). South Alabama won’t be eligible for the Sun Belt championship or the postseason until 2013, but the Jaguars will play a full league schedule. They open the season Aug. 30 against recent start-up program Texas-San Antonio, coached by former Miami (Fla.) boss Larry Coker. Joey Jones has built a solid foundation since being hired in February 2008. The Jaguars have a veteran team, with 47 returning lettermen and 13 returning starters, but their first season against a full Sun Belt schedule will be tough. A last-place finish is likely.
Read the full 2012 South Alabama Jaguars Team Preview
Former BCS national championship-winning Miami (Fla.) coach Larry Coker helped lead UTSA to a 4–6 mark in its first year while playing as an FCS Independent. The Roadrunners don’t count as an FBS opponent until 2013 — when they are expected to join Conference USA after a one-year stop in the WAC — and won’t be a full-fledged FBS member or eligible for a bowl until 2014. Last season, UTSA played tough at eventual FCS national runner-up Sam Houston State before losing 22–7, and beat FCS member Georgia State 17–14 in overtime. Start-up programs traditionally face a tough road, but UTSA is already making some steady progress. Still, it’s a stretch to believe the Roadrunners will be any kind of a threat in the WAC in their first (and only) season in the league.
Read the full 2012 UTSA Roadrunners Team Preview
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