Sean Mannion leads a much-improved Oregon State team.
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2012 season.
61. Oregon State
Riley’s 12th season in Corvallis isn’t make or break, but his seat definitely gets warm if Oregon State follows disappointing 5–7 and 3–9 campaigns with another clunker. If the Beavers finish above .500 and get back to a bowl game, much will be forgiven. Riley says that if the young players thrown to the wolves last season have grown up and become bigger and stronger (he raved about OSU’s offseason work ethic), “then we’re going to have a good team.” How good? It depends on the offense being balanced, the offensive line blocking somebody, and the defense stopping the run. That’s a lot of what-ifs, but given the athletes on the roster and Riley’s body of work in Corvallis, no one will be surprised if the Beavers surprise.
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The enduring image of Jerry Kill’s first season at Minnesota is of him rolling on the ground during a game, in the throes of an epileptic seizure. It was a frightening episode, but Kill is tough and adaptable. “We’ve put that in the past,” Kill says. “I’m doing what I have to do to get healthy.” Not a bad way to describe his program. The Gophers aren’t healthy yet, not even close. Kill spent his first season installing his system and changing the culture, but boosting the talent level takes far longer. The Gophers have barely a dozen scholarship seniors, and virtually no meaningful experience at playmaking positions. This is a team built for 2015, so the benchmarks this fall are modest: Win their “guarantee” games for a change, shock an occasional Big Ten opponent and perhaps sneak into a bowl game.
Read the full 2012 Minnesota Golden Gophers Team Preview
63. Louisiana Tech
After years of coming close, the Bulldogs broke through and won the WAC championship — their first since 2001 — with a 6–1 mark in league play. Anything less than a repeat, in a watered-down league that no longer includes Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada, would be a major disappointment. There are also some opportunities early in the season for the Bulldogs to make a splash nationally with a schedule that includes a game vs. Texas A&M in Shreveport and road trips to Houston, Illinois and Virginia.
Read the full 2012 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Team Preview
64. Arkansas State
Hugh Freeze moved on to Ole Miss after leading the Red Wolves to their best season in a quarter-century. ASU moved on with Gus Malzahn, a former Broyles Award winner who stunned observers when he returned to his home state to take over in Jonesboro. Malzahn, who signed what most consider the Sun Belt’s top recruiting class, has built on the enthusiasm generated by last year’s 10–3 record. The former Auburn offensive coordinator has talked about building the “Boise State of the South” and encouraged ASU fans to make plans for another bowl trip this year. With Ryan Aplin running Malzahn’s offense, the Red Wolves shouldn’t have trouble scoring. They may give up plenty of points, too, especially in September games at Oregon and Nebraska, but their firepower makes them a threat to repeat in the Sun Belt.
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Navy established a program record of appearing in eight straight bowl games by not beating itself and doing all the little things right. Last season, the Midshipmen hurt themselves with costly mistakes, untimely turnovers and poor special teams. There is always a small margin of error for a service academy program, and the Mids, who routinely find themselves in close games, need to get back to playing mistake-free football.
Read the full 2012 Navy Midshipmen Team Preview
The Knights firmly believe they underachieved last season and should have earned a bowl invitation. UCF wants to make sure it ends its final season in Conference USA on the right note before jumping to the Big East. “We didn’t finish last year like how we wanted to,” says Jordan Rae, who will be in his third season as the Knights’ starting center. “Leaving the conference this year, we want to leave with a bang. We want to make a statement. We’re definitely going for a conference title.” If the defense and offensive line improve, UCF has the potential to make some noise in Conference USA.
Read the full 2012 UCF Knights Team Preview
The momentum gained from winning eight games and winning a bowl in 2010 didn’t carry over to last season. Now, Doug Marrone, entering his fourth season, is faced with a difficult nonconference schedule that includes games against national title contender USC, Missouri, Minnesota and Northwestern. The coach says he’d rather face a tough lineup, even though his team has issues on both sides of the ball. “The challenge is getting the talent level up to the schedule,” Marrone says. “When you look at our history, we’ve done this before. It almost forces you to become better — right out of the gate.” More offensive production would be a good first step.
Read the full 2012 Syracuse Orange Team Preview
Some were surprised that Mario Cristobal stuck around. They shouldn’t have been. The fiery coach, who was born and raised in Miami before starting for the University of Miami, has built something special and seemingly stable in his backyard. Expectations soared after FIU started 3–0 in 2011, with wins against Louisville on the road and UCF at home. And while FIU couldn’t sustain its play, especially after T.Y. Hilton’s injuries, it enters 2012 poised to exceed the past two seasons’ accomplishments. The schedule is forgiving, the speedy Florida-based talent keeps coming, and the defense has a chance to be dominating.
Read the full 2012 FIU Golden Panthers Team Preview
Connecticut’s enthusiasm from the Fiesta Bowl appearance following the 2010 season quickly tapered off after the blowout loss to Oklahoma, the unexpected departure of coach Randy Edsall to Maryland and, finally, the 5–7 season in 2011. With all that behind him, coach Paul Pasqualoni will try to prove the Huskies are moving back in the right direction. With an injection of transfers to the offense to go with a strong running game and a solid defense, Pasqualoni may have the pieces to return to the postseason.
Read the full 2012 Connecticut Huskies Team Preview
Expecting Houston to repeat — or even approach — its 2011 win total (a school-record 13) is asking a lot considering all the talent and leadership that graduated. The Cougars can still be a good team, however, and it is easy to draw comparisons to the 2008 team, which won eight games. Like that team, the 2012 Cougars will have a new head coach (Tony Levine), a mostly new coaching staff, a sophomore quarterback (David Piland) and a batch of unproven receivers. The advantage this year’s team has is an experienced defense and special teams unit. Regardless of the new parts, the goals remain the same. “Our goal will continue to be to win the championship,” Levine says. “Win our side of Conference USA and not only play in, but win, the Conference USA Championship Game.”
Read the full 2012 Houston Cougars Team Preview
71. Ole Miss
Talent is thin, depth is a concern, and academic issues leave a number of unknowns heading into the fall. Hugh Freeze has taken a strong disciplinary stance and has praised his players for their attitude and effort. With a nonconference schedule that includes Texas and an SEC slate that includes, well, the SEC, this is not the season to expect a return to a bowl game. The Rebels need to find a way to win nonconference games against Central Arkansas, Tulane and UTEP, then focus on being competitive in the league and picking off a game, perhaps two, to end a 14-game SEC losing streak. Those are realistic goals.
Read the full 2012 Ole Miss Rebels Team Preview
Randy Edsall spent the offseason trying to wash away memories of one of the worst first seasons of any college coach in recent memory. His decision to replace both coordinators was met with applause from a frustrated fan base. He brought a familiar face back to College Park in offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who installed a pro-style offense and helped Edsall haul in a sterling recruiting class. And Maryland attempted to recast Edsall’s image amid the steady stream of negative media. Now comes the hardest part: winning. Edsall likely will need to lean on promising freshman playmakers to navigate a daunting schedule and win back the fan base during a critical second season.
Read the full 2012 Maryland Terrapins Team Preview
Temple never got over the hump in the MAC. But the conference provided a lifeline, allowing the Owls to become relevant. And now they’re back in the Big East after a seven-year absence. So, how much better could life on North Broad Street really be? “These kids, they all want to play at the BCS level,” Steve Addazio says. “They understand the challenges. They came here hoping this would happen one day, and it has. Things are coming together.” Given that they never made it to a MAC Championship Game, it might not happen right away. Yet there’s no reason to believe the Owls can’t at least be competitive almost from the start.
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Tulsa finished with eight wins in Bill Blankenship’s first season, and expectations will remain high for a program that has advanced to bowl games in seven of the past nine seasons. Success will depend on Cody Green’s ability to manage the offense behind a line that is seasoned but a bit unproven. The running backs will provide Green the ability to get comfortable, but the wide receivers must make an impact. Defensively, the Golden Hurricane should be even better than last year, when they were a pleasant surprise.
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Kentucky saw its streak of five consecutive bowl games snapped last season with a 5–7 record. Even if the Cats are better this fall, a tougher schedule that includes road games at Louisville, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee means that any improvement might not show up in the record. Season-ticket sales and attendance dipped last season, and only 4,500 fans showed up for the Spring Game. Joker Phillips’ message: “Just wait and see. Don’t give up on this football team. We’ll battle. We’ll fight. We’ll scratch. We’ll claw. Just don’t give up on this football team.”
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Cajun football has never been in better shape or attracted more support, but Mark Hudspeth knows how close the storybook 2011 season came to being another break-even proposition. Six of the Cajuns’ games were decided on the final minutes, and UL Lafayette pulled out wins in five of those six. Three of those five came on the road, though, and a perfect 5–0 home record last year bodes well in a season in which three major players in the Sun Belt title race — Arkansas State, FIU and Western Kentucky — all come to Cajun Field. Replacing tight end Ladarius Green’s talents won’t be easy, but the Cajuns are loaded offensively and on special teams, and that might be enough to cover for a revamped and inexperienced defense.
Read the full 2012 Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns Team Preview
77. Western Michigan
There was perhaps no team in college football that produced such statistical extremes in 2011. It was all very entertaining but only modestly effective. The Broncos returned to the postseason with a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl loss to Purdue but came up well short again of a league title. It’s been written before in the Bill Cubit era, but this season WMU has a strong chance to change that. The Broncos have a quarterback who’s done everything but win big, experience in the trenches and six home games (rare for this program), including visits from West Division rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo.
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78. East Carolina
Here’s a twist to put a smile on the Jolly Roger — it’s the defense that will decide how far East Carolina goes. Most of the big stat defenders are back, and they’re in the second year of a system that obviously suits them. The offense, rather than out-gunning opponents and dominating C-USA, will try not to muck it up this time around. The first step is coach Ruffin McNeill settling on a quarterback who can keep turnovers at a minimum and maximize a pretty good receiving corps. Improved special teams play will augment the emphasis on defense, and limiting penalties is another key. East Carolina’s passionate fan base is counting on a return to the bowl circuit after missing out last year despite a fast finish. Bowl-bound the previous five seasons, the proud Pirates may see someone walking the plank if they fail again.
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The 32-year-old Matt Campbell, the youngest head coach in the FBS, inherits a talented and experienced team from his boss Tim Beckman, who moved on to Illinois. Campbell was the players’ choice to direct the program, and he led the Rockets to a 42–41 win over Air Force in the Military Bowl. Campbell, previously the Rockets’ offensive coordinator, knows his team is capable of scoring points. After all, Toledo averaged more than 50 points over the final six games of the ’11 season. He would like to see the defense improve so the offense doesn’t have to carry the load. “Offensively, defensively, and special teams — we are one,” he says. “I think when you get to that point, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.” The coach is right — Toledo should be good. Good enough to challenge Western Michigan and Northern Illinois for the MAC West title.
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Despite its 3–9 record in 2011, Duke was actually very close to earning its first bowl berth since 1994. Time and again, the Blue Devils failed to seize opportunities in close games. A missed chip-shot field goal, a blown coverage, a botched fourth-down conversion … a play here and a play there, and who knows? “We’re that close,” David Cutcliffe said in the spring. “We’ve come to the edge over and over and over again.” But getting to the edge is one thing. Getting past it — and on to bowl eligibility — is something else entirely. Even though Cutcliffe is an optimist, he knows that the next step for his football program is, in reality, a giant leap.
Read the full 2012 Duke Blue Devils Team Preview
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