Much of college football success and failure is based on who you play and where you play them. As we get closer to the first games of the 2012 season -- hey, we crossed the 100-day mark last week -- Athlon Sports looks at the teams that have good chances to surprise us early on.
By the end of September, we may look at the following nine teams surprised to see them 4-0, 5-0 or better. The schedule may have something to do with that.
9 TEAMS POISED FOR HOT STARTS
Aug. 29 Illinois State (9-4, 5-3 MVC)
Sept. 7 Army (2-10)
Sept. 14 at North Texas (4-8, 3-5 Sun Belt)
Sept. 21 at Eastern Michigan (2-10, 1-7 MAC)
Back-to-back road games in September aren’t ideal, but Ball State should be able to handle North Texas and Eastern Michigan after defeating Indiana and USF in consecutive weeks last season. A 4-0 start seems likely for Ball State before the Cardinals try to take charge in the MAC West against Toledo on Sept. 28.
Aug. 31 Wofford (9-4, 6-2 Southern)
Sept. 7 Buffalo (4-8, 3-5 MAC)
Sept. 21 ULM (8-5, 6-2 Sun Belt)
Oct. 5 West Virginia (7-6, 4-5 Big 12)
Oct. 12 at Kansas State (11-2, 8-1 Big 12)
Oct. 19 Iowa State (6-7, 3-6 Big 12)
Oct. 26 at Kansas (1-11, 0-9 Big 12)
Like many teams in the Big 12, Baylor has a handful of questions on offense, starting at quarterback and offensive line. With two off weeks in September, the Bears will have time to work things out early, however. Baylor should have little trouble with Wofford and Buffalo. ULM’s Kolton Browning gave the Bears all they could handle last season, but he’s probably the best quarterback the Baylor defense will see until November. Kansas State is a tough road trip, but the Wildcats are re-tooling without Collin Klein.
Aug. 29 Indiana State (7-4, 5-3 MVC)
Sept. 7 Navy (8-5)
Sept. 14 Bowling Green (8-5, 6-2 MAC)
Sept. 21 Missouri (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
Indiana will find out in the first four weeks if it is bowl material in Kevin Wilson’s third season. The first three opponents all had winning records last season and the fourth is from the SEC, but all four games are in Bloomington. Indiana’s lackluster defense will learn where it stands when it faces three FBS teams ranked 60th or lower in yards per play last season -- Navy (61st), Bowling Green (87th) and Missouri (107th). Indiana needs to pile up wins early because the October slate features Penn State and road trips to Michigan State and Michigan.
Sept. 7 South Dakota (1-10, 0-8 MVC)
Sept. 14 at Rice (7-6, 4-4 Conference USA)
Sept. 21 Louisiana Tech (9-3, 4-2 WAC)
A bad FCS team, a middle-of-the-road Conference USA team and a squad with five returning starters and a new coach should be easy work for most teams. Maybe not for Kansas, which lost to Rice at home last season. If Kansas is going to end a 21-game losing streak to FBS teams, September would be the most likely time for that to happen before facing Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor in October.
Aug. 31 at NC State (7-6, 4-4 ACC)
Sept. 7 Lamar (4-8, 1-6 Southland)
Sept. 12 Tulane (2-10, 2-6 Conference USA)
Sept. 21 at Kansas (1-11, 0-9 Big 12)
Sept. 28 Army (Dallas) (2-10)
Oct. 5 at UTEP (3-9, 2-6 Conference USA)
Oct. 19 North Texas (4-8, 3-5 Sun Belt)
Oct. 26 at FIU (3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt)
Nov. 9 Southern Miss (0-12, 0-8 Conference USA)
A road win over NC State may be too much to expect for a Louisiana Tech team with one returning starter on offense, but Skip Holtz could still have a nice start as the Bulldogs coach. After NC State, Louisiana Tech’s next eight opponents went a combined 19-77 in 2012. After the Aug. 31 opener, Louisiana Tech won’t play another team with a winning record until Nov. 16 at Rice (7-6).
Sept. 1 Ohio (9-4, 4-4 MAC)
Sept. 7 Eastern Kentucky (8-3, 6-2 OVC)
Sept. 14 Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC)
Sept. 21 FIU (3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt)
Oct. 5 at Temple (4-7, 2-5 Big East)
The MAC played the role of spoiler against the Big East last season (Kent State over Rutgers, Toledo over Cincinnati, Western Michigan over Connecticut). Ohio returns quarterback Tyler Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship from the team that upset Penn State last season, so Louisville should be on alert. That said, if the Cardinals are indeed a top-10 team in 2013, they shouldn’t have much trouble with the first five games. After that, Louisville faces American Athletic Conference contender Rutgers on only five days rest on a Thursday night game on Oct. 10.
Aug. 29 UNLV (2-11, 2-6 Mountain West)
Sept. 7 at New Mexico State (1-11, 0-5 WAC)
Sept. 14 Western Illinois (3-8, 1-7 MVC)
Sept. 21 San Jose State (11-2, 5-1 WAC)
Sept. 28 Iowa (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)
The third season has been the turning point for Jerry Kill’s teams at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois. If that’s the case at Minnesota, the Gophers could be able to reel off four or five wins before hitting the meat of their Big Ten schedule. On paper, this should be a manageable start for the Gophers despite past close calls against these early season opponents. UNLV took Minnesota to three overtimes in Vegas to start last season, and New Mexico State upset the Gophers in Minneapolis in 2011. The biggest stumbling block in the first five games may be San Jose State and NFL quarterback prospect David Fales.
Aug. 31 Murray State (5-6, 4-4 OVC)
Sept. 7 Toledo (9-4, 6-2 MAC)
Sept. 21 at Indiana (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)
Sept. 28 Arkansas State (10-3, 7-1 Sun Belt)
Missouri’s defense will be tested against Toledo and Indiana, and although Arkansas State won 10 games last season, the Red Wolves lost quarterback Ryan Aplin from last season. Missouri will need to rack up wins early if the Tigers are going to reach a bowl. Missouri’s October slate includes Vanderbilt and Georgia on the road, plus Florida and South Carolina. Lose early, and Missouri's in big trouble.
Aug. 29 at Hawaii (3-9, 1-7 Mountain West)
Sept. 7 Washington State (3-9, 1-8 Pac-12)
Sept. 14 Boston College (2-10, 1-7 Pac-12)
Sept. 21 Utah State (11-2, 6-0 WAC)
The toughest matchup in USC’s first four is against a Utah State team with 14 returning starters by a first-time head coach. The opener could get ugly as there no love lost between Hawaii coach Norm Chow and Lane Kiffin stemming from their days on Pete Carroll’s staff. Even a USC team with a new quarterback has a significant talent edge over the first four teams on the schedule. USC finishes September with a road trip to Arizona State, Athlon’s pick to win the Pac-12 South.
On the other side of the coin, some teams will raise expectations early in the season, but by late October and into November, we may wonder what went wrong.
Simply put, maybe the schedule got a little tougher.
Here are nine teams that had better be ready for a tough finish to the season.
9 TEAMS GEARING UP FOR TOUGH FINISHES
Nov. 7 Oklahoma (10-3, 8-1 Big 12)
Nov. 16 Texas Tech (Arlington) (8-5, 4-5 Big 12)
Nov. 23 at Oklahoma State (8-5, 5-4 Big 12)
Nov. 30 at TCU (7-6, 4-5 Big 12)
Dec. 7 Texas (9-4, 5-4 Big 12)
Baylor makes up for its manageable early schedule by facing Athlon’s top four Big 12 teams in the final five games, including back-to-back road against against Oklahoma State and TCU. Texas Tech isn’t a pushover, either. Baylor has won the last two meetings against Texas Tech in Arlington, but those two games have featured a grand total of 205 points.
Nov. 2 Georgia (Jacksonville) (12-2, 7-1 SEC)
Nov. 9 Vanderbilt (9-4, 5-3 SEC)
Nov. 16 at South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC)
Nov. 23 Georgia Southern (10-4, 6-2 Southern)
Nov. 30 Florida State (12-2, 7-1 ACC)
November is the make-or-break month for Florida’s SEC East hopes with Georgia in Jacksonville and South Carolina in Columbia. Florida’s November opponents, including Georgia Southern, went a combined 54-14 last season. Meanwhile, South Carolina won’t play on the road in November, and Georgia draws Auburn and Kentucky in its SEC slate that month.
Oct. 19 at Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten)
Oct. 26 Northwestern (10-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
Nov. 2 Wisconsin (8-6, 4-4 Big Ten)
Nov. 9 at Purdue (6-7, 3-5 Big Ten)
Nov. 23 Michigan (8-5, 6-2 Big Ten)
Nov. 29 at Nebraska (10-4, 7-1 Big Ten)
Iowa’s win total has decreased from 11 to eight to seven to four in the last four seasons. The Hawkeyes will have trouble ending that slide against in the final six games of the season. Five teams in that span are in the Athlon preseason top 25 (Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern). The exception is a road trip to Purdue. Iowa went 0-4 against those six teams last season, dodging games against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Nov. 2 at Michigan State (7-6, 3-5 Big Ten)
Nov. 9 Nebraska (10-4, 7-1 Big Ten)
Nov. 16 at Northwestern (10-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
Nov. 23 at Iowa (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)
Nov. 30 Ohio State(12-0, 8-0 Big Ten)
If Michigan is going to win the Big Ten, the Wolverines had better be ready for a difficult November. Three road games, two rivalry games and three of the league’s top playmaking quarterbacks (Taylor Martinez, Kain Colter and Braxton Miller). And if the Wolverines make it that far, they’ll play in a Big Ten title game.
Nov. 2 at South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC)
Nov. 9 at Texas A&M (11-2, 6-2 SEC)
Nov. 16 Alabama (13-1, 7-1 SEC)
Nov. 23 Arkansas (Little Rock) (4-8, 2-6 SEC)
Nov. 28 Ole Miss (7-6, 3-5 SEC)
Mississippi State finished last season on a 1-5 slide. History could repeat itself against this schedule. The Bulldogs open November against three potential top-10 opponents, two of which are on the road. Then comes Arkansas in Little Rock and the Egg Bowl against an improving Ole Miss team that defeated Mississippi State 41-24 last season.
Nov. 2 at San Diego State (9-4, 7-1 Mountain West)
Nov. 8 Air Force (6-7, 5-3 Mountain West)
Nov. 16 Colorado State (4-8, 3-5 Mountain West)
Nov. 23 at Fresno State (9-4, 7-1 Mountain West)
Nov. 30 at Boise State (11-2, 7-1 Mountain West)
Opponents caught on to New Mexico’s Pistol offense by the second half of last season as the Lobos lost six in a row after a 4-3 start. Improved as New Mexico may be, it’s going to be tough for the Lobos to get through November with two or more wins. New Mexico will face the three teams that tied for the league title last season on the road in the final five games.
Nov. 7 at Baylor (8-5, 4-5 Big 12)
Nov. 16 Iowa State (6-7, 3-5 Big 12)
Nov. 23 at Kansas State (11-2, 8-1 Big 12)
Dec. 7 at Oklahoma State (8-5, 5-4 Big 12)
The Sooners likely will start the season outside of the Associated Press top 10 for the first time since 2000 (Athlon ranks OU at No. 17). Will Oklahoma finish that way, too? Three of Oklahoma’s last four games are on the road, all three against teams that have defeated the Sooners in the last two seasons. The lone home game is against Iowa State, which won’t be intimidated in Norman.
OREGON STATE(Team Preview)
Oct. 26 Stanford (12-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
Nov. 1 USC (7-6, 5-4 Pac-12)
Nov. 16 at Arizona State (8-5, 5-4 Pac-12)
Nov. 23 Washington (7-6, 5-4 Pac-12)
Nov. 29 at Oregon (12-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
Oregon State used to be a slow starter and strong finisher. That’s changed a bit as the Beavers finished 3-4 in 2012 and 1-4 in both 2011 and 2010. This season’s final five games will be tough again. Oregon State will face Athlon’s top two teams in the Pac-12 North (Stanford, at Oregon), top two teams in the Pac-12 South (at Arizona State, USC), plus a likely bowl team in Washington.
Oct. 26 Georgia Tech (7-7, 5-4 ACC)
Nov. 2 Clemson (11-2, 7-1 ACC)
Nov. 9 at North Carolina (8-4, 5-3 ACC)
Nov. 23 at Miami (7-5, 5-3 ACC)
Nov. 30 Virginia Tech (7-6, 4-4 ACC)
Best of luck to Jon Tenuta. In the final six weeks of the season the Virginia defensive coordinator will plan for Georgia Tech’s option, the ACC’s best spread offense coaches (Clemson’s Chad Morris and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora), the league’s best backfield (Miami’s Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson) and one of the league’s top quarterback prospects (Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas). Virginia’s bowl prospects were iffy to begin with. The Cavs better stock up on wins early.