The Washington Times - August 1, 2008, 02:11PM

Seriously, we’re inching closer to teams that enter the season harboring legitimate bowl hopes. And I’m not talking about the New Orleans Bowl.

Anyway, here’s five more teams that aren’t particularly inspiring but will probably show up on a highlight show getting reamed by a top-25 team at some point in the first month of the season.

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105. Arkansas State. What was the line bandied about Cameron Indoor Stadium about a certain ACC basketball player with a hyphenated name? Three names, no game?

Arkansas State will have to settle for two names, moderate game.

The Red Wolves (nee Indians) were not especially bad at anything. That’s not to say they were great at much (returning punts and defending the pass), but there’s not a blatantly dreadful number screaming “If they just do THIS better, a bowl berth is possible.”

Instead, Arkansas State just looks sort of blah. The Red Wolves won five or six games five times in the last six years, and here’s betting they do it again. That’ll be good for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Sun Belt.

104. Louisiana-Monroe. It all seemed so clever back in 1994 when the school then known as Northeast Louisiana moved up to Division I-A. The program was less than a decade removed from a I-AA national title, and it looked like a good decision to take some lumps for a couple years.

Alas, “a couple years” turned into “more than a decade,” but the Warhawks finally posted a .500 season last fall.

Like Arkansas State, there’s little Louisiana-Monroe is especially good at, at least other than running the ball. But they were also dreadful when anything related to a forward pass was involved in 2007.

Still, the Warhawks have a few more starters back than the Redwolves, so former Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie’s crew gets the benefit of the doubt as the No. 3 pick in the Sun Belt this year.

103. Akron. What does this group of numbers – 6-7-5-4 – mean?

No, it’s not some nouveau mathematical sequence, nor is it part of a catchy 1980s song. It’s the number of victories Akron has managed in each of coach J.D. Brookhart’s four seasons.

So what does it mean? The next number better not be three, or chances are Brookhart will be blowing the dust off his resume.

Akron plans to open a new, on-campus stadium (which doesn’t look like much of a stadium right now) to replace the decaying Rubber Bowl next year. And let’s face it – “new beginnings” or “fresh starts” or whatever nonsense is invoked at this time next year doesn’t go well with sixth-year coaches who have produced diminishing returns.

That’s not to say Brookhart can’t win this year. He’s got eight starters back on offense, and Akron lost to the two MAC division champions by a combined 10 points in its final two games last year. But without some visible improvement (think .500 or better), this could be a job that opens up at season’s end.

102. Marshall. Now, explain this to me. Just how does a program go from posting a winning record every year from 1984 to 2003, winning a pair of Division I-AA titles (1992 and 1996) and then four MAC titles in five years (including a 13-0 season) to three straight sub-.500 seasons?

That’s a question probably best answered by someone who closely follows the Thundering Herd’s program. That person isn’t me. But certainly, it’s hard for someone who can remember Randy Moss and Chad Pennington lighting up the scoreboard to wonder what the heck happened.

It’s no secret Marshall’s defense was dreadful last year; only three opponents were held to less than 30 points. There was plenty of offseason change; the Thundering Herd have new offensive and defensive coordinators. You might even recognize the defensive coordinator, former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter. It’s safe to say he has some work to do if Marshall is to climb out of triple digits this year.

101. Southern Methodist. One of my least favorite words or phrases in the Big Bag of Sportswriters Cliches is “learning/knowing how to win.” It’s incredibly prevalent in baseball – i.e. a pitcher who pulls a Rick Helling, circa 1998, and “wins” 20 games with a 4.41 ERA with the help of some nice run support. If Helling “knew” how to go 20-7 that year, why did he manage a 16-13 record two seasons later when he recorded two more outs and allowed two more earned runs in two extra starts over the course of the season? He most certainly didn’t “forget” how to win, did he?

OK, enough about Helling, who probably doesn’t deserve to have the highlight of his Brett Tomko-like, $15 million career dragged through the mud. But the phrase “knowing how to win?” That’s another matter.

It pops up in other sports as well. And if Southern Methodist happens to get better in Year One under June Jones – and after going 1-11, it almost certainly will – it seems like a sure bet that folks who cover that program or Conference USA will invoke the Mustangs are “learning how to win.”

Here’s my two cents: One, Jones is a good coach who will squeeze a little more out of the Mustangs than Phil Bennett did. Two, it takes an extraordinarily unlucky bunch to go 0-6 in games decided by 10 points or less, including 0-3 in overtime.

That’s not to say SMU was a decent team last year. It was horrific on defense and committed far too many turnovers. But the Mustangs were much closer to being a nondescript 5-7 than a woeful 0-12, regardless of their record.

Jones will deserve every bit of credit he receives if/when he manages to finally get the Mustangs a post-death penalty bowl invitation. But modest progress this fall should be expected, since the odds say SMU won’t be nearly as snakebit this time around.

 – Patrick Stevens