College Football Countdown: Nos. 86-90

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No, no, no. The countdown wasn’t forgotten about yesterday. But those Jerome Burney features don’t write themselves.

In any case, there’s some interesting teams to run through today, including some stumbling BCS conference programs and a team I’m hesitant to underrate for the second straight year even when the evidence suggests there might be a bit of a dip from last year.

Onward…

90. ARKANSAS STATE

The Red Wolves are a case of a team that probably shouldn’t place much stock in the first third of its schedule – unless, of course, they happen to pull an upset or two.

There are trips to Nebraska and Iowa sandwiched around a home game against Sun Belt favorite Troy and a bye week.

But afterward? Just one of Arkansas State’s last eight opponents (Florida Atlantic) compiled a winning record a year ago.

Now, past performance is not always indicative of future results, yadda yadda yadda. But the Red Wolves have hovered at or just below .500 for all but one of coach Steve Roberts‘ seven seasons. It’s not a sure thing, but you could do worse than to bet they’ll win between five and seven games.

It might not be enough for a bowl berth, but Arkansas State will be heard from in the Sun Belt before the season is through.

89. MISSISSIPPI STATE

It’s appropriate the Bulldogs’ ranking involves the number 9, since it sure does keep popping up while researching the program.

It’s been nine years since Mississippi State enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons. And nine also happens to be the number of games new coach Dan Mullen lost over the last five seasons as an assistant to Urban Meyer at Utah and later Florida.

No to go all Count von Count or anything, but the Bulldogs could be in for nine losses this year alone.

Mullen will find life in the SEC without Tim Tebow to not be nearly as much fun as it was to have him (and that uberathletic defense) on his side. That’ll be especially true on Oct. 24, when the Gators pay a visit to Starkville.

There’s a lot more harrowing situations in that league (which is even easier to analyze historically thanks to today’s bookstore purchase, ESPN’s SEC Football Encyclopedia. Seriously, it’s ridiculous, and I sure wish there was one for the ACC).

In any case, the Bulldogs haven’t averaged 300 yards offense in any of the last four seasons, and until they do, they’re going to be consigned to occasionally implausible bowl berths (see 2007) and inevitable coaching searches. Mullen should fix that, but expecting it this fall is probably asking a bit much.

88. TEXAS A&M

A rundown of ex-NFL head coaches who took over BCS conference college programs in the Aughts (not including new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin; *-still active at same school)):

Coach (Hired)Year 1
Year 2
Overall
Pete Carroll, USC* (2001)6-611-288-15
Al Groh, Virginia* (2001)
5-79-556-44
John Mackovic, Arizona (2001)
5-64-810-18
Chan Gailey, Georgia Tech (2002)
7-67-644-32
Rich Brooks, Kentucky* (2003)
4-82-932-41
Mike Riley, Oregon State* (2003)
8-57-548-28
Bill Callahan, Nebraska (2004)
5-68-427-22
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina* (2005)
7-58-528-22
Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh* (2005)
5-66-625-23
Butch Davis, North Carolina* (2007)
4-88-512-13
Dennis Erickson, Arizona State* (2007)
10-35-715-10
Nick Saban, Alabama* (2007)
7-612-219-8
Bobby Petrino, Arkansas* (2008)
5-75-7
Mike Sherman, Texas A&M* (2008)
4-84-8

Former NFL guys almost always get better in year two. The exceptions are Mackovic (fired), Gailey (fired), Brooks (landed in a massive rebuilding project), Riley (ridiculously consistent) and Erickson (mercenary).

The other thing is, for most of these guys (Callahan standing out as an exception), you had a pretty good idea how much they’d thrive. Carroll? Got things rolling quickly. Saban? Ditto. Gailey? Mediocre, boring offenses, Calvin Johnson’s presence be damned down the road.

All of which is to say, Sherman’s debut was not particularly encouraging, but it’s only one year. But two years of getting pummeled (and getting flat-out dismembered by opposing offenses) will sure make it look like his coaching expiration date will arrive pretty quickly.

Having most of the offense should help the Aggies. Losing half the defense should help, too. But the Big 12 South is a scary neighborhood, and there’s a decent chance things will stagnate in College Station – or improve so modestly that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

No. 87: SYRACUSE

In this day of multilayered television packages, landing on a conference’s “Game of the Week” series isn’t always a good thing.

Typically, ABC/CBS/ESPN gobble up the best games, leaving the scraps for regional cable networks and a syndicated network of over-the-air stations. Which is exactly the way tussles like Indiana-Minnesota, Virginia-Duke and Vanderbilt-Mississippi State become annual “Game of the Week” fixtures for free public consumption.

Now, there’s no shame in a couple of those appearances every year. But when the eight-team Big East released its game of the week (or, in the case of its Nov. 14 game, game of the weak) schedule earlier this month, Syracuse was locked into three airings and was a possibility for four more.

That’s right, the rebuilding Orange could wind up as the darlings of regionally televised noon kickoffs this fall with potentially every league game landing in that timeslot. That, no doubt, has the fine fans of central New York just flat-out ecstatic.

On the bright side, Syracuse is free of the shackles of the ineptitude of the Greg Robinson era. The Orange checked in about 10 spots below this a year ago, with little hope of progress.

This season, Syracuse has a new coach (Doug Marrone), adds a high-profile quarterback (Duke basketball transfer Greg Paulus) and gets back previously suspended wide receiver Mike Williams. The Orange also has associate membership in the Big Ten, judging from the opening Minnesota-at Penn State-Northwestern stretch.

Syracuse opens with seven of eight at home and, more importantly, heads into the season with reason to believe the future will be better than the present.

The wins might not come just yet, but at least fans know it’s not a sure thing they’ll be cracking opening Genny Creams in the parking lot after leaving the Dome in disgust by halftime every week.

No. 86: RICE

The Owls present an interesting situation: A team most people are really down on because they lost stars Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard, but one I’m not necessarily high on because their defense merely progressed from horrific to porous a season ago.

Put another way: Most folks would stare at a team that lost seven starters on offense and three on defense and automatically conclude the fireworks will end abruptly.

The more likely scenario is Rice isn’t quite as good offensively but still subpar on defense (it yielded 33.3 points a game a year ago), and that will lead to a regression from 10-3. So too will turnover margin, which was an unsustainable +15 last season.

Still, a tumble back to, well, what you typically think of when you think of Rice? Not quite. The Owls are well-coached, and a 6-6ish season (with perhaps a home victory against Vanderbilt and/or Navy tossed into the mix) is plenty plausible.

Patrick Stevens

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