The Washington Times - July 18, 2009, 10:13AM

Trying to make up for lost time on the countdown. Might even have two installments today. Here’s the first …

No. 85: WASHINGTON

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Finally, the Winless Wonders pop up on the countdown, and not a minute too soon.

Remember, the Huskies have lost 15 in a row, including last season’s 0-for-12 that ensured Tyrone Willingham would be sent packing by a second major program in five years.

Granted, playing Brigham Young, Oklahoma and Notre Dame didn’t exactly help matters. And this year’s schedule includes Louisiana State and Notre Dame, so a terribly productive nonconference season doesn’t look likely.

However, last season’s defense was absurdly precocious. While experience doesn’t count for everything, there’s every reason to believe U-Dub will be better this season. The return of quarterback Jake Locker from a broken thumb that cost him eight games should help, too.

New coach Steve Sarkisian inherited a long-term project – one that started when Willingham was given the mandate to turn a borderline renegade program into something a lot more savory. Mission accomplished, except for the whole winning thing. That could be a while, but the Huskies will take a step forward this year. After all, they can’t go backwards.

No. 84: NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Annual winners of the “Thank Heavens There’s So Many Bowl Games!” Award for serendipitous – though sometimes deserving – postseason appearances over the last 10 years:

1999: Wake Forest (went 6-5, got into Aloha Bowl after Maryland wasted LaMont Jordan’s 300+ yard rushing performance and blew lead in final minute against Virginia, then wound up drilling Arizona State)
2000: West Virginia (went 6-5, with only road wins at Big East dregs Rutgers and Temple; still, got Don Nehlen a victory in his finale in the Music City Bowl, so it was a productive year)
2001: North Texas (went 5-6 but won the Sun Belt to earn New Orleans Bowl nod)
2002: Wisconsin (followed 5-0 nonconference with 2-6 Big Ten record, still went to Alamo Bowl and beat Colorado)
2003: Kansas (went 6-6 despite a late four-game skid, winning only one road game – at Wyoming – en route to a Tangerine Bowl berth)
2004: Troy (went 7-4, earned Silicon Valley Classic nod against Northern Illinois as only remaining eligible non-MAC team that didn’t engage in a brawl in its final game)
2005: N.C. State (went 6-5, winning four of last five to receive ticket to Meineke Car Care Bowl)
2006: Middle Tennessee (went 7-5, earned Motor City Bowl invite as last available seven-win team)
2007: Nevada (went 6-6 without a defeat of a major-college team with a .500 record, invited to New Mexico Bowl)
2008: Northern Illinois (went 6-6 after a 2-10 season, lost Independence Bowl)

As a clarifier, this isn’t meant to discredit these particular teams. But it’s also fair to say that 20 years ago, in the days before half of all major-college teams got to extend their seasons by a game, most if not all of this bunch probably would not have earned postseason invites.

It should be pointed out that of this list, only three (North Texas, Wisconsin and Nevada) went to bowls the following season. It could happen for Northern Illinois. But another .500ish season sounds about right.

No. 83: UNLV

The Rebels are coming off an encouraging season, one in which they defeated Arizona State and Iowa State in overtime and came within a victory of bowl eligibility.

Of course, the pessimist would point out those two big-name triumphs could easily have been losses thanks to the capricious nature of OT, and if they’d gone the other way UNLV would have gone 3-9 and not retained coach Mike Sanford for a fifth season.

The Rebels did find themselves a bit unlucky in conference play, and could easily have toppled bowl teams Air Force, Brigham Young and Colorado State. Instead, they lost all three – and ended the season with a bludgeoning against San Diego State and its lame duck coach.

There’s a chance for a good start – perhaps even 4-1 if UNLV can topple Wyoming and Nevada by early Octover. Of course, the Rebels have won three road games in the last five years, so reversing that trend would go a long way to securing a .500 season for the first time since 2003.

No. 82: CENTRAL FLORIDA

Another team well aware of the vagaries of OT, the Golden Knights lost a pair of home games in extra time and wound up 4-8.

The big problem? Scoring. Life on offense without former star tailback Kevin Smith was quite Hobbesian – nasty, brutish and short, as in a whole lot of punting and praying a solid defense didn’t erode by the fourth quarter.

Central Florida was held below 20 points on eight occasions, unsurprisingly going 1-7 in those games. Fixing the offense is a priority, and that led to the hire of former Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe for the same role.

This, in turn, leads to a fun list of former Ralph Friedgen assistants who have gone on to serve as coordinators elsewhere:

* Mike Locksley (Illinois OC 2005-08)
* Bill O’Brien (Duke OC, 2005-06)
* James Franklin (Kansas State OC, 2006-07)
* Tim Banks (Central Michigan DC, 2007-present)
* Ray Rychleski (South Carolina STC, 2008)
* Chris Cosh (Kansas State co-DC, 2009-present)
* Charlie Taaffe (Central Florida OC, 2009-present)

No. 81: BOWLING GREEN

Dave Clawson’s one-year stint as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator didn’t go too well, but maybe what people should be paying attention to is how he stocked Richmond into a national title contender (and winner, the year after he left) in the former Division I-AA.

That bodes well for the Falcons, who return a capable if not-ultra-flashy quarterback in Tyler Sheehan. Once again, the MAC isn’t anyone’s definition of an insurmountable gauntlet, with plenty of solid teams but only two or three truly consistent groups floating around.

Yes, Bowling Green’s defense will start off a bit raw, and a nonconference schedule including Troy, Missouri and Boise State could create a few early bumps.

Still, the Falcons look like a team that will improve as the year moves along – and that might be enough for Clawson to sneak into a bowl in his first season.

Patrick Stevens