College Football Countdown: Nos. 36-40

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With the ACC Kickoff in the rear-view mirror, here’s five teams to consider as likely bowl fodder as camps lurch closer to starting …

No. 40: NORTHWESTERN

Purple Power got off to its first 5-0 start since 1962 last year.

There’s a very real chance it could happen again.

With much of a solid defense returning intact, the Wildcats’ first six games set up beautifully – Towson, Eastern Michigan, at Syracuse, Minnesota, at Purdue and then home against Miami (Ohio).

There’s no Ohio State. No Michigan. And Penn State at home.

Not to say Pat Fitzgerald will definitely roll up another nine-win season. That’s no sure thing. But Northwestern seems a bit overlooked, and it’s a struggle to figure out exactly why.

No. 39: SOUTH FLORIDA

Remember those heady days in 2007 when Jim Leavitt’s upstart program suddenly found itself ranked No. 2 in the country after taking out Auburn and West Virginia and halfway to an unbeaten season.

Well, the Bulls are 11-9 since then, and have endured tailspins toward the end of back-to-back seasons.

So there is some built-in doubt, accentuated by yet another backloaded schedule.

Some of the cornerstones are solid. Quarterback Matt Grothe should be better as a senior, and defensive end George Selvie is one of the nation’s most disruptive linemen.

This is by no means a bad team, but it might be a stretch to envision Big East contention. Another 8-5 or 9-4 season sounds just about right for the Bulls.

No. 38: ARIZONA STATE

Strange but true: The Sun Devils have been ranked at some point in seven consecutive seasons. If they can nab Oregon State at home on Oct. 3, there’s a decent chance football mercenary Dennis Erickson can coax a 6-1 start out of Arizona State and keep that streak alive.

A rundown of the schools with at least seven straight seasons of AP poll appearances.

41: Ohio State

32: Florida State

29: Florida

24: Tennessee

16: Virginia Tech

15: Texas

12: Georgia, Wisconsin

11: Oregon

10: Oklahoma

9: Auburn, Louisiana State

7: Arizona State, Boise State, Southern California, West Virginia

No. 37: NORTH CAROLINA

Do. Not. Trust.

And this about sums up why.

Let’s be clear about some good things about the Tar Heels. Butch Davis knows what he’s doing, and the level of talent continues to improve in Chapel Hill. The overall trajectory is onward and upward.

Still, this was a team that was outgained by 582 yards last season, a team that relied early on Brandon Tate’s special teams performance and late on the ever-fickle turnover to cobble together an eight-win season.

Tate was hurt by midseason and the Tar Heels went 3-4 without him, and those 20 interceptions (and four touchdown returns) aren’t likely to be matched. And in case you were wondering how important those turnovers were, how about this little gem:

TO MARGIN IN 8 WINS: +18
TO MARGIN IN 5 LOSSES: -12

That’s extreme even for that usually telling stat.

Live by the turnover, die by the turnover isn’t an awful way to exist. It’s just capricious, enough so that the Tar Heels could be better this year and still wind up with a worse record in Davis’ third season than his second.

No. 36: ILLINOIS

How many times has the behavioral and sociological question of nature versus nurture been asked? Plenty.

Well, how about it’s football equivalent of “talent versus tutoring.”

Look, everyone knows Ron Zook is pretty good at recruiting players. And given how he was run out of Florida in three seasons and has one winning record in four years in Champaign, maybe that whole sideline acumen thing warrants some questions.

Unfair, says you? Certainly, the first two years weren’t Zook’s fault. But last year’s 5-7 (and 1-4 freefall to end things) should be placed on his tab.

There’s no ignoring the 3,000-yard passer (Juice Williams) and the 1,000-yard receiver (Arrelious Benn) who will make the Illini go this year.

Williams might even be the Big Ten’s best quarterback; yes, better bet than Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor. But he’s not the superior Heisman candidate thanks to the stubborn unwillingness of ESPN voters to consider players from non-national title contenders.

And the Illini aren’t a national contender. They’ll play Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State in their first five games. If things go poorly, it might be a little safer to give a subtle nod toward the tutoring end of things.

Patrick Stevens

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