The Washington Times - July 8, 2009, 04:56PM

A question entering any season is “Who is No. 1?”

And that’s all well and good, seeing as how the point of playing 14 or so games is to figure out who’s best.

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But there’s 120 teams in major college football, and obviously a small fraction of them even warrant consideration for the top spot.

All, though, will go through a dozen games, and more than half will top it off with a bowl game. So it’s not all completely meaningless.

In that vein, this signals the return of the college football countdown, a regular look at how a season that won’t commence for nearly two months could and might shake out.

It means some patience for the top 25 or so, because there’s plenty of teams due a glance of a few paragraphs in the coming weeks.

With that, it’s time to start things off with …

No. 120: NORTH TEXAS

The early leader for the team most likely to log a winless season, the Mean Green surrendered 47.6 points and nearly 500 yards a game a year ago en route to a 1-11 season.

The lone victory came against Western Kentucky (another prime contender for the bottom spot), and North Texas yielded at least 40 points in all but two games.

The Mean Green, who won the Sun Belt four straight seasons (2001-04) earlier this decade, have sunk badly in the last five years. Todd Dodge, a former high school coach, has lost nearly twice as many games in two seasons (21) as he did in seven years as Texas power Southlake Carroll.

All of which is to say things don’t look promising. The Mean Green don’t play a team from the former Division I-AA, but at least there’s only one payday/pummeling on the schedule in the form of a trip to Alabama. Nevertheless, a 3-9 season would be progress – and a bit of a surprise.

No. 119: WESTERN KENTUCKY

The Hilltoppers’ only two victories in their transitional year to the former Division I-A came against Eastern Kentucky and Murray State, which would be great if Western was trying to join the Ohio Valley.

Alas, the Hilltoppers’ last five games were against teams from the Sun Belt – their new league – and all were losses.

Still, it’s important to maintain a realistic approach to things. Whereas some programs at this end of the spectrum are just barely scuffling along after years of misery, at least Western Kentucky is gradually building up.

It can be done. Here’s a look at how other schools that moved up from the former Division I-AA fared in recent years:

SchoolFirst Year
First .500+
First bowl
Arkansas State
1992 (2-9)
1995 (6-5)
2005
Nevada1992 (7-5)
1992 (7-5)
1992
UL Monroe
1994 (3-8)
2007 (6-6)
–-
North Texas
1995 (2-9)
2002 (8-5)
2001
Boise State
1996 (2-10)
1998 (6-5)
1999
Central Florida
1996 (5-6)
1998 (9-2)
2005
Idaho1996 (6-5)
1996 (6-5)
1998
UAB1996 (5-6)
2000 (7-4)
2004
Marshall1997 (10-3)
1997 (10-3)
1997
Buffalo
1999 (0-11)
2008 (8-6)
2008
Middle Tennessee
1999 (3-8)
2000 (6-5)
2006
Connecticut2000 (3-8)
2003 (9-3)
2004
South Florida
2001 (8-3)
2001 (8-3)
2005
Troy2001 (7-4)
2001 (7-4)
2005
Florida Atlantic
2005 (2-9)
2007 (8-5)
2007
Florida International
2005 (5-6)
–-–-

So, no, the move up doesn’t prevent quick (Marshall) or sustainable (Boise State, South Florida) success. But it’s also not impossible that a rut of losing seasons are in the Hilltoppers’ future, either.

No. 118: NEW MEXICO STATE

Strangely enough, the powers-that-be in Las Cruces opted against making a fifth Mumme movie filled with defensive breakdowns this fall and instead brought in UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker to become the latest coach to stare down the most unwinnable situation in major college football.

The Aggies, after all, haven’t been to a bowl game since 1960, the nation’s longest drought. They have three winning seasons since 1968. And they lost seven in a row after a stunning upset of Nevada in Reno last season.

Deposed former coach Hal Mumme went 1-15 against Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada. His other 10 victories over four seasons came against Southeastern Louisiana (twice), Texas Southern, Utah State, Louisiana Tech, Texas-El Paso (twice), Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Idaho and Alcorn State.

That, needless to say, isn’t the look of a healthy program. So Walker has some work to do, and this year could be ugly. Of course, it’s not like there’s an illustrious tradition to live up to anyway.

No. 117: IDAHO

The Vandals were picked dead-last in this exercise last year, but managed to double their win total (to two!) and avoid a truly ignominious spot.

Still, this is the 10th anniversary of Idaho’s last winning season, but that shouldn’t get coach Robb Akey down. First of all, the Vandals should be modestly better.

But more importantly, rolling up losses in Moscow is not prohibitive for future coaching success.

Tom Cable was there for four uneventful seasons and is now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders (OK, success is defined loosely here).

Then there was Nick Holt, who went on to become the defensive coordinator (essentially in name only, given Pete Carroll’s involvement with the unit) at Southern California. He left to take over Washington’s defense after last season.

In 2006, notes football mercenary Dennis Erickson made a one-year stopover before hopping to Arizona State.

So at least Idaho has one thing going for it: It isn’t a coaching graveyard. Far from it.

No. 116: EASTERN MICHIGAN

Among the sure things in college football for nearly a decade and a half is that the Eagles will be no good at all.

No winning seasons since 1995 – and no more than four wins in a year in that span – has a way of marking a program as bottom-of-the-barrel.

But to the Eagles’ credit, they managed to hire a coach with a decent reputation – former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English – and for now can say the man in charge has yet to lose a game.

Well, at least until EMU loses to Army or Northwestern in the season’s first couple weeks, anyway.

On the bright side, English inherits quarterback Andy Schmitt, who threw for better than 2,600 yards last season and helped the Eagles top 50 points in their last two games.

That should make things somewhat entertaining. But for now, there’s little to be gained on figuring Eastern Michigan will be much better than a 3-9ish bunch worthy of a spot in a lowly neighborhood. Those will rightfully be the expectations until the Eagles demonstrate otherwise.

Patrick Stevens