The Washington Times - August 1, 2011, 10:14AM

Starting the morning with five more teams as the top 25 draws ever closer …

45. WASHINGTON

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It seems like an eternity since someone other than Jake Locker was Washington’s primary quarterback, and even longer still since the Huskies were remotely relevant with someone other than Locker (though Washington’s relevance with Locker is subject to debate).

In any case, U-Dub appears well on the road to recovery as a program under Steve Sarkisian. After beating one ranked team in the dark days between 2004 and 2008, the Huskies have knocked off five ranked foes the last two years. They finished last season on a four-game winning streak, their first since 2000-01.  And they’ve beaten Southern California in back-to-back years for the first time since 1996-97.

But does the step toward Pac-12 contention come this year? Probably not, especially with Oregon and Stanford in the same division. There’s also that matter of finding a replacement for Locker.

The Ducks and Cardinal will prove much more difficult tests for the Huskies than acclimating a new man under center. For one, most of Washington’s other skill position players are back. Also, its offense was decidedly average a year ago. Locker’s departure could be overstated.

This has the look of a team that will tread water in 2011, not that it’s such a bad thing. While the Huskies were traveling through the Tyrone Willingham years while picking up the mess from the Rick Neuheisel/Keith Gilbertson fallout, a 7-6 record with a bowl trip would have worked just fine for Washington fans. If things go right, maybe a slightly better record (with the corresponding mid-tier bowl berth) awaits the Huskies.

44. GEORGIA TECH

So based on 2010, Paul Johnson can’t always be counted upon to be a pigskin sorcerer. Oh well. No one’s perfect.

A good chunk of last year’s backslide can be pinned on the Yellow Jackets playing without their quarterback (Joshua Nesbitt) to an injury for the final four games and change. In an option offense, that’s no small loss.

While there’s no way to set things up so a QB isn’t important in such a scheme, Johnson’s had a full offseason to come up with ways to cope should that position remain in flux. Tevin Washington is the psuedo-incumbent, though there’s no telling who winds up as Georgia Tech’s primary starter by November.

The questions aren’t confined to offense. Al Groh’s first year as defensive coordinator was decidedly middle-of-the-road.

So why so high on the Yellow Jackets (i.e. an 8-4ish type of prediction)? At some point, it’s worth trusting a coach’s track record. Johnson’s had two losing seasons in his career, never back to back. The guy’s history says he knows what he’s doing, even after last season’s slippage.

Georgia Tech’s also set up well to piece together a 6-1 start before a defining Miami-Clemson-Virginia Tech stretch. An excellent first half of the season would go a long way to erasing memories of 2010 (though, it should be noted, Georgia Tech was 5-2 before the bottom fell out last fall).

43. N.C. STATE

If you’re a Wolfpack fan, there’s not going to be a whole lot to read into your team until well after the autumnal equinox. Unless things go really poorly, that is.

Why? Let’s just say “Wake Me Up When September Ends” isn’t an unfair item for an N.C. State-related playlist.

LATEST FIRST MEETING WITH A 2010 BOWL TEAM

Nov. 22: Ohio (vs. Miami-Ohio)

Oct. 15: Colorado State (vs. Boise State)

Oct. 8: Connecticut (at West Virginia)
Oct. 8: Southern Mississippi (at Navy)

Oct. 1: Illinois (vs. Northwestern)
Oct. 1: Indiana (vs. Penn State)
Oct. 1: N.C. State (vs. Georgia Tech)
Oct. 1: UCLA (at Stanford)

Sept. 29: Houston (at Texas-El Paso)

The Wolfpack’s first three weeks include dates with Liberty, Wake Forest and South Alabama. It’s an ideal acclimation process for Mike Glennon, whose every move will be scrutinized after coach Tom O’Brien parted ways with star QB Russell Wilson in the offseason.

If things go right for N.C. State, Glennon will adjust in time the bulk of conference play arrives, as will key new pieces at tailback and wideout, whoever they turn out to be. If things go poorly, the Wolfpack will blatantly be defense-first for the first time since 2004-06 – the tailspin that got Chuck Amato fired.

The downside of the schedule is the Wolfpack needs seven wins to become bowl eligible. That’s a worthwhile risk to take if it means buying time for new players to grow up. After all, the most obvious test in September waits at the end, when N.C. State visits …

42. CINCINNATI

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, something that can’t sit too well with Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. Taking a handoff from Brian Kelly a second time didn’t work out so well for the former Central Michigan coach, who oversaw a team plummet from an unbeaten regular season to 4-8 despite plenty of skill position talent.

And, no, such a first-year freefall does not bode well in the long term:

BIGGEST DECLINE IN VICTORIES FOR PROGRAMS WITH NEW COACHES, 2001-2010

10: 2009 Ball State (Stan Parrish)

9: 2010 Central Michigan (Dan Enos)

8: 2010 Cincinnati (Butch Jones)

7: 2002 Stanford (Buddy Teevens)

6: 2001 Ohio (Brian Knorr)
6: 2003 Alabama (Mike Shula)
6: 2007 Louisville (Steve Kragthorpe)
6: 2008 Michigan (Rich Rodriguez)

5: 2004 Nebraska (Bill Callahan)
5: 2005 New Mexico State (Hal Mumme)
5: 2005 Syracuse (Greg Robinson)
5: 2005 Utah (Kyle Whittingham)
5: 2006 Colorado (Dan Hawkins)
5: 2007 Minnesota (Tim Brewster)
5: 2008 Hawaii (Greg McMackin)

Outside of the two guys who took over at non-AQ league schools coming off BCS trips (McMackin and Whittingham), there’s a lot of failed coaching tenures on that list (the jury, admittedly, is still out on Enos).

Now for the Bearcats’ good news: The defense, while not great, wasn’t horrendous last year. The offense, which returns crucial pieces in tailback Isaiah Pead, quarterback Zach Collaros and wideout D.J. Woods, should be even better. And Cincinnati can’t possibly come close to being a minus-15 turnover team again.

Oh, and the Bearcats are still in the wide-open Big East, so a bounceback is plenty plausible. This prediction is effectively counting on it. But if not …

Jones probably isn’t on the hot seat after one lousy season, but he could use a solid 7-5 (or better) to provide evidence Cincinnati isn’t regressing to its pre-Kelly (and even pre-Mark Dantonio) days. Another losing season would only further suggest the Bearcats are slipping down a most unwanted Kragthorpian/Hawkinsesque slope.

41. CENTRAL FLORIDA

After seven long seasons, George O’Leary got his career record at Central Florida over .500 with a Liberty Bowl defeat of Georgia. That should make those Gator-Knight fans ecstatic.

It also doubled as the Golden Knights’ second victory over a power-conference team under O’Leary, joining the season-opening defeat of N.C. State in 2007 (though the Wolfpack at that point didn’t look much like a power-conference team). The road is otherwise littered with near-misses, including one-possession losses to N.C. State and Kansas State last year.

Such setbacks made it difficult to seriously consider Central Florida a top-25 team a year ago (well, for those who formulate rankings beyond simply glancing at a gaudy win total). The Golden Knights beat up on the chumps they should have beaten and played great defense against just about everyone, but they also didn’t beat a team that finished with a winning record.

(You can look it up: Georgia was 6-7. East Carolina was 6-7. Southern Methodist went 7-7).

Still, Central Florida was a deserving Conference USA champ, and will very much be in the hunt for back-to-back crowns. The defense loses a ton, but quarterback Jeff Godfrey should be even better as a sophomore. The difference could just even out.

The most likely outcome is a slight regression, but 10 wins is attainable. The Golden Knights will probably need to win at Southern Mississippi in November to defend their division title, but even if they don’t they will be among C-USA’s top teams again.

Patrick Stevens