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College Football Countdown: Nos. 36-40

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Every year, there’s a team or two that receives fairly undue hype – whether it’s suggesting a pedestrian team will be a 10-win bunch or a perfectly respectable 9-4 outfit will make a run at a national title.

Think 2007 Louisville (though at least it won a BCS game the year before), 2008 Clemson, 2009 Mississippi and Oklahoma State, 2010 North Carolina and any Pittsburgh team coach by Dave Wannstedt.

The annual countdown goal is not to fall for the team generating more buzz than it probably should. And that’s why Arizona State will pop up a little sooner here than in most rankings.

More on the Sun Devils later in the post.

40. NORTHWESTERN

Another team that will test the conventional wisdom about how valuable experience is, the Wildcats return the vast majority of a 7-6 team that lost three games by eight points or less (and also won five times by the same sort of margin).

Northwestern’s 2010 season is best slashed into two parts – the 10 games quarterback Dan Persa played before suffering an Achilles injury and the three games he missed. The Wildcats lost all three games sans Persa, including a drubbing at Illinois’ hands at Wrigley Field, a 70-23 ambush at Wisconsin and a bowl shootout loss to Texas Tech.

This ranking presumes a healthy Persa, who warrants this chart:

HIGHEST COMPLETION PERCENTAGE BY A MAJOR-COLLEGE QB, 2000-2010

76.67: Colt McCoy, 2008 Texas

73.54: Stefan Lefors, 2004 Louisville
73.51: Dan Persa, 2010 Northwestern

72.93: Scott Tolzien, 2010 Wisconsin
72.92: Chase Daniel, 2008 Missouri
72.63: Colt Brennan, 2006 Hawaii
72.59: Wes Counts, 2001 Middle Tennessee State
72.39: Riley Skinner, 2007 Wake Forest
72.05: Philip Rivers, 2003 N.C. State

71.81: Graham Harrell, 2007 Texas Tech
71.28: Kellen Moore, 2010 Boise State
71.21: Bruce Gradkowski, 2003 Toledo

Toss in roughly 50 rushing yards and a score on the ground per game, and Persa will be crucial to an offense that endured its worst two days last year (from a yardage perspective) when its starting quarterback was on the shelf.

Still, not everything revolves around Persa. A perfectly average defense collapsed during the season-ending skid, plummeting from 43rd to 92nd against the run and 36th to 77th in scoring defense in just three games. In that span, the Wildcats yielded 6.73 yards a carry. That is not a typo. Northwestern was that bad.

Persa’s return makes the offense better. The defense at least needs to reset to quality it displayed for 10 games last season. Northwestern avoids Ohio State and Wisconsin and draws Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State at home. Expect an improvement over last year’s 7-6 season.

39. ARIZONA STATE

Is it now or never for football mercenary Dennis Erickson? Perhaps so, especially after the Sun Devils stayed home for the holidays for the last three years.

It doesn’t take a great deal of scouring to make it clear Arizona State hasn’t sustained the decent-but-not-great track record Dirk Koetter built up in Tempe. Erickson is 1-11 against ranked teams and 24-13 against everyone else. He’s also a combined 1-11 against Oregon, Oregon State and Southern California and 16-8 against the rest of the Pac-10.

The numbers hint at a team better than last year’s 6-6 record, and the Sun Devils should make it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007. But can they prove to be the conference sleeper some seem to believe they can be?

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict certainly is a good reason to think so. A brutal stretch to open league play – Southern California, Oregon State, Utah, Oregon – is reason to think not.

The Sun Devils are the most likely candidate to win the Pac-12 South (considering Southern California isn’t eligible), but they still have plenty to prove if they are to really warrant a spot in the top 25. September, which features meetings in the desert with Missouri and Southern California, should provide some rapid answers.

38. IOWA

There are teams like Maryland out there that could be better than a year ago, but thanks to various quirks (notably the schedule) could wind up with a worse record in 2011. Then there’s teams in the opposite boat.

Take Iowa, which lost five games by a combined 18 points last year. No, the Hawkeyes had no business falling to Minnesota, but the rest of their setbacks (by seven at Arizona, by a point against Wisconsin, a four-point stumble at Northwestern and a three-point defeat against Ohio State) reflect a talented team that just wasn’t quite good enough on certain days against certain teams.

So much of that talent departed Iowa City in the offseason, and it’s not shocking the Hawkeyes are almost universally expected to slip a bit. To be fair, Iowa probably shouldn’t fetch top-25 consideration unless it bolts to a 5-0 start (or 8-1).

The thing is, those aren’t ridiculous possibilities. Iowa won six games by double-figures last year, and its sternest pre-November tests are at Penn State and at home against Pittsburgh and Northwestern. A gaudy record by Halloween is possible.

The on-field product isn’t going to be as good; this might be the first Iowa defense to yield more than 21 points a game since 2001. Yet there’s a bit of a cushion built in, and the Hawkeyes should use it to match and perhaps even exceed last year’s record.

37. AIR FORCE

Troy Calhoun’s Falcons won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2002, a welcome development as to tack onto the exceptional consistency enjoyed in the academy grad’s four seasons.

There’s another form of consistency, too:

Calhoun vs. BYU/TCU/Utah: 3-9
Calhoun vs. rest of MWC: 18-2

Brigham Young and Utah are gone, and Texas Christian soon will be. Alas, Boise State arrives on the scene in the Mountain West, which might limit Air Force’s upward mobility in the Mountain West.

Nonetheless, the Falcons will continue to be good. They were qualitatively as well as quantitatively a fine rushing team last season, and their efficiency against the pass is critically important. With much of the defense returning, that particular trait shouldn’t evaporate.

Air Force is stout in Colorado Springs (19-5 under Calhoun), strong against unranked teams (34-9 under Calhoun) and an overall consistent bunch (just six double-digit losses in four years). Expect more of the same this season as well, which means nine wins and a bowl game.

36. CLEMSON

Well, the Tigers finally did it last year. They broke a remarkable string of what loyal readers know is called Clemsonliness around here.

Namely, the striking ability to do well when they’re supposed to do poorly and poorly when they’re supposed to do well.

This is a simplistic analysis, to be sure, but it is telling nonetheless about a program all but guaranteed to confound.

CLEMSON PRESEASON AND POSTSEASON RANKINGS, 2003-2009

YearPre Rank
Post Rank
2003NR22
200415NR
2005NR21
200618NR
2007NR21
20089NR
2009   
NR24

 

Amazingly, Clemson had seven straight seasons when it appeared in either the preseason or postseason AP poll – but never cracked both.

Of course, the Tigers made it through last season without sniffing the national rankings. At 6-7 following losses to South Carolina and South Florida, they didn’t warrant such attention at that point.

Still, Clemsonliness is a tricky thing to shake. Despite the arrival of a new offensive coordinator (or perhaps because of it), there are enough pieces of intrigue on offense. Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins are fine building blocks, and nearly the entire offensive line returns.

Meanwhile, the defense might be down three of its best players, yet Clemson never has a shortage of talent on that side of the ball.

The Tigers won’t be ranked heading into the season (and they certainly aren’t here), but they’re a sneaky play to manage a solid recovery and take some heat off coach Dabo Swinney. There’s nothing predictable about the Tigers (well, besides that their defense will be decent), and anyone who hazards a guess should do so at their own peril.

Still, if the Tigers can poach two games in a testy three-week run against Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech early in the season, they’ll have the look of a top-25 team – and be in the process of validating the theory of Clemsonliness yet again.

Patrick Stevens

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