The Washington Times - August 5, 2011, 10:31AM

And now, the top of the near-top 25 list …

30. PITTSBURGH

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For all the jokes made at Dave Wannstedt’s expense (guilty as charged), he did average nine wins a year the last three seasons. It was the Panthers’ best three-year stretch, percentage-wise, since 1981-83. Some guy named Marino was under center for two of those seasons.

New coach Todd Graham doesn’t inherit Marino, though Tino Sunseri was capable enough as a sophomore. Of course, he’ll now play in a different system, so his adjustment (as well as the rest of the offense’s) to a spread-out-of-the-gun will be curious.

Nonetheless, Graham can expect his defense to bail the Panthers out during the transition. Give Wannstedt this: His team’s defense was excellent in 2010, ranking in the top 20 in scoring, total, rushing and passing defense.

What’s more, the Panthers’ scoring defense has improved three straight seasons – and started that stretch at a decent 24.3 points a game (and just 297 yards a game) back in 2007.

MOST CONSECUTIVE SEASONS WITH IMPROVED SCORING DEFENSE, ACTIVE

5: Temple

4: Stanford

3: Louisville
3: Miami
3: Pittsburgh
3: Southern Methodist
3: Syracuse
3: Texas-El Paso

Pittsburgh has a chance to extend that streak in Graham’s first year in a job that initially went to someone else (ex-Miami-Ohio coach Mike Haywood). On the second-choice initial success scale of Mike Shula to Tyrone Willingham, expected Graham to land somewhere in the middle. By the time September’s through and the Panthers have seen Iowa, Notre Dame and South Florida, it’ll be pretty clear where the season is headed.

29. MICHIGAN

The Wolverines sort of got a Michigan Man after tossing Rich Rodriguez to the curb after winning six Big Ten games in three years (as a point of comparison, Michigan won at least six league games in 10 of 11 seasons before Rodriguez’s arrival).

So out went Rodriguez, who will no doubt find a less conservative place to perform his career rehabilitation starting next year, and in came Brady Hoke. The former Michigan assistant built up Ball State for one magical season, snapped San Diego State’s decade-plus bowl drought in his second year and now finds himself trying to work wonders for a staid program.

Yep, the Wolverines got a Michigan Man. It also has two directional Michigan schools on the schedule, leaves Michigan only three times all season and doesn’t have to contend with the likes of Penn State and Wisconsin.

It sets up swimmingly for Hoke, even the tough parts; Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State all visit the Big House. Oh, and Denard Robinson is back as well to offer his electrifying work.

So what happens? Probably a near-parallel to Rodriguez’s last two seasons. Expect a fast start – 4-1 should be a minimal expectation after opening with five home games – before things grow testier as autumn deepens. The Wolverines could win eight or nine times in Hoke’s debut, but this is a longer-term project that will require a bit of patience. Michigan fell out of the national elite almost overnight; it’ll take a lot longer to reclaim a place there.

28. SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI

Could this be the year for the Golden Eagles to collect 10 wins for the first time since 1988?

OK, that question by itself offers up a little-engine-that-could sentiment, which is unfair for Southern Mississippi. It is a program that has won between seven and nine games in 14 of the last 15 years, but never cracked double figures in that stretch. Consistency resides is Hattiesburg.

That double-digit barrier, though, is a curious one. It’s also something Larry Fedora’s team could break through thanks to a handful of items working in its favor.

* An established quarterback. Austin Davis was efficient as a starter last season, and now stands 300 yards away from breaking Brett Favre’s career passing record at Southern Miss. Expect that to happen in the first week.

* A competent defense. This is always relative in Conference USA, but the Golden Eagles have most of their key contributors back and have installed a 4-2-5 formation under new coordinator Dan Disch to deal with the spread-happy ways of their league.

* Turn of luck. Southern Miss was 1-4 in games decided by single digits last year. That should improve.

* Favorable schedule. Tulsa and Houston aren’t on tap, Southern Methodist and Central Florida pay visits to the Golden Eagles and the nonconference slate (Louisiana Tech, Southeastern Louisiana, at Virginia, at Navy) offers at least the possibility of collecting four victories. That’s not guaranteed – the two road games will be tricky – but it is doable.

Put it together (and add in a possible 14th game in the C-USA championship) and the Golden Eagles should win that 10th game this year. Perhaps even an 11th and 12th as well.

27. PENN STATE

Look, you know what you’re going to get here. The offense should be a bit better than a year ago (Penn State’s worst since 2006 or 2004, depending on how deep you choose to look at it), and the defense will surely reset to the typical stingy Nittany Lion standard. After all, Penn State yielded 300 points in a season for the first time since 1983 (though it had a worse per-game average as recently as 2001).

In short, the Nits will be in the top half of the Leaders Division and can expect to remain there for an extended period. The divide between the top three and bottom three is significant, and Penn State’s resources should stave off any vulnerability (even coming off a 7-6 season) for a while.

Meanwhile, the most obvious test this season is a visit from Alabama, which brings with it the continuation of an amazing streak. It’s also the 16th straight year the Nittany Lions will play in a game featuring two head coaches with national titles on their resume entering the contest.

Needless to say, there aren’t many similar streaks elsewhere, but just for fun …

15: Penn State

8: Ohio State

6: South Carolina

5: Florida Atlantic
5: Oklahoma
5: Texas

4: Alabama
4: Florida

3: Louisiana State

The streaks at Ohio State and Florida come to a halt this year (though Auburn will be added to this list). Joe Paterno and Penn State simply move along, churning out wins and bowl appearances and questions about how long it will be before a coaching change. At this point, it’s best just to appreciate it for what it is – a run that won’t be duplicated again.

26. BRIGHAM YOUNG

Maybe the greatest adventure in college football this fall is Brigham Young’s step into the wilderness of independence.

It works well for Notre Dame, which has NBC’s money to fall back on. It works for the service academies, which get to choose their own schedules and maintain national (if not gargantuan) fan bases.

The move away from independence came in the last two decades. There were 26 major-college independents in 1990. Then there was the formation of the Big East (eight teams) and moves to bolster the ACC (Florida State), Big Ten (Penn State) and SEC (South Carolina). Conference USA was essentially a collective of independents (plus Southwest Conference refugee Houston) initially. By 2003, the total was winnowed to four.

So the Cougars will go against the historical tide, but they have a chance to succeed. They have a built-in constituency as a school (Mormons) and a strong history – both recent (four straight 10-win seasons between 2006 and 2009) and further back (the 1984 national title).

The offense slipped a bit as Brigham Young went, well, young last season. That should correct itself to some extent. How the Cougars handle a spread-out schedule will be curious:

2011 BYU SCHEDULE, LEAGUE-BY-LEAGUE

WAC (5): Utah State, San Jose State, Idaho, New Mexico State, at Hawaii
Pac-12 (2): Utah, at Oregon State
Big Sky (1): Idaho State
Big 12 (1): at Texas
Conference USA (1): Central Florida
Mountain West (1): vs. Texas Christian in Arlington, Texas
SEC (1): at Mississippi

There are wins to be had against that schedule, and a 50/50 split against the power conference teams is more than plausible. Still, it’s not hard to find a few likely losses in the mix, and that will mean the Cougars will cap their year in the Armed Forces Bowl regardless of whether they win six or 10 games in year one of independence.

Patrick Stevens