College Football Countdown: Nos. 116-120

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The calendar has turned to July, which means the 2010-11 school year is essentially in the books.

Football camps don’t start for another five weeks. Lacrosse was done a month ago. And every Division I college basketball job was actually filled for a couple days (though that’s since changed with Bethune-Cookman firing its coach).

So there’s a cushion in the coming weeks to look ahead. In this little notch of Al Gore’s Invention, that means an extended analysis of the coming college football season.

You know, the one that’s bound to get more attention so long as their professional counterparts are locked out.

But to get to the top 25, it’s necessary to meander through nearly 100 other teams. Better get started, then:

No. 120 NEW MEXICO STATE

It’s appropriate to scribble this segment on July 1, for that is the day teams make their formal hopscotch from league to league in a given year.

New Mexico State last made such a move in 2005. It has not worked out well.

The Aggies, who at least managed to swim around .500 during their early Aughts stint in the Sun Belt, are 16-59 in their more geographically sound digs in the Western Athletic Conference. That includes a not-so-robust league record of 6-42.

A coach would argue that’s all in the past. But the truth is, the Aggies ranked better than 88th last season in just two of the 17 categories the NCAA tracks – kickoff returns (18th) and sacks allowed (45th).

With numbers like that, it really doesn’t matter how many guys are returning. New Mexico State faces a long road back to respectability. It won’t play a team from the former Division I-AA for the second straight year, and will face both of the teams it defeated in 2010 (New Mexico and San Jose State) on the road.

It’s been 50 years since the Aggies played in a bowl game. With the Sisyphean task facing DeWayne Walker and Co., it’s safe to pencil in a 51st.

No. 119 MEMPHIS

The Tigers were the No. 115 defense nationally a year ago, and the No. 117 offense. Toss in the No. 118 turnover margin, and it’s little surprise Memphis went 1-11 in Larry Porter’s first season.

It is not a particularly experienced team that returns to FedExburg, though that probably isn’t the worst thing. What is mildly troubling, though, is Memphis went through the spring without a quarterback who has attempted a college pass – all while installing a new spread offense.

Regardless of how good a team is, zero experience at quarterback plus a revamped system for everyone else in the offense is often a good formula for disaster.

In the long term, it’s probably a smart move. Memphis will be investing in the future under center regardless of who wins the job, and unless you have just a ridiculous running back (say, that DeAngelo Williams fellow), it’s probably wise to be prepared for high-scoring affairs in Conference USA.

The Tigers made five bowl appearances between 2003 and 2008, so it’s certainly plausible for Porter to build them back into a middle-of-the-road outfit in C-USA. Just don’t expect to see much tangible progress this fall; the deck is severely stacked against a team coming off consecutive seasons with double-digit losses.

No. 118 UL LAFAYETTE

When a team yields 37 points and just shy of 400 yards a game, it’s not hard to identify what direly needs improvement.

Of course, defense has been a bit of an issue for a while for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Take note:

MOST CONSECUTIVE SEASONS, 30+ POINTS PER GAME ALLOWED

8: Rice
8: Tulane

7: New Mexico State
7:
Utah State

4: Eastern Michigan
4: UAB
4: UL Lafayette
4: Washington State

3: Houston
3:
UNLV

Not exactly the best company to keep. Only two of those schools – Houston and Rice – have played in a bowl game in the last six years. The Cajuns have a couple 6-6s sandwiched between 3-9 seasons during their run of defensive disarray.

New coach Mark Hudspeth has some good history, from winning big at Division II North Alabama to solid work the last two seasons as an assistant at Mississippi State. His was a low-risk, high-reward hire for a program that at its best in the last decade has tread water in the irrelevant end of the Division I pool.

It’s just going to take a little while to turn things around, and priority No. 1 will be fixing the defense. Until that happens, don’t expect UL Lafayette to gain much traction.

No. 117 NEW MEXICO

The Lobos began last season by yielding 72 points to Oregon and ended it by absorbing a 66-spot from Texas Christian.

In between, when they weren’t playing teams that recorded perfect regular seasons, they gave up “only” 39.4 points a game.

Much like their fellows from across the state, New Mexico wasn’t good at much of anything. It was 104th or worse in all but three categories – kickoff returns (for which the Lobos got plenty of in-game practice), sacks allowed and pass defense. Of course, when opponents could run for 250 yards on average each week, what sort of incentive could there be to pass?

For all the capital coach Mike Locksley rightfully built as an ace recruiter at Maryland, Florida and Illinois, much of it has evaporated during a tumultuous 1-11 season to start his career and a more pedestrian (though no more successful) 1-11 sophomore campaign to back it up. Coaches generally don’t get to hang around more than three years if they average 10 losses a season (Paul Wulff at Washington State is a bit of an exception), so Locksley is on the spot this fall.

Locksley’s reputation as a recruiter isn’t exactly tarnished; he’s attracted some intriguing talent to Albuquerque. But without some obvious progress, it could be someone else’s task in 2012 to get the Lobos back into bowl contention.

No. 116 EASTERN MICHIGAN

It wouldn’t be a true opening entry of a college football countdown without the downtrodden Eagles.

Kragthorpian refugee Ron English enjoyed some progress in Year Two, jumping from 0-12 to 2-10. Of course, the Eagles also allowed 40 points on seven occasions.

Most noticeably, they limped into the offseason on the wrong end of a 71-3 beatdown at the hands of Northern Illinois. That was a large margin by even Eastern Michigan standards; it had last lost by at least 68 in a 1905 tussle against noted football behemoth Olivet.

Although there isn’t much reason to believe there’s enough talent in place for the Eagles to secure their first .500 season since 1995, they do get to enjoy a rather delectable home schedule. Howard and Alabama State come calling in the season’s first two weeks, and three of the four other visitors (Akron, Ball State and Buffalo) combined to haul in seven victories last season.

Thus, there’s a chance the Eagles can again bump up their win total by two. But (this is getting to be a refrain, isn’t it?) if the defense doesn’t take a few steps forward, Eastern Michigan won’t be that much closer to a long-awaited move to the middle of the MAC.

Patrick Stevens

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