The countdown moves along with some power conference doormats and two other teams that could slip into bowl games under the right circumstances …
90. WASHINGTON STATE
The long road back to respectability continues in Pullman, which thanks to postseason appearances by Baylor and Washington last season is now home to the second-longest bowl drought among power conference schools. In all of major college football, the Cougars have cracked the top 10:
LONGEST ACTIVE MAJOR-COLLEGE BOWL DROUGHTS (WITH LAST APPEARANCE NOTED)
1960: New Mexico State
1970: UL Lafayette
1972: Kent State
1987: Eastern Michigan
1997: Utah State
2003: Washington State
2004: North Texas
2005: Arkansas State
None (First year D-1): UL Monroe (1994), Western Kentucky (2009)
In 2001, Wazzu began a run of three straight 10-win seasons. The Cougars have won 25 games in the seven years since, and they bottomed out with spectacularly terrible teams in 2008 and 2009. Last year’s record didn’t look much better (2-10), yet Washington State was still competitive and even had a net scoring margin of plus-3 in its last three games.
So, are the Cougars ready to take a major step forward? Well … probably not. Initially, at least, life in the Pac-12 North is going to be a brute. Oregon and Stanford are conference contenders, Washington has made significant strides under Steve Sarkisian and California can usually be counted upon to be decent.
All those teams should be capable of feasting on a defense that has yet to graduate to “moderately effective.” For three straight years, the Cougars have been trampled for more than 200 rushing yards a game, and that’s a problem for which there is no easy fix.
It’s hard to figure out how to evaluate coach Paul Wulff, who inherited a dreadful situation and is 5-32 in three seasons. He’ll be on a ton of hot seat lists entering the season, and understandably so. But this rebuilding project remains an intense one, and a four-win season (with Idaho State and UNLV and somehow two others along the way) would constitute progress. The postseason drought, though, will almost certainly continue.
Former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin burnished his credentials as both a rising star in his profession and as a football survivor in December, snagging the Vanderbilt job when it became clear new Terrapins athletic director Kevin Anderson wasn’t going to be encumbered by the coach-in-waiting deal he inherited in College Park.
So it was off to Nashville for Franklin, who will try to do what so many have failed to accomplish for the Commodores: Make them remotely relevant in the SEC.
The early returns are favorable. Franklin, ever the recruiting ace, is attracting national attention already as he pieces together his first full class. That’s to his credit, especially since no one else has managed to do the same in, say, the last 50 years (if ever).
So the long term has some promise. But Franklin will be playing with much the same deck as Robbie Caldwell did in 2010, and quite a similar one to the one Bobby Johnson had at his disposal in 2009. And with those decks, Vanderbilt managed a pair of twos – as in two-win seasons.
The Commodores’ offense hasn’t been good since Jay Cutler was running for his life from monster defensive linemen in 2005, and really hasn’t come close to being adequate since 2007 (a stretch of the definition of “adequate,” to be sure). Vanderbilt hasn’t managed an average of 20 points in the last three seasons, topped 300 yards a game (barely) just once in that time and checked in with a completion percentage below 50 percent all three years.
In short, the offense has stunk, and a ton of returning starters doesn’t really fix that problem. This was a team that scored 13 points in its finale against Wake Forest, which was letting any program of substance with both a non-option offense and a remotely aggressive offensive coordinator (sorry, Boston College) to mercilessly shred it last season.
Franklin’s recruiting prowess won’t fix those woes this fall (and, given a realistic timetable of getting help from new guys, it’s not smart to bank on a major breakthrough in 2012, either). Vanderbilt fans can be excited for the future, but they should be thankful if the Commodores escape the SEC East basement in 2011.
88. LOUISIANA TECH
For those who pine for the days when the Western Athletic Conference was populated with teams featuring explosive offenses and suspect defenses, Louisiana Tech is an ideal bunch to follow.
OK, so the Bulldogs weren’t the greatest offense a year ago, but it was Year One under passing game impresario Sonny Dykes. Louisiana Tech will be better on that side of the ball this year.
But will the Bulldogs bother to defend the pass? That’s trickier, though Boise State’s ascension to the Mountain West will provide a modest statistical bump on its own.
A fairly average number of starters return from a team that looks like it could be a fairly average team in the WAC as its presently constituted (and a title contender with how the WAC will be constituted in 2012). It’ll be no shock, then, if the Bulldogs go to a perfectly unremarkable bowl game, perhaps chasing down an at-large berth when another conference cannot fill its postseason quota.
On a game-by-game basis, it could be an interesting team to take a look at if they happen to be on TV. Overall, though, Louisiana Tech looks like it’s ticketed for a run-of-the-mill season within a game of .500 in either direction.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. A decade ago, Frank Solich had gone 22-3 with a pair of bowl victories and national top-10 finishes in his previous two years at Nebraska. He enters this season as the owner of more games coached at his current school than any other Mid-American Conference sideline czar.
Well, it’s probably not funny for Solich, who hasn’t won a bowl game since 2000 but has turned Ohio into a fairly stable program (though not one impervious to the usual ebbs and flows of a program far from major college football’s mainstream).
The Bobcats head into the season as either a favorite or co-favorite to collect the MAC’s East Division (how that’s viewed depends on whether the return of all five starters on Ohio’s offensive line is more impressive than Miami-Ohio bringing back the bulk of its solid defense). Odds are, they’re looking at a third straight bowl berth and the fourth in Solich’s tenure.
One curious name to keep an eye on: Sophomore quarterback Tyler Tettleton, whose surname is one that should ring a bell for baseball fans of a certain age in the Baltimore-Washington corridor (Mickey is his dad). He emerged in the spring as a contender for the starting job, and there isn’t an incumbent who played much last year under center.
One last thing: Should Tettleton enjoy a solid year, some scribe in Athens had better ask whether Froot Loops are providing some of the fuel.
It’s not fair to assert Kevin Wilson committed career suicide by taking the Indiana job. That said. …
MOST CONSECUTIVE COACHES TO LEAVE WITH LOSING RECORDS, BCS CONFERENCES*
12: Indiana (Smith, Crimmins, Hicks, Dickens, Pont, Corso, Wyche, Mallory, Cameron, DiNardo, Hoeppner, Lynch)
11: Wake Forest (Rogers, Amen, Hildebrand, Tate, Stoll, Harper, Mills, Mackovic, Groh, Dooley, Caldwell)
8: Kentucky (Bradshaw, Ray, Curci, Claiborne, Curry, Mumme, Morriss, Brooks)
8: Mississippi State (Walker, Davis, Shira, Tyler, Bellard, Felker, Sherrill, Croom)
8: Vanderbilt (Pancoast, MacIntyre, Brown, DiNardo, Dowhower, Widenhofer, Johnson, Caldwell)
7: Northwestern (Agase, Pont, Venturi, Green, Peay, Barnett, Walker)
5: Iowa State (Duncan, Criner, Walden, McCarney, Chizik)
*-minimum one full season
Not every former Hoosier coach was doomed. Sam Wyche took Cincinnati to the Super Bowl. Cam Cameron had an ill-fated stint with the Miami Dolphins.
Of course, arguably the most successful man of the bunch is a fellow best known now for donning a mascot head every week during college football season (Lee Corso). Needless to say, there haven’t been many successful leaders in Bloomington since Bo McMillin departed for the NFL after the 1947 season.
Wilson, the architect of Oklahoma’s offense for much of the last decade, was unlucky enough to take over at Indiana a year after the unheralded Ben Chappell moved on. Breaking in a new quarterback will be a major storyline for the Hoosiers early on.
The good news for Wilson? September is eminently winnable, with Ball State, Virginia, South Carolina State and North Texas dotting the schedule. The bad news for Wilson? His three immediate predecessors were 13-59 in Big Ten play, with a startling seven 1-7 conference marks in nine years.
The Hoosiers find themselves in a division with Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, three teams they’re a combined 2-40 against since 1993. The apparent optimal upside for Indiana, both this fall and for the foreseeable future, is fourth in its division. Convincing people that isn’t true will be just as difficult a task for Wilson as actually attracting talent to a rare basketball school in the Big Ten.