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College Football Countdown: Nos. 81-85

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This segment of the countdown begins with a team last seen trudging out of RFK Stadium under bittersweet conditions.

No, no, no. It’s still quite a bit early to mention Maryland in the countdown.

The Terps’ opponent in the Military Bowl last December? Not so much …

85. EAST CAROLINA

To say defense was a trouble spot for East Carolina in 2010 is like saying the Titanic suffered damage when it collided with an iceberg. While true, it doesn’t begin to cover the dichotomy between a potent offense and a defense that wasn’t particularly good to begin with and, once ravaged by injuries, surrendered at least 42 points in each of its last six games.

It was truly ridiculous territory. East Carolina allowed Navy to score eight times (six TDs, two field goals) on 38 offensive snaps in the second half of a 76-35 loss. It gave up 62 points to Rice, which topped 34 points on only one other occasion. And it is still probably seeing Da’Rel Scott scoot away in the second half of the Military Bowl.

Indeed, the Pirates dropped anchor in the port of (Ron) Prince with their performance last season; since 2000, only three teams have posted losing records despite averaging 35 points: 2007 Kansas State, 2010 East Carolina and 2010 Houston. The company of teams that have been outgained despite averaging 34 points over the last 11 seasons is even more select: 2008 Kansas State and 2010 East Carolina.

These are the sorts of issues that don’t disappear overnight (though in fairness, Kansas State was 39th in total defense and 46th in scoring defense the year after Prince’s head coaching throne was usurped). To be sure, even if East Carolina makes a ton of progress, the high-flyin’ offenses of Conference USA will provide a statistical counterweight.

It’s a good thing, then, that Mike Leach disciple Lincoln Riley runs the East Carolina offense, which remains in Dominique Davis‘ capable hands for another season. What isn’t so good is a nonconference schedule featuring South Carolina, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Navy.

The Pirates couldn’t survive in shootouts as last fall progressed, so its defense will need to be modestly better – at minimum – if there is any chance of reaching the postseason for the sixth straight season.

84. MIAMI (OHIO)

Ah, the fleeting magic of turnover margin. A year after posting a horrific minus-24 turnover margin, Miami turned it around and finished at plus-11 in 2010.

It was the RedHawks’ first season in the black in turnover margin since 2005. And what do you know? It was their first winning season in that span as well.

The Miami defense returns most of its top players, and its best qualities – a strong pass rush and better than average work against the run – look sustainable. But the offense is far from overwhelming, with a minimal rushing attack to build upon. The RedHawks went 10-4 despite being outscored 325-302.

Take out losses to Cincinnati, Florida and Missouri, and Miami held a 274-195 scoring edge against more comparable competition. That’s solid, and it’s plenty reason to think the the RedHawks will contend for a division title with Ohio and Temple.

Still, some bounces are bound to go against Miami after such a wild swing in turnover margin from 2009 to 2010. The first season under former Michigan State assistant Don Treadwell should be a decent one, but it would be a stretch to anticipate another 10-win season.

83. FRESNO STATE

As surely as the sun rises in the east, traffic snarls the clogged roadways of the nation’s capital and the entertainment industry churns out films and TV shows featuring vampires, Fresno State knocks off opponents from larger conferences but cannot upend the heavyweights in its own league.

Just over the last four seasons, the Bulldogs defeated Kansas State, Rutgers, UCLA, Illinois (times two) and Cincinnati, while pushing Texas A&M and Wisconsin to multiple overtimes on the road. Yet Fresno is a good-but-not-great 32-20 in that span, with a 1-3 mark in bowl games (the win was over a listless Georgia Tech team playing without fired coach Chan Gailey in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl).

The Bulldogs’ primary antagonist in it all is Boise State, who skipped out to the Mountain West a year before Fresno, Nevada and Hawaii will do the same. Thus, 2011 should be a respite for Pat Hill’s team, though alas, they still have to play Boise (and pay a visit to both Nevada and Hawaii).

Those conference road games are awfully pesky for Fresno, which invariably suffers an unexpected stumble along the way even as it draws attention for a noteworthy victory.

The Boise-less WAC is down, so there is an opening for the Bulldogs to haul home a conference crown before departing for more stable (and competitive) surroundings. But history – not to mention a fairly inexperienced offensive line – will probably mean fans in the Valley will have to be happy with a victory over California or Mississippi (if not both).

82. MINNESOTA

“You’re not following Vince Lombardi here.  This is a situation where, you know what, somebody can come in and win some games and people are going to feel good about him and they win a few more games and they’re going to feel really good about him.  And if we go to the Rose Bowl, we might even put a statue of them outside of TCF Bank Stadium.”Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, Oct. 17, 2010

Maturi made that particular comment during a press conference to announce the firing of Tim Brewster. The dismissal wasn’t difficult to quibble with; he was 15-30 in three-plus seasons, got outgained by 60 yards a contest even in the two years the Golden Gophers made token bowl appearances and managed to lose to both North Dakota State and South Dakota during his tenure.

Indeed, the Lombardi of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Brewster was not.

While it’s always fun to hear such honesty from an athletic director, even if it wasn’t particularly graceful, it’s actually the latter half of Maturi’s quote that is more intriguing from afar. While he didn’t come out and admit there’s probably a limit on what the Golden Gophers’ program can consistent accomplish (history takes care of that for him), he certainly acknowledged a Big Ten title would constitute a rare occurrence in Minneapolis.

Minnesota will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its last Rose Bowl team this season. Since then, the program’s best run came during Glen Mason’s 10-year stint from 1997 to 2006. He was 64-57 and piled up seven bowl berths, but diminishing returns led to staleness and disinterest – and Maturi making a hire he would later quite publicly disparage.

In steps Jerry Kill, who trails only Arkansas State’s Hugh Freeze among this year’s coaching hires in delightful pun possibilities. He won’t have experience at quarterback (four-year starter Adam Weber is gone), but the defense should at least improve a bit.

Kill possesses an excellent reputation, having won at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. Though it might take a couple years to get the Gophers back to a bowl, Kill probably will. But don’t get a sculptor on speed dial any time soon; Minnesota has won more than eight games once in the last 105 years, and that’s a ceiling even Lombardi would have struggled to break through.

81. IOWA STATE

The vultures circled the Big 12 after poachers from the Big Ten and Pac-10 collected their quarry last summer, only for an agreement backed by TV networks to salvage the conference before it was thoroughly dismembered.

The winner, of course, was Texas. It was always going to be Texas. The losers under any scenario would also be the same: The leftover teams from the league’s North Division, who were already abandoned by Colorado and Nebraska.

One of the four survivors, Missouri, clearly would have done just about anything to escape to the Big Ten. But the Tigers are probably better equipped to thrive in the long term in a league now tilting toward the Lone Star State. Iowa State (as well as the Kansas schools) can only hope to be so fortunate.

IOWA STATE RECORDS VS. BIG 12 OPPONENTS, 1996-PRESENT

Baylor: 5-3 (.625)
Kansas: 6-9 (.400)
Missouri: 6-9 (.400)
Oklahoma State: 3-5 (.375)
Texas Tech: 2-5 (.286)
Kansas State: 3-12 (.200)
Texas: 1-6 (.143)
Texas A&M: 1-7 (.125)
Oklahoma: 0-7 (.000)

While the Cyclones won’t miss facing Nebraska (3-12) and Colorado (4-11), they still could be counted upon to snag a victory here and there while facing the Huskers and Buffaloes every year. That 2-20 mark against Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma (which includes a defeat of Mack Brown’s worst Longhorns outfit last year) is particularly forbidding now that Iowa State (like the rest of the North) gets a full blast of the league’s southern teams rather than deal with only three a season.

The nonconference slate doesn’t help, either, with in-state rival Iowa coming to town and a trip to Connecticut on tap as well. All this for a team possessing questions at quarterback and coming off a season in which opponents rolled up a 90-yards-a-game edge.

Paul Rhoads managed a 12-13 mark in his first two seasons, which is solid considering what he inherited. The yardage data suggests that’s an accomplishment, though some other stats (4-4 in single-digit games and 1-7 against ranked opponents) hints he’s done about what he should have without managing anything remarkable. Still, things aren’t going to get any easier from here out at the Big 12’s northernmost outpost, and pushing .500 would make this a more-than-solid season in Ames.

Patrick Stevens

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