A great question in compiling the annual college football countdown is what precisely to do with the top team or two in the Sun Belt.
Whoever it is will likely win eight or nine games, but historically speaking, it doesn’t necessarily put a team in the top half of the sport.
Take Troy, the unquestioned titan of the Sun Belt with a 32-5 league mark over the last five years. Out-of-conference, though, the Trojans are 9-18, including victories over Alabama State, Rice, Oklahoma State, Western Kentucky (twice, pre-Sun Belt), Alcorn State, UAB, Bowling Green and Ohio. The eye-catching win in there – the victory in 2007 over Oklahoma State – is best remembered for yielding the anecdote that set off Mike Gundy’s memorable “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant the next week.
So it’s a puzzler. With solid seasons likely in the offing, both Troy and Florida International belong far from triple-digit territory. Landing in this interval seems just about right.
With a little help from Phil Steele, the programs with the fewest home losses since 2001:
2: Boise State (63-2)
2: Oklahoma (61-2)
6: Troy (41-6)
7: Ohio State (64-7)
7: Texas Christian (51-7)
8: Southern California (52-8)
9: Texas (52-9)
9: Utah (49-9)
10: Louisiana State (61-10)
11: Virginia Tech (57-11)
11: Texas Tech (51-11)
12: Florida (54-12)
12: Iowa (54-12)
12: Georgia (51-12)
Now the problem: The Trojans play arguably the four most difficult games on their 2011 schedule – Clemson, Arkansas, Florida International and Navy – on the road.
Troy showed a bit of vulnerability even last season, falling twice in Sun Belt play for the first time since 2005 before ultimately winning the conference (again) and the New Orleans Bowl (for the second time in five years). Its defense should be better; last year’s group included a ton of new contributors, and potent pash-rusher Jonathan Massaquoi returns after a 13.5-sack season.
The offense, oddly enough for the Trojans, has a few extra question marks. Quarterback Corey Robinson is back; his top three targets and three of his starting offensive linemen from a year ago are not.
Troy won’t experience a North Texas-like fall from grace any time soon and should be counted upon to remain a fixture in the Sun Belt race for some time to come. But that doesn’t mean the Trojans will win the league every year. This fall, they might just tumble to second as Florida International (which won at Troy last year) attempts to continue its surge.
79. WESTERN MICHIGAN
If the Broncos wind up winning the Mid-American Conference, don’t say you weren’t warned that a 6-6 team from a year ago was poised to make a bit of a jump.
While others might see a .500 team, it isn’t hard to dig into Western Michigan’s results and see a growing team.
The Broncos won their six games by an average margin of 32.3 points, with each victory coming by at least 15 points. They led Central Michigan by nine entering the fourth quarter, but lost 26-22. They gave up a go-ahead touchdown to Northern Illinois (which went 11-3) in the last four minutes of a 28-21 loss.
Finish off those games, and Western completes the season with a six-game winning streak. Well, the regular season, since the Broncos could have gone to a bowl at 8-4. At 6-6, they stayed home.
One other thing: They bring back a quarterback who tossed for 30 touchdowns (Alex Carder) and a receiver with more than 1,300 yards (Jordan White). OK, one more other thing: More than half their starters are back on both sides of the ball.
Western Michigan is unfortunate in that Toledo and Northern Illinois are in its division, and the Broncos must pay a visit to both. But it would come as no shock if Bill Cubit’s team makes a league title push (and perhaps even knocks off Illinois or Connecticut along the way).
78. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
The Golden Panthers showed signs early of being far more capable than its immediate predecessors. Florida International shut down a flaccid Rutgers offense before falling. It managed a four-turnover advantage at Texas A&M that nearly earned it a stunning victory. And it badgered Maryland in a seemingly never-ending game, aggravating the Terps well into the second half.
The payoff came later: A victory at Troy and a Little Caesars Bowl defeat of Ohio. Perhaps never before was a team so pleased to spend Christmas in Detroit.
But the good news doesn’t end there. The Golden Panthers bring back much of an offense that was by far the program’s most effective since moving up to the sport’s highest level in 2005. The defense was a bit pedestrian, but that can happen when you’re stuck paying athletic department bills with a month-long barnstorming tour to open the season.
Those problems ease substantially in 2011. Yes, the Golden Panthers visit Louisville. They also get Central Florida and Duke at home and make a competitively manageable trip to Akron.
Not yet mentioned but quite significant is that Florida International is, indeed, in Florida. Mario Cristobal warrants credit as he enters his fifth season of finding quality players in his area and growing the Golden Panthers into the Sun Belt contenders they should be considering their proximity to talent.
Florida International shared a league title with Troy last year, in the process winning nearly as many Sun Belt games (six) as they did in the previous four seasons combined (seven). Receiver T.Y. Hilton, who had nearly 850 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards, is a valuable weapon as Florida International seeks an outright conference crown.
Take note Maryland fans: Given time, Kevin Anderson did make the right football hire when he was at Army.
Rich Ellerson was the second football coach Anderson hired during his stint at West Point. The first, Stan Brock, was elevated after Bobby Ross retired in late January 2007, and promptly pieced together consecutive 3-9 seasons before his ouster. Ellerson, a triple-option maestro, has since gone 5-7 and 7-6 – even collecting Army’s first bowl win since 1985.
What the Black Knights would really like to do, though, is beat Navy – something that hasn’t happened since 2001. Chances are, that goal will have to wait another year.
What won’t, though, is the chance to bust through for another bowl berth. The schedule is littered with opponents who, while tricky, aren’t likely to make a run at a 10-win season or pop up in the national rankings (Northwestern, which comes to Michie Stadium in September, is arguably the most daunting).
Quarterback Trent Steelman (11 rushing touchdowns, 7 passing touchdowns) returns this season, so the offense is in capable hands. But last year’s plus-16 turnover margin is unlikely to be maintained, meaning progress will need to come from somewhere other than good fortune.
Still, Ellerson’s pushed the right buttons so far at Army; he’s the first Black Knights coach to win a dozen games in his first two years since Tom Cahill went 16-4 in 1966-67. That doesn’t guarantee a breakthrough victory in the game that matters most at West Point, but Army should still continue to make strides this fall.
The Scarlet Knights will go ahead and test the value of experience, particularly with their running game. Yes, much of the offensive line will be back as camp assembles in Piscataway next month. But for a team that couldn’t effectively run last year, does it matter.
Two tidbits – beyond simply the 110th-ranked rushing offense in the land – demonstrate just how much Rutgers struggled to control the line of scrimmage. One, after predictably throttling Norfolk State in their opener, the Scarlet Knights averaged 85.7 rushing yards a game last season. Two, Rutgers had minus-9 rushing yards against Cincinnati in mid-November; this against a Bearcats team that allowed more than 230 rushing yards in three of its final four games.
In fairness to the Scarlet Knights, they lost 69-38 to Cincinnati; the rushing game was far from the only problem that day and wouldn’t have been a factor in the second half even if it did work. Nonetheless, it was anything but a strength last season.
The defense was middle-of-the-road nationally, which means it was at or near the back of the pack by Big East standards. It, too, needs a fix if Rutgers can make a push.
There are two snippets of good news. One, the Scarlet Knights play just four true road games (there’s a date at Yankee Stadium against Army as well). Two, offering a bit of improvement could mean a leap back to the middle of the Big East without much trouble. Louisville underwent significant turnover, Syracuse’s offense isn’t yet potent enough to prevent a regression and Cincinnati also went through a down year in 2009.
In short, this ranking probably represents the floor for Rutgers. Of course, if its running game doesn’t advance, the Scarlet Knights could wind up with a worst-case result.