College Football Countdown: Nos. 111-115

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After a motley mix of five conferences in the first portion of the annual countdown, here’s some more traditional fare for the first few segments.

Namely, representatives from the Sun Belt and Mid-American conferences.

Yes, it’s predictable. It also reflects the resource divide in major college football.

Onward, then …

No. 115 AKRON

The Zips averted living up to their name with a defeat of Buffalo in their 2010 finale, in the processing avoiding the program’s first winless season since 1942.

So, that’s the good news. The bad news is Akron still lost 11 games on coach Rob Ianello’s debut, including an overtime loss to Gardner-Webb, and trotted out an offense limited to 14 points or less on seven occasions. The 2010 Zips would generously be described as well below average.

It was an odd spot for a decidedly nondescript program to land. The Zips spent most of the previous decade producing somewhere between four and seven wins before a 3-9 mark in 2009 led to a coaching change. Then the wheels truly fell off the wagon last fall in the wake of the transition.

Over the long haul, Akron has some things going in its favor. Its location places it in proximity to enough talent, and it has a new stadium that a 1-11 team predictably came nowhere close to filling last fall. That doesn’t guarantee bowl bids by the truckload, but it certainly should place the Zips in the MAC’s middle tier, at worst.

Eventually, at least. There is some hope, considering Miami (Ohio) went from a 1-11 doormat to MAC champions last year. The Zips will be better – junior quarterback Patrick Nicely should progress with more experience around him – but a look at the postseason is probably another year away.

No. 114 WESTERN KENTUCKY

The adjustment to the college game’s highest level continues for the Hilltoppers, who at least won a couple conference games a year ago. That might not mean a lot from the outside, but Willie Taggart’s program made some progress in his first season and began its climb out of the chasm of the Sun Belt cellar.

Western Kentucky is 3-36 against major-college opponents since 2007, hardly the sort of stat that will pop up in the game notes. One thing that will, however, is tailback Bobby Rainey’s 1,649 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. His 137.4 yards a game ranked third nationally.

Of course, the Hilltoppers gave him 340 carries in just a dozen games, which unsurprisingly led the nation:

MOST CARRIES BY A MAJOR COLLEGE PLAYER, 2010

340: Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky (12 games)
334: Jordan Todman, Connecticut (13)

298: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State (13)
294: LaMichael James, Oregon (12)
290: Rodney Stewart, Colorado (12)
284: Vai Taua, Nevada (13)
282: DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma (14)
281: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois (13)
274: Lance Dunbar, North Texas (12)
269: Montel Harris, Boston College (12)
266: Ricky Dobbs, Navy (12)
264: Cam Newton, Auburn (14)

Give Taggart, formerly Stanford’s running backs coach, credit: He did an exceptional job of instilling an identity for the Hilltoppers’ offense in his first season. And that identity was running Rainey ragged; 43 percent of Western’s snaps resulted in rushes for the nationally unheralded workhorse.

There’s still plenty of work to do, but the defense graduated from dreadful to merely subpar a year ago. With Rainey in the backfield and the middle of the Sun Belt ever-fluid, the Hilltoppers could surge into the top half of the conference if things break right.

No. 113 BUFFALO

It’s funny sometimes how a man’s circumstances can change – though it isn’t always funny for that particular man.

Take Jeff Quinn. In 2009, he was the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and saw the Bearcats rank fourth in scoring offense while rolling to an undefeated regular season. Good times.

Well, Quinn didn’t get the Cincinnati gig after Brian Kelly took his coaching mojo to Notre Dame, and wound up in another town known for its mismanaged AFC team – Buffalo. And things did not go as smoothly, to the tune of the nation’s worst scoring offense and worst pass efficiency offense.

When a team ranks 100th (out of 120) or worse in eight of 17 categories measured by the NCAA, there are enough problems to go around. But the Bulls certainly could use a steady quarterback, with Jerry Davis (16 TDs, 16 INTs) and Alex Zordich (1 TD, 6 INTs) the experienced in-house options.

Like a lot of teams in this neighborhood in the countdown, Buffalo has a relatively new coach and reason to believe its long-term forecast could be sunny. It’ll take a lot of things going well, though, for those good times to arrive this fall.

No. 112 FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Aside from being a never-ending source of EDSBS mischief (for the record: Suspenders) and inching ever closer to being college football’s oldest active coach (if only that Paterno fellow would finally retire), Howard Schnellenberger still is plugging away in Boca Raton as the father and keeper of Florida Atlantic’s football program.

This year, though, could pose some dicey challenges as the Owls come off consecutive losing seasons and are probably headed for a third straight.

First of all, Florida Atlantic opens with Florida, Michigan State and Auburn (all, of course, on the road). Then, there’s a credible defense that was wiped out by graduation. And then there’s the matter of choosing between two quarterbacks who managed a combined 1-for-7 for 41 yards and an interception a year ago.

There’s also the pesky problem of the Owls probably not being quite as good as their 4-8 mark suggested last season. They won three games by a point, and lost only twice by single digits. It’s no stretch to suggest Florida Atlantic was a lot closer to going 1-11 than 6-6 in 2010.

The welcome development for Schnellenberger is the opening of an on-campus stadium after playing at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale for the better part of a decade. The Owls’ home opener is Oct. 15, and it could be a haggard, road-weary 0-5 outfit that limps into the program’s big day if a quarterback cannot emerge as an effective option.

No. 111 NORTH TEXAS

Here’s a puzzler: How does a school in the middle of Texas (with the recruiting advantages that lie therein) slog through six straight losing seasons in a league made up almost entirely of universities less than 20 years removed from elevating their programs to college football’s highest level?

It’d be easy to say hiring a high school coach to come in and run things while installing a pinball offense was the problem, though that’s seemed to work at the coordinator level elsewhere (*cough, Gus Malzahn, *cough). But it didn’t pan out well for the Mean Green, who jettisoned Todd Dodge after less than four seasons of chasing his elusive White Whale. Or, as others might call it, “Three Wins in a Year.”

Into the breach steps Dan McCarney, who took Iowa State to five bowl games in a six-season stretch (2000-2005) before a slide to 4-8 led to his ouster after the 2006 campaign. If this seemed like a bit of ingratitude, it was; the Cyclones have only one other stretch of five .500 seasons in six years (1976-81) in the last 80 years and are 17-32 since dumping McCarney.

Unlike Gene Chizik, who somehow Copperfielded his way into the Auburn job after a 5-19 run in Ames (and, to his credit, won a national title on the Plains), McCarney had to wait for his next turn wearing the Big Headset. Like Chizik, McCarney followed up time at Iowa State with a stint in the SEC – in his case, as an assistant at Florida. Nothing removes the stain of a middling final note of a head coaching stint better than working on the staff of a national title team.

McCarney is more than deserving of his second chance, and at age 58 come this year’s season opener, it may well be his last job. The path to success is obvious enough. The Mean Green must take advantage of the fact they are the only program in the nine-school Sun Belt actually inside the state of Texas, which isn’t exactly a revelation.

McCarney managed to make Iowa State a fairly consistent Big 12 irritant, though admittedly not a threat to Oklahoma and Texas, for the first half of the Aughts. That’s easier said than done. He should prove one of last offseason’s wisest hires, though no one should expect more than just incremental progress this fall.

Patrick Stevens

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