Time to close out the Mid-American Conference and mention the team with the greatest per game yardage deficit that nonetheless made a bowl game last year. No, those teams are not the same …
70. NORTHERN ILLINOIS
There’s generally two sorts of coaches who win 10 games in the Mid-American Conference.
There are those who stick around and see what happens next. And those who bolt as soon as they can for greener pastures.
Over the last decade, Tom Amstutz, Joe Novak and Gregg Brandon stuck around and presided over gradual regressions and ignominious ends.
Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, Brady Hoke, Terry Hoeppner and Mike Haywood all scooted away for better gigs, with Kelly and Hoke hopscotching to blueblood gigs with their ensuing jump.
Add Jerry Kill, who left Northern Illinois for Minnesota, to the second list. And while he leaves behind only bits of the defense that thrived the last three years, much of the offense that produced better per-game rushing totals than even the halcyon days of Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe is still in place for first-year coach Dave Doeren.
That includes a quarterback (Chandler Harnish) who threw for 2,500 yards, ran for 800 more and accounted for 28 touchdowns as the Huskies went 11-3 last year.
Out of all those successful coaches leaving, this one sort of resembles Kelly’s departure. He left behind a great quarterback (Dan LeFevour) who Jones turned into a 28-13 record the next three years. Harnish won’t be around quite so long (he’s a senior), but he should fuel the Huskies’ offense enough to keep them at or near the top of the MAC this fall.
There’s no bowl results yet to speak of during the David Cutcliffe years, but the man has brought something not seen much in Durham: A relatively steady offense.
Duke has rolled up 20 points a game in each of Cutcliffe’s three seasons, the first such run for the Blue Devils since 1987-92. That, of course, was when Steve Spurrier plied his trade at Duke (and set up a roster with at least some decent offensive options for his immediate successor).
This isn’t a surprise, of course; Cutcliffe has a long history of knowing what he’s doing on offense. Assuming Sean Renfree emerges a bit wiser from his up-and-down first year as a starting quarterback, the Blue Devils should be able to score enough to keep things interesting.
And they’ll need to, because the defense requires work. A lot of work. The national rankings from last year bear it out – 96th against the pass, 108th in pass efficiency defense and total defense, 109th in scoring defense and tackles for loss, 113th in sacks and against the run. Blech.
Playing Alabama didn’t help those numbers, nor will facing Stanford be of much use to the Duke defense this year.
The Blue Devils went 3-1 when they scored at least 34 points; they went 0-8 against the rest of their schedule, failing to crack 21 points in any of those setbacks. With a defense that has to come a long way just to be respectable, it’ll be on Renfree (and wideouts Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner) to keep Duke in the chase for six wins. The more interesting their performance is, the more competitive Cutcliffe’s latest team will be.
The Orange took an admirable step in the win column in 2010, as Doug Marrone continued constructing out of the rubble left for him by a coach Syracuse fans would no doubt prefer to refer to as “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” (For the record, his name was Greg Robinson).
Almost overnight, Marrone reset the Orange defense from laughable to livable, then moved it into laudable territory last fall. Syracuse ranked in the top 10 nationally in both passing and total defense, and allowed less than 20 points a game.
Some of that was a function of doubling up on lower-division opponents (hello, Maine and Colgate), plus drilling another school (Akron) that was a top-level foe in name only. But there was legitimate progress, and while graduation wiped out part of the unit, the Orange should still be decent defensively.
Now, the troublesome part. The offense is better than when He Who Shall Not Be Named (except when he was a few paragraphs ago) wore the big headset in the Dome. But better should not be confused with “good.”
Syracuse was outgained in six of its last seven regular season games, going 3-4 in the process. Only three times all season did the Orange scale the 350-yard barrier – at feeble Akron, against overmatched Colgate and in the Pinstripe Bowl against Kansas State (more on the Wildcats shortly).
With the defense likely to regress some and Marrone not handed a month to prepare like he did for Kansas State, it’s going to take more improvement than is likely on offense for Syracuse to approach last year’s eight-win season.
The schedule remains favorable enough (four winnable nonconference dates plus four home games in league play) for a bowl bid, but the Orange might take a step backward before it continues chugging ahead.
One of four teams nationally schedule to play every game on an artificial surface (Akron, Bowling Green and Florida International are the others), the Warriors are set to embark on a four-month odyssey that seems oh-so-familiar.
Hawaii will score points in bunches. Its defense will get torched by the best teams on its schedule. It will finish in the top half of the Western Athletic Conference. And it will play in its home stadium in the postseason, most likely against a Conference USA opponent.
For overall season arc, there might not be a more predictable team than Hawaii. Since 2006, the Warriors are 6-14 against power conference foes plus Boise State and Notre Dame, and 40-10 against everyone else. Three of those five seasons were completed in the Hawaii Bowl.
And so a similar arc will be followed this year. The Warriors will do no better than split their first two games (at home against Colorado and at Washington). Quarterback Bryant Moniz will help make up for major offensive losses, and the defense will look a lot better simply because it doesn’t have to face Matt Barkley or Kellen Moore this season.
Hawaii will leave the WAC after this season, and has a chance to depart with a conference crown. Bank on at least eight or nine wins (maybe even double digits), and a Christmas Eve date to finish things out.
66. KANSAS STATE
While coaches like to say yardage total can be vastly overstated, a team that is substantially outgained and still winds up in the postseason is a little suspect, no?
There’s no taking away those six-plus wins, but there’s little reason to harp on that success heading into the next season.
Enter Kansas State.
WORST YARDAGE MARGIN PER GAME, 2010 BOWL TEAM
-66.9: Kansas State (7-6)
-52.2: Texas-El Paso (6-7)
-41.2: East Carolina (6-7)
-41.0: Connecticut (8-5)
-35.3: Northwestern (7-6)
-27.3: Ohio (8-5)
-22.4: Washington (7-6)
-18.4: Tennessee (6-7)
-15.0: Middle Tennessee (6-7)
-10.6: Boston College (7-6)
In nine of their last 10 games, the Wildcats were outgained. They beat Texas despite a deficit of more than 140 yards. They played Baylor to a five-point game despite a hole of more than 270 yards. It was like they were the second coming of 2006 Maryland (and, indeed, last year’s Wildcats and the opportunistic ‘06 Terrapins had the same defensive coordinator: Chris Cosh).
As for where more yardage will come from this year, it will have to be produced by a new starting quarterback, a new starting tailback and a new No. 1 receiver.
Kansas State has a couple chumps to open up with (Eastern Kentucky and Kent State), in the proud Bill Snyder tradition. Chasing down four wins elsewhere is also plausible.
Still, it’s difficult to envision a team that was so porous against the run and breaking in so many new key offensive pieces (even if one if former uber-recruit Bryce Brown) doing as well as last year even with the efficient Snyder calling the shots. K-State was fortunate to get to seven wins last year; it’s unlikely they’ll be so lucky again in 2011.