Most anyone is going to rank a lot of SEC teams in the top 25 this preseason.
That’s going to present trouble for the teams in that league that aren’t quite top-25 material – including two teams in today’s segment.
So long as you’re grading on a curve, Kentucky has to be considered a moderate success story over the last five years.
First under Rich Brooks and now Joker Phillips, the Wildcats have rattled off five bowl appearances and a 36-29 record over the last five years. They’ve beaten the likes of Clemson and Florida State (granted, it was suspension-depleted Florida State) in the postseason, and managed to muster up a fairly entertaining offense against the inherent odds in the SEC in three of those seasons.
Oh, and about the SEC …
KENTUCKY vs. SEC FOES, 2006-2010 (14-26)
Arkansas: 2-0 (1.000)
Vanderbilt: 4-1 (.800)
Auburn: 1-1 (.500)
Louisiana State: 1-1 (.500)
Mississippi: 1-1 (.500)
Georgia: 2-3 (.400)
Mississippi State: 2-3 (.400)
South Carolina: 1-4 (.200)
Florida: 0-5 (.000)
Tennessee: 0-5 (.000)
Alabama: 0-2 (.000)
Kentucky beat up on Vanderbilt like it should have, and managed almost an even split with the SEC West in that span (7-8). Oh, and they went 22-3 in nonconference play, and have not dropped a regular season game out of the league since 2006 (Louisville).
From a historical perspective, Kentucky’s a little better against the SEC during this run, but it’s the nonconference work that keeps getting the Wildcats into lower-tier bowls. If they can achieve another manageable sweep (Western Kentucky, Central Michigan, Louisville and Jacksonville State), look for them to pop up in the postseason again even though their offensive skill position starters are almost all new.
If the looming season arc seems familiar to Boilermakers fans, that’s because they saw it just last year.
Purdue had a manageable first half and went 4-2. Maybe the loss to Toledo was a mild surprise, but then so was a victory at Northwestern. It balanced out.
Then came the tailspin, a six-game skid precipitated by a 49-0 pounding at Ohio State.
This year, a 4-1 start is more than plausible (the lone projected loss against Notre Dame) before the realities of Big Ten play set in. By the time the finale against Indiana arrives, all hope could be lost.
Realistically, though, this should be a slightly better bunch this fall. Not necessarily great, but it will certainly be a veteran group. It also didn’t completely fold down the stretch, playing competitively in its last two games. Even after losing star defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, the defense could be good enough to lead Purdue to a bowl game after a three-season hiatus.
The best argument against the fickleness of turnover margin emanates from the home of Rebel Black Bear:
MOST CONSECUTIVE SEASONS WITH NEGATIVE TURNOVER MARGINS, ACTIVE
6: Fresno State
6: New Mexico State
4: Washington State
3: San Diego State
3: Texas A&M
A lot of the programs on that list are there for obvious reasons, which can generally be boiled down to the following phrase: “Bad team does bad things.”
Mississippi was guilty of that to some extent as well (see: the Ed Orgeron era), but two things stand out here: Not only did the Rebels manage a couple nine-win seasons with a negative turnover margin, their year-to-year margin landed between minus-2 and minus-7 all but once.
Is this the team to break that streak – or at least bounce back from a 4-8 season? The offense, minus rent-a-quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and leading receiver Markeith Summers, returns. The defense, average against the run and feeble against the pass, must replace almost the entire front seven.
The conference schedule will help; Kentucky and Vanderbilt are among the cross-division games. But Ole Miss must deal with an opener against Brigham Young and a trip to notorious power conference graveyard Fresno State.
There might be enough for Houston Nutt to muster up a half-dozen victories, but not much more. The Rebels are pretty clearly the least promising team in the SEC West.
62. SAN DIEGO STATE
At long last, the Aztecs’ 12-year bowl drought – spanning four coaches – came to an end in 2010. Then Brady Hoke, who guided San Diego State to a 9-4 mark, left for Michigan.
In his place is Mountain West stalwart Rocky Long, who spent nearly a decade at New Mexico. He also gets back a 1,500-yard rusher and a quarterback with nearly 4,000 yards last year. But there’s next-to-no experience at wideout, and that was going to be a major question entering the season even before two receivers were lost to injury recently.
“We don’t see it as a big blow because we had inexperienced receivers anyway,” Long sagely told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
In any case, there’s enough left over for the Aztecs to return to a bowl game. The first three games are plenty winnable, and the second half of the schedule includes the toughest tests (Boise State and Fresno State) at home.
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if San Diego State was merely a one-year flash or is actually ready to take its logical spot near the top of the Mountain West. This season will go quite a ways in answering that concern.
The Wolf Pack have been rock solid for years, rattling off consistent regular seasons often followed by a postseason loss. From 2005 to 2009, their regular-season win totals were as follows: 8-8-6-7-8.
Then came last season, when blessed with a NFL-caliber quarterback who happened to be a senior (Colin Kaepernick) and a workhorse running back (Vai Taua), Nevada rolled up a 13-1 record that included an improbable defeat of Boise State and a 20-13 victory over Boston College in a bowl game.
Now comes the inevitable regression. The Wolf Pack won’t be quite so good, though they were so effective on offense pre-Kaepernick that scoring shouldn’t be much of a problem. The greater worry is if the defense slides back any, even with seven starters coming back.
The first priority will be surviving a brutal opening. Nevada’s first four games are on the road (including trips to Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State), with a return home coming Oct. 8 when in-state rival UNLV comes calling. It’s hardly the way to break in a new quarterback, whoever it turns out to be (perhaps senior Tyler Lantrip, he of 23 career passing attempts).
But once that scorching stretch is over, Nevada has a real chance to settle in and make a run at a Western Athletic Conference crown before leaving for the Mountain West next year. Hawaii and Fresno State both visit Reno, and combined with the leftover talent (especially a stout offensive line) that should make Nevada the league favorite even if it winds up back in the eight-win territory where it usually resides.