College Football Countdown: Nos. 56-60

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Getting back to things after a hiatus this week. …

60. UCLA

Rick Neuheisel is about to begin his fourth season at UCLA. And what has he accomplished to date?

* A 15-22 record

* One postseason appearance (the 2009 EagleBank Bowl against Temple)

* Three victories over ranked teams (2008 Tennessee, 2010 Houston, 2010 Texas), all of which finished 5-7 in their respective seasons

* Two victories over bowl teams (2009 Tennessee and 2009 Temple)

* An 0-3 record against crosstown rival Southern California; the Bruins scored 28 points in those three contests

The beginning of the line of culprits for last year’s 4-8 regression was a feeble passing attack, one that Neuheisel and since-departed offensive coordinator Norm Chow couldn’t solve.

Few coaches will face as much pressure to get better in a hurry than Neuheisel. He finds himself in the friendlier Pac-12 division for the short term, doesn’t have to play Oregon and Washington and now has mostly his own players in the program. Another year near the conference basement could signal the time for another change of command in Westwood.

59. CONNECTICUT

If the Huskies seem a bit like a veteran-laden basketball team that surprised all with a run to the Sweet 16, it’s understandable.

New quarterback. New workhorse back. New head coach. New coordinators.

That’s partially the price of success in Storrs, where the star tailback opted to ply his trade professionally after taking 334 carries a year ago. Randy Edsall cashed in on a Fiesta Bowl trip to land the Maryland gig. And Paul Pasqualoni, last seen on the college level being ushered out of central New York to set off the Greg Robinson Error, gets one last crack at a college coaching gig.

So what to expect? Well, the pieces are in place (especially with the hire of former Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown) for the Huskies to be an entertaining defense. The offensive line is tested, lending hope to that side of the ball.

Still … this was a team without a discernible passing attack in 2010. It got outgained by more than 40 yards a game last season. Just about everyone else in the Big East (besides Louisville and perhaps Syracuse) either should be better or at least made a coaching upgrade in the offseason.

Pasqualoni perfected the art of midpack Big East finishes, winning between six and eight games in five of his last seven years at Syracuse. That’s probably about what should be expected this season as well.

58. ILLINOIS

Hard as it is to believe, Ron Zook heads into his seventh year in Champaign.

He’s outlasted Pete Carroll and Phil Fulmer and Larry Coker and even his successor at Florida, Urban Meyer. Each won a national title.

He’s also now outlasted Illini athletic director Ron Guenther, who announced his retirement in May and offered more patience for Zook than many of his peers probably would for a man with a 28-45 record.

So even though Zook got the Illini back to the postseason last year, he’ll probably be on the spot to at least do the same with a new boss arriving on the scene.

Is it possible? Certainly. Getting Indiana and Purdue in their division and Minnesota on the schedule helps the Illini. All three of those games are on the road, which can be interpreted as either good or bad. They’ll be trickier tests, but also mean Illinois gets some of the league heavyweights at home.

Running back Mikel Leshoure is gone, but three offensive line starters plus sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase are still in the fold. Illinois does play its first five at home, ensuring at least the opportunity for a decent start and the opportunity for Zook to make a favorable impression on his new AD.

57. CALIFORNIA

Berkeley, Calif., doesn’t usually come to mind as the home of a steadily productive football program, but the Golden Bears’ slide to 5-7 last year was the first time in Jeff Tedford’s nine seasons that Cal was left with a losing record.

Berkeley, of course, won’t be the home to any football this fall. Ancient Memorial Stadium is undergoing a renovation (one that can’t help but improve the visiting locker room conditions), and the Golden Bears will play their home games at crammed AT&T Park (with a date against Fresno State to be played at whatever the folks running Candlestick Park are calling their stadium these days).

California, though, should be in decent shape to work its way back into the bowl picture. The Bears’ defense was a feast-or-famine outfit, keeping eight teams to 17 points or less but yielding 35  or more in the other four contests. More than half of those starters come back (though not the stars), so the Bears should be decent on that side of things.

But better than decent? Don’t bank on it.

Cal is stuck in the same division as Oregon and Stanford and must travel to both. The only Pac-12 team it misses is Arizona, which suffered the sorts of pinpoint losses that make it a sleeper freefall team. (The Bears play a nonconference game against Pac-12 foe Colorado to complete a previously scheduled home-and-home).

Add it up, and California looks like a 6-6 or 7-5 team. That’s probably good for another trip across the Bay Bridge to play at AT&T Park in the Fight Hunger Bowl.

56. BAYLOR

There is absolutely no reason to disparage the job Art Briles has done in Waco. Baylor made its first bowl appearance in 16 years in 2010, plowing through its schedule behind the super Robert Griffin and taking out every team it encountered that was fairly vulnerable (except, perhaps, Texas Tech).

The five teams the Bears lost to in the regular season averaged 10.6 victories. The postseason loss to Illinois mattered not; it was an excellent season for Baylor.

There just isn’t much reason to get too carried away about this year.

The Bears beat one bowl team last fall (Kansas State), and the defense was statistically the worst in Briles’ three seasons. The offense carried the day, which is exactly what Baylor should have expected would happen when it hired Briles away from Houston after the 2007 season.

Not much should change this year, either. Griffin’s back, along with most of the cogs on offense, and the Bears will wind up in more than a few first-to-five-touchdowns-wins type of games.

Certainly, they have the goods to win some of those, but probably not all. After a favorable opening stretch – a 4-1 start is plenty attainable – the schedule stiffens. Baylor can make a second straight bowl, but it just isn’t quite in the same league as Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State heading into this fall.

Patrick Stevens

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