The Washington Times - July 31, 2011, 09:37AM

Moving along in the countdown, with a D1scourse favorite receiving a higher ranking than just about everywhere else, two Conference USA teams of intrigue and a best guess (emphasis on guess) on just where to slot Maryland …

50. TULSA

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Yet another great offense/awful defense team from Conference USA – and won that snagged 10 games in part because of a handsome plus-17 turnover margin last season.

Yes, the defensive woes are in part a function of the spread offenses that have taken over C-USA more than maybe any other league in the country. But it still doesn’t entirely account for this:

WORST MAJOR-COLLEGE PASS DEFENSES, 2000-2010

319.0: 2010 Tulsa
312.4: 2007 Rice
311.6: 2008 Nevada
311.5: 2009 UAB

304.6: 2005 Texas A&M
304.0: 2004 Texas Christian
303.8: 2002 Syracuse
303.7: 2010 Rice
303.5: 2007 Central Michigan
303.2: 2005 Western Michigan
301.8: 2007 Texas-El Paso
301.4: 2007 Southern Methodist
300.5: 2002 San Jose State

It is no surprise seven of the 13 teams on that list hail from C-USA (the ‘04 TCU team was the last edition of the Horned Frogs to play in that league). No one was dreadful enough to remain on the list another season; Tulsa almost can’t help but get better in 2011.

Still, it’s a problem that grows in severity if an offense runs out of steam or a defense can’t force enough turnovers to make up for its nasty habit of hemorrhaging yards.

The offense should be fine (it averaged at least 500 yards and 40 points in three of the last four seasons). But if the yardage goes down along with forced turnovers, Tulsa might find itself just on the outside of the C-USA title game for the second straight year.

49. OREGON STATE

That Oregon State didn’t make a bowl game in 2010 rates as a bit of a surprise, though it did play (and lose to) Boise State, Texas Christian, Stanford and Oregon. Those teams were a combined 49-3. It happens.

No, the truly startling thing about the Beavers was just how they went 5-7. Both the usually stout defense and typically decent offense collapsed, both registering their worst yardage years in Mike Riley’s nine-season encore in Corvallis (the scoring defense, though, wasn’t as bad as 2005).

So why should the Beavers check in here, ahead of Arizona and California and Utah? More a hunch than anything tangible, really. The return of wideout James Rodgers will help, and Ryan Katz should be more settled in his second year as a starting quarterback.

Yet even as Oregon State was rattling off bowl bid after bowl bid, the underpinnings of its success was a defense that was stout against the run. The Beavers slipped on a per-carry basis in 2008 and 2009, though some of that was a function of reputation. Last year, Oregon State gave up 180 yards a game on the ground and 4.3 yards a carry – just not good enough.

If there’s a bounceback on defense, the Beavers could wind up among the top four teams in the Pac-12. Granted, they’re unfortunate that Stanford and Oregon are on their side of the league, but a decent bowl bid could be theirs if there’s a progression back to the hallmarks of Riley’s usually capable outfits.

48. SOUTHERN METHODIST

June Jones made progress so quickly in Dallas that a 7-7 season in year three could be construed as a mild disappointment. It shouldn’t be even with a 3-5 finish, especially considering Southern Methodist’s previous two decades no longer serving as an anchor of a once-effective program.

Most of the Mustangs’ data suggests they should have outpaced their .500 record – well, nearly everything besides a minus-12 turnover margin. That will do it.

The truth is, Houston’s demise after Case Keenum’s early-season injury opened the door for an unexpected run at a division title.

The Mustangs will have a chance to repeat, though trips to Southern Mississippi, Tulsa and Houston in the second half of the season won’t make for a simple breeze. Of course, SMU also brings back at least eight starters on both sides of the ball, so there should be improvement.

While this was Jones’ program from the second he bolted Hawaii, it really is his team now – filled with his players – and probably was a year ago, too. That group should be ready to blossom and make a run at a 10-win season. Year Four, by the way, was the first of Jones’ three 10-win seasons at Hawaii.

47. MARYLAND

Usually, someone covering a team should have a superb idea of exactly where to slot them nationally. That’s not the case for 2011 Maryland.

The Terrapins have arguably the most established quarterback in the ACC (Danny O’Brien), one of the league’s best defensive players (Kenny Tate) and a good chunk of the key contributors from a 9-4 team back.

But number-crunching and offseason headlines haven’t exactly trended in Maryland’s favor:

* Most crucially, a loss of 2.5 hours of practice time each week as a self-imposed penalty for NCAA violations.

* A three-scholarship reduction for failing to meet the NCAA’s APR standards.

* The exodus of 12 players with eligibility remaining since the beginning of 2011.

* Replacing Navy and Duke (both one-possession wins a year ago) on the schedule with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

* The severe unlikelihood of any team maintaining a plus-15 turnover margin, which greatly aided the Terps’ rebound from an abysmal 2009.

The Terps have a new staff in place, with Randy Edsall replacing the fired Ralph Friedgen. There are new systems on both sides of the ball, which both Maryland and its opponents must adjust to.

The best guess at this stage is Maryland winds up in the seven-team scrum trailing Florida State and Virginia Tech in the ACC, a mixing bowl of teams that will spend the year beating up on each other with no distinct pattern. The Terps should be a bowl team, but it could be tougher for Maryland to match its win total from last fall than a lot of folks expect.

46. TENNESSEE

The most exciting thing about the Volunteers last year was discovering what sorts of imaginative ways their handful of tight games might unfold. Consider:

* Tennessee beat UAB in a game the Blazers’ kicker missed five field goals.

* The Vols lost to Louisiana State when the Tigers got an extra play after time expired because Tennessee had too many men on the field.

* The Vols lost in overtime to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl after the Tar Heels tied it on the final play of regulation – a play made possible when instant replay determined Carolina spiked it with a second left even as it had too many men on the field.

So what sort of encore can be expected?

Tennessee will play eight home games, including four eminently winnable nonconference dates, and closes with its usual friendly combination of Vanderbilt and Kentucky. It’s not hard to see where six wins can come from.

Beyond that? The Vols trade last year’s date with Mississippi for a trip to Arkansas (not helpful), and have the misfortune of playing all six of the SEC’s probable preseason top-20 teams (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana State, South Carolina). But hey, there’s no Auburn or Mississippi State.

It looks like a fourth straight year around .500 at Tennessee, whose offense and defense should both progress some. The Vols are 1-13 against ranked teams the last three years, and they’ll need to improve on that if they want to create a higher ceiling for themselves this fall.

Patrick Stevens