The Washington Times - July 5, 2011, 07:46PM

Already more than 15 percent of the way through the countdown, and not a power conference team to be found.

That’ll change soon … but not today.

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Instead, here’s five more schools that could have a hard time nosing into a bowl game in 2011 …

105. MIDDLE TENNESSEE

With Dwight “On” Dasher finally ending his college career after seemingly seven years in Murfreesboro, it’s time to look at something else about the Blue Raiders. And no, this won’t be a repeat of the wonderful guided tour of the Hillbilly Hilton from back in 2008.

No, Middle Tennessee has something else interesting to its name, at least at the moment. That’s because the Blue Raiders finished dead last in the nation is turnover margin per game at minus 1.46.

That goes a long way explaining how a team that produced mostly middle-of-the-road national rankings could wind up 6-7 despite playing in a less-than-heralded league.

So what awaits Middle Tennessee in 2011? Well, that requires some guesswork. As for how teams have rebounded from being the nation’s worst turnover margin team over the last 10 years, that just requires research:

ANNUAL WORST TURNOVER MARGIN TEAMS AND NEXT SEASON’S PRODUCTION, 2000-PRESENT

YearSchoolTO Margin  
Next Yr.    TO Margin
NY W-L   
2000Buffalo-1.642001-0.18 (67th)
3-8
2001Rutgers-2.002002-1.08 (102nd)
1-11
2002Eastern Michigan
-1.922003-0.50 (94th)
3-9
2003Central Florida
-1.832004-0.27 (80th)
0-11
2004SMU-1.7320050.45 (30th)
5-6
2004Washington-1.732005-0.27 (77th)
2-9
2005New Mexico State   
-1.922006-0.83 (110th)
4-8
2006Army-1.502007-0.83 (107th)
3-9
2007Baylor-1.5020081.33 (4th)
4-8
2008Washington State
-1.922009-0.58 (103rd)
1-11
2009   
Miami (Ohio)
-2.0020100.79 (17th)
10-4

 

In retrospect, it’s hard to figure out what this chart was supposed to prove. Well, actually, that’s not really true. The presumption behind piecing it together was that enough teams would default to middle-of-the-road turnover margin teams (if not better) to draw a conclusion about the variability of turnover margins, even at an extreme end.

The problem is that simply didn’t happen. Everyone got better (though considering there was nowhere to go but up, that isn’t worth much), and some teams got a lot better. But there were plenty of bad teams that remained bad teams the next year, only with a penchant for giving it away less.

Middle Tennessee wasn’t a terrible team last year, except for its turnover issues. The Blue Raiders should get a little luckier, and they’ll miss Dasher’s rushing much more than his passing (6 touchdowns, 18 interceptions last year). Still, don’t look for a massive difference in results; a bowl bid, while not super likely, cannot be ruled out.

104. IDAHO

For the first time since 1970, the Vandals will not meet in-state foe Boise State. The impetus is obvious: Boise State moved over to the Mountain West and declined to continue the long-running series.

This is the cause of consternation for some in the Land of Potatoes.

Here, though, are some reasons Idaho (the school, not the state) fans shouldn’t be quite so upset.

* The Vandals’ 12-game winning streak over Boise State from 1982 to 1993 remains tied for the longest in series history (Boise won a dozen in a row from 1999 to 2010).

* Idaho doesn’t have to face the Broncos with a first-year quarterback, the first time the Vandals would have faced that predicament since 2007.

* The Vandals are done with Kellen Moore, who was a nifty 64-of-89 for 725 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three games against Idaho.

* Boise State has won the last seven meetings by an average of 37.7 points. In those 420 minutes of action, Idaho led for precisely 19 minutes, 43 seconds.

OK, despite all those numbers, it’s still tough to replace an in-state rival. No matter. For the purposes of this season, the Vandals don’t have a blowout loss awaiting them on the Smurf Turf. Considering they’ve won eight and six games, respectively, over the last two years, steering clear of the Broncos could be the difference between bowl eligibility and sitting at home in December.

103. UL MONROE

Say hello to perhaps the program virtually guaranteed to swim in the neighborhood around .500 – without actually surpassing it.

Over the last seven years, the Warhawks have averaged five victories a season. In three years, they snagged exactly five wins. They picked up four or six wins on two occasions apiece.

UL Monroe is .500 or better at home in all but one of those seven seasons, and at .500 or below on the road in each of them. The two times the Warhawks returned 16 starters, they went 6-6; when they brought back less, they had losing records.

It’s almost as if UL Monroe is the poster child for conventional thinking actually being correct (as opposed to what it is most of the time).

So with a fairly experienced bunch that includes a sophomore quarterback (Kolton Browning) coming off a year in which he completed 61.9 percent of his passes and enjoyed a 3-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, let’s just go ahead and say the Warhawks will get better, play around .500 and maybe even get a postseason nod (which would likely help stave off the bowl-pocalypse).

If that’s a fairly predictable take, well, that’s what UL Monroe gets for its steady if unspectacular run since 2004.

102. TEXAS-EL PASO

The Miners have slogged through five straight losing seasons, failing to fare better than .500 in Conference USA play in any of them. Last year’s date in the New Mexico Bowl was Texas-El Paso’s first bowl bid since 2005. Yardage-wise, the Miners had their worst season offensively under Mike Price (ranked 78th nationally) but their best defensively since 2006 (ranked 91st).

With those statistics in mind – namely, that even in a down year, the offense carries the defense on the border – here are the leading major-college career passers from 2010 who are not back with their respective teams this season.

1. Trevor Vittatoe (UTEP), 12,439
2. Adam Weber (Minnesota), 10,917
3. Andy Dalton (Texas Christian), 10,314
4. Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), 10,098
5. Nathan Enderle (Idaho), 10,084
6. T.J. Yates (North Carolina), 9,377
7. Russell Wilson (N.C. State), 8,545
8. Ryan Mallett (Arkansas), 8,385
9. Jerrod Johnson (Texas A&M), 8,011
10. Taylor Potts (Texas Tech), 7,835

Vittatoe might not have owned the finest record (19-30) or enjoyed postseason success, but he was durable and far from the biggest problem ailing the Miners over the last four years. He won’t be easy to replace.

Whoever steps in also has another quandary: Figuring out who to throw to. UTEP receivers combined for 228 receptions, 2,903 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2010. The Miners’ returnees this fall amassed 60 receptions, 542 yards and three touchdowns.

In percentages, that’s 26.3 percent of the Miners’ catches, 18.7 percent of their receiving yardage and 13.0 percent of their touchdown receptions come back.

In other words, former Maryland basketball player Cliff Tucker (all 6-foot-6 of him) might just make a difference for UTEP this season. The Miners could certainly use the help.

101. KENT STATE

The Golden Flashes are a tricky bunch to attempt to forecast (besides the looming bludgeoning at Alabama to open the season; that isn’t too hard to make a guess about).

Kent State bring back a chunk of an impressive defense, one that held eight of its 12 opponents to both less than 100 yards rushing and less than 2.3 yards a carry. Regardless of opposition, that’s solid.

Defending MAC sacks (10) and tackles for loss (20) leader Roosevelt Nix is back after a stellar freshman year, and the path to a .500 mark at the end of September is not terribly imposing.

Nonetheless, the Golden Flashes bring back the bulk of an utterly unremarkable offense (a mixed blessing, to be certain) and have a first-year coach (Darrell Hazell) with limited coordinator experience. Still, it should be pointed out Hazell is coming off a stint as Ohio State’s assistant head coach.

The pieces are in place for a decent, middle-of-the-road season – not unlike the consecutive 5-7s former coach Doug Martin produced. The Golden Flashes probably aren’t ready to leap into the top tier of the MAC, but there’s also some distance between them and the flotsam at the bottom of the league.

Patrick Stevens