College Football Countdown: Nos. 96-100

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Five more teams to consider as the quarter-pole of the countdown fast approaches:

100. ARKANSAS STATE

You can go ahead and go to the 30-second mark of this clip:

 

Such is the figurative message (outside of the gratuitous violence) the Redwolves hope is sent in new coach Hugh Freeze’s first season.

You remember Freeze, don’t you? He was Michael Oher’s high school coach, a man first introduced to the masses in Michael Lewis’s “The Blind Side.” He’s since bounced to Mississippi (as an assistant), an NAIA school (as head coach) and now Arkansas State (as offensive coordinator last year and now head coach).

In addition to infusing some cool into the program (really, these Freeze puns will probably never get old), the Redwolves hope he’ll bring an actual winning season. That was last seen in Jonesboro in 1995 (though Arkansas State did go to a bowl game in 2005, losing to wind up 6-6).

The biggest roadblock to that happening this season? A defensive front gashed for more than 200 rushing yards a game last season. The second biggest roadblock? An offensive line returning just one starter. When your school-sanctioned spring prospectus claims a guy who played in eight games (starting one) is among your top returners at a position, it’s fair to say the unit isn’t particularly experienced.

So like most teams, Arkansas State’s success will be determined up front (and perhaps, in part, with the help of fabulously named tailback Sirgregory Thornton). The Redwolves had their league’s second-best offense, and most of the skill guys return. If the offensive line comes together and the defense gets a little better at stopping the run, Arkansas State could be putting a Sun Belt title in ice in Freeze’s first season.

99. CENTRAL MICHIGAN

It was fun while it lasted. Brian Kelly came in, stocked the shelves, found a quarterback (Dan LeFevour) and skedaddled to Cincinnati, bequeathing a great situation to Butch Jones. He, in turn, oversaw a team that won 28 games in a three-game span before also skipping out (though finding far less immediate success in following Kelly a second time).

So it is that Central Michigan severely regressed in the first year of Dan Enos‘ tenure, though realistically it should be viewed as the first season post-LeFevour. And recent history tells us MAC programs aren’t necessarily well-equipped to handle the departures of program-defining quarterbacks. Consider:

* Ben Roethlisberger’s final season resulted in an anomalous 13-1 season for Miami (Ohio). To Josh Betts’ credit, he led the RedHawks to a couple winning seasons as Roethlisberger’s replacement. The bottom fell out in 2006, and Miami only recently recovered with its surprising MAC title run last year.

* Bruce Gradkowski left Toledo as its leading career passer after 2005. The Rockets stumbled through four losing seasons before finally returning to a bowl game in 2010.

* Nate Davis threw for nearly 3,000 more yards than anyone in Ball State history, capping his career with a 12-2 season in 2008. He bolted, and the Cardinals are 6-18 since with modest prospects for 2011.

* Drew Willy is the leading passer in Buffalo’s modest history, taking the Bulls to an unexpected conference title in 2008. He left, and the Bulls regressed to 5-7 in ‘09 and 2-10 a year ago.

One exception is Akron, which made a bowl appearance the year afterCharlie Frye departed. But overall, MAC schools understandably have a harder time than high-profile programs with an already difficult issue: Maintaining success at QB after a once-a-generation guy comes through their respective programs.

The Chippewas got decent play under center from Ryan Radcliff (17 TDs, 17 INTs) a year ago, and he’ll likely be a bit better for the experience this fall. But Central isn’t poised to reclaim the peaks it hit during the LeFevour years just yet.

98. UTAH STATE

As an appealing pick to follow up Idaho’s unanticipated star turn in 2009, Utah State … well, it decided to play the role of Utah State, going 4-8 and losing by less than 14 points just once (in the season opener at Oklahoma).

An offense that steadily progressed in recent years went in reverse, and the defense essentially remained stuck in place, improving a bit against the run (but only managing to get to 88th nationally in that category).

It’s evidence, of course, that coach Gary Andersen has plenty of work to do, even though he continues to be the beneficiary of decent rebuilding work (in most areas besides the win column) of predecessor Brent Guy. In the newly constituted WAC (now that Boise State is gone and Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada will depart after this year), there’s little reason the Aggies can’t emerge as a consistent contender for however long the league’s leftovers remain banded together.

But that’s not until 2012, and for now Utah State remains distinctly stuck on the conference’s middle tier, at best. Andersen doesn’t seem to want to wait – he’s called his own number to handle the defensive coordinator chores this season – and that’s understandable.

It’ll be on the offense, though, to get the Aggies into bowl contention. Utah State will break in a new quarterback with an experienced offensive line and a tailback (Robert Turbin) who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2009 but sat out last year with an ACL tear. If a capable QB can be found, a push toward .500 is possible. The most likely outcome, though, is Utah State’s first winning season in the WAC will have to wait.

97. MARSHALL

The Experience Theorem gets put to work in Huntington this year. Just four starters on offense are back, but Marshall’s offense a year ago was miserable – especially by Conference USA’s high-flying standards. So is this a good thing or not?

It’s tough to tell, though some of the Thundering Herd’s issues probably stemmed from a coaching change and the ensuing switch of systems. Marshall was a fairly hopeless rushing team after a promising beginning, managing more than 3.1 yards a carry twice in its last nine games.

The curious thing here is the Herd nearly upset West Virginia early, squandering a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter before falling in overtime. In a blink of an eye, Marshall was 1-6 and scrambling to beat up on the dregs of C-USA to wind up at 5-7 by year’s end.

So what happens now? Second-year coach Doc Holliday is a capable recruiter, but the dividends of his first full class probably can’t be counted upon to make a giant difference in 2011. More to the point, sophomores A.J. Graham and Eddie Sullivan were a combined 16-for-36 for 229 yards and a touchdown last year, quite the small and underwhelming sample size at a position where Marshall doesn’t have a definitive answer.

This could well be a case where things get worse before they get better. The first half of the schedule is a brute – trips to West Virginia, Louisville and Central Florida, plus home games with Southern Mississippi and Virginia Tech – mean another lousy start is likely. The Herd is an early team to keep an eye on for C-USA sleeper purposes in 2012, but a six-win season and a bowl game would make this fall a success.

96. TEMPLE

The inevitable happened last December, with Al Golden parlaying his rebuilding job in North Philly into a superior job elsewhere (in his case, Miami). Certainly, Temple couldn’t complain after Golden produced the program’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 1978-79.

It barely matters the Owls didn’t have many signature victories to their name during their Golden Age (Navy ‘09 and Connecticut ‘10 come to mind); the move to the right level of competition combined with capable coaching has put Temple on track to at least contend for bowl games for a while.

The man asked to take the program to the next logical step – a conference title – is Steve Addazio, who was last seen making Florida fans pull out their hair as the post-Tebow years began in Gainesville. Can he at least maintain what Golden gradually built? We’ll find out quickly.

Unsurprisingly for a disciple of the likes of Joe Paterno, Tom O’Brien and Al Groh, Golden constructed a team designed to win while relying on defense. Opponents scored 30 or more points on the Owls just seven times in the last two years, ensuring an offense capable of grinding up yards on the ground would have a chance to do its thing.

Temple will deploy a veteran offensive line, and has two running backs (the punishing Bernard Pierce and the speedy Matt Brown) who are plenty capable of gashing defenses. If Addazio is wise, he’ll rely on the run game to keep the Owls in contention for a second bowl berth in three years. Few teams have more obvious paths to relative success than Temple, which should be in the MAC East title hunt again with Ohio and Miami (Ohio) if things go reasonably well.

Patrick Stevens

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