College Football Lookahead: Nos. 41-45

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Next up: Five power conference schools coming to a non-New Year’s Day bowl game near you …

45. CALIFORNIA

It’s hard to believe Jeff Tedford is only 50 years old. It feels like he’s been at California forever and a somewhat relevant coach, even as an assistant, for even longer (remember his work as Trent Dilfer’s offensive coordinator at Fresno State?).

So by now, there’s a pretty solid track record for Tedford, one he veered back toward after a lackluster 2010. In a decade at Berkeley, he’s won seven games in three years and eight games in three more seasons. There’s a pair of 10-win years in there, more than balancing out one losing season.

He heads into this year with established options at quarterback, running back and wideout, and the Golden Bears’ offense has been anywhere from solid to superb since Tedford’s arrival (the 2010 exception excluded).

This isn’t Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. With Cal, you almost always know what you’re going to get.

In this case, it means an 8-4 or 7-5 regular season. The Golden Bears got a tough scheduling break (no Arizona or Colorado to be seen), which makes things trickier than necessary. But somehow, Cal will wind up with a winning record and in the middle of the Pac-12. That’s what it usually does.

44. MISSISSIPPI STATE

Seeking a team that could skyrocket into the top 15 or so thanks to the wonders of scheduling? Look no further than Starkville.

Coach Dan Mullen’s rising star took a bit of a hit last year. Those dreams of a 10-win season fizzled after reasonably predictable losses to Auburn, Georgia and Louisiana State and an overtime defeat of Louisiana Tech at home. The Bulldogs went on to lose three more games they were supposed to and wound up 7-6.

That arc won’t be repeated this year. At least it shouldn’t be. The Bulldogs, if things break right, could be 6-1 or 7-0 entering the last week of October.

There’s a game against Jackson State, as well as three against the Sun Belt (Middle Tennessee, South Alabama and Troy). The first two SEC home games are against Auburn and Tennessee – perhaps somewhat more talented outfits, but not overwhelmingly so. The first SEC road game is at Kentucky.

Granted, the back end of the schedule is a brute – have fun with Alabama, Louisiana State and Arkansas in a four-week span – but there’s a good chance there will be a whole lot more cowbell populating top 25 ballots throughout October than usual. Expect the Bulldogs to enjoy something of a bounceback season.

43. NORTHWESTERN

This might be a little high for the Wildcats, who open with three power conference opponents (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College) outside the Big Ten.

It also could look like a ridiculously good pick if coach Pat Fitzgerald quickly pieces things together for a team short on starters returning.

Northwestern opens league play with Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota, which makes them the anti-Purdue – rather than being a midpack team quickly buried in the B1G standings, the Wildcats should be 3-0 when Nebraska comes to Evanston in mid-October.

This probably won’t be a Legends Division contender; that run through Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State in less than a month should put an end to those hopes.

Still, there’s enough here for a fifth straight bowl bid. Granted, Northwestern’s lost nine straight postseason games, but no matter. Here’s a vote of confidence the Wildcats will have a chance to rectify that situation at year’s end.

42. RUTGERS

The Greg Schiano era ended in a blink of an eye earlier this year, and within shouting distance of Signing Day. The guy who led the Scarlet Knights to six winning seasons in seven years – and, for the most part, at least a semblance of relevance – was gone, helicoptering into Tampa to take over the Buccaneers. So was most of his staff.

Rutgers scrambled and elevated assistant Kyle Flood, and in the process helped preserve a well-regarded recruiting class. Time will tell whether there will be a long-term price to that short-term gain. It is, after all, the 41-year-old Flood’s first head coaching job.

One thing’s for sure: There shouldn’t be a huge short-term price. Not with Flood’s familiarity with the roster. Not with 14 starters back. Not with a chance of snagging four wins out of conference.

Rutgers drew one of the short straws in the Big East and will play four road games in league play, and the Scarlet Knights will need to find a new top target after possession receiver extraordinaire Mohamed Sanu (115 receptions) departed.

Nonetheless, there are lots of pieces in place for Flood to have one of the better coaching debuts nationally. An 8-4 regular season and a winnable bowl trip sound about right as Rutgers starts figuring things out post-Schiano.

41. BAYLOR

If Rutgers is in an interesting spot trying to win without the coach that essentially resurrected the program, imagine how things are at Baylor.

The Bears’ life without Robert Griffin III begins in earnest Sept. 2, when Southern Methodist pays a visit to Waco. It’s one of three winnable nonconference games before things get fun.

Remember, Griffin helped the Bears win a dozen Big 12 games in his three full years as a starter (2008, 2010-11). That’s the same number Baylor has won in its 13 other Big 12 seasons combined (1996-2007 and 2009).

Baylor won’t be anywhere near as efficient on offense as it was a year ago. That’s life. But coach Art Briles has stocked the Bears with a far better level of talent than what existed when he took over entering the 2008 season.

Which is to say Baylor shouldn’t utterly collapse back into the 4-8 or 3-9 team it was for four years before RG3 became RG3. But the Big 12 is still not an easy neighborhood, as the Bears will learn while opening conference play against newcomers West Virginia and Texas Christian. Finishing in the top half of the conference would be an accomplishment, though the Bears should be in line for a third straight bowl game when the season’s complete.

– Patrick Stevens

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