The Washington Times - August 19, 2012, 09:59PM

Next five up …

30. UTAH

SEE RELATED:


The Utes had arguably their worst season in six years as they debuted in the Pac-12 last fall. They were still a victory away from playing the role of the Sacrifice to Oregon in the conference title game.

When low tide for a program becomes 8-5, you’re either an SEC juggernaut or a school that has things figured out.

Considering the SEC hasn’t expanded into the Mountain time zone (yet), Utah is in the second category). And after a solid enough debut (though the loss to Colorado at the end of the season was especially dubious at home), the Utes should be even better this year.

Talent returns all over the offense, which is where the questions really lie for the Utes. The Mountain West-to-Pac-12 transition didn’t make an appreciable difference on the defense (a push on opponents’ scoring average and rushing yardage, a slight hit in the passing game), but the offense lost more than a touchdown a game and averaged only 311 yards a contest.

Fix the offense, and life should be good in Salt Lake City. The Utes have the benefit of not seeing Oregon or Stanford, and the visit with Pac-12 South favorite Southern California is at home. Utah probably won’t win a division this year, but they should be the best of the rest behind the Trojans in that six-team grouping.

29. AUBURN

The Tigers made an inevitable regression last year. No Cam Newton, no Nick Fairley and, oh, no Cam Newton will do that. Overall, Auburn had six starters back from its national title team. Going 8-5 wasn’t a surprise.

Consider, too, the combined records of the five teams to vanquish Auburn: 56-12. A season after a fantastic run, there wasn’t too much to quibble with under the circumstances – even if the other SEC team in the state claimed a national title.

However, memories tend to be short among college football fans in that part of the country, and the Tigers now have a reasonably experienced bunch back. Trouble is, they’re still looking up at the Alabama-Louisiana State-Arkansas triumvirate in the SEC West.

Newton isn’t walking through that door, and neither is former Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Those were the real issues last year for Auburn, and will continue to be this year. The Tigers scored 61 points in games against top-15 opponents; they’ll face another one while starting off with Clemson.

There’s some hope here for an uptick, but maybe not much of one. Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana State all visit the Plains. Conference road trips include Mississippi and Vanderbilt. The Tigers will be better, but might not have much of a bump in the win total to show for it.

28. GEORGIA TECH

Let’s see here. A triple-option offense has the luxury of returning an established quarterback (Tevin Washington) and the bulk of the offensive line.

It opens with six of its first eight at home. It doesn’t have to deal with Florida State or N.C. State, barring an ACC title game meeting.

In related news, the Yellow Jackets have a real chance to continue their stellar pre-Halloween play under Paul Johnson.

Over the last four years, Georgia Tech is 26-8 before Nov. 1, and 8-11 after it. More to the point, the Jackets are 1-7 combined against Georgia (1-3) and in bowl games (0-4) under the former Navy coach.

The bowl issue is a mild nuisance, but it doesn’t detract from the Yellow Jackets’ solid play since the droll Johnson arrived in Atlanta.

ACC WINS TOTALS, 2008-11

42: Virginia Tech
35: Florida State
34: Georgia Tech
32: Clemson
31: North Carolina
29: Miami
28: Boston College
28: N.C. State
22: Wake Forest
21: Maryland
20: Virginia
15: Duke

Whether Georgia Tech should rank third in the ACC in wins over a four-year span is an argument for another day. Fact is, the Yellow Jackets have done exactly that under Johnson. Underestimate him at your own risk; the smart pick is at least eight wins with a chance to seize early control in the Coastal Division with a Labor Day visit to Virginia Tech.

27. KANSAS STATE

You know about Collin Klein, and if you don’t, you should. He only rushed for 1,141 yards and 27 touchdowns last season.

Oh, and he’s Kansas State’s quarterback. So do yourself a solid and keep an eye on No. 7 when the Wildcats begin Big 12 play. That’s the on-field analysis.

But really, if there’s an active coach who should generate some marvel for just how he’s gone about things, it’s Bill Snyder.

Two questions come to mind with Snyder. One, just how has he won – and won big, a 10-3 season last year the latest feat – when so many have failed in a tough job (such as his successor/predecessor #RonP, the Prince of Manhattan. Two, just how did this guy have to wait until he was 49 to get his first head-coaching job?

Snyder’s won 159 games at Kansas State and both got a late start and took a three-year retirement. He’s coming off his seventh 10-win season and keeps chugging along into his eighth decade. Snyder isn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy sort, but he’s a football sorcerer who wins like no one’s business. Even with a reshuffled Big 12, he’ll probably win again this year, too.

26. NORTH CAROLINA

Between Julius Peppers‘ academic transcript, the ongoing and all-consuming angst over Butch Davis‘ private cell phone records and a bowl ban in place this year, the Tar Heels aren’t exactly stepping as far away from the past as they’d probably like.

But they still have a chance to be interesting this season under new coach Larry Fedora.

There remains enough talent in the program, post-Davis, to make a run at nine wins. The Coastal Division isn’t operating at its peak – favorite Virginia Tech lost a ton, Miami’s a wreck, Virginia’s due a slight regression and Georgia Tech doesn’t look quite like a 10-2 team just yet.

There will be opportunities for Carolina, especially if quarterback Bryn Renner and tailback Giovani Bernard handle the adjustment to a fast-paced offense. The defense isn’t star-studded, but there remain solid players in place.

The problem here is what happens if and when the Tar Heels lose a game or two, since the season will end Nov. 24 no matter what thanks to the postseason ban. In a year when a bowl or a conference title is off the table, Fedora might just find himself judged by how emphatic the Tar Heels are in the final stages of the season. Here’s guessing that’s not a problem, but if it is, this ranking will look awfully generous in retrospect.

Patrick Stevens