College Football Lookahead: Nos. 91-95

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Up first – the initial glimpse of a power conference team …

95. INDIANA

Folks in these parts would argue no first-year coach endured a rockier season last fall than Maryland’s Randy Edsall. But the Hoosiers’ Kevin Wilson was right in the same neighborhood.

Indiana lost to Ball State in its opener, later lost at North Texas, went winless in the Big Ten for the first time since 1995 and tossed up a 1-11 mark that was the school’s worst since 1984. It was a once-in-a-generation brand of awful for a program not exactly accustomed to gridiron greatness.

The encore will be better, because it just has to be. So many of the freshmen who logged time last year should be improved, and Wilson went ahead and fired up a junior college pipeline to Bloomington to shore up the defense.

The Hoosiers added six JUCOs. A reliance on a group of two-year players that large is sign of at least one of two things – great need and great desperation. Sometimes it’s both, and that may well be the case here. After last season, it’s tough to quibble with the argument Indiana could use an instant talent upgrade.

Will it matter? Possibly. The first three weeks – Indiana State, at Massachusetts, Ball State – represent a chance for the Hoosiers’ fourth 3-0 opening burst in the last six years. Only one of the previous three quick starts yielded a bowl game, but no matter. Wilson could use some glimmer of optimism, and September could easily provide that. After that, it could be a bumpy couple months while navigating a Big Ten schedule fortuitously devoid of both Michigan and Nebraska.

94. MARSHALL

Despite a 7-6 record, things went about as well for the Thundering Herd as they could have hoped in 2011. They won all five of their games decided by single digits and split a pair of 10-point games, collecting a bowl victory over Florida International.

So how often do things go about as well as possible for a team in back-to-back years?

That’s the question creating some resistance here. Sure, Marshall could turn out to be an East Division sleeper in Conference USA. And the Herd has a solid shot of another .500 season and lower-tier bowl trip.

But will they win all those close games again? That’s debatable. Now, the offense (with the help of all-name team candidate Tron Martinez at running back) could take a leap with eight starters returning and there won’t be the need for so many close games.

Still, the Herd goes to West Virginia and Purdue and draws Houston and Tulsa from the West Division. Toss in a visit from conference favorite Central Florida, and Marshall probably needs to spring an upset to create some wiggle room to move beyond last season’s accomplishments. It’s possible, but 2013 looks like a better bet for a breakout season in Huntington.

93. UL MONROE

The Warhawks are a bunch that appears better and better the more you look at them on paper. That’s especially the case if you can ignore Todd Berry’s 14-51 mark as a major-college coach (he previously had a disastrous stint at Army).

UL Monroe went 4-8 a season ago, but dropped three games by a combined nine points and didn’t win a game by less than 26 points. It yielded only 100 rushing yards per game (best in the Sun Belt) and was third in the conference in defending the pass. While middle-of-the-road offensively with a bunch of multi-year starters, the core of that group comes back.

Now the bad news: The front six on defense was gutted. There will be new personnel plugged into a 3-3-5 scheme that clearly functioned well for the Warhawks.

If history is any guide, UL Monroe won’t surpass the six-win mark. The likelihood of an 0-3 start (The combination of Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor has a way of leading to that) merely supports that prediction.

Assuming the Warhawks don’t pack it in after three weeks, getting themselves bowl eligible is very much a possibility. That’s probably going to require a 6-2 or 5-3 league mark, which in turn at least places them in the discussion for the first bowl bid in school history. This probably won’t be a great team, but it could surely provide some interesting moments for a program that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1993.

92. SAN JOSE STATE

It was quite the turnaround in the Bay Area in Mike MacIntyre’s second season. The Spartans were 1-12 overall and 1-5 in single-digit games in 2010. Last fall, San Jose State improved to 5-7, including 4-3 in games decided by less than 10 points. Toss in 10-point games, and the Spartans were 5-5.

That means that aside from a completely forgivable pummeling at the hands of Andrew Luck and Stanford and a 13-point setback at Brigham Young, San Jose State was in just about every game and wound up winning their share. The jump in victories was no fluke.

Unfortunately for MacIntyre, he opted to play Tate Forcier Roulette at quarterback for the 2012 season. Since the house always wins that game (in this example, “the house” constitutes “anybody other than coaches counting on Forcier”), the Spartans will try to plug in someone else after Forcier left school during the winter.

Yet it’s not a complete disaster. The dying WAC isn’t particularly strong, and likely league title contenders Louisiana Tech and Utah State must come to San Jose. The Spartans get nonconference games against UC Davis and Colorado State at home, and visits to Navy and San Diego State are at least winnable.

MacIntyre has things going in the right direction, and the Spartans were fortunate enough to get a life preserver from the Mountain West starting in 2013. Chances are, they’ll head there coming off their first winning season since 2006 (with maybe a bowl bid to go with it as well).

91. KANSAS

Hey look! A “decided schematic advantage” in Lawrence!

With that necessary reference out of the way, there’s substantially less attention surrounding Charlie Weis in his return to head coaching. Much of that clearly stems from the differences between Notre Dame (such as its national TV contract) and Kansas (such as the usual interest in when basketball season starts).

Still, Weis’ hire generated its share of chortles late last year. Kansas, fresh off an abysmal 5-19 run under Turner Gill, opened its wallets some more to bring in a coach with a 35-27 mark under the Golden Dome.

That record isn’t getting better this year, even with an Irish-influenced infusion of talent (ex-Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist will likely start for the Jayhawks). The top and the middle of the Big 12 could be affected by the conference’s swap of Missouri and Texas A&M for Texas Christian and West Virginia. It won’t change the bottom.

That’s where the Jayhawks will reside. There’s no immediate fix for a defense that yielded 516 yards per game last season. Only once did Kansas keep a team below 400 yards. Only three times did they keep an opponent under 30 points … and they lost two of those.

There’s a lot of work to be done nearly everywhere. The Jayhawks’ record has gotten worse four years running, quickly descending from that memorable 12-1 peak in 2007 before the school soured on Mark Mangino and later Gill. Kansas should be better – maybe even 4-8 better – in Weis’ first season, but the Jayhawks are a long ways from bowl contention. Big 12 play will probably be rough yet again.

Patrick Stevens

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