College Football Lookahead: Nos. 86-90

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The last segment introduced the first teams from the Big Ten and Big 12. When there’s an assortment of high-caliber teams at the top of a conference, whoever happens to be at the bottom is often in line for a rough go of it.

In this group of five teams, the bottom of the Pac-12 and SEC are introduced, starting with …

90. COLORADO

The possibility of a 3-0 start aside (though that Sept. 15 visit to Fresno State has “Admiral Ackbar Special” written all over it), there’s a chance the Buffaloes bottom out this season.

That’s saying something for a school seven years and a couple coaches removed from its last winning season. And it’s also saying something for a team that in a seven-game span lost games 48-7, 52-24, 45-2, 48-14, 42-17 and 45-6.

There was a home pummeling of a long-since-deflated Arizona bunch in that mix, but that was still a ton of terrible for coach Jon Embree to absorb in his first year. And if experience matters – and while it’s far from an end-all, there is some value to it – there could be some more drubbings this fall.

In the Buffaloes’ post-spring depth chart, just six seniors are listed as at least co-starters (including just one outright starter on offense). Contrast that with five sophomore starters on offense, another five on defense and two more among the primary specialists.

One of those sophomores is Texas transfer Connor Wood, who left the spring with the starting quarterback job. He and plenty of teammates will receive some on-the-job training, and it will probably pay off for them and Embree over the long haul in the increasingly scary Pac-12. The long haul, though, isn’t likely to include 2012.

89. WYOMING

The Cowboys head into the season with every reason to believe they can snag their first back-to-back winning seasons since a strong run under Joe Tiller and Dana Dimel in the latter half of the 1990s.

Chew on that for a moment, and then acknowledge the Pokes have done quite well in re-establishing themselves under Dave Christensen. Another solid season to follow up last year’s 8-5, and some smart power conference school will come calling for Christensen’s services.

And credit him and the Cowboys for one other major development: Stuck in a sea of freshman quarterbacks last year, they picked out the most promising one (Brett Smith) and figured out a way to make it work. Smith gets a nod here, too; he completed 61 percent of his passes and tossed only 11 interceptions while leading the Cowboys in rushing as well as passing.

Wyoming drops back to one lower-division opponent this year, so the schedule is a bit more imposing. But the Cowboys draw Mountain West dregs New Mexico and UNLV on the road, ensuring a fair number of toss-up games (Air Force, Colorado State and San Diego State) are played in Laramie.

Still, the Cowboys were outgained in eight games last year (and won three of those contests, anyway). Toss in a friendly turnover margin (plus-12), and Wyoming is due for a minor regression in the win-loss mark. That said, another eight-win season isn’t out of the question, and Wyoming could just as easily finish second in the Mountain West as it could right in the middle.

88. KENTUCKY

The late Aughts were heady days in Lexington, at least where football was concerned. The previously unfamiliar sensation of regular pigskin success arrived at the commonwealth’s most notable basketball power, as did the expectation of a chicken in every pot and a Music City Bowl invitation in the mailbox every December.

Alas, the returns have ever-so-steadily diminished. Kentucky missed the postseason last year for the first time since 2005, and it seems rather strongly implied that Joker Phillips would be wise to snag six wins and re-assert Kentucky’s stranglehold on one of the SEC’s lower-tier bowl bids.

The path to doing so is cruising through the nonconference schedule and somehow snagging two games in the league. Kentucky is 25-4 outside the SEC since 2006, with two of those losses coming in bowl games and the other two to Louisville in 2006 and 2011. Another regular feature was handling Vanderbilt (seven times in eight years) … at least until the Commodores went and made themselves respectable last season.

Those two games – Louisville to open the season on the road, Vanderbilt at home in November – will be Kentucky’s bellwethers. The other three nonconference games are perfectly winnable, and the Wildcats are usually good to opportunistically knock off someone other than Vanderbilt in SEC play somewhere along the way.

Phillips managed to carry some goodwill into the offseason when the Wildcats snapped a 26-year losing streak to Tennessee in the season finale. But with a young team that sported a feeble offense last season, impatience could flare up quickly. There might not be a coach in all the land who could use the boost of an opening weekend win as much as Phillips does as he enters his third season.

87. BOWLING GREEN

Regardless of how they do, the Falcons might have the oddest assortment of teams on a nonconference schedule in recent memory: Florida, Idaho, Virginia Tech and Rhode Island.

That’s probably good for 2-2, and Ye Olde Off Ramp U. also plays Akron, Miami (Ohio), Massachusetts, Eastern Michigan and Buffalo. The path to bowl eligibility isn’t exactly hazardous.

But it’s not a given, either, if the defense doesn’t show some semblance of adequacy against the run and a new group of wideouts can’t produce quickly in coach Dave Clawson’s pass-oriented system.

It’s been an odd road for Clawson, jumping from Richmond (where he built a team that would win a national title under Mike London) to Tennessee (for an ill-fated coordinator turn) to Bowling Green. He’s 14-23, and probably needs some results soon.

Last year’s abysmal turnover margin (minus-13) will likely progress closer to average, and that should help the Falcons substantially. The schedule, though, is the biggest bonus. With a reasonably veteran team, Bowling Green should challenge Ohio for the top spot in the MAC’s East Division.

86. SAN DIEGO STATE

Quarterback Ryan Lindley is gone. So is star tailback Ronnie Hillman, he of the 1700+ yards last season. Also out the door is a good chunk of a solid if unspectacular defense.

On the bright side, the Aztecs have the awesomely named Seamus McMorrow coming in to handle both kicking and punting as a true freshman.

There’s more good for the Aztecs, of course, namely that after a pair of bowl bids there’s a foundation in place to withstand some losses. And it’s probably better to have that while operating in this phase of the Mountain West-WAC mind meld rather than the somewhat more imposing (and geographically massive) neighborhood that awaits next year in the Big East.

The Aztecs should be spunky in Rocky Long’s second season, and maybe even good enough to fend off not only Air Force and Wyoming but WAC refugees Fresno State and Nevada for the second spot in the conference behind Boise State.

The schedule is blissfully backloaded, with Boise State, Air Force and Wyoming all awaiting in November. It is not-so-blissfully devoid of New Mexico, which makes the Aztecs one of the two teams to miss out on one of the league’s punching bags (Fresno State doesn’t play UNLV). Nonetheless, with five of their first seven at home, there is time for San Diego State to set itself up nicely for a third straight postseason appearance and maybe even another eight-win season.

Patrick Stevens

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