Moving along with the first appearances from the ACC and the Big East.
85. BOSTON COLLEGE
It used to be in this annual exercise that the Eagles received a bit of a bump. They were always unheralded, yet always played well and found themselves in a conference title hunt in November.
Well, those days are basically over. Boston College has regressed four years running, dipping from 11-3 to 9-5 post-Matt Ryan, then 8-5 in coach Frank Spaziani’s first season. From there, the Eagles went 7-6 (including a 2-5 start) and then 4-8 last fall.
A losing season isn’t good, but that’s not the worst part. The truth is, the Eagles have been dreadfully dull in recent years. They are the only BCS conference team to average less than 20 points in both of the last two seasons. BC cracked the 20-point plateau just three times a year ago – against I-AA Massachusetts, a dreadful Maryland team enduring perhaps its most forgettable day and an apathetic Miami bunch in the season finale.
Bad and boring is no way to go through life in major college football, and it doesn’t help that the Eagles have regressed from the tough, physical defenses that typified the Tom O’Brien era (and remained under successor Jeff Jagodzinski) to simply middle-of-the-road.
No ACC coach is on the spot to produce this year like Spaziani, who brought in ex-Kent State coach Doug Martin to revitalize a moribund offense. That’s a tough task, and it would be quite revealing if Spaziani can’t coax a bowl bid out of this bunch and still get a fifth season. But even a lower-tier postseason appearance isn’t likely to shake the impression this program is at best mired in the doldrums.
84. UTAH STATE
The Aggies’ long wait to climb out of a pit of irrelevance finally came to an end last season, and that was even before they made their first bowl appearance in 14 years. Utah State nearly knocked off defending national champ Auburn to open the season, then lost two more games before the end of September by a combined four points.
It makes the Aggies’ final 7-6 mark all the more impressive. Utah State won its share of close games – its five-game surge to end the regular season was earned by a total margin of 19 points – but their most lopsided setback was a 31-21 defeat at Fresno State.
Utah State offered up a semblance of a defense, and that made all the difference. A potent running game, which loses its top two rushers, was a fine complement. The key now is sustaining those strengths with different personnel.
The Aggies return the right side of their offensive line, as well as the two quarterbacks who combined for only six interceptions all of last season. It’s a solid start.
What helps more than anything is the shaky state of the WAC. Even with a slight backward slide, the Aggies should still win another seven games and head to a bowl game for the second straight season. Given where this program’s been, it’s doubtful anyone at Utah State would mind that outcome.
83. EAST CAROLINA
Time for a few “Did You Knows?”
Did you know … East Carolina would have ranked fifth in the ACC in average football attendance last season?
Did you know … the Pirates had Conference USA’s second-longest active bowl streak snapped in 2011?
Did you know … East Carolina was an abysmal minus-14 in turnover margin last season, better than only one team nationally on a per-game basis?
Did you know … despite losing veteran quarterback Dominique Davis, the Pirates have the bulk of their offensive line?
So what to make of these four loosely connected items? Well, Ruffin McNeill’s crew isn’t likely to be as unlucky as it was last year, it will be able to protect Davis’ successor and it has a fanbase unlikely to abandon the program after one subpar year. The Pirates won’t be a top-shelf C-USA team this season, but a manageable second half schedule suggests they’ll have a chance to work their way back to the postseason.
Call me as curious as anyone how Temple-in-the-Big East v2.0 is going to go over the long haul. The immediate returns, though, might not be pleasant.
Coach Steve Addazio rightfully earned praise last year for doing precisely what someone in his position should have done: He inherited a team designed to run-run-run and had it do precisely that.
Now, star tailback Bernard Piece is gone. More importantly, four offensive line starters also departed. It’s not the ideal time for the Owls to migrate back to the Big East, but it’s not as if the school will complain about being allowed back in the fold.
Not that Temple has a dominant resume against top-shelf teams, even over the last four years when it was clear Al Golden had things going in the right direction:
TEMPLE vs. POWER CONFERENCE TEAMS, 2008-2011
2008: Connecticut 12, @Temple 9 (OT)
2008: @Penn State 45, Temple 3
2009: @Penn State 31, Temple 6
2009: UCLA 30, Temple 21 (EagleBank Bowl)
2010: @Temple 30, Connecticut 16
2010: @Penn State 22, Temple 13
2011: Penn State 14, @Temple 10
2011: Temple 38, @Maryland 7
There’s progress, to be sure, just based on the margins against Penn State. But there’s only two wins on that chart, and there are enough losses all over the roster to believe things will be tougher this season.
The nonconference schedule is short on sure wins, and the Owls will certainly miss facing the likes of Akron (wins in five straight seasons by a combined 178-46) and Buffalo (wins in three straight years by a combined 113-13). This isn’t a bunch that will approach last year’s 9-4 mark, and will be fortunate to hit .500 while moving back up the food chain.
81. AIR FORCE
As always with the Falcons, you know what you’re going to get.
This year you just don’t know who you’re going to get it from.
The Falcons graduated a massive senior class; they went into their Military Bowl loss to Toledo with eight starters on both offense and defense. Long-time quarterback Tim Jefferson is gone, as are plenty of familiar names from back-to-back Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy winners.
Here’s the thing: Air Force has an offensive system that works and has maintained plenty of stability under coach Troy Calhoun. Moreover, the schedule is incredibly helpful: Idaho State, a near-certain loss at Michigan, a bye week and then dates with UNLV and Colorado State in September.
That’s a friendly grace period for the Falcons, who could easily be 3-1 when Navy comes calling at the start of October even if there are some struggles with inexperience. They later get Nevada at home and are the fortunate bunch that avoids Boise State altogether in its Mountain West swansong. This bunch won’t be as good as two or three years ago, but it should be among the contenders to finish second in the conference.