The Washington Times - July 18, 2012, 03:13PM

Rolling along with a segment that includes maybe the most interesting coaching hire of the offseason. But that’s not the first team in this group …

80. MINNESOTA

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There are two parts to climbing out of the hole Jerry Kill inherited at Minnesota.

One is actually making the Golden Gophers a somewhat respectable outfit again – the sort that won’t lose to New Mexico State and North Dakota State in consecutive weeks like it did last year. And there was a hint of a decent team the second half of last season: Minnesota beat Iowa and Illinois (the latter quite convincingly) and outgained Michigan State and Northwestern in road losses.

The second part is trickier: How does Minnesota move ahead of any of Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern for an extended period to gain traction in the Legends Division?

That probably isn’t going to happen this season, though all things considered the Gophers have a tolerable set of crossover opponents (Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin) and the September nonconference schedule isn’t a brute.

The Gophers would be wise to get while the getting is good, and that might be difficult with a team that’s still reasonably young. A solid start puts Minnesota in position to appear in a low-tier bowl. September struggles, though, could lead to something similar to last year’s 3-9 even though things do appear to be headed in the right direction.

79. FRESNO STATE

Last year’s 1-5 finish – complete with four losses by a combined 20 points – spelled the end for Pat Hill. It was a good run for Hill, and from the outside it was a bit surprising the Bulldogs would make a change after only their second losing season in the last 13 years.

At the same time, it’s fair to wonder just how much beyond its peak in the middle of the last decade Fresno realistically could have gone. The bullet points of Hill’s tenure could best be broken down into three categories: Scaring the bejeezus out of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Co. in 2005; inevitably picking off a power conference opponent in most seasons; and usually losing to at least one nondescript WAC opponent annually.

That was then. Now, Tim DeRuyter takes over for Hill as Fresno flees to the Mountain West like any self-respecting long-time WAC school that happens to inhabit a somewhat useful television market.

The Bulldogs will have a chance at one of their patented victories over a BCS team (Colorado) in September, and also have the benefit of Air Force, Hawaii, San Diego State and Wyoming all paying a visit to Fresno. That’s nearly all the toss-up games in the Mountain West’s sub-Boise tier on the Bulldogs’ home field.

So what’s not to like? The defense wasn’t very good last season. There are naturally new systems all over the place with a different staff. The Bulldogs don’t enjoy a bye week until mid-November, which means there isn’t an obvious place to reset things. The guess here is Fresno finds its way back into the bowl picture, but a second-division finish in its Mountain West debut isn’t out of the question for Fresno.

78. ARIZONA

The unpleasant end in Ann Arbor notwithstanding, Rich Rodriguez has enjoyed at least some success just about everywhere he’s been. Yes, even Michigan was trending favorably before Rodriguez’s firing after the 2010 season.

So this ranking is not a reflection of Rodriguez’s long-term prospects. Arizona might have made as good a hire as anyone outside of Columbus, Ohio, and perhaps even better than that.

But whatever you do, please don’t expect instant success in the desert. It just isn’t how Rich Rod rolls, at least not in his high-profile head coaching jobs.

PROGRESS UNDER RICH RODRIGUEZ (*-as offensive coordinator)

School (1st year)  
Year Prior  
Year 1
Year 2  
Year 3  
Glenville St. (1990)
1-81-7-14-5-16-4
Tulane* (1997)
2-97-412-0
Clemson* (1999)
3-86-69-3
West Virginia (2001)
7-53-89-48-5
Michigan (2008)
9-43-95-77-6

 

Things are already torn down in Tucson, which helps immensely. But the Wildcats will be segueing from a pass-happy system to Rodriguez’s read-option scheme, and there’s just about no way that will go smoothly. It hasn’t in his past two stops.

This year’s a mulligan, plain and simple, or at least it should be. Arizona will probably wind up in the ballpark of last year’s record (4-8); if it happens to replicate the victory over Arizona State, so much the better. Things shouldn’t get interesting, though, until 2013.

77. MISSISSIPPI

Might Mississippi be the nirvana to potential college football headline writers? There sure hasn’t been a shortage of potential headlines for the better part of a decade thanks to the ramblings of Ed Orgeron and the countless puns to be made from the names of Houston Nutt and now Hugh Freeze.

(And if you’re taking a wider view of the state, “Croom” was a noun, a verb and maybe even a few other parts of speech, though it’s tough to imagine it as a conjunction).

Back on topic: Freeze is the fourth coach employed at Ole Miss in the last nine seasons, and his long-term prospects are tied in part to the same thing as his three predecessors: Finding someone to play quarterback almost as effectively as Eli Manning did back in the day. Realistically, only Jevan Snead (well, the 2008 version of him) has come close.

The Rebels start over again, and Freeze inherits a program that has dropped 16 of its last 17 conference games and has lost three in a row to Mississippi State for the first time since 1939-42. Even Orgeron won won one Egg Bowl.

As well as Freeze did last year, transforming Arkansas State from a 4-8 team to a 10-win outfit, this is going to take a little bit longer. There’s three wins to be had in September, but after that it’s dicey. Even one conference road win would be stunning (the Rebels visit Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana State, and frankly a four-win season would constitute a positive step this fall.

76. WESTERN MICHIGAN

It’s going to be a fun experiment on offense this season in Kalamazoo.

No, seriously, it will be. Take an extremely capable two-year starter at quarterback (Alex Carder), bring back most of his offensive line, take away his three most reliable targets and … Presto! MAC-tion magic.

Carder is the guy who could make the Broncos an interesting team beyond the possibility of MAC division title. Sadly, Western Michigan doesn’t get involved in any wacky midweek MAC-tion this season, so there won’t be a random Tuesday night to get a look at a guy who has thrown 61 touchdowns against 26 interceptions in his career.

Of course, Carder might need to improve on last season simply because of a leaky defense. It’s that bunch that was roasted for at least 450 yards in six of eight games at one point last year (including a 66-63 loss to Toledo).

Western should finish in the top half of their division, but Northern Illinois and Toledo both remain imposing program. The Broncos get both at home, however, and they also have an set of power conference opponents (at Illinois, at Minnesota, vs. Connecticut) that could yield an victory or two. If there’s a MAC team that’s underrated on this list, it probably is Western Michigan.

Patrick Stevens