The Washington Times - July 19, 2012, 08:27PM

A second segment as a bonus today …

70. MARYLAND

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The picture next to the phrase “dumpster fire” in the dictionary – were that phrase included in a dictionary – very well could be a lowlight reel from the Terrapins’ first season under Randy Edsall. It was a 2-10 season that felt every bit as miserable as the record. The ensuing player exodus and coordinator turnover couldn’t be considered surprising. Truly almost everything that could have gone wrong – some within Edsall’s control, some outside of it – did.

External expectations for this season seem to sit somewhere between simply wearing matching uniforms (never a sure thing with so many combinations to choose from) to maybe doubling last year’s win total. It is a bar so low Maryland can step over it.

And the Terps probably will, for several reasons. One, it’s exceptionally hard to be 2-10 bad in consecutive years. Two, both coordinator hires represent upgrades for the program (Mike Locksley over the exiled-to-Manitoba Gary Crowton on offense, Brian Stewart in place of the overmatched Todd Bradford on defense). Three, there couldn’t possibly be so many injuries on defense as there were last year (and the front seven does figure to be a strength for this bunch).

There’s also a very real chance the Terps jump out to a credible start. There’s a near-certain loss at West Virginia in the fourth week of the season, but Maryland also gets William & Mary, Temple, Connecticut and Wake Forest in the first five games, and then have October road games against Virginia and Boston College. There’s wins to be had in there, and the possibility of a 4-1 mark shouldn’t be discounted.

Still, there’s no shortage of floats in the parade of disasters that could doom the Terps this fall. Quarterback C.J. Brown will be backed up by two true freshmen; as a footnote, the last Maryland QB to start wire-to-wire was Sam Hollenbach in 2006. Parts of the offensive line are generally untested, which is never a welcome sign. Transfers have robbed Maryland, which has 26 scholarship juniors and seniors, of depth in its upper classes and left most units vulnerable to injury. The November schedule (Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina) would be viewed as a brute even if the Terps weren’t coming off a trainwreck season.

Maryland’s financial woes served as a backdrop to Edsall’s turn as a human pinata last fall. He has four years and $8 million remaining on his contract after this season, so the hot seat talk seems a tad premature. At the same time, Maryland needs to make more money off football (i.e. sell more tickets), and the only way it will is to win and win fast. It’s quite the pickle.

Edsall can promote the value of a process and intangibles such as “toughness” and “competitiveness” and “buying in” all he likes, but truth be told he’ll find a more receptive audience for those platitudes if there’s the demonstrable progress of a postseason bid to show off. That’ll be a slog, though Maryland should at least come much closer to a low-tier bowl appearance than it did last year.

69. SYRACUSE

The Orange’s defense reset from fabulous to just south of average last year, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Their offense improved from bad to slightly less bad. That, unfortunately, wasn’t a surprise, either.

For as much as Doug Marrone has done to finally haul Syracuse out of the Greg Robinson-induced Dark Ages of Central New York College Football, there’s one not-so-small problem that lingers. I like to call it “the offense.”

SYRACUSE TOTAL OFFENSE, 2003-2011

YearTotal Offense   NCAA rank   
Big East rank   
2003369.870th5th
2004349.078th8th
2005257.4115th8th
2006264.0110th8th
2007291.9114th8th
2008270.2114th8th
2009330.494th7th
2010322.997th6th
2011    
348.290th5th

 

Put another way: Troy Nunes was still an actual absolute on-field magician the last time Syracuse ranked in the top half of the country or the Big East in total offense as opposed to being a hilariously ironic source for a blog name.

There’s clearly progress, but it’s in the form of a leap from wretched to not very good, and then in modest increments from there. And if the Orange is going to take a serious step forward – the kind that would allow for serious contention in the Big East this year and the ACC in 2013 and beyond – they’re going to need to score more than 20 points in a league game more than once a season.

Appropriately enough, then, the best reason to think the Orange will be back in a bowl is improvement on defense. Ryan Nassib was solid enough at quarterback, but there’s not much established help around him. With few guaranteed wins either in or outside of the league, Syracuse’s final season in the Big East will probably wind up a lot like penultimate run through the conference: 5-7 with more than a little frustration on the side.

68. NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Much like MAC West Division foe Toledo, the Huskies scored almost as easily as they breathed last season. Never was that more obvious for either team than when they faced each other – a 63-60 Northern Illinois victory.

Much like the Rockets, the Huskies also have plenty of holes on offense to fill. Quarterback Chandler Harnish, he of the 28 touchdowns passing and 11 more rushing, left behind the notable gaping chasm.

It will take some time for Jordan Lynch to settle in, but he’ll get the benefit of the return of three of Northern’s top four wideouts. An unremarkable defense returns much of its personnel, including just about everyone in the secondary. That side of the ball should be better.

But the best reason to believe the Huskies will achieve at a decent clip – perhaps not another 11-3 run, but certainly play a role in the MAC title hunt – is an immensely friendly schedule.

Nonconference play includes Tennessee-Martin, Army and Kansas. The cross-division conference games are Akron, Buffalo and Massachusetts. Toledo must visit DeKalb. Only three bowl teams from last season (Iowa, Toledo and Western Michigan) are on tap. The Huskies will probably experience a dip, but it’s unlikely to be much.

67. SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI

America’s most consistent team went and threw a curveball last season, tossing up a 12-2 record after collecting between six and nine victories every year between 1994 and 2010.

Appropriately, it was a somewhat predictable outburst. The Golden Eagles had been 8-3 the previous year before a pair of close losses, and the program was almost entirely made up of coach Larry Fedora’s players. Almost just as predictably, Fedora scooted out of Hattiesburg for a power conference program (North Carolina) and Southern Miss needed a new coach.

Enter Ellis Johnson, who has crisscrossed the south for three decades as an assistant (though there was a head coaching stint at The Citadel tossed in). The 60-year-old is well-traveled, and the Golden Eagles’ consistently solid defense will likely remain that way for some time to come.

The far more immediate concern is what happens now that Austin Davis, the school’s career passing leader, is gone. Yes, Davis surpassed He Who Shall Not Retire Quietly last season, and he also led Southern Miss to a victory over Houston in the Conference USA title game.

The odds are against a return trip, especially with a midseason visit to East Division favorite Central Florida.  The nonconference schedule is also tricky, with trips to Nebraska and Western Kentucky and visits from Louisville and Boise State. Somehow get a split, and odds are good the Golden Eagles collect their 19th straight winning season. If not, and there might not be much margin for error during a manageable back end of the schedule.

66. ILLINOIS

The annual Ron Zook hot seat chatter, a veritable staple in college football since about 2003, is finally done. And Zook went out in a way that probably only he could: A firing for pedestrian play few could argue with even though the Illini opened last season 6-0.

With six straight losses, Zook was sent packing, and the Illini eventually brought in Toledo’s Tim Beckman. His Rockets had a formidable offense and a forgettable defense. Illinois last year had a forgettable offense and a formidable defense.

It’s a beautiful match, and things probably won’t average out just yet. For one thing, the early schedule is tricky. Also: The Illini must visit Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin in a brutal four-game span.

Fortunately, everyone who passes through Champaign is beatable: Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. There might not be a top-40 team in the bunch. If the Illini can hold serve at home, they’ll head to a lower-tier bowl for the third straight year.

That would constitute success for Beckman, who at least inherits an experienced quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase. Then again, the offense managed a meager 66 points over the final six regular season contests last year. Developing a renewed offensive pulse might be a more welcome accomplishment in Beckman’s first year than just winning six games. If both happen, so much the better.

Patrick Stevens