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College Football Lookahead: Nos. 106-110

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Three Conference USA teams are included among today’s segment in the lookahead …

110. TULANE

There are two types of schools with any real claim to celebrating National Signing Day in the manner of a hallowed holiday.

One is the superpower that supposedly hauled in a ton of great players. The other is the downtrodden program that truly believes it signed any great players.

Tulane falls into the latter camp, but at least there’s hope in New Orleans after Bob Toledo’s uninspiring five-year run. Tulane never won more than four games in a season during that stretch, hardly a shocking development after rummaging through the coaching recycling bin.

Toledo’s replacement is Curtis Johnson, who comes across town after a stint as an assistant with the New Orleans Saints but is better known for a decade-long run as an assistant at Miami.

Few teams could use an infusion of excitement as much as the Green Wave, who are 10 years removed from their last winning season. Johnson’s talented freshmen might not manage much this year – they are, after all, freshmen – but there’s at least some optimism going forward. Surpassing last year’s 2-11 mark is a reasonable goal this fall for Tulane.

109. TEXAS-EL PASO

The Miners have logged six straight losing seasons (though one was a 6-7 year with a loss in a bowl game).

Coach Mike Price is entering the final year of his contract.

Not exactly the most difficult situation to interpret, is it?

The Miners have never been horrible under Price, bottoming out with 4-8 records in 2007 and 2009. They were horrible more often than not between 1989 and 2003, the season before Price landed in El Paso. There is value in paying back Price for that improvement.

That said, UTEP’s defense has been a consistent liability in recent years, and September dates with Oklahoma and Wisconsin effectively ensure the Miners will need to go at least 4-4 in Conference USA play to become bowl eligible. That might be a tall order.

108. EASTERN MICHIGAN

Congrats to Eagles coach Ron English for coaxing a 6-6 record out of a woebegone program last season. Given recent history, that was probably worthy of a parade through downtown Ypsilanti.

The tricky part will be replicating and perhaps even building on that success after the exodus of a good chunk of Eastern Michigan’s defensive talent.

The Eagles were solid across the board on defense last season, cutting opponents’ yards per carry from 6.1 to 4.1. They’ll look a lot different on the defensive front, though, and that’s usually not a welcome development.

Nonetheless, Eastern Michigan has established itself as a capable rushing team over the last two seasons. It will need to continue – and perhaps even be paired with a semblance of a passing game – for English to build on last year’s breakthrough.

The Eagles visit a pair of Big Ten teams (Purdue and Michigan State) and are a bit unlucky since none of Akron, Buffalo and Massachusetts are on the schedule. Eastern’s finally on the right track, but it might have a detour back to 3-9 or 4-8 before it takes its next step.

107. RICE

It’s a common theme in Conference USA – a team in the bottom third of the league with a subpar offense and a well below average defense stumbles to losing season after losing season.

That’s the Owls’ story, and chances are they’ll probably stick to it for another year.

Rice has allowed at least 400 yards per game for seven seasons running. Its 33.3 points allowed per game last season was nearly its best in that category over that span.

Assuming there isn’t a vast leap, it will be on the offense to carry the Owls toward their first bowl bid in four years. That’s how it worked back in 2008; Rice simply outscored opponents with the Chase Clement-to-Jarret Dillard Show.

But how realistic is it to expect an unremarkable offense to grow substantially with only one offensive line starter back in place? Not very. There are chances to snag wins scattered throughout the schedule, but there’s a very narrow path for Rice to navigate to reach .500. Chances are, a third straight 4-8 season (or at least a record with a game of that) in the offing.

106. IDAHO

Like New Mexico State, the Vandals are on the verge of becoming football orphans. Despite its best efforts to find a conference, Idaho is probably looking at a short-term existence as an independent and the nearly impossible task of cobbling together a home schedule should the WAC fade from existence as appears likely.

The Vandals might face a tougher road than New Mexico State which, while it isn’t particularly close to much, still has an an annual in-state series (New Mexico) and there are enough Conference USA and Sun Belt within a couple states the Aggies could play to plausibly survive as an independent.

Idaho was already in a far-flung corner of the college football frontier (nearby Washington State at least has Pac-12 membership), and it became more isolated when Boise State skipped from the WAC to the Mountain West last year. The likely end of the WAC amplifies that effect.

It also makes this an especially valuable year for the Vandals, who lost four games by single digits while stumbling to 2-10 last season. Idaho’s defense has never been noteworthy under sixth-year coach Robb Akey, but the Vandals were strong offensively in 2009 (8-5) and competent the following year (6-7). They descended into ineffective last season after the loss of four-year starter Nathan Enderle and wound up 2-10.

The reality in the crumbling WAC is it isn’t difficult to envision any holdover from making a push into the top three in the conference. That includes Idaho, which needs to find a solution at quarterback to make a realistic bid for a .500 or better season. The Vandals should be better, no doubt, but it will be difficult to manage a bowl appearance before entering the rugged world of independence.

Patrick Stevens

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