College Football Lookahead: Nos. 101-105

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Something this annual exercise and the weather have in common: Wading through triple digits isn’t exactly the easiest thing to deal with.

No matter.

Here’s five teams that, if things break right, could find themselves in bowl games when the season comes to an end. If things break as expected, they’ll probably be in the middle of non-power conferences.

105. NORTH TEXAS

The Mean Green made substantial progress in coach Dan McCarney’s first season, advancing from bumbling to simply subpar.

Credit some of that to McCarney knowing what he’s doing. Of course, North Texas’ stunning decline from Sun Belt contender to bottom feeder in the second half of the Aughts made a 5-7 season worth praising.

Dig into those numbers, and the Mean Green wasn’t terrible at much (defending the pass and any sort of return game), but above average nationally in only a smattering of categories (net punting, turnover margin, sacks and sacks allowed).

There isn’t much back on defense, and this was never going to be an immediate turnaround for McCarney (who suffered a stroke in February but nonetheless was back for spring practice). Nonetheless, North Texas could crack the top half of the Sun Belt if things break right.

There’s one minor problem: The Mean Green hopped on the wheel-o-realignment and landed in Conference USA starting in 2013. That won’t make returning the postseason prohibitively difficult, but it probably pushes North Texas’ chances of seriously contending for a league title again back a few years.

104. BALL STATE

In one year, Pete Lembo established that Ball State fans can probably expect his teams to better than the ones Stan Parrish had and not nearly as good as the peak of the Brady Hoke years.

This is not a shock. Hoke is now overseeing the restoration of Michigan’s program. Parrish was 8-49-1 in his last two head coaching stops. There’s a rather wide divide in between.

Lembo coaxed six wins out of a team with a mediocre offense, a dreadful defense and a near-even turnover margin, which reflects a bit of resourcefulness. Folks in Muncie should have found that a solid season.

The problem is, the defense probably isn’t going to be vastly improved (half of the starters are gone, which could admittedly be viewed as either welcome or unfortunate). Even if the offense is better equipped to play as quickly as Lembo would like, they’re likely to find themselves needing to score more than 30 points to win.

The schedule is unkind; the Cardinals get the top two teams from the Eastern Division (Ohio and Kent State) and none of the flotsam at the bottom. It adds up to a step backward in Muncie, Matching last year’s 6-6 mark would be an impressive feat.

103. WESTERN KENTUCKY

The easiest thing to point to when assessing the Hilltoppers is the loss of the school’s career leading rusher, Bobby Rainey.

He’ll be missed, no doubt, but Western Kentucky brings back much of its offensive line from last year. The running game probably won’t be a major issue.

But here’s a nugget to consider: The Hilltoppers have not defeated a major-college nonconference opponent since moving up in 2008. That’s a big old 0-for-14, and Alabama, Kentucky (of “they supposed to be SEC” fame) and Southern Mississippi loom in September.

And here’s another number: Western was 3-1 in games decided by single digits last season, capturing both contests that went to overtime.

There are still hurdles for the Hilltoppers to overcome after making a leap of five victories last season. Expect a bit of a correction, though the program is still in far better shape now than it was a couple years ago.

102. TROY

The Sun Belt’s model of consistency abruptly ran out of gas last season, plummeting to its first sub-.500 season since 2005. The Trojans even lost twice in conference play at home, matching their total of Sun Belt defeats on their own field from the previous four seasons combined.

So where do Larry Blakeney and Troy go from here?

Presumably back into the top half of the conference. For the Trojans’ many foibles while going 3-9, they could still collect yards through the air. That, coupled with the return of Corey Robinson, at least lends hope Troy can get back above 400 yards per game – a plateau they reached every season between 2007 and 2010.

The headache will come in revitalizing a defense that was pounded in every way imaginable and couldn’t sustain a capable pass rush. Experience will only help the Trojans so much.

Still, it’s never smart to count Blakeney and his experience out. He does, after all, have more seasons at Troy (21) than the other nine Sun Belt coaches have combined (20) at their respective schools. He’s also never presided over consecutive losing seasons. This might not be a team that contends for a conference title, but it will be a nuisance as it navigates its way to a .500ish season.

101. MIAMI (OHIO)

The RedHawks added all-name candidate Jack Snowball as part of its recruiting class earlier this year. And while the running back might contribute early, what Miami needs is to avoid a rough nonconference slate from snowballing into a losing season.

In the first half of the schedule, Miami visits Ohio State, Boise State and Cincinnati. None of those games seem particularly promising, but there is a decent chance for the RedHawks to upend Southern Illinois, Massachusetts and Akron before the end of September.

So here’s the deal: If Miami’s 3-3, it will be in decent shape to make something of its season. Quarterback Zac Dysert is a capable passer who helps make up for the absence of a rushing attack, and a friendly cross-division schedule (Central Michigan and Ball State) make things manageable.

But a surprising loss (especially to either UMass or Akron) in the early going narrows the RedHawks’ margin for error considerably.

Of course, this is Miami, home to some of the wildest swings of fortune in college football since 2005. From 7-4 to 2-10 to 6-7 to 2-10 to 1-11 to 10-4 to 4-8, this is hardly a static program. There are worse places to look for a MAC sleeper than the Cradle of Coaches.

Patrick Stevens

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