The Washington Times - August 10, 2008, 09:13AM

We’ll get to North Carolina soon enough.

But there’s teams ahead of them to crank out first.


60. Miami (Ohio). The deal for the RedHawks is simple: Visit the rectangular nirvana more often, and there’s a decent chance they can win the MAC.

Miami has stumbled through consecutive losing seasons, but it still managed to win the MAC East a year ago even while scoring less than 20 points a game. But the defense is sound, and Clayton Mullins and Joey Hudson are probably their league’s best linebacker tandem.

That will only help so much if the offense can’t produce. Miami is known as a cradle of coaches, maybe the cradle of coaches. What the RedHawks really need is a quarterback who is about 75 percent of what Ben Roethlisberger was five years ago in Oxford. It’s definitely doable, and at the very least Miami will be back in a bowl game this year.

59. Bowling Green. The friendly denizens of Ye Olde Off Rampe University (seriously, how many on-campus stadiums are clearly visible from the interstate) have reason to smile: The Falcons should be able to at least match last year’s eight-win season if their defense can even remotely stall opponents’ running games.

Of course, being able to run themselves will help, too.

Here’s a nifty thing about BG: It didn’t play many close games, only two decided by 10 points or less. That means the Falcons were a pretty legitimate 8-5, the bowl blowout loss to Tulsa notwithstanding. They also bring back 17 starters from that team, which means growth can be expected this year.

Growing on a solid eight-win team is a good thing. That’s why they’re the slight favorite here to win the MAC East.

58. New Mexico. Number of bowl berths for the Lobos in the last six years under Rocky Long: Five.

Number of bowl berths in school history before that: Six.

Long merits plenty of credit for making New Mexico remotely relevant in football. It doesn’t hurt to have a nascent bowl game in your home stadium to go to every year.

The Lobos aren’t at the same level as Brigham Young, Texas Christian or Utah this year. But they ought to be the Mountain West’s next-best team by quite a bit, and they might even have enough to poach a victory from visiting Arizona and Texas A&M.

57. Houston. The Cougars showed once again invalidated the old chestnut “The best offense is a good defense.” Actually, the best offense is a really, really well-tuned offense. Trouble is, versatile tailback Anthony Alridge is gone. But who’s back: All-name lineman SirVincent Rogers. Somewhere, SirValiant Brown is smiling.

In all seriousness, the Cougars will be fine even if nearly half of their offensive starters are gone. There’s still plenty of talent in the program, Conference USA isn’t especially scary (only two other teams in the league are slated higher in this ranking) and new coach Kevin Sumlin has a chance to be one of the offseason’s best hires.

A not-so-bold prediction: The Cougars will win nine games, permitting Sumlin to rank among the top two in victories for this year’s group of first-year coaches.

56. North Carolina. The Tar Heels have so much going for them —- Butch Davis, great facilities, softer division of the ACC, favorable interdivisional slate.

Could a huge surge happen this year? Sure, it’s possible. Is it worth betting on? Not really.

The Tar Heels should be headed to a bowl game this year, and that will make for a successful season. They’ll be fun to watch, thanks to a passing game that could end up as the ACC’s best.

But will they really be good? That’s iffy. Davis has this program going the right way, and if Miami continues its bumbling clown dance from last year, chances are the Tar Heels finish second in the Coastal Division to Virginia Tech.

But they might be better than only one team in the Atlantic (N.C. State), which means they’re a midpack team in the ACC. That’s OK. They’ll get closer to hopping off this highly subjective list of the programs with the most potential that did not register a top-10 finish in the final AP poll in the last 10 seasons (1998-2007):

1. Clemson (last top-10: 1990)

2. Pittsburgh (last top-10: 1982)

3. North Carolina (last top-10: 1997)

4. Arizona State (last top-10: 1996)

5. South Florida (last top-10: None; USF would rank higher if actually in Division I-A the entire time)

6. Arkansas (last top-10: 1982)

Also considered: Illinois, Mississippi, South Carolina, Syracuse, Texas A&M

 —- Patrick Stevens