Yesterday, Michigan popped up. Another national champ from the last 15 years appears today. …
No. 45: WISCONSIN
The Badgers finally endured something of a decline in 2008, the forces of gravity (and competition) bringing down a program that really has enjoyed its golden age in the last decade and a half.
Consider: Wisconsin has played in a bowl in 14 of the last 16 years. Eight of those landed on New Year’s Day. It’s not like the Badgers have made a habit of squeaking into the postseason.
And Wisconsin was also a bit unlucky last year. The Badgers’ power running games was the same as it ever was, and the defense improved in just about every way other than points allowed.
Half of last year’s starters are gone, but the poor luck might be out of the way. Wisconsin probably isn’t any more talented than in ‘08, but sure looks like an 8-4 team (with the benefit of not having to play Penn State and Illinois).
No. 44: RUTGERS
With a schedule featuring five weekday games, the Scarlet Knights deserve honorary membership in the Mid-American Conference.
But besides the quirkiness of three Friday Night Lights experiences and just three Saturday dates after Oct. 3, Rutgers must also replace its career leader in passing (Mike Teel) and receiving (Kenny Britt) as it chases its fifth straight bowl berth.
Fortunately for the state university of New Jersey, coach Greg Schiano has pieced together a schedule worthy of that middle school science experiment where you chuck an egg off the roof of a building in some contraption and see if it can survive the fall.
My solution (or, more accurately, my parents’ solution) to that problem was to place the egg in a ziplock bag and surround it with popcorn, even if the low density limited the upside of the grading.
Think of Howard, Florida International, Texas Southern and Army as Orville Redenbacher‘s contribution to Rutgers’ 2009 season, with Maryland serving as a rogue unpopped kernel that could spoil some of the fun.
Nonetheless, Rutgers won’t be any worse than 4-1 out of conference, which means it doesn’t need to have a winning record in Big East play to reach a bowl game. Let’s just say last year’s 8-5 would be more impressive than a 9-4 this season.
No. 43: HOUSTON
What happens when a team that averages more than 40 points a game brings back nearly every skill position player?
They go out and win a conference title, dragging a so-so defense along for the ride.
That’s the plan in Cougar Town which will probably make it to December looking a lot better than the new ABC series of the same name, given the state of network sitcoms these days.
The biggest reason (for Houston’s success, I mean)? Junior quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for more than 5,000 yards a year ago; two more of those, difficult as they would be to come by, would send him past former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang atop the career passing list.
This year looks promising. Conference USA isn’t known for its low-scoring affairs, and Oklahoma State and Texas Tech highlight the nonconference schedule. Look for Keenum to put up some gaudy numbers, and the Cougars to win the league’s West Division.
No. 42: TENNESSEE
A lot of folks are trying to figure out what Lane Kiffin is going to do more of:
* Win titles
* Rankle opponents
* Commit recruiting violations
Here’s a guess that it won’t be the first one, because something people forget about is that it doesn’t often pay to be the guy after The Guy.
And regardless of how the Great Pumpkin navigated through the Aughts, from getting eclipsed by two programs in his own division and coming off as a bumpkin in a Michael Lewis book, the fact is Phil Fulmer did win a national title in 1998.
And recent history says that, for the most part, you don’t want to be the guy after a guy who did that (*-still on the job):
Sometimes the guy after The Guy can do just as well or even better (Erickson and Miles). More often than not, they do OK —- but not nearly as good as their predecessor.
The verdict: Tennessee will go ahead and win seven or eight games a year for a while, and it will have a new coach no later than 2015 (and quite possibly sooner).
Maybe Kiffin can be The Guy somewhere —- he is still quite young. But I’d bet a bluetick coonhound is just as likely to bring Rocky Top back to college football’s summit as Kiffin is. The guy after The Guy so rarely does.
No. 41: MISSOURI
Here’s an example of where, despite the hard numbers facing a program, you have to have a little bit of faith in a recent track record.
For much of the decade, Missouri has been in capable hands at quarterback, first with Brad Smith and most recently with Chase Daniel.
So while Blaine Gabbert, Daniel’s replacement, probably isn’t as good —- and Missouri isn’t going to roll up its third straight 10-win season —- the Tigers offense will probably capable enough of securing another bowl berth.
The schedule is a mixed bag; a neutral-site game against Illinois and a trip to Nevada are dicey, but Missouri could also be 4-0 entering October. The Tigers don’t quite look like a division favorite with Kansas and Nebraska around, but they’re not going to fall off the map, either.
—- Patrick Stevens