The Washington Times - July 12, 2011, 10:28AM

Getting the countdown started back up after a weekend break …



Chances the Cowboys do better than last year’s 3-9 freefall? Pretty good.

Chances they make a bowl game after a one-year hiatus? Not quite as encouraging.

Wyoming plays a pair of teams from the former Division I-AA, which means if it beats Weber State (6-5 in 2010) and Texas State (4-7), it has to scrounge up five victories from its other 10 games. And those contests include meetings with Boise State, Nebraska and Texas Christian (all probable top-15 teams) and trips to Air Force and San Diego State.

It’s a little early to be talking about a make-or-break season for third-year coach Dave Christensen, the former offensive guru at Missouri. He’s won a postseason game (2009 New Mexico Bowl) and snagged the Pokes’ first back-to-back victories over Border War rival Colorado State since 1991-92. For a guy who’s 10-15, he’s done some things to pacify the masses.

Still, the post-spring depth chart goes four deep at quarterback, and all are freshmen. That’s a concern, even for a program with this particular problem:


4: Wyoming

3: San Jose State
3: Vanderbilt
3: Washington State

2: Akron
2: Eastern Michigan
2: New Mexico
2: New Mexico State

In that context, playing QB Roulette with a bunch of freshmen doesn’t seem like the worst of ideas. At the same time, if it doesn’t work, Wyoming will be fortunate to win more than four games.

94. UAB

Break out the league stats, and it looks like UAB should be smack dab in the middle of Conference USA. Out of 17 NCAA-tracked categories, the Blazers were in the middle tier (fifth through eighth) among C-USA in 13 of them. Toss in a fourth and a ninth, and UAB was unremarkable compared to its peers besides its solid pass protection (led the league in fewest sacks allowed) and lousy punt return unit (next-to-last).

Sure enough, the Blazers were where their numbers suggested they’d be —- fourth in their six-team division. Put all 12 teams together, and UAB tied for seventh in conference wins. Alas, that pesky nonconference slate got in the way again and UAB remained home for the holidays for the sixth straight year.

How to end that drought? A good step would be splitting the nonconference schedule, a task easier said than done with Florida and Mississippi State on tap. Still, the Blazers last won multiple nonconference games in 2005. UAB hasn’t beaten a pair of a major-college nonleague foes since 2004.

Assuming UAB remains roughly an average C-USA team —- and after league marks of 3-5, 4-4 and 3-5 the last three years, it’s no stretch to presume that —- it’ll be crucial for the Blazers to win road tests at Troy and Florida Atlantic.

It’s possible. UAB returns a quarterback (Bryan Ellis) who had 25 touchdowns against 12 interceptions a year ago, and returns a majority of starters from an outfit that lost five games by eight points or less. The Blazers won’t contend for a league title, but if they continue to be average at just about everything, a lower-tier bowl berth isn’t out of the question.

93. RICE

You see a team that improved its scoring offense by more than 10 points in 2009 and returns a boatload of starters and ask “Why can’t Rice be a Conference USA sleeper?”

I see a nonconference schedule that features Texas, Purdue, Baylor and Northwestern and ask “Just how are these guys going to get to six wins?”

The C-USA schedule isn’t any friendlier. The Owls visit Southern Mississippi, Houston and Southern Methodist, league title contenders all.

If this ranking was based solely on talent, Rice would probably come in a little bit higher. Well, offensive talent, anyway. The defense yielded almost 449 yards a game last year, the best figure in coach David Bailiff‘s four seasons. It also checked in 107th nationally.

Sadly for the Owls, they have to play who they have to play. Rice gets likely C-USA bottom-feeders Memphis, Texas-El Paso and Tulane at home, so it’s not hard to figure out where the first three wins are coming from. But it’ll be awfully difficult to do much better than last year’s 4-8 based on who will be awaiting the Owls this fall.


Turner Gill didn’t fib on his resume (like George O’Leary did at Notre Dame) or get arrested on a domestic violence charge (like Mike Haywood did at Pittsburgh) or draw the ire of campus officials for his public behavior (as Mike Price did at Alabama), so it can’t be said his honeymoon period was the shortest in recent history for a new coach.

But losing 6-3 to North Dakota State in his first game surely did nothing to ingratiate himself to Jayhawk fans who no doubt were counting down to the start of basketball practice even before Labor Day came and went.

Kansas somehow wedged three victories into a season that included a loss to lower division team (North Dakota State) and being on the wrong end of Baylor’s largest margin of victory in a Big 12 game (55-7). The Jayhawks also absorbed a 28-point shellacking against Missouri (their biggest loss to the Tigers since 1988) and were throttled 59-7 on their own field by a middle-of-the-road Kansas State bunch.

Maybe things will be better in 2011, but there’s not much reason to believe so. Start with the schedule; the reshaping of the Big 12 means Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all rotate back onto the Jayhawks’ slate a year early.

What’s more, Kansas was the rare major conference team that couldn’t claim to be good at anything in 2010. The Jayhawks finished in the bottom quarter of the Big 12 in just about everything other than pass defense (seventh), total defense (ninth) and tackles for loss (ninth).

This was a team that was plain bad, with the aforementioned North Dakota State loss the lone setback coming by single digits. Kansas could easily have gone 1-11, and there’s simply no reason to believe a roster made up of mostly the same guys will do much better against a stiffer schedule. A program that seemed to crater in 2010 will be lucky if it can plateau this season. Things could easily get worse before they get better in Lawrence.


This particular segment of the countdown is very schedule-heavy. So why not continue it with a look at why Steve Fairchild has a fighting chance to keep his job after back-to-back 3-9s:


Sept. 10: Northern Colorado (3-8 in 2010)
Sept. 17: vs. Colorado (5-7)
Sept. 24: at Utah State (4-8)
Oct. 1: San Jose State (1-12)
Oct. 22: at Texas-El Paso (6-7)

This comes in addition to facing New Mexico, UNLV and Wyoming, which won a combined six games last season. Put those elements together, and it’s highly conducive to snaring six or seven wins and appearing in a marginal bowl.

For that to occur, though, Fairchild must coax something out of an offense that scored 10 points or less in seven games. The upside for the Rams was last year was invested in getting true freshman quarterback Pete Thomas acclimated to the college game. He started all 12 games, threw more touchdowns than interceptions despite being handcuffed by an utter lack of a running game (85.4 rushing yards a game in Colorado State’s nine losses) and completed 64.7 percent of his passes.

If the Rams can even achieve something approaching adequacy on the ground, they’ll improve by at least three games and play a 13th game. The schedule and a capable quarterback who should develop more as a sophomore make that likely.

Doubling the win total wouldn’t necessarily mean the Rams were vastly improved. But it probably would keep their coach around for 2012, when a youthful program could finally re-emerge in the top half of the Mountain West.

—- Patrick Stevens