Consider this the Chet Gladchuk segment of the countdown; three schools where he’s served as athletic director (including his current one) are all among the next five teams in this lengthy preview of the season.
And there’s no waiting to get to the first one, either …
A few predictions for this year’s Cougars:
* Case Keenum, back for a sixth season after the NCAA granted him a medical hardship, will obliterate Timmy Chang‘s NCAA record for passing yards.
* With Keenum back in the mix, Houston’s offense will return to its highly efficient ways of the past couple years after a 5-7 blip in 2010.
* As friendly a schedule as anyone could hope to find will ensure the Cougars are ranked and no worse than 9-1 entering the final two weeks of the season.
* After seeing his stock dip a bit last year, Kevin Sumlin will again be a hot coaching commodity for whatever schools happen to have job openings.
Keenum wasn’t exactly electric before he got hurt last year, and the Cougars’ defense was vulnerable to just about everyone. Still, Houston typifies the belief the best defense is an offense that scores 40 points a game and forces panicked opponents into not running against a defense unable to stop all but the most limited (or disinterested) rushing attacks.
Houston will wind up with a record that far outstrips this ranking, but it doesn’t have to play Central Florida or Southern Mississippi, and its nonconference schedule is free of superpowers (a visit from UCLA is the highlight). This has the look of a team that will win 10 times during the regular season, generate some buzz and then get clocked in a bowl game.
The season-ending five-game skid in 2010 —- which took Mike Stoops‘ team from a safe top-25 team to 7-6 —- isn’t inexplicable on its own. The Wildcats fell to Stanford, Southern California, Oregon and Oklahoma State, and suffered some special teams meltdowns in a rivalry game against Arizona State. It happens.
But here’s what also happens: Teams that have to entirely reconstruct their offensive lines are not great candidates to take great leaps forward.
The trouble for the Wildcats is there will be no acclimation period for that unit. Oklahoma State, Oregon and Stanford all wait —- before the end of September. Trips to Southern California and Oregon State quickly follow.
In short, Arizona could be home to the year’s greatest trainwreck season, even if its defense can remain well above average against the non-elite foes on its schedule. The shame for the Wildcats is most of those teams are on the back end of the slate; by then, Arizona could easily be playing for a lower-tier bowl (at best).
It’s easy to envision a 1-4 start, followed by a mad dash to .500 —- or simply a fade to 4-8. Things have gotten better in Tucson the last few years, but there’s a serious chance of regression even with a capable quarterback like Nick Foles in the fold.
And now, a stat about the Midshipmen you probably didn’t know:
MOST CONSECUTIVE YEARS WITH .500+ ROAD RECORD, ACTIVE
11: Boise State
9: Southern California
8: Louisiana State
6: Ohio State
5: South Florida
That’s pretty good company. Remaining in it, though, won’t be an easy task for the Midshipmen.
Trips to South Carolina, Notre Dame and Southern Methodist —- all still to come on the Countdown —- loom. This for a team breaking in nine new defensive starters and transitioning from Ricky Dobbs to Kriss Proctor at quarterback.
Navy has made such segues plenty of times during its impressive early 21st century run. Dobbs was the most well-known and multi-faceted of Navy’s quarterbacks in that stretch, but Proctor proved a capable replacement when needed the last two seasons. He’s not a completely unknown quantity.
The Mids don’t possess a darkhorse Heisman candidate, fringe top-25 buzz or an all-eyes-on-them season opener like last year. But Navy does have a highly functional system, an acute awareness of who exactly it is as a program and a schedule that is neither easy nor littered with unbeatable heavyweights.
In short, don’t count on seeing Navy crack the national rankings, but the Mids will win their eight games, make their annual bowl appearance, have a legitimate chance to wrest the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy away from Air Force and —- yes —- could win three of their six road games this season to extend one of their many impressive streaks.
52. BOSTON COLLEGE
The path to victory is a bit wider this year for the Eagles; loosely translated, Boston College might be able to throw the ball and perhaps has an offensive coordinator with the inclination to do so from time to time.
But let’s not ignore what Frank Spaziani‘s program is really about: Playing great defense, relying on a sound running game and beating the teams they’re supposed to beat. In an era of scoreboard-busting offenses, Boston College is a throwback to when the run set up the run, and stopping the run set up victories,
Indeed, the Eagles have lost only to three non-bowl teams since joining the ACC —- 2005 North Carolina (5-6), 2006 N.C. State (3-9) and 2009 Notre Dame (6-6). At the same time, no one will accuse BC of rolling up style points, especially while winning five games in the last two seasons when it couldn’t crack 20 points.
The Eagles head into the season with two names any college football fan should know (linebacker Luke Kuechly and tailback Montel Harris) and a bunch of grinders that fit the program profile perfectly. Even with a tricky nonconference schedule (Northwestern, at Central Florida, at Notre Dame), BC will win seven games and maybe more.
But how much better will this season be realistically? The offense still has a long way to go, and though the Eagles won five straight to end the regular season by a combined 34 points, it was a stretch that included one-possession victories over Duke and Virginia. Boston College will be improved, but so too should Florida State, Miami, Clemson, Wake Forest and perhaps even Maryland —- all of which dot the Eagles’ schedule.
You usually know Boston College’s floor going into a season. The Eagles will be a bowl team, a tough, physical out for anyone stuck playing them and part of a large scrum of programs scrambling for a place in the middle of the ACC. The ceiling, though, likely isn’t vastly higher.
No one loved inertia in 2010 as much as the Utes, who parlayed a sterling national reputation, an opening-week defeat of overrated Pittsburgh and a lot of blowout victories over chumps into a top-10 ranking before humbling losses to Texas Christian and Notre Dame reset perception back to about where it should have been all along.
Speaking of perception, no team will provide a more curious preseason study of that than Utah, which heads into the Pac-12. Will the Utes be viewed as an instant contender in the muddled South Division? How much do their back-to-back 10-3s matter? And will they be irrationally overvalued for what they managed in 2004 and 2008?
In any case, now seems like a good time to revisit how Utah has done against the AQ conferences (as well as Notre Dame) over the last eight seasons:
UTAH vs. BCS AQ CONFERENCE FOES + NOTRE DAME, 2003-PRESENT
2003: L, 28-26, at Texas A&M (4-8)
2003: W, 31-24, California (8-6)
2003: W, 17-13, Oregon (8-5)
2004: W, 41-21, Texas A&M (7-5)
2004: W, 23-6, at Arizona (3-8)
2004: W, 46-16, North Carolina (6-6)
2004: W, 35-7, vs. Pittsburgh (8-4)
2005: W, 27-24, Arizona (3-8)
2005: L, 31-17, at North Carolina (5-6)
2005: W, 38-10, vs. Georgia Tech (7-5)
2006: L, 31-10, at UCLA (7-6)
2007: L, 24-7, at Oregon State (9-4)
2007: W, 44-6, UCLA (6-7)
2007: W, 44-35, at Louisville (6-6)
2008: W, 25-23, at Michigan (3-9)
2008: W, 31-28, Oregon State (9-4)
2008: W, 31-17, vs. Alabama (12-2)
2009: L, 31-24, at Oregon (10-3)
2009: W, 30-14, Louisville (4-8)
2009: W, 37-27, vs. California (8-5)
2010: W, 27-24, Pittsburgh (8-5)
2010: W, 68-27, at Iowa State (5-7)
2010: L, 28-3, at Notre Dame (8-5)
That’s a 17-6 mark against AQ programs, including 9-4 against teams that would eventually finish with a winning record and 7-3 against their new conference brethren. That’s a strong enough track record (especially at home) to believe there won’t be massive slippage even with a move from the Mountain West.
The problem for the Utes is that besides Washington State, the flotsam of the Pac-12 won’t be quite so easy to beat up on. They were 18-0 against everyone in the Mountain West other than Brigham Young and Texas Christian the last three years, with 11 wins by at least two touchdowns.
It will be difficult to maintain such dominance, and Utah won’t be at Oregon or Stanford’s level in 2011. Nonetheless, a middle-of-the-Pac-12 finish is probably a fair prediction. A conference title game appearance is not to be counted out, either.
—- Patrick Stevens