This segment closes out the Sun Belt.
It also tacks on the second ACC team of the rundown.
75. ARKANSAS STATE
The Red Wolves lost first-year coach Hugh Freeze to an SEC school. So they just went out and got someone more than a few folks think should be an SEC head coach.
That would be Gus Malzahn, he of the curious ride from high school coach to national title-winning offensive coordinator at Auburn over roughly five years. Now he takes over a 10-win team that loses quite a bit off a solid offense.
Maybe Arkansas State will take a bigger step back than is projected here, but the thought of handing Malzahn a quarterback who also led his team in rushing last season (Ryan Aplin) is certainly appealing. And once the Red Wolves are done losing at Oregon and Nebraska in the first three weeks, there isn’t a sure setback to be found.
Frankly, it’s not that much different from last year, when early setbacks at Illinois and Virginia Tech were Arkansas State’s only regular-season blemishes. What is different is figuring out how to rebuild a credible defense that allowed more than 26 points in just two occasions.
Malzahn spent the last few years as one of the most curious head coaching candidates in the assistant ranks. He won’t generate nearly as much attention at Arkansas State as he might have at a bigger school, but the Red Wolves’ progress will be worth monitoring solely because of the man wearing the big headset.
The Blue Devils have turned in back-to-back 3-9 seasons, which in some way is progress since it isn’t consecutive 0-11s (2001-02) or a combined three-year mark of 2-33 (2004-06).
Still, the promising start for David Cutcliffe —- 4-8 and then 5-7 —- has taken a regression in the win column. To be fair, Duke had four single-digit losses last season. To be realistic, few teams suffered as deflating a loss as the Blue Devils in the opening week when the fell to Richmond.
Which brings Duke to Year Five under Cutcliffe, a barrier no Blue Devils coach has pushed past since Mike McGee‘s eight-year run from 1971 to 1978. Think about that: Seven straight coaches have come and gone in Durham without staying more than five full seasons.
Historically, of course, the problem wasn’t the coaches (well, not all of them, anyway). And truth be told, Duke isn’t likely to find a more accomplished coach than Cutcliffe. But it’s tough not to wonder if the school decided to make a change for the sake of change if there isn’t progress.
In a “what have you done lately” world, maybe that happens this year. Duke could come out of nonconference play at 3-1 (a home game against Florida International is a toss-up), then face Wake Forest and Virginia to open league play. Then the schedule turns nasty for five games, and really six if Miami doesn’t totally fall apart this season. A free-fall is possible, and that’s never a good way to wrap things up —- especially after an 0-7 finish last year.
If the Blue Devils can finally coax some consistency out of quarterback Sean Renfree and a complement to wideout Conner Vernon can be found, Duke should improve on last year. It just might not be all that much, though.
Be certain of this much: The Wolf Pack will run, regardless of losing their top two rushers from last season. And they will run well.
NEVADA RUSHING OFFENSE RANK, 2007-2011
Between 2008 and 2010, the only programs with a better rushing offense than at least one of the service academies were Auburn, Georgia Tech, Nevada and Oregon. Only Georgia Tech continued that streak last season.
Nonetheless, when the Wolf Pack go through a down year and have to muster up replacements for both the No. 2 passer and No. 2 rusher in school history and still chug along quite nicely on offense, the likely bounceback (with last year’s WAC freshman of the year, Cody Fajardo, under center) figures to send Nevada back to the eight- or nine-win neighborhood.
That’s even with a thoroughly run-of-the-mill defense, but one littered with seniors at linebacker and in the secondary. If the defensive line can hold up and matures, Nevada might even be able to emerge as a late-season spoiler for Boise State now that the schools are back in the same league (well, for a year, anyway).
If not, the Wolf Pack has a nearly ideal Mountain West schedule: Visits to second-division outfits at New Mexico and UNLV, and a good chunk of the sub-Boise tier (Fresno State, San Diego State and Wyoming) at home. Boise finished second in its first venture into the Mountain West last year; Nevada just might do the same in 2012.
The Rockets got 32-year-old coach Matt Campbell‘s career off to a memorable start with a 42-41 victory over Air Force in the Military Bowl last December.
The best advice for Campbell: Buckle up, because that won’t be the last time the Rockets are involved in a shootout under his watch.
Yes, Campbell is young, but Toledo wisely decided continuity was a worthwhile thing after Tim Beckman bolted for Illinois. The Rockets went 17-9 over the last two seasons after enduring four straight losing seasons, and Toledo was eighth in the country last season in scoring and ninth in total offense.
Yet besides the two-headed quarterback monster of Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin that worked far more swimmingly than those arrangements usually do, there’s a lot gone. Top two rushers? Gone. Four of the top five pass-catchers, including possession receiver extraordinaire Eric Page? Out the door. Meanwhile, there isn’t much left on defense, either.
Still, the offense was so good last season, the Rockets get the benefit of the doubt. Not to win the MAC, of course; Ohio and Northern Illinois are the favorites for that. But while repeating a nine-win season doesn’t look likely, Toledo should at least have a chance to finish with a winning record again.
71. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
From inheriting a winless program to securing consecutive bowl bids, there’s no arguing with the job Mario Cristobal has done with the Golden Panthers over the last five years.
For all of its progress, Florida International probably didn’t get much credit outside of Sun Belt circles until it knocked off Louisville early last season. The Cardinals come to Miami this season in a genuinely interesting game between conference favorites.
And that is what the Golden Panthers are: The early favorites in the Sun Belt. Nearly everyone is back from a defense that allowed only three teams to score more than 20 points. The offense, while not overly explosive, brings back its top rusher and most of its reliable targets.
Most doesn’t mean all, of course, and the biggest question Cristobal needs an answer for is how to account for the loss of pitch-and-catch combo Wesley Carroll and T.Y. Hilton, and Hilton in particular will be severely missed.
That probably won’t be enough to severely derail Florida International, beyond its September dates against Central Florida and Louisville. The Golden Panthers are the only team in the Sun Belt to post winning records in league play in the last two years. That streak will be extended this fall, and it could include the school’s first outright conference title.
—- Patrick Stevens