Halfway home after this portion …
65. WAKE FOREST
And the award for the most difficult player to replace in the ACC goes to … Chris Givens (with apologies to Luke Kuechly, for whom an argument is warranted). There’s a decent case to be made, considering Givens emerged from coach Jim Grobe‘s preseason doghouse to haul in more than 1,300 receiving yards and provide the help needed for quarterback Tanner Price to blossom and make up for a pedestrian rushing attack.
The Demon Deacons’ defense returns plenty from a unit that had moments of both fine and forgettable play, but was mostly average. It should be a bit better this year, but probably not overwhelming.
That swings things back to the offense, where Price will be surrounded by a lot of new faces —- especially up front, where four starters departed. It’s a bit scary to think of all the sophomores (this being Wake Forest, they’re at least redshirt sophomores) asked to protect Price, who also needs a new downfield security blanket.
Is Michael Campanaro the answer? He certainly had a fine sophomore season. Maybe Terence Davis enjoys a breakout season.
In any case, the Deacons’ offense has steadily yo-yoed in total yardage from modest to decent and back since 2006. When they’ve managed a strong turnover margin, they’ve reached bowl games. When they haven’t, they’ve finished the season in November. Really, there’s not much reason to expect anything different. Grobe has conjured competitive teams out of less, and this looks like it will be a .500ish bunch assuming Price has both the targets and protection to again thrive.
64. OREGON STATE
Corvallis is one of two Pac-12 towns where a long coaching run could be in danger of coming to an end. Unlike Jeff Tedford at Cal, there have actually been losing seasons —- note the plural —- at Oregon State of late.
And here’s the truth; As weird as it was to see the Beavers emerge as a competent program about a decade or so ago after being so forgettable for so long, it’s just as strange to have Oregon State flopping about far from relevance. And the Beavers were irrelevant from the jump in 2011, falling to Sacramento State in their opener and scattering three wins over a dozen games.
That’s two bowl-less seasons in a row for coach Mike Riley, whose formula of a strong defense and balanced offense worked like clockwork for so long. Three, as the saying goes, is a trend, and it’s one Oregon State really needs to reverse.
As usual, the nonconference schedule is dicey (Wisconsin comes to town, and the Beavers visit Brigham Young), and the Pac-12 schedule is devoid of Southern California (good, except for the Beavers’ history of playing the Trojans tough) and Colorado (not-so-good).
Experience isn’t an issue, but will it matter? Oregon State is 4-13 since just after the middle of the 2010 season, and only three of the losses came by double figures. For so many years, Riley operated a program among the nation’s most underappreciated, The Beavers could use a little of their patented overachieving mojo this fall to get back on the map.
And off goes the James Franklin freight train thanks to a stirring debut in Nashville. For those who figured Franklin’s leap to the pigskin abyss of Vanderbilt meant that in five years he would be either a random NFL assistant or in possession of a top-15 job nationally —- with little hope of anything in between —- it’s clear which track the former Maryland offensive coordinator is on.
To be sure, the Commodores didn’t exactly knock off the most vaunted teams last year. In fact, it was their near-misses —- against Georgia, (especially) Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee —- that probably engendered more respect on the national level than their half-dozen wins.
Now comes the tough part of trying to duplicate last year’s surprising 6-7 effort. The Commodores were better on offense last season (and their pass protection was notably improved), but the real leaps were made on defense —- and a lot of those pieces are back.
Franklin generated enough buzz for his recruiting efforts, but only snippets of his first full haul will probably pay off this year. Instead, Vanderbilt would do well to replicate its .500 regular season and find its way back to a bowl.
It’s doable, but it will probably require a nonconference sweep (at Northwestern is the trickiest test of the bunch) to create some wiggle room. The Commodores hammered Kentucky and Mississippi last year, but have to travel to both in November. There’s no Alabama, Arkansas or Louisiana State to deal with, so that’s a bonus. But it’s not likely Vanderbilt takes a second massive step forward in as many years.
62. SOUTHERN METHODIST
It’s tempting to declare the Mustangs might be settling into a new level in the wake of sandwiching a pair of 8-5 seasons around a 7-7 year. And hey, that sure beats what existed for the 20 years before June Jones arrived on the scene.
There is that looming jump to the Big East that should temper such thinking, even though a few other Conference USA refugees will join SMU there. At the same time, this isn’t exactly a destitute school, and the nature of expectations anywhere in college football is to not tolerate the status quo for too long, even if it’s a vast upgrade from the recent past.
And so the Mustangs sit right between the exhilaration of finally moving past a two-decade gap and the eagerness to achieve more. It’s almost a calm before the storm.
But this feels like it could be a status quo season. SMU adds Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert to play quarterback, and he takes over an offense that wasn’t exactly a vintage Jones unit. Instead, the defense carried the Mustangs last year —- and could again this year.
Two points worth mentioning. One, SMU couldn’t possibly have a turnover margin of minus-16 again, though its worth noting the Mustangs only suffered one loss by less than 24 points. Two, Jones’ interest in the Arizona State gig last year prompts some curiosity if he’s in it for the long haul in Dallas —- just like it’s worth wondering how long eight-win seasons will pacify SMU fans.
No program’s faced more criticism this offseason than Penn State; but in the non-Destruction of a Legend category, the Hurricanes have made a nice late surge into contention.
There’s the latest from Yahoo! on possible rules violations that occurred after Al Golden was hired. There was also the dismissal of defensive back Ray-Ray Armstrong, arguably Miami’s best player.
This gets stacked on top of the departures of the Hurricanes’ top rusher, top two receivers, top tackler and even long-time interception producer Jacory Harris, who ultimately had a decent (though not fabulous) senior season.
Last year’s preseason surprise —- the scope of the Nevin Shapiro scandal —- still hovers over Miami as well, and it sure looks like things will get worse before they get better. And it wasn’t all seashells and balloons in Coral Gables last year as Miami went 6-6 and self-imposed a bowl ban … though it didn’t take itself out of postseason consideration until it was clear the likely December destination was Shreveport as opposed to the standard preseason dreams of South Beach. It was quite the sacrifice for The U.
The postseason is no sure thing this year, either, regardless of whether there’s an NCAA ruling before season’s end. Miami faces Kansas State, Notre Dame and South Florida in nonconference play, and doesn’t draw Maryland or Wake Forest on its ACC schedule. More than half the starters from a .500 team, many from a once-balleyhooed recruiting class, are gone, and a step back should be anticipated.
Don’t count out a full-fledged cratering, though this projection merely forecasts a season in the ballpark of 5-7 or 6-6. Even six weeks before the season starts, it seems like a potentially generous guess.
—- Patrick Stevens