With less than 10 weeks until the first day of the college football season, it seems a good time to get started on the annual 1-through-120-plus rundown. With four new teams in the sport’s top division, that means 124 teams.
Beginning with …
No. 124 TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO
As startups go —- and the Roadrunners are in only their second year of existence —- this one has a decent shot at long-term success. Reason No. 1 to wager on UT San Antonio eventually thriving: Being in Texas.
It’s not going to be the easiest of tasks, what with the leaping into Conference USA next year. The Roadrunners’ home this season is the dying WAC, a convenient place to start their adventure in the former Division I-A.
The schedule isn’t impossible thanks to three games against lower-division teams and a finale against fellow FBS newbie Texas State. But it’s also a team with only five seniors listed on the roster —- though the Roadrunners do have 64-year-old Larry Coker running the show.
Coker won a national title and averaged 10 wins in six seasons at Miami. If Texas-San Antonio can reach even half of that average, it’ll be a remarkable season for the denizens of the Alamodome.
No. 123 MASSACHUSETTS
What do you do with a program that’s gone 23-22 over the last four years? Move up in competition. And while you’re doing that, why not play all your home games more than an hour from campus in an NFL stadium?
It’s a curious jump for the Minutemen, who share none of the geographic advantages the other major-college newcomers (South Alabama, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State) possess. UMass will play in the Mid-American Conference and face a home schedule of Indiana, Ohio, Bowling Green, Buffalo and Central Michigan while playing at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
Overseeing this will be first-time head coach Charley Molnar, who spent the last couple years as an assistant at Notre Dame. He’s plenty familiar with the MAC, having worked a combined 11 seasons at four schools in the conference between 1994 and 2006 (with two other one-year stops sprinkled in).
Amherst isn’t bereft of recent football tradition. Mark Whipple led the Minutemen to a national title in 1998. Don Brown, the former Maryland defensive coordinator, was 43-19 over five years. Still, UMass is making a leap to a far greater level of competition during an unremarkable time in its program’s history. It might be a couple years before the Minutemen sniff .500 again.
No. 122 SOUTH ALABAMA
Here’s another addition to FBS, one entering its fourth season of existence. The NCAA only recognized the Jaguars last year; in 2009 and 2010, the program went 17-0 against a motley collection of prep schools, smaller colleges and other fledgling programs.
Last fall, South Alabama was 6-4 against a tougher variety of schools, with two of the losses coming to major-college opponents N.C. State and Kent State. Another step comes this season, with a full Sun Belt schedule to go with visits to N.C. State, Mississippi State and Hawaii.
Unlike Texas-San Antonio, the Jaguars had some extra time to develop a roster. That could prove the difference between a one- or two-win debut or possibly picking off an extra team or two along the way.
This season is a milestone for South Alabama, but it isn’t a make-or-break year. Things generally don’t happen overnight for a fairly new program, and the Jaguars’ initial promising signs provide reason to preach patience as they grow in the ideal league (Sun Belt) for a I-A newcomer.
No. 121 FLORIDA ATLANTIC
The good news for new Owls coach Carl Pelini? He should probably enjoy a solid opener with Wagner paying a visit to south Florida?
The bad news? There might not be another victory on the schedule for a team that was simply wretched on offense (12.9 points per game) in Howard Schnellenberger‘s final season.
Pelini, the defensive coordinator at Nebraska from 2008-11 and the brother of Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini, was an interesting choice for Florida Atlantic. He’s worked in Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Minnesota, and on paper would have seemed like a better fit for a Mid-American Conference gig than one in the Miami ‘burbs.
No matter. He should have some wiggle room in Boca Raton, where the Owls’ victory total has declined for four consecutive years. Florida Atlantic does have a gleaming new stadium to sell to recruits. It also has a long way to go to achieve respectability again.
The Owls will be different, particularly with an up-tempo offense. Whether that means Florida Atlantic just goes three-and-out faster this season remains to be seen. A pair of first-year Sun Belt coaches (Arkansas State’s Hugh Freeze and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth) turned woebegone teams into conference contenders last year, so it’s not entirely hopeless for Pelini in Year One. The more likely outcome, though, is modest improvement over last year’s 1-11 mark.
—- Patrick Stevens