Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Diminishing Skills 120: 50-26

We're finally getting into the good stuff on the 120, as some of these teams are legitimate threats for their respective conference championships, or even darkhorse BCS contenders.  Enjoy!


50. Washington (6-6)

The Huskies lose Jake Locker, but they do return 15 other starters (7 on offense, 8 on defense) from a team with a bowl win and experience in tough non-conference games (at BYU, Nebraska).  Steve Sarkisian should have Washington in back-to-back bowls for the first time since they appeared in 8 straight from 1995-2002.
Key Game: Arizona, October 29
(Just a quick aside, but I've noticed a lot of my Key Games are occurring on October 29.  That should be a great weekend of football.)  This matchup falls in the midst of a tough stretch for the Huskies, with a trip to Stanford the week before and a run vs. Oregon, at USC, and at Oregon State to follow.  This is a must-win if Washington wants to avoid a 5-game losing streak.

49. Kansas State (6-6)

"Heeeeeeey, guys!  You going to the football game?  I just love K-State!  Me-ow!" -my impersonation of this cat  Since upsetting Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 Championship game and going to the Fiesta Bowl, the luster has been lacking for the Kansas State program.  Even the return of Bill Snyder in 2009 hasn't helped, as the Wildcats simply have not been able to uncover the talent they used to amass in the late 1990s.  A 6-6 finish fits in perfectly with what they have accomplished the past seven seasons (average of 5.57 wins per season during that span, with a high of 7 and a low of 4).
Key Game: Missouri, October 8
The Cats have lost 5 straight to the Tigers, but a win will be needed if they want to even sniff contention for the Big 12 title.

48. California (7-5)

I am completely indifferent about Cal football, but I really want that t-shirt.  That bear is my hero.  He's cuddly looking while also looking like he's getting into some malicious mischief.  He'd be the bully in a 1930's pre-Bugs Bunny Warner Bros. cartoon.  And don't get me started on his hat and the splendid way it sits all haphazardly on his head.  But enough about the bear.  The Cal football team will ride a soft non-conference schedule and some fortuitous wins to their surprisingly lofty record, when in reality they are probably closer to a five-win team.  I do have them upsetting Stanford, largely due to Cal's recent success against the Cardinal (winners of 2 of the last 3) and the potential of Stanford overlooking the game, as it fall in between Stanford-Oregon and Stanford-Notre Dame.
Key Game: USC, October 13
The Golden Bears have dropped 7 straight to the Trojans, with the last 3 being decided by double digits.  If Cal wants their projected upset of Stanford to mean something beyond a win over their rivals, then they need to beat USC.

47. Nevada (8-4)

Last season's #11 ranking in the final AP poll marked the first time Nevada finished ranked in their history.  The loss of Colin Kaepernick probably ensures that their won't be a repeat showing this season, but Chris Ault does return 7 starters on a defense that allowed a WAC-low 21.4 points per game last season.  That defense coupled with home games against Fresno State, Hawaii, and Louisiana Tech should give the Wolfpack consecutive WAC titles for the first time in school history.
Key Game: at Boise State, October 1
Nevada has a zero percent chance of winning this game; my only hope is that they can survive without too much injury done to their psyche or their persons.  The Broncos are going to be playing for blood following last season's collapse in Reno.

*SIDEBAR #6: WAC Preview*

1. Nevada 8-4 (6-1)
2. Hawaii 9-4 (5-2)
3. Louisiana Tech 6-6 (5-2)
4. Fresno State 6-7 (5-2)
5. Idaho 6-6 (4-3)
6. Utah State 3-9 (2-5)
7. San Jose State 1-11 (1-6)
8. New Mexico State 0-12 (0-7)

Best NFL Prospect: Logan Harrell, DT, Fresno State
Harrell is ranked #119 among 2012 draft prospects by Mocking The Draft.

New Mexico Bowl, December 17, Albuquerque, NM: Louisiana Tech (8-5) over Colorado State (7-6)
A loss here would make the Rams 0-5 against teams with winning records.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, December 17, Boise, ID: Western Michigan (8-5) over Idaho (6-7)
The Broncos pull off a major coup for the MAC by winning what is essentially a road game.  As the WAC is decimated by defections next season, the MAC can use this win as the springboard to move up the conference echelon.

Poinsettia Bowl, December 21, San Diego, CA: Air Force (10-3) over Nevada (8-5)
Nevada isn't nearly as good as they were last season, while Air Force is primed to have one of their best seasons in recent memory.
Hawaii Bowl, December 24, Honolulu, HI: Hawaii (10-4) over UCF (8-5)
This may seem like a lock considering Hawaii will be playing at home,  but the home team is surprisingly 3-3 in their appearances in the game, with embarrassing losses to Notre Dame and Tulsa the last two times.

46. Texas Tech (7-5)

Apparently the Hamburglar went to Texas Tech.  Year 2 of Tommy Tuberville's questionable transition from Mike Leach's extremely effective spread attack to a more traditional ground-based attack will not go as well as last season (8-5).  The rest of the Big 12 will be better, while I'm not sure the Red Raiders will improve enough.
Key Game: Texas A&M, October 8
Texas Tech hasn't lost 3 straight to the Aggies since 1992-94, and a win here would derail their in-state rivals' BCS plans while also providing a big boost to their own campaign towards Big 12 prominence.

45. Boston College (6-6)

There is already a cloud hanging over this season for the Eagles, as their top two running backs--pre-season ACC Player of the Year Montel Harris and Andre Williams--are out with injuries.  The Eagles always seem to find a way to overcome such adversity, however, and I see them avoiding a losing season for the 12th straight season.
Key Game: at Maryland, October 29
Following a relatively manageable opening slate of the season that should see the Eagles sitting at 5-0, the schedule takes a nasty turn the rest of the way.  This match-up in College Park may be BC's only shot at a win past October 1 (although the season finale in Miami gets less daunting by the day).

44. Mississippi State (6-6)

This is the first team ranked in the pre-season AP poll to appear in the 120, and you may be surprised I have them so low.  I don't really get why they're ranked, unless people were that impressed with their manhandling of a mediocre Michigan team that had quit on its coach in their bowl last season.  The schedule is tougher this season, with trips to Georgia, Arkansas, Auburn, and Kentucky as well as a tough South Carolina team replacing a re-loading Florida team.
Key Game: at Auburn, September 10
We'll know quickly whether Mississippi State deserves their #20 ranking when they travel to the defending champs' home turf.  The Bulldogs barely lost last season (14-17), and they should be favored against a young but talented Tigers squad.

43. Auburn (6-6)

The next pre-season AP ranked team to appear on my list (#23), the Tigers are extremely young (only 6 returning starters) but also extremely talented.  Barrett Trotter takes over for Cam Newton at QB, but the real future of the position is probably freshman Kiehl Frazier.  Despite the inexperience, I predict the Tigers will find their way to a third straight bowl appearance.
Key Game: at South Carolina, October 1
This trip to Columbia will let head coach Gene Chizik know just how close his young replacements are to last year's team, and how realistic it will be to expect them to compete for the SEC West crown.

42. Kentucky (7-5)

Kentucky has made 5 straight bowl appearances, and this season will most likely make six.  The defense returns 10 starters, so it should be improved over last year's 28.4 points allowed per game.
Key Game: Florida, September 24
Kentucky has dropped 24 straight games versus the Gators.  A win this season would put the Wildcats in position to contend for their first SEC East division crown ever.

41. Tennessee (7-5)

Despite cornerback Janzen Jackson's dismissal from the team, I still like the Vols to make their second straight bowl under Derek Dooley (and their third straight overall).  If Tyler Bray can build on the finish of his freshman season, he may be able to carry the Tennessee to even greater success.
Key Game: Cincinnati, September 10
With the SEC still being a little too daunting for the Volunteers to have much success, they need to succeed out of the conference.  The Bearcats will provide the only real test, as Tennessee's other non-conference opponents are Montana, Buffalo, and Middle Tennessee.

40. Missouri (6-6)

Blaine Gabbert is gone, and I don't really see that being much of a problem.  The guy may be a tremendous pro prospect, but he never really produced much in college.  The Tigers are the 3rd pre-season AP top 25 (#21) team listed in the 40s, but I just don't see an upset over any of the Big 12 elite in the cards this year.
Key Game: at Oklahoma, September 24
We will know fairly early whether Missouri is going to be a player in the Big 12, not by beating the Sooners (which won't happen; Missouri hasn't beaten Oklahoma twice in a row since 1965-66, and have dropped 17 straight in Norman), but by surviving them.  If the Tigers can remain competitive and healthy against a fired up OK squad, they can use that effort as a springboard to a solid Big 12 season.

39. Iowa (7-5)

This could be a re-loading year for Kirk Ferentz, with only 9 returning starters (and 38 returning lettermen), and a quarterback not named Ricky Stanzi for the first time since 2007.
Key Game: at Purdue, November 19
The Hawkeyes should be riding a nice win streak coming into this game, and they need to focus on the
Boilermakers to keep it going into their season finale at Nebraska.  The last time the Hawkeyes went into West Lafayette, they were hammered 31-6.  They can't afford to overlook Purdue this year.

38. Northwestern (8-4)

If the Wildcats perform as I expect them to, they would extend their already all-time best bowl streak to four. Pat Fitzgerald has done a tremendous job at his alma mater, and quarterback Dan Persa's senior season may be his best campaign yet.
Key Game: Michigan, October 8
Northwestern has only beaten the Wolverines 4 times since 1966, but did win the last meeting in Rich Rodriguez's first season in Ann Arbor.  A win here would make NW's November 5 showdown in Lincoln a potential matchup of undefeated Big Ten foes.

37. Cincinnati (8-4)

Last season was a huge disappointment for the Bearcats, as they fell from 13-1, an undefeated regular season,  and their first BCS bowl bid to 4-8 and seeming oblivion.  I think they bounce back this year, with Zach Collaros back for his senior year and with 10 starters returning on defense.  The Bearcats should be in the Big East hunt all season.
Key Game: at USF, October 22
This game could have a non-inconsequential bearing on the Big East race.  Cincy has won the past 2 meetings, including Collaros's debut when Tony Pike was lost to injury and Collaros ran for a 75-yard score.

36. South Florida (7-5)

Even though it seems as if B.J. Daniels has been in school forever, this really is only his 4th season playing for the Bulls.  Daniels was bothered by a quad injury last season, which greatly reduced his rushing ability (772 yards in 2009, 259 in 2008).  A big senior season is expected in his second season running Skip Holtz's attack, and will be needed if South Florida is to win their first ever Big East title.
Key Game: at Pittsburgh, September 29
The Bulls have struggled in Pittsburgh, going 2-4 with a 41-14 loss the last time there.

35. Air Force (9-3)

Air Force picked the wrong western mid-major conference to join; if they were in the WAC, they'd be a BCS buster threat.  In the Mountain West, however, they will be a very solid #3 behind the powerhouses at Boise State and TCU.  The Falcons should also secure their second straight Commander-in-Chief Trophy, a feat they hadn't accomplished since they won six straight from 1997-2002.
Key Game: TCU, September 10
TCU is young and inexperienced, so if the Falcons ever have a chance of knocking the Horned Frogs off, it's in this early season matchup.  Air Force last won this matchup in 2007.

34. Houston (10-2)

With Case Keenum granted a 6th year of eligibility, the Cougars may finally fulfill the promise they showed as a BCS Buster two years ago when they knocked off Texas Tech and then #5 Oklahoma State.  Keenum also should become the all-time NCAA leader in passing yards.  A few questions:  Did Keenum graduate two years ago, and has he just been hanging around the student center for two years?  And how does Houston keep producing these gunslinging QBs who put up huge numbers and then do little to nothing in the NFL?  We are on two decades and counting.  In 1989, Andre Ware won the Heisman.  In 1990, David Klinger threw 54 touchdown passes.  Then Kevin Kolb ended his career in 2006 with the 5th most passing yards of all-time.  And now there's Keenum.  That's four different highly prolific QBs under four different coaches in three different decades.  It's pretty astounding.
Key Game: UCLA, September 3
The Cougars were handled 31-13 in LA last year, and injury was added to insult when Keenum was knocked out for the year.  If the Cougars want to have a shot at being the first C-USA team to appear in a BCS game, they need to not only beat the Bruins, but win handily.

*SIDEBAR #7: C-USA Preview*

1. Houston 10-2 (7-1)
2. SMU 6-6 (5-3)
3. Tulsa 7-5 (5-3)
4. Rice 4-8 (4-4)
5. Tulane 3-10 (2-6)
6. UTEP 3-9 (1-7)
1. East Carolina 6-6 (6-2)
2. Southern Miss 8-4 (6-2)
3. UCF 8-4 (6-2)
4. Marshall 2-10 (2-6)
5. UAB 3-9 (2-6)
6. Memphis 1-11 (0-8)

Championship Game: Houston (11-2) over East Carolina (6-7)

East Carolina will manage to achieve the rare feat of winning their division while failing to be invited to a bowl.
New Orleans Bowl, December 17: SMU (7-6) over Troy (8-5)
Yes, Troy will be dominant in the Sun Belt again this season, but once they are stacked up a mid-level team from an upper echelon conference (and C-USA is upper echelon when compared to the Sun Belt), the Trojans are exposed as big fish in the little, scum-infested pond.

Hawaii Bowl, December 24, Honolulu, HI: Hawaii (10-4) over UCF (8-5)
This may seem like a lock considering Hawaii will be playing at home,  but the home team is surprisingly 3-3 in their appearances in the game, with embarrassing losses to Notre Dame and Tulsa the last two times.
Armed Forces Bowl, December 30, Dallas, TX: BYU (10-3) over Southern Miss (8-5)
Assuming BYU's offense bounces back from a strange down year last season (which I do), this should be a very entertaining shoot-out.
Liberty Bowl, December 31, Memphis, TN: Houston (12-2) over Kentucky (7-6)
Kentucky is always more dangerous than their record (since they get beat up by the big boys in the SEC), but  I like to think that Case Keenum and his teammates will make sure they don't lose his final college football game (unless the NCAA grant him John Navarre status and he is granted a 10th year of eligibility).
Ticket City Bowl, January 2, Dallas, TX: Michigan (7-6) over Tulsa (7-6)
I hope Brady Hoke doesn't rain Denard Robinson in too much, because Robinson versus the wide-open Tulsa attack may produce a 65-62 final score.

33. Miami, FL (9-3)

I projected this record before all of the Nevin Shapiro stuff came out, so you can probably drop the Hurricanes to the North Carolina level or lower (#54) depending on how harsh the penalties for the current players are.  Still, Miami has a ton of talent, and Al Golden is a hell of a coach.  If he can get his team (and himself, for that matter) to care about what could be a lost season, the Hurricanes may outpeform the best of the Randy Shannon years (9-4, 2009) in Golden's first (only?) season in South Beach.
Key Game: at North Carolina, October 15
The Ineligible Bowl.  Miami has never won in Chapel Hill, but I like that trend to end here if only because Al Golden is a better coach than whoever replaced Butch Davis (in a perfect world, Larry Coker).

32. Utah (7-5)

In their first season with the Big Boys, the Utes should be strong contenders for the PAC-12 South crown, and may actually be the favorites depending on how well Arizona State deals with their mounting injury woes.
Key Game: Arizona State, October 8
This could be the deciding factor in the division race.  Utah lost 38-0 in the last meeting in 1993.

31. Illinois (8-4)

Ron Zook has the most talent on hand since the Illini's Rose Bowl season in 2007, even after the losses of Mikel Leshoure and Corey Liuget.  If the offense can maintain its explosion (32.5 points per game in 2010) behind QB Nathan Scheelhaase and RB Jason Ford, and the defense can continue making strides (23.5 points allowed per game last year, down from 30.2 in 2009), Zook could finish with his best record yet during his time in Champaign.
Key Game: at Penn State, October 29
Illinois embarrassed the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley last season 33-13, so the Illini will have to be prepared for a very hostile welcome this season.

30. Arizona State (8-4)

The Sun Devils have a spat of minor injuries, and then lost were dealt a major blow when LB Brandon Magee was lost for the season to a ruptured Achilles's Heel.  There still is a ton of talent in Tempe, but with a lot of it banged up, it may be difficult for Dennis Erickson to fulfill the promise this team had even one month ago.
Key Game: at UCLA, November 5
If the Sun Devils can win in LA, they should finish the season on a five-game winning streak.

29. Oregon State (8-4)

Oregon State always seems much better than their record, mostly because they seemingly pull off a big upset every season.  Last year, they beat #9 Arizona, they beat the Toby Gerhart-led Stanford Cardinal in 2009, they knocked off #1 USC in 2007, #2 California in 2006, and #3 USC in 2006.  However, the only time they actually made the AP poll following those wins was last season, when they were #24 for one week before Washington knocked them off.  Mike Riley seems to always be able to get one big game out of his guys, but struggles to get them to perform consistently.  Stanford or BYU at home are candidates for this year's upset.
Key Game: at Utah, October 29
Oregon State hasn't won in Salt Lake City since 1968 (only 2 trips since, 1992 and 2008).  In 2008, Utah won by only 3, and it should be a good game again this season.

28. Michigan State (8-4)

Yes, Kirk Cousins returns to East Lansing, and Mark Dantonio probably (hopefully) won't have a heart attack in the middle of the season, but the Spartans were one of the luckiest teams in the country last season, and are actually closer to the team that lost 49-7 to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl than the team that rose to #5 in the polls.  After dodging Ohio State last season, Michigan State needs to make a trip to Columbus (albeit to battle a short-handed Buckeyes team, but, still, the Spartans haven't won in the Horseshoe since they cost the Bucks the national title in 1998), as well as travel to Lincoln to take on their new division-mates, Nebraska.
Key Game: Wisconsin, October 22
The home team has won the past six meetings, and a win against the Badgers would keep the Spartans at one loss in the Big Ten (assuming they lose at Ohio State) going into their showdown in Lincoln.

27. Clemson (8-4)

Since 2005, the Tigers have had the 17, 16, 16, 12, 37, and 19th ranked recruiting classes in the nation according to (in order from 2005 onward).  During that same span (again, starting in 2005) they have finished the season ranked 21, unranked, 21, unranked, 24, and unranked.  The Tigers are very good at accumulating talent, but struggle to turn that talent into on-field success.  This year's class was ranked #8, so expect them to flirt with a top 25 finish before ultimately choking against a lesser opponent late in the season.
Key Game: at Georgia Tech
Clemson has lost their last two trips to Atlanta, but should have no trouble against a far less talented Yellow Jackets squad this year.  However, as mentioned above, Clemson has a nasty habit of underachieving.

26.BYU (9-3)

Something tells me this girl didn't go to BYU.  If she did, though, how much hotter does that picture get?  The Cougars had their worst offensive season since 2004 last year, averaging only 26.4 points per game and failing to eclipse the 20-point barrier until game 6.  In their last three games prior to the season finale at Utah, they put up 55, 49, and 40, showing signs that quarterback Jake Heaps was hitting his stride in Bronco Mendenhall's system.  The offense should come out firing from the get-go, and BYU should be looming as a potential BCS Buster for much of their first season as an independent.
Key Game: at Texas, September 10
If the Cougars are to steal a BCS at-large bid, they must beat the Longhorns in Austin.  Texas is coming off an extreme down year, and while many expect them to stay relatively down, I predict a big bounceback year, making this a very difficult early test for BYU.

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