This is the fifth part of our annual preseason team countdown, which will wrap up Aug. 16, two weeks before the start of the 2012 season.
We are working backward from our 124th-ranked team, with the teams packaged in groups of five until we get to our top 50; then, each team gets a day to itself.
|105. North Texas|
Last season: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in Sun Belt (fifth in league)|
Coach: Dan McCarney (5-7, second season at North Texas; 61-92, 14th season overall)
Fast fact: The Mean Green's victory total last season equaled its wins total from the previous two seasons combined. After winning seven games in 2004, UNT won just 13 games from 2005-10.
Key player: QB Derek Thompson. UNT lost star TB Lance Dunbar, who was the focal point of the offense for three seasons. Thompson, a junior, has battled injuries throughout his career, and needs to prove he can remain healthy and be productive. He has good size (6 feet 4/220 pounds) and mobility, so that's a plus.
The good: The offensive line returns four starters and should be a team strength. WR Brelan Chancellor is a big-play threat and needs to get the ball more; the receiving corps should be fine. LB Zachary Orr should contend for all-league honors. K Zach Olen and P Will Atterberry might be the best duo in the Sun Belt.
The bad: Without Dunbar, there is no established rushing threat. The defense wasn't all that good last season, and needs LB Jeremy Phillips, who missed most of 2011 with a broken thumb, to play up to his 2010 standards (69 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss). The secondary will have four new starters.
The projection: The offense could be quite good; then again, Dunbar is gone and the lack of an established feature back makes things dicey, given Thompson's lack of production in the passing game. New defensive coordinator John Skladany, who had a nice run at UCF in the same role, takes over a unit that could be fine in the front seven but has a ton of questions in the secondary. UNT opens at LSU and plays at Kansas State in the third week of the season. But if everything breaks right, the Mean Green still could exit September with a 3-2 mark. UNT doesn't have to play Sun Belt favorite Florida International this season and gets Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette at home. Despite the somewhat-favorable schedule, though, UNT again likely will suffer through a losing season.
|104. Ball State|
Last season: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in MAC (tied for fourth in MAC West)|
Coach: Pete Lembo (6-6, second season at Ball State; 85-42, 12th season overall)
Fast fact: When the Cardinals lost last season, they really lost, falling by an average of 26 points in their six losses.
Key player: RB Jahwan Edwards. Despite the loss of their top two receivers, the Cardinals should have a solid passing attack. A consistent ground game, then, is going to be important, which means Edwards needs to build on a solid freshman campaign (786 yards, 11 TDs). His best game (123 yards) came in an upset of Ohio U.
The good: QB Keith Wenning is steady and should be at the helm of a productive passing attack. While there is no established go-to guy, there is a deep group of receivers, headed by Jamill Smith. The offensive line returns three full-time starters, all in the interior, and the projected starting tackles started a combined 11 games before injuries sidelined them. LB Travis Freeman is one of the best defenders in the MAC, and with 336 career tackles, he is No. 2 in that category among current players (Arizona LB Brian Wagner leads with 409). CB Jason Pinkston has all-league potential. P Scott Kovanda could lead the MAC in punting. Punt and kickoff coverage was good last season.
The bad: The defense was atrocious last season and looks to be bad again. There are no proven playmakers up front (Ball State managed just 12 sacks last season), and there will be three new starting linemen. Freeman is the only proven linebacker, and there will be two new starting safeties. The schedule is tough.
The projection: The early-season schedule is difficult, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Ball State open 0-7. The opener at home against Eastern Michigan is going to be a huge trend-setter for the season. After that comes three games in a row against "Big Six" opponents (though one of those is Indiana, which fell to Ball State last season). Ball State isn't helped by playing two of the best teams in the MAC East (Miami and Ohio) as part of its division crossover games. The offense has potential, and the Cardinals are going to need to score a ton of points because the defense looks mighty shaky.
Last season: 2-11 overall, 1-7 in Conference USA (sixth in C-USA West)|
Coach: Curtis Johnson (first season)
Fast fact: Tulane went 12-0 under Tommy Bowden in 1998 (Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator). The Green Wave have had just two winning seasons since and won 11 games total in the past four seasons.
Key player: QB Ryan Griffin. His production never has matched his potential, and this is his final go-round with the Green Wave. He has excellent size (6-5/218) and a nice arm. But he is way too inconsistent: He has five 300-yard games in his career, but he threw for more than 163 yards just once in the final six games last season.
The good: Orleans Darkwa is one of the top three running backs in Conference USA and has 1,000-yard potential; he heads what is expected to be a productive group of tailbacks. LB Trent Mackey is a stud; he was sixth nationally with 145 tackles last season and always seems to be able to find the ball. CB Ryan Travis and SS Shakiel Smith head what could be an OK secondary.
The bad: Only two starting offensive linemen are back, and depth is lacking, which likely means the rushing attack won't be as strong as it could be. There is no proven go-to receiver. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, and it wasn't all that strong to begin with. The special teams are pedestrian and need an upgrade.
The projection: There are seven home games, but will that matter? The Green Wave averaged just 19,726 fans last season, which meant the Superdome basically appeared empty for every home contest. Conference USA should be weaker than usual, which gives Tulane a chance in the majority of its league games. But Griffin's lack of consistency is worrisome, and it's hard to see this defense being good enough for the Green Wave to earn a bowl bid.
|102. Eastern Michigan|
Last season: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in MAC (tied for fourth in MAC West)|
Coach: Ron English (8-28, fourth season)
Fast fact: Last season was the Eagles' first non-losing record since 1995, and the six wins were one more than they had had in the three previous seasons total. EMU has had just two winning records since 1989.
Key player: QB Alex Gillett. Gillett, a senior, will be a three-year starter. But he is far more polished as a runner (he led the Eagles in rushing last season with 736 yards) than as a passer. For EMU to contend for an upper-division finish in the MAC West, Gillett has to become a much more consistent passer.
The good: EMU was 14th nationally in rushing last season and returns five linemen who started at least seven games as well as six of the top seven rushers. In short, the Eagles are going to be ground-bound again. Garrett Hoskins is a solid tight end. DE Andy Mulumba has big-play ability. CB Marlon Pollard, who began his career at UCLA before transferring, should contend for all-league honors. LB Justin Cudworth is a steady performer. Kickoff coverage was excellent last season.
The bad: The passing attack was 117th in the nation last season, and until Gillett proves he can adequately throw the ball, the Eagles are going to see a lot of eight-man fronts. While having depth at tailback is good, it also would be nice to see one guy step up and grab the feature-back role. The defense made huge strides last season, but just four starters are back. The line and the safety spots are big-time concerns; the Eagles need junior college transfers to answer the bell at defensive tackle.
The projection: EMU had to beat two FCS teams to get to six wins last season. On the other hand, the Eagles were close to nine wins: The last three losses came by a combined 14 points. English has done a great job of changing the team's mindset, but he could have a tough time this fall with a rebuilt defense. Three of the first four games are on the road, with the key being the opener at Ball State. If EMU loses that, it will be tough to qualify for a bowl. Still, EMU gets its toughest MAC division foes at home, and if Gillett improves as a passer, the offense might be good enough to overcome what is sure to be a suspect defense.
|101. Western Kentucky|
Last season: 7-5 overall, 7-1 in Sun Belt (second in league)|
Coach: Willie Taggart (9-15, third season)
Fast fact: Last season's victory total was three more than the Hilltoppers had managed in the three previous three seasons combined.
Key player: QB Kawaun Jakes. He is going to be a four-year starter for the Hilltoppers, but he has not been all that impressive. That must change this season. Stud TB Bobby Rainey is gone, which means there is no focal point to the offense. Jakes has to increase his production in the passing game; he has 29 career TD passes but also 27 career picks.
The good: The team knows how to win now; that was in doubt until last season, and Taggart, a WKU alum who was on Stanford's staff when he was hired by his alma mater, deserves a ton of credit. TE Jack Doyle is the best at his position in the league and is a top-20 guy nationally. The offensive line returns four starters, including G Adam Smith, who will vie for all-league honors. LB Andrew Jackson is a big-timer who really lays the lumber. DE Quanterus Smith has pass-rush ability. The secondary has the potential to be one of the best in the conference; big things are expected from transfer FS Jonathan Dowling, a former five-star recruit at Florida who is from the same hometown as Taggart (Bradenton, Fla.). P Hendrix Barefield is good.
The bad: Without Rainey, can this team consistently move the ball? He was responsible for 50.3 percent of Western's offense last season. None of the wide receivers has done anything of note, and Doyle seems a lock to be the leading receiver again. While Smith has pass-rush ability, he needs to prove he can be a consistent threat off the edge; the pass rush is a concern. The Hilltoppers are looking for a consistent kicker. Four of the first six games are on the road.
The projection: Even with Rainey, Western ranked just 89th in total offense last season. Though he is a senior, Jakes' passing ability remains a huge question. It was one thing to count on Rainey; it's quite another to have to count on Jakes to be productive. That said, most of the other pieces are in place for another winning season. Other than a trip to Alabama in Week 2, every other game on the schedule is winnable for this team – assuming Jakes comes through. A four-game stretch starting in late September (at Arkansas State, at Troy, vs. Louisiana-Monroe and at FIU) is going to be the make-or-break portion of the schedule.
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