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Preseason 1-124 countdown: Nos. 51-55

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This is the 15th 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. Starting Thursday, each team gets a day to itself.

55. Ohio

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Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 in MAC (1st in MAC East)
Coach: Frank Solich (50-40, 8th season at Ohio; 108-59, 14th season overall)
Fast fact: Ohio hasn't won the MAC since 1968, which had been the last time it won 10 games until last season.
Key player: RB Ryan Boykin. Bobcats QB Tyler Tettleton is our pick as the MAC's MVP, but he needs some help. Tettleton is the leading returning rusher (666 yards, 10 TDs), but Boykin ran for 465 yards in a backup role last season. The starting job should be his this season. He got just one carry in the final four games last season, but has the potential to be a 1,000-yard back. If he doesn't produce early, he could lose his job to Beau Blankenship.
The good: Tettleton is a big-timer and one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. He threw for 3,306 yards and 28 TDs last season. G Eric Herman might be the best offensive lineman in the MAC and he heads a strong group of interior linemen. TE Jordan Thompson is productive. The defensive line returns three starters and has good depth. The secondary will be one of the best in the MAC, thanks to CB Travis Carrie and FS Gerald Moore. K Matt Weller will vie for all-league honors. Ohio's coverage units were among the best in the nation last season.
The bad: There is no established feature back, though there are candidates. A bigger issue is at wide receiver, as there is just one player at the position who caught more than 11 passes last season. Both starting offensive tackles are new. The pass rush must improve. Ohio will have a new punter.
The projection: The Bobcats look to be the strongest team in the league; they certainly have the best mix of offensive and defensive depth. Tettleton is going to have a big season; he just needs some help from the tailbacks. Ohio opens at Penn State, which could be an interesting matchup. After that, the 11 remaining games are eminently winnable. The toughest road game is an Oct. 27 trip to Miami (Ohio), a game that could (should?) determine the MAC East title. Everything is in place for another 10-win season, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the Bobcats won 11 or even 12.

54. Vanderbilt

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Last season: 6-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC (tied for 4th in SEC East)
Coach: James Franklin (6-7, 2nd season)
Fast fact: Vandy has had one winning record in the past 29 seasons.
Key player: QB Jordan Rodgers. Aaron's brother didn't become the Commodores' starter until midway through the season, and he lacked consistency. When he was good, he was good (282 total yards against Army, 306 against Arkansas and 317 against Florida in one three-game stretch). But he didn't play well against Georgia, Tennessee or Cincinnati. If he can level out and avoid the stinkers, he has a chance to throw for 2,600 yards and 20-plus TDs.
The good: TB Zac Stacy is productive and has a legit chance to have his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Depth at tailback looks good, too. WR Jordan Matthews came on strong down the stretch and gives the Commodores a badly needed deep threat. WR Chris Boyd had eight TD catches as a freshman last season. The offensive line made great strides last season and no longer is a weakness. DT Rob Lohr is steady and productive. CB Trey Wilson should vie for all-league honors.
The bad: While Vandy has some good receivers, Rodgers' consistency is an issue in the passing attack; the Commodores were 97th in the nation in passing last season. While the offensive line made strides last season, overall it's still in the bottom third of the SEC. Is there an edge pass rusher on the roster? The linebackers are rather nondescript. Who will be the kicker? Vandy was just 8-of-14 on field goal attempts, with zero conversions outside 40 yards.
The projection: Franklin did a great job of changing the team's mindset last season, and he deserves all the credit he has received. Still, Vandy finished with a losing record and beat only Kentucky in division play in a down season for the SEC East. Vandy was able to ease into the season in 2011; that's not the case this fall. The Commodores open with South Carolina and Northwestern, get a breather in Week 3 against FCS member Presbyterian, then go on the road to face Georgia and Missouri before returning home to play Florida and Auburn. A 2-5 or even 1-6 start is a distinct possibility, given that this team still lacks the depth needed to beat most of the SEC's top teams. Then again, Northwestern, Missouri, Auburn and Florida have some questions, too, so it wouldn't be totally shocking to see Vandy start 4-3 or 5-2. The schedule eases considerably in the second half of the season, and another postseason appearance seems likely; it would be the first time in school history that the Commodores had made back-to-back bowl trips.

53. Penn State

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Last season: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten (tied for 1st in Big Ten Leaders)
Coach: Bill O'Brien (1st season)
Fast fact: This will be the first season since 1950 that Joe Paterno will not be on the sideline as an assistant or head coach for the Nittany Lions.
Key player: QB Matt McGloin. McGloin, a senior, has been named the starter even though he has been mediocre, at best, in his starts over the past two seasons. Is that because he lacks talent or because the offense didn't play to his strengths? Regardless, in an effort to curb any controversy, O'Brien already has named him the starter. But given McGloin's uneven play in the past, it wouldn't be a surprise if he loses his job at some point this season.
The good: Silas Redd is one of the best tailbacks in the Big Ten and should put together his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. LB Gerald Hodges is coming off a 106-tackle season and has the talent to vie for All-America honors. As usual, Penn State should be fine at linebacker. The Nittany Lions look to have a solid group of defensive tackles, led by Jordan Hill. K/P Anthony Fera handles both duties well.
The bad: Outside of Redd, there is zero proven skill-position talent on offense. Quarterback has been a problem for the past two seasons; the Nittany Lions have the same number of TD passes as interceptions in that span (29 of each). The offensive line will have four new starters, and tackle could be a trouble spot all season. The secondary will have four new starters; depth is an issue (WR Curtis Drake was moved to cornerback during the spring) and freshmen almost certainly will see time. The return units need an upgrade.
The projection: The past eight months have been nightmarish for Penn State people; it won't be nightmarish in the fall, but it likely will be disappointing. There are a ton of holes on both sides of the ball. The passing attack and the pass defense are giant questions. Is McGloin really a Big Ten quarterback? Redd is a proven tailback, but will he have room to run behind a rebuilt line? The schedule isn't overly daunting, but it's also not a cakewalk. And what kind of impact will the new staff have? One positive is that the Nittany Lions don't have to play Michigan or Michigan State, arguably the two best teams in the Big Ten. But there are tough games throughout the schedule, and the second half of the season is especially tough. The Nittany Lions shouldn't finish below .500, but they don't seem likely to win more than seven games, either.

52. Virginia

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Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in ACC (tied for 2nd in ACC Coastal)
Coach: Mike London (12-13, 3rd season at Virginia; 36-18, 5th season overall)
Fast fact: Five of the Cavs' eight wins last season came by seven or fewer points, including four decided by three or fewer points.
Key player: QB Michael Rocco. He threw for 2,671 yards last season, his first as the starter, but tossed just 13 touchdown passes (and 12 interceptions). He threw just four TD passes in Virginia's five losses. He's not blessed with an overly talented receiving corps, but Virginia coaches have said they expect more production from the passing attack this season.
The good: There's a strong group of tailbacks, headed by Perry Jones, who also is an excellent receiver. OT Oday Aboushi is a big-time NFL prospect and he heads a solid line. The Cavs have a nice group of linebackers, and CB Demetrious Nicholson should contend for all-league honors.
The bad: Is there a go-to guy among the wide receivers? Kris Burd held that role last season, but he was a senior. The defensive line needs three new starters; the same goes for the secondary, where safety could be a problem area. The Cavs are breaking in a new punter and a new kicker. The return units need an upgrade.
The projection: The Cavs were a pleasant surprise last season, winning as many as eight games for the first time since 2007and just the second time since 2004. But they lived on the edge, winning a lot of close games, and lost a lot of key seniors. The rushing attack should be fine this season, but every other facet of the team is a question. The early schedule is tough, even the opener against FCS power Richmond. Then come consecutive games against Penn State, Georgia Tech, TCU and WAC favorite Louisiana Tech. At least the Cavs miss Clemson and Florida State in the division crossover games. If the Cavs win eight games again, it will be a stunner. The ceiling appears to be seven wins, and the defensive questions could lead to a losing record.

51. Houston

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Last season: 13-1 overall, 8-0 in Conference USA (1st in C-USA West)
Coach: Tony Levine (1st season)
Fast fact: The Cougars have had five winning records in the past six seasons; that's the best stretch at the school since the Cougars had six consecutive winning seasons from 1976-81 under Bill Yeoman.
Key player: QB David Piland. Record-setting QB Case Keenum is gone, and Piland takes over. He started eight games as a true freshman in 2010 when Keenum was hurt and performed admirably, throwing for 2,641 yards and 24 TDs. But he also threw 14 interceptions. The offense will not be quite as pass-happy under the new coaching staff, but Piland has all the necessary tools to be successful. Those expecting a big fall-off at quarterback are going to be wrong.
The good: TB Charles Sims is a proven commodity and has 1,000-yard potential. He'll be running behind a line that returns four starters, including potential all-league performer Jacolby Ashworth at tackle. The linebacker corps should be one of the best in C-USA; Derrick Mathews made 106 tackles last season. The secondary looks good, too, with CB D.J. Hayden the standout. K Matt Hogan and P Richie Leone might be the best kicker/punter combo in the league.
The bad: The receiving corps is extremely untested; none of the returning receivers caught more than 16 passes. The best wideout might be true freshman Deontay Greenberry, a four-star signee from Fresno, Calif., who originally committed to Notre Dame. The defensive line looks questionable, which will be magnified by the move from a 3-4 set to a 4-3 scheme. There is no proven pass rusher. Houston is looking for new return men.
The projection: Conference USA as a whole isn't that strong, so Houston has a shot at the West Division title in the first season of the post-Keenum era. The rushing attack should be quite good, which will lessen the pressure on Piland. Houston doesn't play UCF or Southern Miss, the two best teams in the East Division. But the non-conference schedule includes tough games against Louisiana Tech and UCLA. The Cougars do play division foe SMU on the road, and that's enough reason to pick the Cougars second in the division behind the Mustangs.

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