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.
Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in Big Ten (3rd in Big Ten Leaders)
Coach: Danny Hope (16-21, 4th season at Purdue; 51-43, 9th season overall)
Fast fact: Purdue led the nation in kickoff-return average last season, at 28.7 yards per return. The Boilermakers were 88th in punt-return average, at 5.9 yards per return.
Key player: The quarterback. Will the starter be Caleb TerBush, Rob Henry or Robert Marve? TerBush was the starter last season, while Henry (who missed last season with a torn ACL) and Marve (who played in 10 games) are former starters. Henry is the best athlete of the three but also the least-polished passer. Marve has the highest upside but TerBush is the steadiest. It sounds simplistic, but the quarterback who makes the fewest mistakes likely sees the most time.
The good: Technically, the top three tailbacks return from a team that ranked 33rd nationally in rushing (181.6 yards per game). But leading rusher Ralph Bolden tore an ACL in the regular-season finale (his third ACL injury), and his status remains murky for the fall. The receiving corps has potential. The offensive line returns three starters. Kawann Short is one of the best defensive tackles in the nation; he had 17.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Ricardo Allen is a rising star at cornerback, and he heads what should be a solid secondary. Cody Webster is one of the best punters in the Big Ten.
The bad: While the receiving corps has potential, there is no proven go-to guy. There's the potential for a quarterback controversy. The rush defense was an issue last season (the Boilermakers were 82nd nationally against the run), and the linebacking corps remains uninspiring. Purdue needs a new kicker, and the kickoff coverage needs vast improvement.
The projection: Purdue plays five of its first six games at home and has seven home games overall. A 3-1 start is possible (even 4-0 if the Boilers can win at Notre Dame), but then come back-to-back-to-back games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Even with the first two of those at home, that's a tough stretch for a team that again could have trouble stopping the run. Purdue does get to play both Indiana and Minnesota; thus, assuming they get off to a fast start, the Boilermakers have a shot at a second consecutive bowl bid.
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-7 in Pac-12 (tied for 5th in Pac-12 South)
Coach: Rich Rodriguez (1st season at Arizona; 120-84-2, 19th season overall)
Fast fact: When Rich Rodriguez became coach at West Virginia in 2001, WVU had had just four seasons of double-digit wins in its history. Rodriguez now takes over a program with just two seasons of double-digit wins in its history.
Key player: QB Matt Scott. Rodriguez's version of the spread relies on a quarterback who can effectively run the ball. Scott, a senior, looks as if he fits that description. He redshirted last season so Arizona would have an experienced hand once Nick Foles graduated. The irony: Rodriguez's offense fits Scott much better than predecessor Mike Stoops'.
The good: Scott looks like a great fit for the offense, and while there aren't any established running backs, Ka'Deem Carey looks as if he can do a good job. All five starting offensive linemen return. CB Shaquille Richardson is solid and had four picks last season. P Kyle Dugandzic averaged 46.0 yards per punt last season.
The bad: Scott must stay healthy; depth at quarterback is non-existent. The receiving corps is underwhelming, and someone needs to step up as a playmaker at the position. Arizona is going to a 3-3-5 defense, but there are concerns everywhere, especially at linebacker. LB Brian Wagner transferred from Akron and was supposed to be a steadying force, but he decided in early June he was done with football. That hurts, as he was the NCAA's current career leader in tackles. The Wildcats managed just 10 sacks last season, and it's vital that a consistent pass rusher emerges. Outside of Richardson, the secondary is questionable; Arizona was 119th in the nation in pass defense last season.
The projection: Rodriguez's arrival has created a buzz, and it looks as if the rushing attack is going to be successful. But will Arizona be able to throw the ball? And can the defense stop anyone? Jeff Casteel, who worked with Rodriguez at WVU but not at Michigan, is the new defensive coordinator, and he proved to be a magician at times at WVU. But this defense has a ton of holes. Four of the first five games are at home, and in addition, there are eight home games total, an incredible luxury for a first-year coach. But only a matchup with FCS member South Carolina State can be considered easy, and two of the road trips are to Oregon and Stanford. Arizona has to come out of September 3-2 to feel good about a possible bowl bid.
Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in Big 12 (tied for 3rd in league)
Coach: Art Briles (25-25, 5th season at Baylor; 59-53, 10th season overall)
Fast fact: Baylor is coming off just its second 10-win season in school history. Baylor has been playing football since 1899.
Key player: QB Nick Florence. Robert Griffin III is in the NFL, and the Bears aren't going to come close to matching his production – or his presence. Florence, a senior, has made seven career starts, stepping in when Griffin was injured. Florence is well-versed in the offense, and as long as he is efficient and avoids mistakes, he should be fine.
The good: Terrance Williams should be one of the most productive wide receivers in the league, and even though Baylor lost first-round pick Kendall Wright, the receiving corps still should be OK. The interior of the offensive line will be a team strength. Seven starters return on defense, including all five in the secondary (Baylor runs a 4-2-5 set).
The bad: Did we mention Robert Griffin III is in the NFL? So are Wright and 1,000-yard rusher Terrence Ganaway. The Bears look to have a nice group of tailbacks, but a committee approach seems likely. Both starting offensive tackles will be new. Having that many starters back on defense is a double-edged sword. Baylor was pitiful on defense last season, ranking 116th overall, 102nd against the run, 118th against the pass and 113th in scoring defense. Defensive tackle and linebacker are trouble spots. The coverage units need improvement, especially on punts.
The projection: Not to be smart-alecky, but you know Robert Griffin III is gone, right? The guy was magnificent, and there is going to be a drop-off when someone that awesome leaves. Baylor won a lot of games last season because its offense overwhelmed opponents; frankly, the defense reeked. The defense should be better this season, but the offense still had better be highly productive again because the defense isn't going to be that much better. The first three league games are brutal: at West Virginia, TCU and at Texas. A 0-3 start to league play seems assured. That means the Bears need to win at least two of their three nonconference games (that shouldn't be a problem) and beat who they're supposed to beat in league play if they want to go bowling again. The Bears have been to back-to-back bowl games; they never have been to bowls in three consecutive seasons.
|57. Louisiana Tech|
Last season: 8-5 overall, 6-1 in WAC (1st in league)
Coach: Sonny Dykes (13-12, 3rd season)
Fast fact: Louisiana Tech forced 31 turnovers last season, tied for 10th-most nationally.
Key player: RB Hunter Lee. Lee, a former walk-on, had three 100-yard games last season and played well down the stretch after the now-departed Lennon Creer was injured. Lee lacks breakaway speed, but he is tough between the tackles and also is a solid receiver. Louisiana Tech's offense is predicated on throwing the ball, but Lee needs to make sure the Bulldogs have some semblance of a running game.
The good: Quinton Patton is the best wide receiver in the WAC; he made a big impact last season, his first with the Bulldogs after transferring in from a junior college. Tech has the best offensive line in the league, headed by G Kevin Saia. QB Colby Cameron has a nice arm and avoids mistakes. The Bulldogs have a solid group of defensive tackles, and DE I.K. Enemkpali has some pass-rushing skills. There is a nice duo at safety. K Matt Nelson and P Ryan Allen, last season's Ray Guy Award winner, form one of the best combinations in the nation. Kickoff coverage was superb last season.
The bad: There is no proven No. 2 receiver, which could make things tough on Patton early in the season. The Bulldogs run a 4-2-5 defense, and the linebackers and corners are a concern. The pass defense was shaky last season (91st nationally), and the problems at cornerback could lead to again giving up big passing numbers.
The projection: The Bulldogs are prohibitive favorites to win the WAC; indeed, if they don't finish unbeaten in league play, it will be a shock. The schedule gives Tech a chance to make some national noise. The Bulldogs open with Texas A&M in Shreveport, La., less than an hour from Tech's campus in Ruston. There also are September games against Houston, Illinois and Virginia. If everything breaks right, especially with the secondary, this team could win 10 games. At the least, eight wins seem almost guaranteed. If Tech wins 10, expect Dykes to be elsewhere next season.
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Big East
Coach: Butch Jones (14-11, 3rd season at Cincinnati; 41-24, 6th season overall)
Fast fact: The Bearcats have won 10 games in four of the past five seasons, and their 72.3 winning percentage in that span (47-18) is tied for 17th nationally.
Key player: QB Munchie Legaux. Legaux, whose real first name is Benton, started three times last season in relief of injured starter Zach Collaros. He's a good athlete and a productive runner, but his passing needs a lot of work. He played in 11 games but completed just 47.4 percent of his 116 attempts last season, with five TDs and four interceptions. He needs to be productive because quarterback depth is iffy.
The good: Anthony McClung is one of the better wide receivers in the Big East and heads a solid position group. G Austen Bujnoch has all-league potential and is the headliner on a line that returns three starters. DE Walter Stewart is one of the best pass rushers in the league and forms a nice duo at end with Dan Giordano. SS Drew Frey also should be a strong contender for all-league honors. Patrick O'Donnell led the league in punting last season, and kickoff coverage was strong.
The bad: Can Legaux throw the ball well enough to take pressure off the rushing attack? Speaking of the rushing attack, 1,000-yard rusher Isaiah Pead will be missed. Cincy will have two new starting defensive tackles and won't be able to adequately replace Derek Wolfe, who was one of the best tackles in school history. LB J.K. Schaffer also will be missed. While three starters return in the secondary, that group was torched often last season, giving up 261.2 yards per game (99th nationally). K Tony Miliano was shaky last season.
The projection: Even though the league is down, the Bearcats don't look as if they will be legit contenders. Collaros is going to be missed, and the tailback situation bears watching; a committee approach seems assured. The departed stars on defense will be even harder to replace, and the Bearcats seem certain to take a defensive tumble. There are two FCS teams on the schedule, but the Bearcats open with Pitt and play Virginia Tech in Game 3. One positive: Most of the tough league games (with the exception of a trip to Louisville) are at home. A sixth bowl in seven seasons seems likely, but anything more than eight wins would be a big surprise.
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