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: 5-7 overall
Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (32-21, 5th season)
Fast fact: The Midshipmen lost five games by three or fewer points last season, causing their eight-season streak of postseason appearances to end.
Key player: QB Trey Miller. Miller, a junior, played in six games last season and made one start, against Notre Dame, when Kriss Proctor was hurt. Miller is considered a better passer than Proctor, to the point that Navy even employed the "Shotgun" during spring drills. But Miller still needs work at running the option, which makes this an interesting season for a team that runs the triple-option.
The good: Navy has a solid group of slotbacks, headed by Gee Gee Greene. G Josh Cabral will be starting for the third season. Three starters return in the secondary, headed by SS Tra'ves Bush (93 tackles, two interceptions). Matt Warrick and Brye French give Navy two experienced inside linebackers in the 3-4 set; they combined for 158 tackles last season and could combine for 180 or so this fall.
The bad: Only two starters return on the offensive line. Navy doesn't throw the ball all that much, and no one on the roster caught more than 14 passes last season. The three-man defensive line will have three new starters. Navy managed just 12 sacks last season, and no returnee had more than 1.5. There is no established kicker, and every element of the special teams except punt coverage needs big-time improvement.
The projection: The Midshipmen open with back-to-back games against Notre Dame (in Dublin) and Penn State, but the schedule eases considerably after that. The only other Big Six conference opponent on the schedule is a middling Indiana team, which visits Annapolis on Oct. 20. There are just five home games, but an eight-win season is a legitimate goal. Expect the Midshipmen to re-start their bowl streak.
|64. Iowa State|
Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-6 in Big 12 (8th in league)
Coach: Paul Rhoads (18-20, 4th season)
Fast fact: Iowa State committed 35 turnovers last season (17 interceptions, 18 fumbles), tied for the most in the nation with East Carolina.
Key player: The quarterback. Will it be sophomore Jared Barnett or senior Steele Jantz? Jantz started seven games last season, his first after transferring in from a junior college; Barnett started six times as a redshirt freshman. Barnett is the better runner, Jantz the better passer. One key: cutting down on interceptions. Jantz threw 11 and Barnett six last season. The rushing attack looks fine; a competent passing attack would make Iowa State that much better.
The good: There is an OK group of tailbacks; the receivers look OK, as well. C Tom Farniok is the best of three returning starters along the offensive line. The linebacker duo of A.J. Klein and Jake Knott is one of the top four or five in the nation. Kirby Van Der Camp is one of the better punters in the Big 12, and the coverage units were good last season.
The bad: While there is a solid group of receivers, none is a proven big-play threat. The quarterback conundrum could make things tough on the offense as a whole. The defensive line is a huge concern; Iowa State was 98th in the nation in rush defense last season and the line will have three new starters. The Cyclones also need someone to step up as a consistent pass rusher; they had just 17 sacks last season and their top three sack men are gone. There will be two new starters in the secondary, which struggled at times last season. Iowa State is looking for a new kicker.
The projection: The lack of a proven passing attack could hold Iowa State back this season. Still, there are seven home games, and three of the toughest Big 12 opponents have to visit Ames (Kansas State, Oklahoma and West Virginia). The league schedule opens with games against Texas Tech (home), TCU (away) and Kansas State (home); the Cyclones likely need to win two of those to have legitimate bowl aspirations.
|63. Washington State|
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-7 in Pac-12 (6th in Pac-12 North)
Coach: Mike Leach (1st season at Washington State; 84-43, 11th season overall)
Fast fact: The Cougars won 30 games in a three-season stretch from 2001-03; they have won a combined 29 games in the ensuing eight seasons.
Key player: QB Jeff Tuel. Leach's hiring means the Cougars' passing attack, which already had been good, should become excellent. But to be at its best, that offense needs a quarterback who understands what he is supposed to do and avoids mistakes. Tuel looked good in 2010, then missed all but three games last season with a variety of injuries. If Tuel is "on," he should throw for 3,500-plus yards.
The good: WR Marquess Wilson is one of the best in the nation at the position and could put up monster numbers (100-plus catches, for 1,400 or so yards and 15 TDs) this season. The offensive line looks to be good enough to get things done in this offense. The secondary returns all four starters and should be noticeably better than it was last season, when the Cougars ranked 93rd nationally in pass defense. K Andrew Furney is consistent.
The bad: The rushing attack has struggled of late, and Leach never has seemed to be overly concerned with that, anyway. The Cougars lost their second- and third-leading receivers from last season, so two or three guys must step up and prove they can be effective complementary receivers. Linebacker is a wasteland. The Cougars have switched to a 3-4 set, but don't return any starting linebackers. The pass rush must improve. So must the coverage units. Washington State is breaking in a new punter.
The projection: Leach's hiring was a coup and makes the Cougars nationally relevant. Of course, they have to win to remain relevant, but the pieces look to be in place for a potent offense. The opener at BYU will be interesting, and not just because Leach is a BYU grad. If Washington State can win that game, a 4-0 start becomes eminently possible. Still, a questionable defense will put a lot of pressure on the offense to perform, and the Cougars likely will need to pull an upset or two if they are to qualify for the postseason. There are just five home games, but two of the season's final three contests are in Pullman.
|62. Arizona State|
Last season: 6-7 overall, 4-5 in Pac-12 (tied for 3rd in Pac-12 South)
Coach: Todd Graham (1st season at Arizona State; 49-29, 7th season overall)
Fast fact: The Sun Devils play four non-Saturday games this fall, with three on Thursday and one on Friday.
Key player: TB Cameron Marshall. The Sun Devils will have a new quarterback and have a shaky receiving corps. That means there will be pressure on Marshall to produce. He should be up for it; he ran for 1,050 yards and 18 TDs last season and had four 100-yard games, including a 141-yard, three-TD performance in a rout of USC.
The good: Marshall should be one of the more productive backs in the Pac-12. WR Jamal Miles looks to be a great fit for Graham's version of the spread offense; look for him to become even more important as a runner. LB Brandon Magee, who missed last season with an injury, has all-league potential. DE Junior Onyeali is a strong pass rusher. There is a nice group of cornerbacks. Miles is a dangerous return man; he scored three times on returns last season (one on a punt, twice on kickoffs).
The bad: Who's the quarterback? Graham's offense needs the quarterback to be a dual threat, but does Arizona State have anyone that fits the bill? Other than Miles, the receivers are questionable. Only two starters are back along the offensive line, and the group as a whole lacks depth. Other than Magee, the Sun Devils' linebackers are a question. Both starting safeties are new. Kickoff coverage was bad last season.
The projection: Graham's offense fits Miles and Marshall, but the quarterbacks are a huge concern. The Sun Devils badly underachieved last season and fell apart down the stretch, so their psyche might not be what it needs to be. Other than the opener against FCS foe Northern Arizona, the early-season schedule is tough, with games against Illinois, Missouri, Utah and California in September. The closing stretch also could be difficult, as three of the last four games are on the road, where Arizona State is 5-16 in the past four seasons. This looks like a team with a five-win ceiling this fall.
|61. Oregon State|
Last season: 3-9 overall, 3-6 in Pac-12 (5th in Pac-12 North)
Coach: Mike Riley (72-63, 12th season)
Fast fact: The Beavers went to four consecutive bowls from 2006-09, winning at least eight games in each of those seasons. They have won a combined eight games in the past two seasons.
Key players: The tailbacks. The Beavers were horrible on the ground last season, ranking 118th nationally (just 86.9 yards per game). There look to be three candidates for the starting job: sophomore Malcolm Agnew, sophomore Terron Ward and redshirt freshman Storm Woods. It seems likely there will be a committee approach, but whoever gets the call needs to produce or it could be another long season.
The good: QB Sean Mannion was one of the best freshman signal-callers in the nation last season. The receiving corps, led by Markus Wheaton, is solid. The offensive line should be miles better than it was last season. Eight starters are back on defense, led by CB Jordan Poyer, an All-America candidate. He leads a good secondary. Poyer also is an excellent punt returner.
The bad: The rushing attack has to improve, and it should running behind a line getting an infusion of talent from recruiting and from guys returning from injury. Mannion has a big arm, but tossed 18 picks last season; quarterback depth is iffy. While five starters are back in the defensive front seven, Oregon State's run defense was bad last season (196.8 yards per game, 101st nationally); the Beavers have to get better play from their defensive tackles. The punt coverage was poor last season.
The projection: The Beavers used to be considered overachievers under Riley, but have underachieved a bit the past two seasons. It cannot be overstated how important an improved rushing attack will be this fall. The opener against FCS foe Nicholls State is a gimme. But then comes a murderous five-game stretch that includes three road games and a visit from Wisconsin. The other home game in that stretch is against Washington State; a loss to the Cougars would bode ill for the Beavers. As successful as Riley has been in Corvallis, he might not survive another losing season. If the rushing attack comes around, though, a bowl bid should result.
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