This is the 11th part of the annual preseason team countdown, which will wrap up Aug. 16, two weeks before the start of the 2012 season.
We are working backward from the 124th-ranked team, with the teams packaged in groups of five until we get to the top 50; then, each team gets a day to itself.
75. Ole Miss
Last season: 2-10 overall, 0-8 in SEC (6th in SEC West) Coach: Hugh Freeze (1st season; 30-7, 4th season overall) Fast fact: Ole Miss has been playing football since 1893 and is coming off its first-ever 10-loss season. Key player: The quarterback. It will be either junior Barry Brunetti or JC transfer Bo Wallace. Brunetti, who started his career at West Virginia before transferring, started the opener last season, but was benched during the game and received scant playing time the rest of the season. Wallace signed with Arkansas State out of high school, when Freeze was the Red Wolves' offensive coordinator, but ended up transferring to a junior college before moving on to Ole Miss. Freeze has revved up the offense, and it's vital that the Rebels get better quarterback play than they did last season, when they were 107th nationally in pass offense, 114th in total offense and 116th in scoring offense. The good: The receivers haven't done much, but that's more of a function of a conservative offense and bad quarterback play the past few seasons. There are some good athletes who can do things in space, assuming they get the ball. S Charles Sawyer, who also can play corner, should contend for all-league honors; he heads what could be a solid secondary. P Tyler Campbell is one of the best in the nation at his position and owns a career average of 44.6 yards per punt. The bad: The Rebels were winless in SEC play last season and lack playmakers and depth on both sides of the ball. The offense is going to be miserable again unless a competent quarterback emerges. RB Jeff Scott is speedy and shifty, but he's too small to be an every-down back. The problem: There may not be an every-down back on the roster. The offensive line has just one returning starter. There was no pass rush last season (Ole Miss managed just 13 sacks). The rush defense was atrocious, and the defensive tackles don't appear to be of SEC caliber. The projection: The Rebels have lost 15 in a row in conference play, but there are some glimmers of hope. The main one is that it doesn't seem possible that the quarterbacks could be that awful two seasons in a row. There is some talent on the roster, just not enough of it. Three of the first four games are eminently winnable, but without Kentucky on the schedule, a Nov. 10 visit from Vandy might be the Rebels' only chance for a league victory. Still, a four-win season would be a good start to the Freeze era.
Last season: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in Conference USA (3rd in C-USA East) Coach: Ruffin McNeill (11-14, 3rd season) Fast fact: A third of ECU's 18-man recruiting class was junior college transfers, and half of those guys are defensive backs. Key player: QB Rio Johnson. With two-year starter Dominique Davis gone, Johnson is the new quarterback. It's hard to see him being as productive as Davis in the passing game (Davis threw for 7,192 yards and 62 TDs in two seasons), but Johnson should oversee a more balanced offense. As productive as Davis was, he also threw 35 interceptions in two seasons. Johnson must take better care of the ball. The good: There is a talented receiving corps, headed by sophomore Justin Hardy. ECU has three players with 50-catch potential. ECU's rushing attack was bad last season (109.1 yards per game, 105th nationally), and while the Pirates don't have a true feature back, there is some talent at the position and a legit hope that the per-game average increases by about 30 or so yards. Four starters return on the offensive line. There looks to be a good group of linebackers, headed by Jeremy Grove. DT Michael Brooks is solid against the run. FS Damon Magazu should contend for all-league honors. The bad: Can Johnson do the job at quarterback? There are no experienced backups. While the offensive line returns almost intact, it had trouble protecting the passer last season. The run defense must improve after ECU allowed 174.2 yards per game last season. The secondary is a potential trouble spot, especially at corner, where there will be two new starters. There's a reason ECU brought in three JC defensive backs. ECU will have a new kicker and a new punter, and special teams as a whole need vast improvement. The projection: ECU went last in the nation in total defense in 2010 to 56th last season. A move to a 3-4 set helped. But it's hard to see more improvement coming this season because of the holes in the secondary. That means there will be more pressure on the offense to produce, especially on the ground. The early-season schedule is a monster, with four of the first six games on the road. Two of the four are against Big Six teams (North Carolina and South Carolina), and the other two are against probable C-USA East favorites Southern Miss and UCF). Thus, it's entirely possible that the Pirates are out of the division race by the end of the first week of October. The schedule eases in the second half of the season, and for the second year in a row, the regular-season finale against Marshall could determine bowl-eligibility.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-3 in Mountain West (4th in league) Coach: Rocky Long (8-5, 2nd season; 73-74, 13th season overall) Fast fact: This is the Aztecs' final season in the Mountain West; they are headed to the Big East next fall. Key player: QB Ryan Katz. SDSU lost four-year starting QB Ryan Lindley, and Katz, a transfer from Oregon State, is next up. Katz began last season as the Beavers' starter, but didn't see the field after Game 2. He graduated from Oregon State in December, enrolled at SDSU in January and is immediately eligible. He had a strong 2010 for the Beavers, throwing for 2,411 yards and 18 TDs. While it's a stretch to think he will be as prolific as Lindley, he should be a steady hand for the Aztecs. The good: There is a nice group of receivers. TE Gavin Escobar is one of the best in the nation at the position, and WR Colin Lockett should be a 60-catch guy. G Nik Embernate will vie for all-league honors. Leon McFadden is one of the best cornerbacks on the West Coast. LB Jake Fely and S Nat Berhe are other defensive standouts. The bad: Star TB Ronnie Hillman is gone, and the Aztecs seem likely to use a tailback-by-committee approach to replace him. Just two starters are back on the offensive line, and the likely starting left tackle (Brice Quigley) was a tight end when spring drills began. SDSU uses a 3-3-5 defensive set, but returns just two starters in the front six; that makes the run defense, which wasn't that stout last season, a potential trouble spot. SDSU will have a new kicker and a new punter. The projection: Expect the Aztecs to take at least a half-step back from last season; they lost too much talent on both sides of the ball to contend for the league title. Five of the first seven games are at home, and there are seven home games total. Other than a trip to Washington, it's not outlandish to think SDSU will be in every other game. And a 6-1 start isn't out of the realm of possibility if Katz plays well. Then again, a 4-3 or even 3-4 start is possible, too. Still, a third consecutive bowl bid seems probable.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in Sun Belt (4th in league) Coach: Mario Cristobal (24-38, 6th season) Fast fact: FIU started football in 2002 and is coming off its second consecutive bowl bid. Key player: QB Jake Medlock. Two-year starter Wesley Carroll is gone, and now it's Medlock's turn. Truth be told, Carroll, who began his career at Mississippi State, never was more than an adequate quarterback. Medlock is more athletic than his predecessor, and his running ability could come into play in FIU's version of the spread. If Medlock is adequate this fall, FIU should win the Sun Belt. If he is better than that, FIU could win 10 games. The good: Kedrick Rhodes (1,149 yards and eight TDs last season) is the best running back in the league. He will run behind a line that returns four starters, including potential all-league T Caylin Hauptmann. Despite the loss of stud WR T.Y. Hilton, the receiving corps is solid, with Wayne Times likely to assume the role of go-to receiver. The defense should be the best in the Sun Belt; the Golden Panthers have potential all-league guys at each level (E Tourek Williams, T Isame Faciane, LB Winston Fraser and SS Jonathan Cyprien). Nine starters are back on defense. K Jack Griffin is the best in the Sun Belt. The bad: Quarterback is a big question; can Medlock play with consistency? Depth at tailback is iffy. And can Times be a go-to receiver? The secondary has a whole must be more consistent; some breakdowns led to big pass plays by opponents last season. The coverage units must get better, and FIU is searching for a new return man. The projection: On paper, FIU is a prohibitive league favorite. The defense could be stifling; there is a ton of speed and good depth. The offense doesn't have to be great, merely adequate. The toughest games on the schedule appear to be back-to-back contests in September at UCF and at home with Louisville; FIU beat both last season. The first two league games, at Louisiana on Sept. 29 and vs. Arkansas State on Oct. 4, are the toughest, so it's possible that FIU could have the conference title sewn up in early October. Regardless, a third consecutive bowl bid looks likely, and a nine-win season is a legit goal.
Last season: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in ACC (5th in ACC Atlantic) Coach: Frank Spaziani (20-19, 4th season) Fast fact: BC's run of 12 consecutive postseason appearances ended last season. Key player: QB Chase Rettig. A junior, Rettig is going into his third season as the starter. He has been mediocre thus far. He appears to have the needed tools, but that hasn't translated to production on the field. He has completed just 52.7 percent of his passes, for 3,198 yards, 18 TDs and 18 picks. He simply has to become more productive as a passer if BC is contend for a .500 record. The good: TE Chris Pantale is steady and makes for a nice target. The receiving corps as a whole has some potential, and Colin Larmond can be a dangerous deep threat. The offensive line returns four starters. The defensive tackle duo of Kaleb Ramsey and Dillon Quinn should be one of the best in the ACC. LB Kevin Pierre-Louis should exceed 100 tackles. SS Jim Noel, who also has played corner, is a steadying force in the secondary. The bad: Rettig must improve as a passer. There is no proven tailback on the roster; the job likely will be shared by Rolandan Finch and Andre Williams. The offensive line may have a bunch of starters returning, but the group as a whole must become more physical. BC had no pass rush last season, finishing with just 11 sacks; who is going to provide pressure off the edge? Cornerback could be a problem, and there is little depth in the secondary. BC needs a new punter, and the return units need a huge upgrade. The projection: BC has been mediocre or worse offensively since Matt Ryan left, and last season the defense finally broke down. It's as easy as A-B-C for BC: The offense has to become more productive throwing the ball. Three of the first four games are at home, but two of the opponents are Miami and Clemson and the one road game in that stretch is against Northwestern. Thus, a slow start appears probable. The schedule does ease a bit in October, but to get to a bowl, the Eagles are going to have to pull an upset or three. Another bowl-less season could mean Spaziani is shown the door.
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