This is the ninth 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.
Last season 5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC (tied for 4th in SEC East
Coach Joker Phillips (11-14, 3rd season)
Fast fact The Wildcats scored just nine rushing TDs last season, third-fewest in the nation. Five SEC running backs scored more rushing TDs by themselves.
Key player QB Maxwell Smith. Smith was pressed into duty as a true freshman last season and did an OK job; he started four games and threw for 769 yards, four TDs and two interceptions. He obviously needs to ramp up the production this fall, but at least he knows the job is his.
The good G Larry Warford is one of the nation's best at the position. DTs Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph should provide some resistance against the run. S Martavius Neloms is heading into his third season as a starter and made 71 tackles last season. K Craig McIntosh is steady.
The bad UK was 118th nationally in total offense last season and the Wildcats have zero proven playmakers on that side of the ball. Can Smith get the job done in the passing game? Is there an SEC-caliber feature back on the roster? And even if there is, will a line featuring three new starters be able to open any holes? The defense lost its two best players in Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, and the linebacker corps is a giant concern. So are the corners. And so is the pass rush. UK needs a new punter.
The projection This looks like the worst team in the SEC. The nonconference schedule isn't that taxing, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Wildcats go winless in the SEC. The offense scares no one, and unless UK gets much tougher against the run (183.2 rushing yards per game allowed last season), league opponents are going to relish playing against the Wildcats. If this team gets to a bowl, it will have been a great coaching job by Phillips and his staff.
Last season 9-4 overall, 6-2 in Sun Belt (3rd in league)
Coach Mark Hudspeth (9-4, 2nd season at ULL; 75-25, 9th season overall)
Fast fact The Ragin' Cajuns made their first bowl appearance last season, edging San Diego State 32-30 on a last-play field goal in the New Orleans Bowl.
Key player RB Alonzo Harris. He earned the starting job three games into last season as a true freshman. He lacks breakaway speed but is tough between the tackles. ULL was successful last season despite a mediocre rushing attack, and the Ragin' Cajuns certainly wouldn't mind having better offensive balance this season.
The good QB Blaine Gautier adapted well to a new offensive scheme, throwing for 2,958 yards and 23 TDs and also rushing for 486 yards and three scores. His top two receivers, Javone Lawson and Harry Peoples, are back after combining for 120 receptions for 1,789 yards and nine TDs. No. 3 receiver Darryl Surgent, who had six TD receptions, also returns. OTs Leonardo Bates and Jaron Odom are all-league candidates, as is G Daniel Quave. ULL looks good at cornerback. K/P Brett Baer should contend for all-league honors at both positions.
The bad TE Ladarius Green, a four-year starter who was a deep threat, will be missed. ULL also lost, arguably, its four best defenders, including E Bernard Smith, LB Lance Kelley and CB Dwight Bentley. There are no proven playmakers on defense. ULL employs a 3-3-5 scheme and will have an all-new starting front and two new safeties. Kickoff coverage must improve.
The projection Last season was a surprisingly good one for ULL, and it came under a new coach. Hudspeth's offense should be quite good again but expect a fall-off defensively. If it's a big fall-off, ULL could finish under .500. Still, another winning record looks likely. The schedule, other than visits to Florida and Oklahoma State, isn't that demanding, and ULL benefits from playing host to Sun Belt heavyweights FIU and Arkansas State. The last time ULL had back-to-back winning records was 1994-95.
|83. Fresno State|
Last season 4-9 overall, 3-4 in WAC (tied for 4th in league)
Coach Tim DeRuyter (1st season)
Fast fact This is Fresno's first season in the Mountain West Conference after 20 seasons in the WAC. It also marks the first time since 1996 that Pat Hill won't be on the sideline as coach. DeRuyter had been defensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
Key players The defensive linemen. The Bulldogs have switched to a 3-4 set and will have an all-new starting front this fall. Can the new guys handle the job? Coaches are high on Anthony Williams, who has shown some flashes of talent in the past but missed last season for violating team rules. None of the projected starters ever have started a college game. Will they hold up against the run?
The good QB Derek Carr has the look of a big-timer; he threw for 3,544 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, his first as the starter. He had four 300-yard games and four games in which he threw at least three TD passes. TB Robbie Rouse is a big-timer. He is coming off a 1,549-yard season and has rushed for 2,678 yards and 21 TDs in the past two seasons. T Austin Wentworth should be one of the best offensive linemen in the Mountain West. LB Travis Brown and SS Philip Thomas will contend for all-league honors.
The bad Wentworth is one of just two returning starters on the offensive line, and the line struggled at times last season. There is no proven go-to receiver for Carr after Jalen Saunders decided to transfer. The defense was bad last season (435.9 yards per game, 100th nationally, and a school-record 35.2 points allowed per game, 106th nationally); is moving to the 3-4 going to help? Fresno forced a nation's-low nine turnovers last season and there are no playmakers on that side of the ball. K Kevin Goessling, one of the best in school history, is gone.
The projection A trip to Oregon on Sept. 8 is the only truly tough nonconference game. And the schedule as a whole isn't that difficult; the Mountain West is way down this season. Still, to expect a team under a new coaching staff, using new schemes, and coming off a four-win season to have a winning record is a leap of faith. Fresno certainly has the ability to win seven games. But the line play must improve on both sides of the ball and the defense has to find a way to force some turnovers.
|82. Northern Illinois|
Last season 11-3 overall, 7-1 in MAC (tied for 1st in MAC West)
Coach Dave Doeren (11-3, 2nd season)
Fast fact NIU has had back-to-back 11-win seasons; it's the best two-season stretch in school history.
Key player QB Jordan Lynch. He has to replace Chandler Harnish, who was the only quarterback in the nation last season to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. Lynch is a good runner and could end up leading NIU in rushing. But his passing arm is a big question, and that aspect of his game ultimately will decide where the Huskies finish in the MAC West race.
The good One thing that should help Lynch is that NIU has a solid group of receivers, headed by Martel Moore. G Logan Pegram should contend for all-league honors. Eight starters return on defense, including all four guys in the secondary. E Sean Progar is one of the best defensive linemen in the league. K Mathew Sims is another who should vie for all-league honors.
The bad Pegram is the only starter returning off what had been the league's best offensive line. There is no proven player in the projected starting offensive backfield; Lynch has had his moments as a reserve, but he is the guy now and must produce. NIU again seems likely to use a tailback-by-committee approach; will it work? While eight starters return on defense, that unit was torched on an almost-weekly basis last season; the Huskies allowed 415.2 yards per game (88th nationally) and 30.3 points per game (85th nationally). NIU allowed at least 30 points seven times (four games with more than 40) and at least 20 11 times. The return units need a big upgrade.
The projection NIU bludgeoned foes with offense last season, when it rolled up 476.0 yards and 38.3 points per game. But just three starters are back on that side of the ball, meaning the defense has to take up the slack. Doeren made his bones as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, and NIU's defense should be better this season. How much better is the question. The schedule isn't that difficult and there are just five true road games; only one of those road opponents had a winning record last season. The offense is not going to be as productive this season, but the expected defensive improvement should keep NIU in the MAC West hunt all season.
|81. Air Force|
Last season 7-6 overall, 3-4 in the Mountain West (5th in the league)
Coach Troy Calhoun (41-24, 6th season)
Fast fact Last season's win total was the Falcons' lowest since they won four games in 2006.
Key player QB Connor Dietz. Dietz, a fifth-year senior, will be the fulltime starter for the first time with the graduation of Tim Jefferson. Dietz is a solid runner and knows how to handle the option pitch, but his passing is a big drop-off from Jefferson. Given the Falcons' offense, passing never is going to be vital. But until Dietz proves he can consistently complete passes, opposing defenses are going to pay even more attention than usual to the Falcons' rushing attack.
The good Wes Cobb and Mike DeWitt should be effective running backs behind Dietz. OT Jason Kons, who will be a third-year starter, should contend for all-league honors. FS Anthony Wooding is another who should vie for all-conference notice. K Parker Herrington did a nice job last season, making 15 of his 18 attempts.
The bad Air Force returns just six starters from last season, three on each side of the ball. Jefferson was a four-year starter at quarterback, and he will be missed. The offensive line has just two starters back. Only one wide receiver on the roster caught more than four passes last season. The Falcons run a 3-4 set and have just one starter on each level of the defense; linebacker could be an especially troublesome position. The run defense was atrocious last season (219.7 yards per game, 109th nationally).
The projection One advantage for Air Force is that the Mountain West is wide open this season and the three teams new to the league are not used to facing a triple-option offense. Other than a trip to Michigan on Sept. 8, the schedule isn't that tough, and six of the first nine games are at home. If the Falcons beat the teams they are supposed to, a bowl bid beckons. For that to happen, though, Dietz has to show he can throw the ball and the rush defense needs big-time improvement.
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