This is Part 8 of the 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 our top 50; then, each team gets a day to itself.
|90. Bowling Green|
| Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in MAC (tied for 4th in MAC East)|
Coach: Dave Clawson (14-23, 4th season at Bowling Green; 72-72, 13th season overall)
Fast fact: Bowling Green scored 13 rushing TDs last season, and every player who scored one is back this season. Conversely, BG scored on 28 TD catches last season, but players who had 23 of those are gone.
Key player: WR Je'Ron Stokes. He was a four-star recruit out of high school in 2009 and was the No. 14 receiver in the nation. He signed with Michigan but made just three receptions in two seasons before transferring to Bowling Green. The Falcons lost four of their top five wide receivers and are starved for guys who can produce on the outside. Stokes had a good spring and will get every opportunity to be the go-to guy this fall. BG's running game looks fine, but will there be a solid passing attack?
The good: Junior QB Matt Schilz is entering his third season as the starter and tossed 28 TD passes last season; alas, he also threw 13 interceptions, giving him 27 in two seasons, so he must make better decisions. There is a nice group of running backs, headed by sophomore Anthon Samuel; he rushed for 844 yards despite missing three games with injury. The offensive line looks good with three returning starters. LB Dwayne Woods (111 tackles) and DT Chris Jones (8.5 sacks) are all-league performers. P Brian Schmiedebusch is the best in the league at his position and should vie for the Ray Guy Award, given to the best punter in the nation.
The bad: Schilz is a good quarterback, but the lack of proven receivers is bothersome and means the passing attack might not live up to its potential. While Jones and Woods are good players, the rest of the defense is quite iffy. The rush defense was atrocious last season (203.4 yards per game, 104th nationally), and the Falcons forced just 14 turnovers, including just six interceptions. Cornerback could be a trouble spot.
The projection: Three of the first four games are on the road (Florida, Toledo and Virginia Tech), so there likely will be some growing pains on both sides of the ball early in the season. And there are just five home games total. But other than a visit to Ohio U., the key MAC East games are at home, and the schedule after the first four weeks eases considerably. If some receivers step up, BG easily could go bowling for the second time in Clawson's four seasons.
|89. Arkansas State|
| Last season: 10-3 overall, 8-0 in Sun Belt (won league)|
Coach: Gus Malzahn (1st season)
Fast fact: The Red Wolves are coming off just their second winning season since 1987.
Key player: RB Frankie Jackson. At one point, it was hoped that Auburn transfer Michael Dyer would be the starting tailback. But Dyer, who left Auburn amid some off-field problems, seems unlikely to gain immediate eligibility, leaving the starting tailback job to Jackson. He ran for 355 yards and six TDs as a backup last season. Arkansas State was second in the Sun Belt in rushing last season, when it won the league title. Will the Red Wolves be as productive this season?
The good: Malzahn was considered one of the hottest assistants in the nation and hiring him was a coup. QB Ryan Aplin threw for 3,588 yards and ran for a team-leading 588 last season; he was responsible for 28 TDs. He has a solid receiving corps, which includes the well-traveled Josh Jarboe, a former four-star recruit who originally signed with Oklahoma. Taylor Stockemer led the Red Wolves with seven TD receptions last season. Arkansas State might have the best group of linebackers in the league. Ss Don Jones and Sterling Young make for a nice tandem.
The bad: The offensive line has to replace three starters, including the entire left side. There is no proven tailback on the roster, and there is a lot of pressure on Jackson to produce. The defensive line has to replace three starters, which makes it unlikely Arkansas State again will finish 13th in the nation in rush defense. Both starting cornerbacks are new.
The projection: There are September trips to Oregon and Nebraska, but every other game on the schedule is winnable. One issue: The toughest Sun Belt games are on the road (FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette). Hugh Freeze did an excellent job in his one season as coach before moving on to Ole Miss. Big things are expected from Malzahn, but given the defensive makeover the Red Wolves are undergoing, a second consecutive conference title is too much to ask. But Arkansas State still should have a winning record and be in bowl contention.
|88. Western Michigan|
| Last season: 7-6 overall, 5-3 in MAC (3rd in MAC West)|
Coach: Bill Cubit (47-39, 8th season at Western Michigan; 81-57-1, 12th season overall)
Fast fact: Last season's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl appearance was the fifth postseason berth in school history and the third under Cubit.
Key players: The tailbacks. Brian Fields, who ran for 287 yards, and two TDs, is the leading returning rusher for the Broncos, who likely will need more from their rushing attack than the 121.2 yards per game they received last season. Fields, Tevin Drake, Antoin Scriven and Dareyon Chance are the leading contenders for the starting job.
The good: QB Alex Carder has a big arm and is headed into his third season as the starter. He has thrown for 7,207 yards and 61 TDs in the past two seasons. But he also has tossed 26 picks and sometimes trusts his arm a bit too much. The offensive line has four starters back, and T Dann O'Neill, who began his career at Michigan, is a returning all-league selection. S Johnnie Simon led the team with 114 tackles last season and is a big-play guy. Lewis Toler is one of the best corners in the MAC. Es Freddie Bishop and Paul Hazel have some pass-rushing ability.
The bad: The Broncos lost their top three receivers; that trio combined for 269 receptions, 3,452 yards and 30 touchdowns. Western returns only two wide receivers who caught more than seven passes. The rush offense needs to be more productive than it was last season; will a tailback-by-committee approach be the way to go? The run defense was awful last season (219.7 yards per game, 109th nationally). The Broncos will have a new kicker and a new punter, and definitely will miss the departed seniors at the position.
The projection: Carder is an NFL prospect, but the lack of proven receivers is going to hurt, at least early in the season. Western needs some semblance of a running game to provide some offensive balance. The Broncos also have to find a way to get tougher against the run, which might be difficult with an undersized group of linebackers. One positive is that Western plays host to Northern Illinois and Toledo, which figure to be the Broncos' top competition for the MAC West title. And the schedule as a whole isn't that tough. It's hard to see Western winning at Illinois in the opener, but every other game is winnable. Still, the defensive issues and the questions at receiver should temper expectations.
|87. Utah State|
| Last season: 7-6 overall, 5-2 in WAC (2nd in league)|
Coach: Gary Andersen (15-22, 4th season)
Fast fact: Last season was the Aggies' first with a winning record since 1996 and just their third since 1980.
Key player: RB Kerwynn Williams. Utah State ranked sixth in the nation in rushing last season at 282.7 yards per game, but the Aggies lost their top two rushers (Robert Turbin and Michael Smith combined for 2,387 yards and 28 TDs). Williams ran for 542 yards, and now needs to prove he can be the every-down back.
The good: Chuckie Keeton performed beyond his years as a true freshman last season, and when Keeton was hurt, Adam Kennedy proved to be an able replacement, giving the Aggies two solid quarterbacks. C Tyler Larsen is one of the best linemen in the WAC and heads a physical, aggressive line. The secondary might be the best in the league, and LB Bojay Filimoeatu is a big-play guy. Williams is a good return man, and P Tyler Bennett should contend for all-league honors.
The bad: A go-to receiver must emerge. Indeed, the passing attack must be more productive because of the loss of Turbin and Smith; Utah State was 97th nationally in passing last season. The front seven on defense is undergoing a makeover, and the Aggies really will miss LBs Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher. Utah State needs someone to emerge as a consistent pass rusher.
The projection: Five of Utah State's victories last season came by seven or fewer points, including four by four or fewer. Was that luck or a sign the Aggies have learned how to win? September has games with Utah and Wisconsin and there's a trip to BYU in early October, but the rest of the schedule is manageable, assuming Williams (or someone) can be a productive tailback. Utah State hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1979-80, but the Aggies should reach that goal this season.
| Last season: 7-6 overall, 5-3 in Conference USA (2nd in C-USA East)|
Coach: Doc Holliday (12-13, 3rd season)
Fast fact: The Thundering Herd are 8-35 on the road in the past seven seasons.
Key player: QB Rakeem Cato. He started nine times as a true freshman last season and, as with many true freshmen, was inconsistent. He had a big game in a bowl-clinching victory over East Carolina but tossed four picks in a 37-point loss to Ohio U. He was benched at midseason for mediocre play and disciplinary reasons, but regained his starting job late in the season. He has a bunch of weapons around him, and coaches expect more consistency this season.
The good: There is a nice group of tailbacks, headed by Tron Martinez and Travon Van, who signed with Florida out of prep school but didn't qualify. Aaron Dobson is one of the top two receivers in Conference USA and had 12 TD receptions last season. Three starters return along the offensive line, and JC transfer Gage Niemeyer had a good spring at left tackle. DE Jeremiah Taylor has some pass-rushing skills.
The bad: The offensive line wasn't all that proficient last season, as Marshall ranked just 96th in rushing offense. After Dobson, there is no consistent No. 2 receiver. The Herd lost its top four tacklers, among them star E Vinny Curry (11 sacks, 77 tackles), and the front seven has to be rebuilt. The secondary needs some youngsters to come through, especially at safety. There will be a new kicker and a new punter. The coverage units need an upgrade.
The projection: The offense has potential, especially if the rushing attack comes around to lessen the pressure on Cato, the leading career passer in Miami-Dade County history from his days at Miami Springs and Miami Central. But the offense had better be productive because there are questions about the defense. The leading returning tackler is Devin Arrington, who is moving to linebacker from safety; that move means both starting safety spots are open. Outside of the opener at West Virginia (a team Marshall should've beaten last season), the schedule is manageable. But will Cato play consistent football, will the rushing attack improve and will a defensive playmaker (or two) step to the fore? There are too many questions to think Marshall can do any better than third in the East Division of C-USA; the Herd seems more likely to finish fourth.
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