This is the seventh 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: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in MAC (2nd in MAC East) Coach: Steve Addazio (9-4, 2nd season) Fast fact: The Owls are back in the Big East this season. They were a football-playing member of the league from 1991-2004, then basically were booted out for being lousy. Temple spent the past five seasons in the MAC. Key player: QB Chris Coyer. He shared the job last season, but it's all his now. Coyer is a big guy (6 feet 3/230 pounds) who is a strong runner, but his passing arm is a giant question. He has to prove he can throw the ball, or the Owls will see a lot of eight-man fronts. He attempted just 50 passes last season. The good: Coyer and TB Matt Brown give the Owls two solid running threats. Brown is a small guy (5-5/165) who nevertheless has been effective running between the tackles in his first three seasons. OT Martin Wallace should contend for all-league honors. SS Justin Gildea heads what could be an OK secondary. K/P Brandon McManus is solid. The bad: The passing attack was horrible last season (just 126.8 yards per game, 116th nationally), and along with questions about Coyer's arm, there are questions about whether the receivers are any good. Wallace is the only returning starter from what had been a good offensive line. The Owls lost their top four tacklers from last season and there are holes at each level of the defense, especially at linebacker. The Owls return numerous backups defensively, but they have to make the jump to productive starters. Mounting a consistent pass rush could be a problem. The projection: Last season's team would've done just fine in the Big East. This season's team is going to struggle because of the loss of so many key players on both sides of the ball. The offense is going to remain ground-oriented and controlling the clock is going to be important because of the rebuilt defense. But can a rebuilt offensive line do the job? Three of the first four and four of the first six games are at home. Back-to-back games in early October against new league foes USF and Connecticut will be an important gauge as to how this season is going to go. Temple used to be the Big East doormat; the Owls likely will serve in the same role this season, though this program is in vastly better shape than it was in when it left the Big East in 2004.
Last season: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten (6th in Legends Division) Coach: Jerry Kill (3-9, 2nd season at Minnesota; 130-82, 19th season overall) Fast fact: The Golden Gophers have won a combined six games in the past two seasons; that's their worst two-season stretch since they won six in 1994-95. Key player: QB MarQueis Gray. Gray is, by far, the Golden Gophers' best offensive player. He is a good runner who has a ways to go to become an adequate passer. He completed just 50.7 percent of his passes last season, for 1,495 yards, eight TDs and eight interceptions. He did run for 966 yards and six scores. For Minnesota to challenge for a bowl bid, Gray must improve as a passer. The good: Gray is a big-time athlete who causes problems for opposing defenses because of his running ability. The offensive line has potential, and T Ed Olson is a guy to watch. CB Troy Stoudermire received a sixth season of eligibility and should be a stabilizing force in the secondary; he also is a good return man. The bad: The wide receivers are a huge concern; the leading returning receiver caught just 15 passes last season and experience is lacking at the position. There is no proven tailback, and JC transfer James Gillum might get the call. The run defense was bad last season and there are no proven defensive tackles; coaches hope converted TE Ra'Shede Hageman can do the job in the middle of the line. The linebackers are nondescript. Minnesota had just four interceptions last season, which highlights the need for a playmaker in the secondary. The pass rush wasn't much last season, either. The projection: Kill is a good coach, but this team lacks experienced talent. The Golden Gophers need numerous young players to make big impacts this season. That said, the early-season schedule is easy, and a 4-0 start could happen. But it wouldn't be a surprise if Minnesota wins just one – or even zero – league games.
Last season: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in MAC (3rd in MAC East) Coach: Darrell Hazel (5-7, 2nd season) Fast fact: The Golden Flashes have had three consecutive 5-7 finishes. Key player: RB Trayion Durham. Durham was a three-star fullback out of high school at Cincinnati Colerain and came on strong as a true freshman during the second half of last season. While he lacks breakaway speed, he is tough and effective between the tackles. He and Dri Archer (5-8/164), who missed last season with academic issues, should provide a nice 1-2 punch at tailback for a team that lacks a good passing attack. The good: Three starters, including potential all-league T Brian Winters, return along the offensive front and should be able to pave the way for Durham and Archer. WR Tyshon Goode can be productive, assuming the quarterbacks can get him the ball. The defense should be one of the best in the league. T Roosevelt Nix is a big-play guy in the middle (37 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks in two seasons). LB Luke Batton and CB Norman Wolfe also are potential all-league guys. The Golden Flashes forced 31 turnovers last season and ranked seventh nationally in turnover margin (plus-12). If healthy, K Freddy Cortez should contend for all-league honors. The bad: The offense ranked 119th nationally last season and lacks explosiveness. QB Spencer Keith could be a three-year starter, but he also could lose his job. Other than Goode, the receivers are nothing special. Kent State needs a new punter. The projection: The defense will be fine; it's the offense that is the question. Can Kent State throw the ball effectively? If not, will there be any room to run? The schedule is not that taxing; the toughest nonconference opponent is Rutgers. Still, four of the first six games are on the road. The three biggest conference games close out the schedule: at Miami (Ohio), at Bowling Green and vs. Ohio. Kent State almost certainly will go into that stretch with a chance to gain a bowl bid. Will the Golden Flashes come through and earn their first postseason appearance since 1972?
Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-6 in Mountain West (tied for 6th in league) Coach: Jim McElwain (1st season) Fast fact: Colorado State had 10 consecutive winning seasons from 1994-2003; in the ensuing eight seasons, the Rams have had one winning record (7-6 in 2008). Key player: RB Chris Nwoke. Nwoke (it's pronounced Woh-kay) burst on the scene in the second half of last season and finished with 1,130 yards and nine TDs. He had two 200-yard games in the final month of the season, including a 269-yard performance in a loss to Air Force. His productivity has to appeal to McElwain, who had been offensive coordinator at Alabama before taking the Rams' coaching job. And given the Rams' spotty passing attack, Nwoke's production is going to be important. The good: Nwoke has a legit chance to lead the Mountain West in rushing, and he will be doing his work behind a solid line headed by C Weston Richburg, the best at his position in the conference. TE Crockett Gilmore, who began 2011 spring practice at defensive end, is coming off a 45-catch season and should thrive under McElwain. LBs Shaquil Barrett and James Skelton could (should?) combine for 200 tackles. If healthy, CB Momo Thomas has all-league potential. Senior P Pete Kontdiakos owns a career average of 42.8 yards and is another who should contend for all-league honors. The bad: QB Garrett Grayson was pressed into action last season as a true freshman, and while he is mobile and a good runner, his passing ability is a big question. There are no proven wide receivers, which will make it tough on Grayson. Two of the Rams' better defenders, E Nordly Capi and LB Mike Orakpo, were booted from the team in the spring for off-field issues; Capi was the best pass rusher on the team. The Rams are moving to a 3-4 set from a 4-3, and the line has talent and depth issues. The run defense was atrocious last season (233.7 yards per game, 117th nationally), and a lack of size in the front seven hurts. The Rams need a new kicker. The projection: There definitely are some positives for the Rams, but this team has had three consecutive three-win seasons and it's hard to see them turning the corner this season. Only five seniors are slated to start, so any baby steps toward improvement this season should pay off next season. The schedule isn't overly difficult; then again, this team is not overly talented. If the Rams can get to five wins, this will have been a wildly successful first season for McElwain, who made a good hire when he snagged Dave Baldwin from Utah State as his offensive coordinator.
Last season: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Sun Belt (6th in league) Coach: Todd Berry (9-15, 3rd season at ULM; 38-75, 11th season overall) Fast fact: The Warhawks moved up to Division I-A (now called FBS) in time for the 1994 season; they haven't had a winning record since. (They were 9-3 in their final season in Division I-AA.) Key player: QB Kolton Browning. Browning regressed a bit as a sophomore last season, though it was revealed after the season that he had played with an injured sternum for much of the year. ULM has a deep group of receivers, and Browning, who is a good runner, needs to be more productive as a passer this fall if ULM is to reach its potential. The good: The offense could be one of the best in the Sun Belt if the passing attack gets ramped up. While there isn't a true feature back, there is a nice group of tailbacks. Those guys will run behind a line that returns three starters. The top four receivers return, including 69-catch guy Brent Leonard. ULM, which uses a 3-3-5 defensive set, has stars at linebacker (Cameron Blakes) and cornerback (Otis Peterson, who missed last season with an injury). The bad: While the offensive line returns three starters, ULM allowed an unsightly 34 sacks last season. ULM was eighth in the nation in rush defense last season, but has just five starters back on that side of the ball. The defensive line is undersized, and there will be two new starters at safety. K Justin Manton was only 6-of-14 on field goal attempts last season, and ULM needs a new punter. The projection: ULM has a murderous opening stretch: at Arkansas, at Auburn and vs. Baylor. The schedule eases considerably after that, but the Warhawks have just five home games this season. Defense led the way last season, but a rebuilt unit could struggle this fall, especially early in the season. ULM seems destined to start 0-3 overall, but a .500 finish in the league is possible if the passing attack comes around to take some of the pressure off the defense.
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