This is the third 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: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in MAC (6th in MAC East) Coach: Jeff Quinn (5-19, 3rd season) Fast fact: Buffalo has had one winning season since moving up to the FBS in 1999 and just two winning records since leaving Division III in 1992. Key player: TB Branden Oliver. He ran for 1,395 yards and 13 TDs as a sophomore last season and likely needs to be at least as productive this season because the passing attack looks spotty. Oliver, who is from Miami, is a squatty guy (5 feet 8/204 pounds) who has some burst but is at his best running right up the gut. The good: Oliver and LB Khalil Mack are two of the better players in the MAC. Mack, like Oliver a Florida native, has been one of the best big-play guys in the MAC in his first two seasons. He has 35 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his career, along with seven forced fumbles. He heads a nice group of linebackers. DE Steven Means is a good pass rusher, and the secondary looks OK. Oliver will run behind a line that has the potential to be one of the best in the MAC. The bad: The passing attack is a mystery. Likely starting QB Alex Zordich is an OK athlete, but can he throw the ball effectively? There is no proven go-to receiver, either. The run defense was bad last season, and there are two new starting defensive tackles. The return teams were abysmal last season, as was the punt coverage. The projection: Oliver can only do so much; he had a big season in 2011, but the Bulls still won just three games. Buffalo has to find a way to throw the ball to protect Oliver. The run defense again looks problematic, and that is going to hurt early in the season with four road games against teams that will be looking to run the ball. The schedule overall is a tough one, as the Bulls don't play many of the MAC's weaker teams.
Last season: 4-9 overall, 2-5 in WAC (7th in league) Coach: DeWayne Walker (9-29, 4th season) Fast fact: The Aggies had four victories last season; only 11 times in the past 33 seasons have they won as many games. Key player: QB Andrew Manley. He threw for 892 games before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 3. Manley, a former Gatorade prep player of the year in Hawaii, will be working with a new coordinator this season (the Aggies' fourth in as many seasons); he's an athletic guy with a nice arm who should produce good numbers and vie for all-league honors. The good: Manley has some talented albeit untested skill players around him, so the offense has potential. OTs Andrew Kersten and Davonte Wallace are good bookends. The secondary could end up as a team strength. E Donte Savage is back after missing last season with academic issues, and that should be a boost to the pass rush. The bad: The rush defense was rancid last season, and it seems folly to think it will be that much better this season. While the secondary has potential, it also will have three new starters. The Aggies will have an all-new starting interior on the offensive line. K Tyler Stampler followed up a sterling 2010 season with a miserable 2011 campaign; which one is the real Stampler? The projection: Other than a Sept. 8 visit to Ohio University, the early-season schedule is quite navigable. Indeed, it's not that far-fetched to think the Aggies could start 5-1. Again, though, that's because they play a lot of flotsam and jetsam early in the season, not because they're that good. If the Aggies do start 5-1, their first bowl bid since 1960 would be possible. While thinking this team could get to a bowl might be overreaching a bit, Walker has done a nice job of improving the talent level. If he does get New Mexico State to a bowl, he should look for a better job.
Last season: 2-10 overall, 1-7 (8th in league) Coach: Rick Stockstill (35-40, 7th season) Fast fact: The Blue Raiders have committed a staggering 66 turnovers in the past two seasons, one reason they've lost 17 games in that span. Key player: QB Logan Kilgore. He did an OK job in his first season as the starter last fall, throwing for 2,231 yards and 18 TDs. He also tossed 12 picks, though, and that number has to come down. He has a nice group of receivers, and it would behoove MTSU to put up big offensive numbers because the defense looks sketchy. The good: The receivers look good, though MTSU doesn't really have a deep threat. There also is an OK group of tailbacks. G Alex Stuart, who began his career at Tennessee, should be one of the best linemen in the Sun Belt. DE Omar McClendon has all-league potential, too. The bad: The rush defense was pitiful last season, and MTSU's linebackers don't look all that good. The new coordinator is Tyrone Nix, who has done good work in the past and likes to play aggressively. The secondary is another potential problem area, though MTSU hopes for a good season from Florida State transfer Jajuan Harley at strong safety. MTSU will have a new kicker and a new punter. The projection: Unless Nix is a magician, the defense again is going to have issues. That, in turn, puts pressure on the offense to produce big numbers, which is possible – assuming the Blue Raiders cut down on their turnovers. Other than a trip to Georgia Tech, the early-season schedule is easy. Alas, there are just two home games after Oct. 6, and it could be another difficult season for MTSU. Stockstill is a good coach, but his program is going through a downturn; will he survive the downturn?
Last season: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (4th in C-USA West) Coach: David Bailiff (23-38, 6th season at Rice; 44-53, 9th season overall) Fast fact: The Owls' pass defense has been ranked 110th or worse nationally in each of the past five seasons; they have allowed at least 269 passing yards per game in each of those seasons and twice have surrendered more than 300 yards per game. Key player: WR Sam McGuffie. McGuffie had a strong season at running back in 2010, his first season with the Owls after transferring from Michigan. But he had an injury-filled 2011 campaign and played in only seven games, finishing with just 173 yards of total offense. He has been moved to slot receiver for his senior season, and Owls coaches expect to use him in a variety of ways. He is Rice's best playmaker and must produce good numbers. The good: There looks to be a solid group of receivers, headed by McGuffie, Vance McDonald and Luke Willson. K Chris Boswell has one of the strongest legs in the nation. LB Cameron Nwosu always seems to be around the ball and should vie for all-league honors. The bad: The offensive line has to be rebuilt with just one starter returning, and there is no established feature back. While there are solid receivers, can QB Taylor McHargue get them the ball? The secondary has been a sieve for a long time and it looks like more of the same. It would help if there was a pass rush, but who is going to provide it? The defensive front seven has to be rebuilt, and the run defense wasn't all that good last season anyway. The projection: The schedule lends some hope, as it isn't overly tough. That said, this is not an overly talented team. The Owls won 10 games in 2008; they have won a combined 10 games in the past three seasons, and Bailiff likely is coaching for his job this season. The offense had better be good because the defense looks even more shaky than usual.
Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in Conference USA (5th in C-USA West) Coach: Mike Price (45-52, 9th season at UTEP; 174-174, 31st season overall) Fast fact: After guiding the Miners to a bowl in each of his first two seasons at the school, Price and UTEP have suffered through six consecutive losing seasons. Key player: LB Jamie Irving. Irving was a solid player in 2010, then missed last season with a shoulder injury. He'll need to be a defensive leader this fall and should be expected to make at least 100 tackles. UTEP was a sieve on defense last season and returns just three fulltime starters on that side of the ball. Big production from Irving is vital. The good: Senior P Ian Campbell is one of the best in the nation; he averaged 46.1 yards last season and owns a career average of 45.6 yards. QB Nick Lamaison is a good fit for the offense and leads what should be a productive passing attack. C Eloy Atkinson is a good one and heads a line that returns four starters. FS DeShawn Gregory is active and makes a lot of tackles. The bad: While the offensive line returns four starters, it wasn't all that good last season. Is there a starting tailback on the roster? Are there any backup tailbacks? Outside of T Germard Reed, is there anyone on the defensive line who can make plays? Even with Irving, the linebackers are a huge question mark. The projection: Price would seem to be coaching for his job this season. UTEP has a shot at a winning record only because Conference USA as a whole is going to be down this season. Still, the schedule is a tough one, with the opener against Oklahoma (at home!) and visits to Wisconsin and Ole Miss. And while C-USA is down this season, the Miners seem unlikely to benefit that much because their crossover opponents look to be the three best teams in the East Division.