So, what to do during this exercise with Penn State?
It’s easy to know what to do in a few years. If the Nittany Lions are operating with 65 scholarships, it’s going to be easy to plunk them in the bottom third nationally and move along.
But what about now, when it’s anyone’s guess how much of the program’s roster will scatter in the next few weeks.
Of course, this annual lookahead is never a task littered with certainty. Just let it be noted that this year’s treatment of Penn State is the biggest guess of the whole bunch.
Moving along …
The Midshipmen’s eight-year bowl streak came to an end last season, one of the costs of a series of close losses.
Navy dropped five games by 11 points, and it is no stretch to suggest the Mids were three plays away from a typical 8-4 season and no one wondering what exactly was wrong in Annapolis.
Really, there wasn’t much wrong, or at least not much that didn’t make sense. Navy got its clocks cleaned twice (by a 12-win Southern Mississippi team and at Notre Dame). A defense that brought back only three starters struggled at times, especially against the run. Kriss Proctor didn’t provide the passing threat Navy possessed with Ricky Dobbs. Frankly, those things were all very predictable.
Now, the Mids open up with Notre Dame and Penn State, which remains formidable despite the NCAA sanctions in Happy Valley. As for the rest of the schedule? Only one of Navy’s final 10 games comes against a team that made a bowl in 2011 (though here’s betting East Carolina and San Jose State do reach the postseason this year).
On the surface, Navy should get back to grinding out its share of victories against comparable teams while swatting away most of the less imposing opponents on its schedule. Quarterback Trey Miller, he of the one career start, won’t have the chance to ease into a larger role. Nonetheless, the Mids should find themselves in position to accept their contractually assured bid to the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco at season’s end.
What’s the best way to identify the anticipated Lords of MAC-tion? Figure out who plays on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in their final five games.
That would be the Bobcats, who bid adieu to the traditional weekend game even before Halloween. Their last Saturday home game is Oct. 13. Really, that could only happen in the MAC (with the help of TV contracts).
The big reason the Bobcats warrant the weekday treatment is the bulk of a solid defense returns, as does quarterback Tyler Tettleton. They won the MAC’s East Division last year, as they did in 2009.
In short, coach Frank Solich has turned Athens into an oasis of consistency in a league where teams chronically jump up and down.
THREE STRAIGHT EIGHT-WIN SEASON IN THE MAC, 2000-11
6: Toledo (2000-01-02-03-04-05)
4: Bowling Green (2001-02-03-04)
4: Central Michigan (2006-07-08-09)
3: Ohio (2009-10-11)
The common denominator? Coaches who would eventually have a passing familiarity with a big-time environment. Toledo’s run was kick-started by Gary Pinkel. Urban Meyer presided over the first two Bowling Green teams. Brian Kelly constructed Central Michigan’s turnaround. Solich did take Nebraska to a national title game.
The Bobcats aren’t a candidate to make a huge splash on the national scene besides possibly spoiling Penn State’s season opener. But they should still win another nine games or so and be a major factor in the MAC’s title chase.
The Huskies slipped below the Edsall Line – they went 8-5 in their final three years under Randy Edsall and won either eight or nine games in six of his last eight seasons in Storrs – a year ago after winning the Big East in 2010.
Blessed with a great rushing defense and cursed with an utter inability to defend the pass and a far-from-memorable offense, UConn went 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2006.
Those traits provide a good place to start in trying to figure out how the Huskies can correct things this fall. There will be plenty of time to figure things out before league play begins.
Connecticut will operate as a satellite MAC team over the season’s first seven games, facing Massachusetts, Western Michigan, Buffalo and Big East newcomer (via the MAC) Temple. Toss in a trip to Maryland, and there’s a good chance the Huskies will be flirting with bowl eligibility around the same time basketball practice starts.
As for contending for a league title? It’s going to take a little more certainty at quarterback for that to happen, especially with Louisville poised to pace the league. However, the second season for Paul Pasqualoni figures to go a bit better than the first.
57. WASHINGTON STATE
If nothing else, eastern Washington is going to be an interesting place on the college football landscape after nearly a decade as a far-flung abyss from which nothing notable occurred.
Actually, that’s not fair to former coach Paul Wulff, who inherited a dreadful situation and endured two catastrophically bad seasons. The depths of those struggles were punctuated when Washington State made substantial statistical improvements in 2010 and still went 2-10. The Cougars doubled their win total last year, but out the door Wulff went anyway.
On one level, it’s unfortunate Wulff was fired. At the same time, Wazzu dropped seven of its last eight games a year ago. Oh, and then there’s this part: The Cougars went out and hired Mike Leach to oversee the next few steps, reeling in the quirky former Texas Tech coach.
While some fans on both coasts seem to think of Leach as almost a magical figure, this year will certainly test that theory. A bowl bid – Washington State’s first since 2003 – is decidedly within reach. Contending in the Pac-12 North? That’s a bit less likely for now.
Wherever the Cougars go and whatever they do, they won’t be boring. The Pirate King of Pullman won’t permit that, especially after his two-year exile.
56. PENN STATE
At this point, what is there to say? And even if anything’s said now, will it even be relevant when the season starts?
Or next week? Or even tomorrow.
Time for a disclosure. Coming into the week, the Nittany Lions were pegged at No. 50 on this lookahead. Who knows how many defections there will be after the NCAA ordered a four-year bowl ban, but this seems like a reasonable (though perhaps conservative) adjustment.
Let’s also be realistic: A lot of pieces from a fantastic defense are gone, and the Nittany Lions were a meager offensive team last year. In four games against ranked teams, Penn State scored 46 points. The Nits won games by scores of 14-10, 16-10, 13-3 and 10-7. Even without the NCAA penalties and possible transfers, new coach Bill O’Brien had a tricky task on his hands on offense.
As it stands, O’Brien has plenty more challenges than trying to extract something out of a previously feeble offense. One thing that isn’t guesswork: Little is going to be easy for O’Brien, now or in the future.