College football kicks off the 2013 season TONIGHT. Here's the absolute minimum you can get away with knowing about each of the 125 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, in the order that I, Matt Hinton, personally project them to finish at the end of the season.
1. ALABAMA. Yeah, sorry. I know. There's nothing I would love more than to play the visionary iconoclast amid the rabble who spotted the first signs of rust in the Crimson machine. But is it really necessary to elaborate on this point? Alabama is so good right now, it's redundant. After three BCS titles in four years, describing Alabama's dominance is like describing the wallpaper. It's always there, and it's always the same. Nick Saban has been compared to Darth Vader, Stalin and "the devil himself." But all along he's been Henry Ford, gradually turning over the business of winning to the assembly line.
2. OREGON. Like Alabama on defense, at some point writing about how good Oregon is on offense is about as useful as observing that we are a polarized nation. But the warp-speed philosophy and neon Space Jock uniforms keep the defense from getting its due: in the two major advanced metrics for defense devised by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders, the 2012 Ducks ranked second nationally according to one and fourth according to the other. That's due largely to the fact that they led the nation in takeaways, and also to the fact that so many of the yards and points that dragged down their rankings in the conventional statistics were completely meaningless. Of the 35 touchdowns opponents scored last year, 18 of them came with Oregon already leading by 20 points.
3. OHIO STATE. The best argument against Ohio State running the table in 2013 is that Ohio State ran the table in 2012. This year's non-conference schedule is every bit as lame as last year's, and the Buckeyes are clearly the class of the Big Ten. But the kind of teams that are good enough to go undefeated two years in a row in a major conference* are all-time juggernauts on the order of the Bush-Leinart era USC Trojans in 2004–05 and the Miami teams in 2001–02 that exported the entire roster to the NFL. Ohio State is not that kind of team, at least not yet. Although it survived without a loss, it was only after razor-thin calls against Michigan State (by one point), Wisconsin (in overtime) and bottom dwellers Cal, Indiana and Purdue. NCAA sanctions meant there was also no conference championship game or BCS bowl to burst their bubble at the end. Don't be surprised when they drop a game they shouldn't.
* Its on-field reputation has taken a hit lately, but you can tell the Big Ten still qualifies as a major conference because it still makes so much money.
4. FLORIDA STATE. Ditto the Seminoles, who are as monolithically talented now as they ever were in the Free Shoes University days but haven't been able to get past the level where they go belly-up against a random also-ran. Over the last eight years, FSU has dropped at least one game every season as a ranked team against an unranked underdog, all on the road, most recently at N.C. State last October. That was also the fourth time in three years under coach Jimbo Fisher the Noles lost a game they were favored to win by double digits, straight-up. They'll be favored to win every game in the ACC, but primitive farmers could plan their harvests around the one they don't.
5. TEXAS. After three years in the wilderness, Mack Brown has the most experienced roster in the country at his disposal and no excuses for failing to make the leap back to a BCS bowl. If it doesn't happen with this team, it ain't gonna happen with this administration.
6. NOTRE DAME. For the second year in a row, Notre Dame's prospects have been dramatically altered due to an offseason gaffe by the starting quarterback. And just like last year, with this defense, there's a strong argument to be made that it really doesn't matter who's the starting quarterback.
7. STANFORD. The impressive thing about the Cardinal is not only that they're bona fide nerds who are good at football, or that they've risen from the conference cellar to national relevance in a very short period of time, or that they've played in three straight BCS bowls after losing a Heisman runner-up (Toby Gerhart), a head coach (Jim Harbaugh) and another Heisman runner-up (Andrew Luck) in consecutive seasons. In age of the spread offense, the really impressive part is that the success here is built on old-school, in-the-trenches ass-kicking: Not coincidentally, those three seasons have also yielded four All-Americans and six all-conference picks from the offensive line, not counting a pair of All-America tight ends in the same span. On the other side, Stanford was the only defense in 2012 physical enough to grind Oregon's offense to a halt, holding the Ducks to 14 points in a season in which they scored at least 35 in every other game. That's more or less the same defense they'll see when they visit Stanford on Nov. 7, at which point both teams should be undefeated for one of the indisputable games of the year.
8. USC. I know you're laughing, I can hear you, because the 2012 the Trojans failed to beat a ranked opponent, dropped five of their last six and became the first team since 1964 to begin the season ranked No. 1 and end it ranked nowhere. And also, yes, because they're still coached by Lane Kiffin. I get it. But the 2013 edition has shed one Kiffin, Lane's father Monte, who finally surrendered to the spread offense last winter and retreated back to the NFL. And man-for-man it is still the gold standard for raw talent. (When in doubt, go with the athletes.) If it manages to stay healthy, settles on a quarterback and splits the difference between what last year was supposed to be and what it was, that's more than enough to take a meh South Division.
9. NEBRASKA. The preseason frontrunner for the Harvey Dent Award is prolific Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez, who owns every school record for passing and total offense and has also fumbled more times (29) over the last two years than any other FBS player. In four losses in 2012, opponents scored 52 points off Nebraska turnovers.
Note also that the Cornhuskers don't play anyone of consequence until November. Barring a collapse, anything said or written about them before Halloween is irrelevant.
10. GEORGIA. UGA doesn't move at a breakneck pace, but play for play, the offense can hang with anyone. The issue here is replacing seven draft picks on defense, made all the more difficult by the fact that one starting safety is suspended for Saturday's crucial opener at Clemson and the other is questionable. "Death Valley" is not the ideal venue for breaking in eight true freshmen on the two-deep.
11. FLORIDA. The lack of offensive firepower in 2012 was so glaring that the Gators are seriously considering two-way duty for starting cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, just to get the ball into the hands of an explosive athlete for a change. If that doesn't work, the list of names behind him is short and not very inspiring.
12. LOUISVILLE. Every year some team rides the wave of an impressive bowl game into higher expectations than it probably deserves, and every year some team is singled out as a national darkhorse due to its obviously inferior schedule. Both of those teams in 2013 are Louisville, which created an overnight bandwagon in January by ambushing Florida in the Sugar Bowl and faces no credible threat from inside or outside of "the American." (I'm very sorry, "the American" is an actual thing now.) The Cardinals also boast this year's answer to Andrew Luck in junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, object of offseason hosannas from mock draftniks everywhere. In their last three games prior to the Sugar Bowl they also lost to Syracuse and UConn in consecutive weeks and had to rally late to beat Rutgers, so you know, caveat emptor.
13. CLEMSON. Tajh Boyd has been delivering consistently ridiculous numbers for a couple of years, but he changed my entire orientation toward Clemson with one throw. Down two points with 1:22 to play in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, facing 4th-and-16 from his own 14-yard line, against a blue-chip LSU defense brimming with soon-to-be draft picks, Boyd summoned a surgical strike down the numbers that brought his team back to life. Clemson went on to score a validating upset with Boyd passing 50 times and running 29 more. True, the Tigers have a track record of spectacular flops on the national stage when saddled with high expectations. But they have not had a quarterback this good.
14. OKLAHOMA STATE. Explosive as the Cowboys were on paper, they left far too many points on the field in 2012 as the result of both turnovers and simply stalling out in scoring range. For the season, Oklahoma State led the nation in field goal attempts, and settled for field goals in the red zone more often than any other team in the Big 12. This offense will always rack up the yards, but the difference between going to the Fiesta Bowl (as in 2011) and the Heart of Dallas Bowl (2012) is in the finish.
15. TEXAS A&M. As of this writing, there is still every indication that Jonathan Football Manziel is going to play in every game this season after sitting out the first half Saturday against Rice, in mock contrition for NCAA rules violations that the NCAA agrees there is no evidence to support. So we'll proceed from there. And let's face it: Even if Manziel remains healthy and eligible, the numbers the guy put up in 2012 are fantasy stats no one can be expected to duplicate; eventually, they'll be used against him when he fails to shatter his own records on a weekly basis. Regardless of JFM's fate, the Aggies have more pressing issues defensively, where they're not yet in the same class talent-wise as the other upper-echelon SEC contenders. After Alabama squeezes most of the air out of their national ambitions in September, a midseason lapse at improving—and equally talented—Arkansas or Ole Miss could take out the rest.
16. OKLAHOMA. Manziel did such a number on the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl that Bob Stoops decided to go against type by anointing a scrambler of his own, Trevor Knight, a surprise winner in OU's quarterback derby whose scouting report reads nothing like that of ponderous, pocket-bound predecessors Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. Also, like most Big 12 teams, Oklahoma will play the season without defensive linemen.
17. LSU. Les Miles said earlier this week he "wouldn't be surprised" if last year's leading rusher, Jeremy Hill, made the trip for Saturday's opener against TCU after being charged with simple battery in a bar fight, thereby confirming that even Les Miles has no goddamn clue what Les Miles is thinking at any given moment.
18. BOISE STATE. Boise really did not get enough credit last winter for telling the Big East to get bent after initially agreeing to defect from the Mountain West in 2011. The MWC is the right fit culturally and geographically, offers better long-term stability and probably better competition than whatever's left of the Big East/America after Louisville leaves next year. And if the Broncos keep winning at their current pace, maybe at some point they'll have another chance to ditch it for the Big 12 or Pac-12.
19. VIRGINIA TECH. As a 19-point underdog against Alabama, Virginia Tech is facing the largest point spread it's faced in any game in 21 years, since visiting No. 1 Miami in October 1992. A few veteran readers probably remember that the Hurricanes covered the spread in that game by one point, and have an engaging story about their state of mind as bets hung in the balance. We'd all love to hear it sometime.
20. MICHIGAN STATE. Old gambling stories are more entertaining than Michigan State games, which double as reenactments of the Battle of Ypres. (The part of chlorine gas will be played by MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell.) Nine games in 2012 were decided by four points or less, with both teams failing to top 17 points in six of them; only once did either side manage to score 30. The fact that they can still play defense and trade Ohio State and Wisconsin on the Big Ten schedule for Illinois and Purdue gives the Spartans the best odds of winning the B1G Legends Division, but it doesn't make them any easier to watch.
21. WISCONSIN. Wisconsin is one of those places where the names change every so often but the template never does—anonymous quarterback, planetary offensive line, retro ground game, etc.—and shouldn't, assuming they still like going to Rose Bowls. When the name at the top changes, though, as it did last winter in the transition from coach Bret Bielema to Gary Andersen, the familiarity that paid off in three straight Big Ten championships can no longer be taken for granted.
22. SOUTH CAROLINA. Jadeveon Clowney is already the gridiron equivalent of Paul Bunyan, a giant of such hyperbolic, mythical stature that some tragic opposing quarterback may have to be turned into a pillar of salt during a sack to fulfill the prophecies. But nothing written about Clowney this offseason is quite as farfetched as the New York Times' claim that he was recruited by Harvard.
23. OREGON STATE. No one saw Oregon State's leap from three wins in 2011 to nine in 2012 coming, but don't say you weren't warned this time: The backloaded schedule offers an eight-week cushion before the first really steep test, an Oct. 26 visit from Stanford. Remember that when the midseason chatter starts up about the undefeated Beavers as "surprise" contenders—it's all downhill from there.
24. FRESNO STATE. For most true freshmen, 32 receptions for 458 yards and 6 touchdowns would qualify as a wildly successful debut. For Davante Adams, those were only the margins by which he outpaced his nearest competition among Mountain West receivers.
25. NORTHERN ILLINOIS. NIU pretty clearly did not belong in a BCS game last season, although it's hard to begrudge an underdog that successfully pulls off both a fake punt and a surprise onside kick in the same game, as the Huskies did in the Orange Bowl. But they're certainly not underdogs in the MAC, where they've won 17 straight en route to back-to-back conference championships, so will somebody in that league please beat this team for a change so we don't have to go through all that again?
26. MIAMI. When the Nevin Shapiro scandal broke three years ago, there was serious speculation about shutting the program down under the "death penalty." When the verdict finally comes down at some point this season, anything beyond a stern glare and token probation could prove unenforceable due to the gross incompetence of NCAA investigators. Either way I'd bet the Hurricanes avail themselves of the opportunity to play in the ACC Championship Game and/or a bowl game, both of which they turned down in 2012 in "self-imposed" contrition.
27. TCU. Coming off three consecutive Mountain West championships, the Horned Frogs lost more games in their Big 12 debut (six) than they lost in their last four years in the MWC combined. But that was with the starting quarterback, Casey Pachall, on ice for most of the year following a DUI, and a rebuilding defense getting caught up to speed. This year the defense will be the best in the Big 12, Pachall will serve as a team captain and BCS ambitions will be back in play.
28. MICHIGAN. In retrospect, Michigan would have been vastly better off in 2012 by biting the bullet, promoting Devin Gardner to starting quarterback and getting Denard Robinson his touches at tailback and wide receiver—a combination that clicked down the stretch, out of necessity—rather than what it did for the first three-fourths of the season, which was force the issue with Robinson producing rapidly diminishing returns as a passer. Gardner, converted from quarterback to receiver and back again, has a bright future at his natural position. But the big-play spark Robinson brought as a runner will be very, very sorely missed.
29. OLE MISS. Let's refrain from speculating about the origins of Ole Miss' ridiculous recruiting class, since presumably we'll have plenty of time for that in the near future. For now, the incoming crop is probably more symbolic of the Rebels' general upward trajectory than it is likely to make waves in 2013: yop to bottom, the returning roster already has more career starts to its credit (336) than any other team in the SEC.
30. CINCINNATI. Cincinnati is the most realistic challenger to Louisville in the Big America, but the main reason to root for the Bearcats is still a roster populated by exceptionally named human beings Silverberry Mouhon, Leviticus Payne, Clemente Casseus and the immortal Munchie Legaux. Don't sleep on incoming freshmen Kyle Nutter and Mike Tyson.
31. NORTH CAROLINA. Like Miami, North Carolina spent 2012 in limbo, barred from claiming the ACC's Coastal Division crown or playing in a bowl game under NCAA sanctions. But even the low points left some room for a sliver of optimism: three of the Tar Heels' four losses came by a combined nine points, two of them in games UNC led late in the fourth quarter.
32. WASHINGTON. The Huskies were so embarrassingly behind the curve in the Ty Willingham years that trips to third-tier bowl games under Willingham's successor, Steve Sarkisian, have felt like progress. But at no point over the past two years has Washington been at its best on both sides of the ball at the same time, only one of the reasons the rebuilding job has stalled at 7–6. If all the pieces come together for the most veteran lineup in the Pac-12, that barrier will fall with haste.
33. TULSA. The Golden Hurricane ran more plays in 2012 than any other offense in the nation, which actually drives home just how pedestrian the offense really was on per-play basis. On the other hand, the defense faced a ton of plays and still finished as the best in Conference USA by almost every measure.
34. PENN STATE. By all accounts, the Nittany Lions are on the verge of starting a true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who is highly touted by the recruiting sites and probably also the teammate you're most likely to find sitting motionless in his dorm room while blasting bad techno music.
35. ARIZONA. True to form, Rich Rodriguez hit the gas offensively in his first season in Tucson, and his defense paid the price by facing more plays and yielding more yards than any defense in the Pac-12. For a unit that was torched for at least 600 yards in six different games, returning all 11 starters is a mixed blessing. In fact, the two-deep boasts a staggering 20 defenders who have started at least one game in their careers, including all of the top 15 tacklers from 2012, but no immovable bodies against the run and no pass rush to speak of.
36. UTAH STATE. The 2012 Aggies went undefeated in WAC play and came within missed field goals at Wisconsin and BYU of going undefeated, period. Whatever other changes I encounter over the rest of my lifetime, I know they will always be the best team that ever played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
37. GEORGIA TECH. Tech coach Paul Johnson is a crusty old bastard who'll consider updating his triple-option philosophy when he starts pissing perfume. But when he does decide (reluctantly) to throw, he makes it count; against defenses obsessed with stopping the run, Tech receivers have averaged more than 17 yards per catch five years in a row, invariably the best number in the country.
38. BAYLOR. Baylor did college football a huge service last November by knocking then-No. 1 Kansas State out of the national title race, thereby preventing a championship collision between K-State and Notre Dame—two solid but low-wattage outfits whose reliance on efficiency and grit failed them miserably when confronted with dominant opponents in BCS games. (If only Pitt had been able to finish the job against Notre Dame, we might have had the Alabama-Oregon/Saban-Kelly championship of our dreams.) At any rate, after a couple months of doing typically Baylor things like losing to Iowa State, the Bears were the shit down the stretch, trashing not only the Wildcats but also Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and UCLA to close on a four-game win streak. The Bears lost nothing offensively in the absence of Robert Griffin III, and gained nothing defensively, meaning you should watch them whenever possible for a brief glimpse of the future.
39. TEXAS TECH. The Red Raiders' new head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, is barely a decade removed from setting since-obliterated passing records as the Red Raiders' quarterback, meaning three of his new peers in the Big 12—Mack Brown at Texas, Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma—actually coached against him as a player. His record against them as a starter: 3–6, with one win apiece over all three.
40. RUTGERS. Over the course of the 2012 season I'd guess I watched more than 200 games, and none of them was remotely as depressing as Rutgers' grim, come-from-ahead loss to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl—three hours of the offenses taking turns hanging themselves, decided in overtime by a missed field goal, all in the name of cheaply made apparel. To think that the Scarlet Knights, led by the reigning FBS interception king, Gary Nova, were only a couple minutes away from a BCS bid chills me to the core.
41. ARIZONA STATE. In general, Arizona State partisans are not regarded an especially diehard lot bent on preserving venerable traditions. (It's more of a Girls Gone Wild vibe.) But when it comes down to it you have to respect any fan base willing to come together in the name of rejecting a shitty mascot foisted on them by Disney.
42. TENNESSEE. All powerhouse programs go through lean times, but rarely do they fall as far, as fast, as the Vols, now 15 years removed from its last SEC title and desperately clinging to middle-class status with just two conference wins in the last two years. (It is still possible to blame Lane Kiffin, if you're so inclined.) Unlike its neighbors, Tennessee has no natural in-state recruiting base—Tennessee produces very little Division I talent relative to Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana—and new coach Butch Jones has a long way to go to convince teenagers Tennessee was ever relevant without sounding like their history teacher.
43. SAN DIEGO STATE. San Diego State probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year making and distributing this commercial to run during televised football games, when all it really had to do was stick the university seal on a spot for Corona. (On the field, the Aztecs were fine, unexpectedly claiming one-third of the Mountain West title. But let's just say they'd be a lot more interesting if they ever follow through on coach Rocky Long's promise to abandon punting.)
44. NORTHWESTERN. With its first bowl victory since 1949, Northwestern claimed 10 wins last year for only the second time in school history, and arguably under-achieved at that: The Wildcats also led by at least 10 points in the fourth quarter of all three losses. Senior quarterback/Wildcat/receiver Kain Colter is the truth, but with the addition of Ohio State and Wisconsin to the Big Ten schedule that's as good as it's going to get.
45. BOWLING GREEN. The 2012 Falcons won eight games and played in a bowl game behind the best defense in the MAC, likely saving coach Dave Clawson's job in the process. For his sake, don't tell the administration that seven of those wins came at the expense of teams with a combined record of 13–70.
46. TOLEDO. Like most people, my initial response to "Rocky the Rocket," Toledo's Power Ranger-inspired mascot, was a mixture of confusion and contempt. (The character is not even credible as a person who belongs in a rocket. Is he wearing Uggs?) But since they've added a second mascot, "Rocksy the Rockette"—you know she's a girl because her helmet has a ponytail—I've begun to see the dynamic as more of a scrappy family business. Nothing but the best of luck to these two as they terrify small children for years to come.
47. HOUSTON. The Cougars' descent from the top of Conference USA was obvious enough when the new head coach, Tony Levine, fired his offensive coordinator after one game. From there, though, Houston went on to finish dead last in C-USA in total defense, roughly the equivalent of failing a remedial gym class.
48. BYU. The breakout star of the bowl season was BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who singlehandedly outscored both offenses in the Poinsettia Bowl with two late touchdowns—one via fumble, one via interception—in a 23–6 victory. In addition to the touchdowns, Van Noy ended the night with eight total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a blocked punt, and a guaranteed spot on every preseason All-America team.
49. KANSAS STATE. They won't admit it, but stat geeks and anyone else who prefers to defer to the numbers secretly resents Kansas State, the only team that consistently defies logic. On paper, the Wildcats are an amalgam of marginal recruiting classes relying too heavily on turnover margin, special teams, and other "unpredictable" factors that tend to fluctuate wildly from year to year, and often week to week. In the win column, they've racked up 21 victories in the last two years. The assumption in 2013 is that the je ne sais quoi of that success is on its way out with He-Man quarterback Collin Klein and most of the starting defense, but with Bill Snyder's track record, all bets are off. (Seriously, if you bet against Kansas State that shit is on you.)
50. VANDERBILT. By any relevant standard, yes, Vanderbilt's 9–4 record in 2012 marked its best season in like 100 years. (Literally, the last time Vandy won nine games in one year was in 1915, if you even consider football in 1915 the same sport.) But such a rapid ascent from irrelevance comes with its limits: the Commodores were 0-4 against teams that finished in the top 25, and otherwise did not face another winning opponent in the regular season; three of their five conference wins came by a combined nine points. A new quarterback plus a tougher schedule is a recipe for regression.
51. CENTRAL FLORIDA. In the last two years coach George O'Leary's program has been found guilty of NCAA violations and negligence in the death of a player. Naturally, he was rewarded this year with a contract extension.
52. OHIO. The Bobcats won their first seven games in 2012, climbed into the top 25 for the first time since the Nixon administration, and promptly lost four of their last five in the regular season. Still, coach Frank Solich has claimed at least eight wins here four years in a row, at a program that had managed exactly one eight-win season in the 35 years prior to his arrival.
53. NORTH CAROLINA STATE. Despite three consecutive winning seasons—no minor feat at N.C. State—the Wolfpack fired coach Tom O'Brien, the guy who chose to let Russell Wilson transfer for his senior season rather than risk losing Wilson's successor, Mike Glennon. Bolstered by his coach's confidence, Glennon went on to throw more interceptions in 2011-12 than any other FBS quarterback while Wilson led his subsequent teams to the Rose Bowl and the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs, respectively. But I'm sure that episode will be quickly forgotten and rarely mentioned again in relation to O'Brien or Glennon.
54. AUBURN. Two years removed from the BCS championship, the 2012 Tigers made a compelling bid for the most inept Auburn outfit of the modern era, dropping every conference game by an average of 24 points; by the end, rivals Georgia and Alabama were forced to show considerable mercy to limit the final scores to 38-0 and 49-0, respectively, after leaving the Tigers for dead by halftime. For the resurrection, Auburn called on its old offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, who had the unconventionally good sense to abandon ship after the 2011 season by accepting the top job at Arkansas State. (While his old team crashed and burned, Malzahn's Red Wolves rolled to the Sun Belt Conference title.) In retrospect, hiring Malzahn in 2009 may go down as Gene Chizik's most inspired decision—short of successfully "recruiting" Cam Newton—and the roster he inherits from his old boss is both familiar and far more talented than its suddenly pathetic record suggests. But it's not talented enough to make much of a dent in the SEC West standings.
55. SAN JOSE STATE. With the unexpected depreciation of the "Matt Barkley," the future of Stereotypical California Quarterbacks, Inc. now rests entirely on the performance of the "David Fales" model.
56. LOUISIANA TECH. The Bulldogs' new coach, Skip Holtz—son of/former assistant to Lou Holtz—is set to make $500,000 a year in his new job, a relative bargain in the current boom market for head coaches. Holtz is also set to make $500,000 a year from his old job, South Florida, which opted to buy out the last five years of his contract last winter after the Bulls finished in the Big East cellar for the second year in a row. More proof that once you get paid in this country, you stay paid.
57. EAST CAROLINA. East Carolina epitomizes the bizarro realities of conference realignment at the fringes, in which teams that thought they were moving up in the pecking order find that their new league is essentially a rebranded version of the one they just left. When the Pirates join the AAC (née Big East) in 2014, they'll be reunited with seven other also-ran programs that have followed the same path out of Conference USA in the past decade, thereby accomplishing exactly nothing aside from the creation of a new logo. For years smaller programs with misplaced aspirations seemed to believe the conference defines the school, when it's always been the other way around.
58. UCLA. Quite a few outlets have tabbed the Bruins to repeat as Pac-12 South champs behind excellent sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley and their complete distrust of the chief competition, USC. But tailback Johnathan Franklin is a potentially crippling loss; add in the very real possibility of multiple freshmen starting on the offensive line and in the secondary, and it's a seller's market.
59. MISSOURI. In 2011, James Franklin accounted for 2,872 yards passing, 981 yards rushing and 36 touchdowns as one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the Big 12. In 2012, Missouri's first year in the SEC, he missed all of four games and parts of several others with a multitude of injuries, including a concussion, a cracked rib, broken fingers, a wonky knee and a bad shoulder that required offseason surgery. That's probably just a coincidence, but it sounds about right, doesn't it?
60. CONNECTICUT. The Huskies' leading rusher in 2012, Lyle McCombs, finished with a respectable 860 yards on an abysmal 3.5 yards per carry. According to the school, he weighs 175 pounds. Do the math on that.
He was pretty much UConn's entire offense.
61. RICE. The Owls will take on Texas A&M Saturday with their two best defenders also on the bench, which is really bad news if you were under the impression that Rice had any chance whatsoever to stop Texas A&M under any circumstances.
62. MARSHALL. With nothing else to hang their hats on, the Thundering Herd embraced the most balls-out passing attack in the nation in 2012, calling on sophomore Rakeem Cato to put the ball in the air nearly 50 times per game. As a result, the Herd were the only team to finish in the top 10 in scoring offense and the bottom 10 in scoring defense: The average point total between both teams in Marshall games was 84, highest in the nation. In other words, if I could I would grant them an automatic waiver to some bottom-rung bowl game right now.
63. WEST VIRGINIA. Of the 19 offensive players listed on the preseason depth chart, only five of them have started a game at West Virginia, and 10 have never stepped on the field for WVU. Still, even with some regression offensively, the Mountaineers have a realistic shot at matching last year's 7–6 record because a) The schedule presents no challenges outside of the Big 12, and b) There is no way on earth the defense can be that bad again.
64. BALL STATE. In the grand scheme, a 9–4 record is a boon for Ball State, which before 2012 had only won nine games in a season once in the past three decades. I don't care who you are, though: by definition, there is nothing positive about a campaign that ends with a loss in the Beef 'O'Brady's Bowl.
65. NEVADA. Contrary to the memory of certain talking heads, Nevada coach Chris Ault did not invent the "Pistol" formation to capitalize on the specific talents of quarterback Colin Kaepernick: the Wolf Pack were running the Pistol as early as 2005, two years before Kaepernick arrived on campus, with a pedestrian pocket type named Jeff Rowe. They've kept running it under the current quarterback, Cody Fajardo, and plan to keep running it under new head coach Brian Polian. Because Brian Polian may be a lot of things, but he is not stupid.
66. PITTSBURGH. What is there to say about a team that's finished three consecutive seasons in the BBVA Compass Bowl under three different head coaches? The Panthers are so terminally middle-of-the-road that they'd be easier to respect if they were just terrible.
67. MISSISSIPPI STATE. Mississippi State won eight games in 2012, which qualifies as a pretty good year for Mississippi State, even if things didn't go so well after a 7–0 start. But seven of those eight victims (excluding Jackson State, an FCS team) combined to lose almost twice as many games (57) as they won (29). Add Oklahoma State to the non-conference slate, trade Tennessee for South Carolina on the SEC schedule, and factor in improvement under new coaches at Arkansas and Auburn—both road trips for MSU this time around—and just picking up where they left off probably leaves the Bulldogs with a losing record.
68. TEMPLE. The Owls fielded the worst defense in the Big East in 2012 in almost every conceivable category, and Football Outsiders' advanced stats pegged them as the worst in the nation against the run; the final record (4–7) was Temple's first losing season since 2008. Not that you need to memorize any of that to know that Temple is bad at football, but if you're in the market for a new job it might be worth noting that Steve Addazio clearly has a hell of an agent.
69. SYRACUSE. There was this brief window last winter when people suddenly started talking about 'Cuse quarterback Ryan Nassib as a potential first-round pick (strange at the time, and ultimately dead wrong), but the reality is that from midseason on, the Orange were increasingly committed to the run, averaging 238 yards on nearly 50 carries per game over the last seven. The top two tailbacks, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, are both back after combining for exactly 2,000 yards rushing as juniors. A brand new QB means they'll get every opportunity for more.
70. INDIANA. It hasn't been as long as it seems since Indiana was in a bowl game—although really, who could forget the 2007 Insight Bowl?—but given that that game ended a 14-year bowl drought at the time, the postseason barrier means a lot here. At the very least, the Hoosiers can hang with anybody in the Big Ten offensively, as they proved by hanging 49 points on Ohio State; pretty much everyone who touched the ball in that game and over the rest of the season is back. On the other hand, so is the league's worst defense—a distinction that really means something in the same league as Illinois and Purdue.
71. BOSTON COLLEGE. Frank Spaziani and his mustache have been replaced by Steve Addazio and his mustache, which B.C. fans can only hope is the only thing they have in common. Given the bizarre circumstances of his promotion to head coach in 2009, and the inexplicable decision to give him a fourth year in 2012, Spaziani may go down as the worst hire of the past five years.
72. VIRGINIA. In the late '80s, UVA coach Mike London was a detective with the Richmond Police Department's street crimes unit, a not-so-well-paid job that involved chasing murderers and drug dealers and having robbery suspects attempt to shoot him in the head in strange alleys. By comparison, getting $2.1 million to figure out how to turn around around the worst turnover margin in the ACC may not be quite the stressed out, sleep-at-your-desk proposition it is for some of his peers.
73. KENT STATE. If there is one "Hidden Gem" player in America with a highlight reel worth wasting part of your workday on, it's Golden Flashes tailback/receiver/return man Dri Archer, whose feats as a junior included a 99-yard kickoff return in just under 11 seconds and a winding, 79-yard spring that ranked as arguably the most exciting run of the year. He also finished fourth nationally in all-purpose yards, if that's the kind of thing that gets you going.
74. DUKE. We're supposed to be upbeat about Duke because Duke is Duke, and Duke in a bowl game is a borderline miracle. Whatever. With a loss in that game, the Blue Devils ended their "breakthrough" campaign on a five-game losing streak, dropping those games by an average margin of 23 points.
75. SOUTH FLORIDA. The USF defense finished 2012 with exactly two interceptions—two, as in the number two—both of them coming in the same game. That sums up the end of the Skip Holtz Experience in Tampa about as perfectly as anything ever will.
76. ARKANSAS. Between Bobby Petrino's neck brace and John L. Smith's insane press conferences, Arkansas had more interesting visuals in 2012 than interesting games. If the latter half of that equation doesn't change under Bret Bielema, at least his wife is more than willing to pick up the slack on the former.
77. ARKANSAS STATE. The Red Wolves are on their fourth head coach in four years, the last two (Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn) having bailed for the first available opening in the SEC after winning the Sun Belt championship in their first and only season at ASU. They're the pick to win it again under Bryan Harsin, fresh from a stint as Mack Brown's offensive coordinator at Texas, because why the hell not? The SBC is notoriously the most volatile, difficult to predict league from year to year.
78. NAVY. The good news: The Midshipmen beat Army for the eleventh year in a row, reclaimed the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy and found themselves back in a bowl game in 2012 after an uncharacteristic lapse to 5–7 in 2011. The bad news: The last time we saw them, the defense allowed nine touchdowns in the first three quarters of a 62–28 loss to Arizona State.
79. IOWA. Bring up Kirk Ferentz's job security, and brace yourself to be met with the details of the cumbersome buyout clause in his contract, which most Hawkeye fans agree—or lament, depending on their patience at this point—leaves Ferentz's seat cold as stone. While they can live with an overpaid CEO, though, I guarantee you that somewhere in the bowels of the Internet there is an Iowa Hawkeye message board that indulges authors of violent fanfic in which offensive coordinator Greg Davis meets an unspeakable fate.
80. MINNESOTA. With six wins in 2012, Minnesota matched its win total in 2010 and 2011 combined, and came within two minutes of a winning record in the Car Care Bowl. But any sense of meaningful progress was a mirage: In Big Ten games the Gophers were outmanned by 100 yards and two touchdowns per game, and only topped 17 points once.
81. SOUTHERN MISS. Before last season, my alma mater hadn't endured a losing season since 1993, a run of 17 consecutive years above .500. Last year, after setting a school record for wins in 2011, it was the only FBS team that failed to win a single game. As embarrassing as it was, though—and we're talking about an outfit that lost by double digits to Western Kentucky, Marshall, Rice, SMU and Memphis here—I'd be lying if I said there won't always be a place in my heart for a season that involved the starting quarterback's mother getting arrested in the stands.
82. AIR FORCE. After taking the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 2010 and 2011, the Falcons lost to both Army and Navy in 2012, only the third time they've failed to win a game in the C-in-C series since the trophy was inaugurated in 1972. (Between 1972 and 2005, Air Force beat at least one of its academy rivals 32 years in a row.) With a bowl loss to Rice, the final record also fell to 6–7, the first losing season for coach Troy Calhoun in six years on the job.
83. UTAH. A few weeks ago I did an interview for a radio station in Salt Lake City, and the host asked about the national impression of Utah. I don't remember my answer because it was interrupted by the Utah student section.
Make no mistake, though, Utah is an exceedingly boring team.
84. MARYLAND. Randy Edsall has won few friends in two miserable seasons here, but even the head coach cannot be blamed for season-ending injuries to all four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in a span of two months. Bad luck left the Terrapins with no choice but to turn a true freshman linebacker into the starting QB for the last four games. Surprise: they lost all four by a combined 89 points. Even at full strength, though, this team has nothing to hang its hat on aside from sophomore receiver/return man Stefon Diggs, so when they limp to another 4–8 finish this November, Edsall owns it.
85. WAKE FOREST. Jim Grobe has moved a few mountains in his day—here is a coach who boasts both a conference championship and a three-year winning streak over Florida State, at Wake Forest—but after 12 years, his offense seems to have exhausted its capacity to move the ball. The 2012 attack was the worst of Grobe's tenure in terms of both yards and points per game, and quarterback Tanner Price finished with the lowest pass efficiency rating of any regular ACC starter.
86. LOUISIANA–MONROE. Besides its thoroughly dominant water skiing team, UL-Monroe is also responsible for producing college football's answer to Chris Berman, Tim Brando, a a veteran triple threat who wields grating puns, oblivious entitlement and hair-trigger rage like the professional huckster that he is. Mute buttons were invented for Tim Brando.
87. LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE. The Ragin' Cajuns' official mascot is Cayenne, literally an anthropomorphic chili pepper in shoulder pads, selected by students in 2001 to "embody the Ragin' Cajun spirit of Acadiana." And yet somehow, even among among obscure Ragin' Cajun mascots, he comes in a distant second to the Fabulous Cajun Chicken.
88. CALIFORNIA. Cal fans have a new head coach, Sonny Dykes, who's going to get a long leash with a true freshman quarterback and the greenest lineup in the Pac-12 across the board. So after a year of endlessly debating the fate of the last coach, Jeff Tedford, they can get back to their true passion, bitching about the refs in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
89. SMU. No coach alive can tell June Jones anything he doesn't already know about building a successful passing game, so it speaks volumes about the depths of SMU's offense in 2012 that Jones felt compared to hire "Air Raid" innovator Hal Mumme to help him get it back on track. At some point, though, the coaches can only do so much: after flaming out as a massively hyped recruit at Texas, quarterback Garrett Gilbert showed no signs of turning a corner last year with the Mustangs.
90. WYOMING. Incredibly, Dave Christensen, the head coach who won America's heart last October by launching himself into orbit following a loss to Air Force, is still the head coach despite humiliating the school with a vile, on-camera rant and a 4–8 record. If ever there was a case for going out on top, surely this was it: after reaching the apex of viral meltdowns by calling an opposing coach "Mr. Fucking Howdy Doody!" to his face—pretty much for no reason whatsoever—getting the axe just for losing would be an insult to his legacy.
91. NEW MEXICO. Of all the twisted shit Breaking Bad has thrown at its audience over the years, the character of Todd (aka Ricky Hitler, aka Meth Damon) continues his emergence as the show's most sadistic incarnation to date. He's the unfailingly polite, earnest kid you remember from Algebra II turned professional psychopath, the boy next door who will gladly help your mom with the dishes before casually murdering everyone in the house. Are we positive the waitress in last week's cold open made it out of that scene alive?
92. WESTERN KENTUCKY. I'm not saying Western Kentucky is going to regret hiring Bobby Petrino, who, whatever his personal faults, has been a consistent winner as a college coach. I'm just saying that in a 30-year career, he's changed jobs 15 times and never made it to his fourth anniversary in any of them. Get your money's worth while you can.
93. TROY. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's Larry Blakeney, who's been in the top job at Troy since 1991—a run exceeded only by Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. Before that, Blakeney spent 14 years as an assistant at his alma mater, Auburn. Petrino is yearning for the wind in his hair on the open road just reading this.
94. WESTERN MICHIGAN. The Broncos canned coach Bill Cubit after a 2–6 season in MAC play, although four of those losses came at the hands of the four best teams in the conference. By contrast, losing to Big Ten doormats Illinois and Minnesota in the same month was too much to bear even in the MAC.
95. BUFFALO. Buffalo is in no danger of losing its longstanding title of "Most Superfluous"—I can't come up with a single reason anyone not already familiar with this program should be made aware of its existence—but on the infinitesimal chance the Bulls upset Ohio State in Saturday's opener, the web's only active Buffalo blog is going to win the Internet by 1,000 miles. Latest lines have them as a 35-point underdog.
96. CENTRAL MICHIGAN. The Chippewas are one of a handful of schools that have managed to thwart the NCAA's crackdown on Native American mascots by winning formal approval from the tribes they're meant to represent. Just don't look for an actual mascot: A university ban on Native American iconography has left the school without an official avatar for more than two decades.
97. MIDDLE TENNESSEE. At 8–4, Middle Tennessee was the only team eligible for a bowl game in 2012 that didn't get an invitation to one, which is doubly insulting when you consider some of the marginal, remainder-bin rejects that did. On the other hand, when you open the season by losing to McNeese State and end it by getting shut out by Arkansas State, you've made your bed.
98. PURDUE. By the time the Boilermakers get to the manageable part of the schedule in November, there's not going to be much left to manage. At one point the early slate calls for three consecutive games against teams that were in BCS bowls in 2012 (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois), immediately followed by Big Ten heavies Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State. The only thing left to play for after that is access to the whirlpool.
99. KENTUCKY. First-year coach Mark Stoops was welcomed by an unusually enthusiastic crowd at the spring game, a marked contrast from the apathy that contributed to his predecessor's demise. Good luck keeping that up: Joker Phillips was the ninth consecutive head coach to leave Kentucky with a losing record over the course of his tenure.
100. ILLINOIS. Tim Beckman failed to win a Big Ten game in his first season as head coach and is already blaming his predecessor for the Illini's inevitable struggles in 2013, so you can pretty well guess how it's going to play out here.
101. WASHINGTON STATE. In retrospect, it's fair to say expectations for Mike Leach's first season at Washington State were a tad… let's say, unrealistic. But Leach did fulfill one promise, calling for more passes (624, or 52 per game) than any other coach in the nation, although the official numbers actually understate the case by ignoring the many, many attempts that never left the quarterbacks' hands. Cougar quarterbacks were dropped an astounding 57 times, also the most in the nation, enduring at least three sacks in every single game despite a relatively stable offensive line. Predictably, that line has been the site of considerable upheaval, the result of which is a starting five that will feature three walk-ons.
102. IOWA STATE. Paul Rhoads is entering his fifth year as ISU's head coach, and each of the first four has been good for one random, out-of-the-blue upset over a ranked team: Nebraska in 2009, Texas in 2010, Oklahoma State in 2011 (a stunner that kept OSU out of the BCS title game) and TCU last year. If that trend continues… well, that's one win, at least. For the greenest lineup in the Big 12, none of the rest are foregone conclusions.
103. COLORADO STATE. CSU's last win over a team that finished with a winning record was in September 2009, over Nevada, moving the Rams' record at the time to 3–0. Since then, they're 6–25 in Mountain West games and 2–14 on the road. Conference expansion only makes the hill steeper.
104. ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM. Another casualty of the mass exodus from Conference USA is the "Battle for the Bones," the annual clash between UAB and Memphis for the most appropriately eccentric prize in sports, a 100-pound trophy shaped like a rack of ribs. Memphis won the 2012 game in decisive fashion, meaning the Bones follow the Tigers to the AAC for the foreseeable future, although Birmingham cedes nothing when it comes to actual ribs.
105. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL. FIU pulled the human resources coup of the offseason by firing Mario Cristobal, a coach no one outside the program thought deserved to be fired, and replacing him with Ron Turner, a coach no one thought deserved to be hired.
106. HAWAII. After a decade of confusion, the university officially restored "Rainbow Warriors" as the nickname for all men's teams, including football, which had dropped the "Rainbow" part in 2000 and has been known since then simply as the Warriors; the uniforms in that span have followed suit, sticking to various combinations of green, gray and black. Now bring back the old logo with the Rainbow Warrior himself surfing on fire and we're in business.
107. UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels haven't won outside of Vegas since October 2009, a streak of 22 consecutive road losses. Then again, they've a hard enough time winning anywhere to quibble about the geography. Last year's 2–11 finish was the third in a row under coach Bobby Hauck, who left a much better job for this.
108. NORTH TEXAS. UNT allowed fewer sacks in 2012 than any team in the nation, even the overwhelmingly ground-bound option teams, giving up just six sacks in a little over 400 called passes. Which means junior quarterback Derek Thompson was just not very good at passing.
109. ARMY. Speaking of ground-bound option teams: Army went to incredible lengths to avoid putting the ball in the air, averaging fewer than 10 pass attempts per game even in losses. Ten different quarterbacks nationally completed more passes in one game than the Black Knights' starter, Trent Steelman, completed all season.
110. TEXAS STATE. The Bobcats' head coach, Dennis Franchione, was once fired at Texas A&M not long after it emerged that he was charging boosters $1,200 a year for access to an "insider" newsletter with private injury reports and candid assessments of players. That offer still stands, by the way, but so far Fran has yet to find any buyers interested in peering behind the curtain at Texas State.
111. KANSAS. I admit, I have a perverse respect for the way Charlie Weis has handled the roster he inherited from his predecessor, Turner Gill, with open, ongoing contempt. As soon as he took the job, Weis began shoving Gill's players out the door and welcoming transfers from all over the country. When it became immediately apparent the 2012 team was going nowhere, he wasted no time and offered no pretense when it came to benching veterans in the name of getting younger players up to speed. For his first recruiting class, he largely ignored high school prospects in favor of 15 junior college transfers with plans to contribute right away. (His recruiting pitch for players hoping to play early: "Have you seen that pile of crap out there?") And why not? If it works, and the Jayhawks start winning, nobody cares if the coach is an asshole. If they go on losing, nobody cares either way.
112. TEXAS-EL PASO. Recently retired coach Mike Price frequently led the Miners onto the field while carrying a pickaxe, which he also wielded in the presence of small children and, on at least one occasion, in a crowded boxing ring while surrounded by Mexican flags. It is impossible to overstate the degree to which the college football Internet is going to miss this man.
113. MEMPHIS. Statistically, the Tigers finished with the worst offense in Conference USA in 2012 for the third year in a row. At the end, though, the light seemed to come on in a three-game winning streak to close the season over Tulane, UAB, and Southern Miss—rock-bottom competition, to be sure, but beggars can't be choosers. Three wins in a span of 15 days was more than Memphis had managed in a season since 2008.
114. COLORADO. Colorado's performance in 2012 was irredeemable, absolutely pathetic—we're talking about a team here that finished dead last nationally in scoring defense, a team that was outscored in its final eight Pac-12 games by 36 points per game, a team that at one point was outscored 55–7 at Fresno State in the first half—but at least there was some minor consolation in the fact that the Buffaloes were as green as they were bad. Fourteen players are back who started at least one game last year as freshmen, including the leading rusher, leading receiver, and three regular starters in the secondary. All of the above were thrown into the deep end in the name of future returns, leaving a core for whom Colorado's last winning season, in 2005, might as well have come in frontier times.
115. MIAMI (OHIO). For the record, although they're super polite about it, the folks at Miami really fucking hate it when you drop that "of Ohio" in there to distinguish the Red Hawks from that other, johnny-come-lately Miami in Florida. There's a note in all press materials instructing reporters, "When referring to Miami, please use either Miami, Miami University or Miami (Ohio). Please do not use Miami of Ohio or University of Miami, etc. The latter are not the proper names for our institution. Thank you." Thanks, will do. /wank
116. SOUTH ALABAMA. USA is the youngest program in the FBS ranks, having completed its first full season of organized football in 2012 without any major humiliations aside from its exclusion from the NCAA Football 13 video game. The Jaguars made the cut this year as full-fledged members of the Sun Belt, getting the VIP treatment from EA Sports to make up for the snub, although the courtesy did not extend to the ratings.
117. TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO. Besides boasting one of the best nicknames in the country, the Roadrunners also boast the only head coach in Conference USA with a BCS championship ring. The ground-up construction project Larry Coker signed up for in 2009 could not be more different from the fully loaded juggernaut he inherited at Miami in 2001, but considering how the latter turned out, he may be better suited for it.
118. EASTERN MICHIGAN. Technically, the NCAA requires FBS programs to average 15,000 people per game over a two-year period or risk losing FBS status. In 2012, attendance for Eastern Michigan home games came in at 3,923 per game—that's the official number, according to the NCAA—or just shy of 13 percent of capacity at Rynearson Stadim. Don't worry about the Eagles, though. As always, Pespi and other sponsors will pick up the tab to keep them in business. Or whatever it is.
119. FLORIDA ATLANTIC. FAU's No. 1 priority for the better part of a decade, even above winning games, was the construction of an on-campus stadium to bring some legitimacy and stability to a fledgling program. When the project was finally completed, what happened? The school became a national laughingstock earlier this year for selling the naming rights to a private prison company with a history of prisoner abuse. (The deal was subsequently scuttled.) This far down the ladder, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
120. TULANE. Finally, 2013 is Tulane's last year in the Superdome, an unparalleled venue at full capacity but more of a depressing, echoing canyon for Green Wave home games. (Be sure to wear a jacket, because the air conditioning is not adjusted for 50,000 empty seats.) In 2014, they'll move into a more appropriately sized stadium on campus, in a picturesque section of New Orleans' Garden District, which is the single most positive development for Tulane football since Tulane decided to stop caring about football in the early '50s. In the meantime, the greatest concentrations of Wave fans can still be found in the scripts of Tremé.
121. IDAHO. The Vandals' win-loss records tell the story on their own. But for another perspective on the gap between the haves and have-nots, consider that Idaho's ticket revenue from home games in the Kibbie Dome—the smallest FBS venue, with a capacity of 16,000—amounts to barely one percent of the intake at Texas.
122. NEW MEXICO STATE. I'm sure the citizens of Las Cruces are very pleasant people but this remains the most forsaken destination in America. The last head coach, DeWayne Walker, was so desperate to leave after four years that he stepped down voluntarily for a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
123. GEORGIA STATE. The Panthers have had so much trouble gaining traction in Atlanta that they failed to draw 10,000 people to the Georgia Dome last October for a game in which they literally dropped $10,000 in cash from the rafters.
124. MASSACHUSETTS. The Minutemen were outscored by 27.5 points per game in their first season as a full-fledged FBS program, the largest deficit in the nation, and barely survived a postseason effort by UMass faculty to force a return to the FCS level. Coach Charley Molnar may be telling the truth when says the program is "light years ahead" of where it was last year, and that still may not be good enough to improve on their lone victory.
125. AKRON. After yet another dreadful season in 2011, Akron informed head coach Rob Ianello that he had been fired. At the time, Ianello was traveling to his mother's funeral. In 2012, his replacement lost to UMass at home en route to an 0–8 finish in MAC games. So there you go.