After a couple days on the road, the countdown continues and nears the midpoint. ...
No. 70 NORTHERN ILLINOIS
The Huskies bring back the bulk of a really good defense, and that alone should put them in contention for the MAC West title.
But there's something else interesting here.
Northern Illinois has what might just be a dream schedule --- three highly winnable road games against power conference teams.
The Huskies visit Iowa State, Illinois and Minnesota, all before the end of September. Northern Illinois might not win all three, but it surely could poach a couple. And at that point, talk of the program's first 10-win season since Michael Turner was scampering all over DeKalb will begin.
Don't be surprised if that happens.
No. 69 ARIZONA STATE
Football mercenary Dennis Erickson had never endured consecutive losing seasons in the college game until last year.
Thanks to dates with Northern Arizona and Portland State, it'll be tough to get it to three.
But there is a ceiling for the Sun Devils, who are only going to get so far with the combination of lousy offense and imposing defense. This is especially true with trips to Wisconsin, Oregon State, Washington, Southern California and Arizona on tap.
Arizona State was a bit unfortunate the last two years, rolling up a 1-6 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less. At the same time, programs like Arizona, Stanford and (now) Washington have all improved substantially. A bowl berth is possible, but it seems highly unlikely the Sun Devils will crack the upper echelon of the Pac-10 this fall.
No. 68 MARYLAND
The Terrapins bottomed out last season, stumbling to a 2-10 record that featured a season-ending seven-game losing streak.
They also began the fourth quarter stuck in a one-possession game in nine of 12 games. Maryland was 2-7 in those affairs.
As tiresome as Ralph Friedgen's lamentations about luck were, Maryland wasn't quite as bad as its record. Granted, it was minus-6 in turnovers and outgained by nearly 80 yards a game. No one who consistently watched the Terps would dare deem them "good."
Nevertheless, there should be a regression (or is it progression?) to the mean of sorts, and that means the most likely outcome is a 4-8 or 5-7 season. If the offensive line --- last year's pronounced bugaboo --- develops, perhaps the upside is an anonymous trip to the EagleBank Bowl.
That in itself would raise another question: Is 6-6 enough for Friedgen to finish out his contract? With a new athletic director on the way thanks to Debbie Yow's departure to N.C. State, there's a previously unforeseen variable in figuring out just what route Maryland attempts to take from its worst football season in decades on its way back to respectability.
No. 67 MIDDLE TENNESSEE
The Blue Raiders won 10 games a season ago, and might be even better this season. It's only fair, then, to slot them ahead of a power conference school they've beaten two years running.
Sadly for the folks in Murfreesboro, the series with Maryland is complete. But Dwight Dasher remains under center after throwing for nearly 2,800 yards and rushing for more than 1,100 yards a season ago.
In both of Middle Tennessee's two bowl seasons under Rick Stockstill, it has lost just one Sun Belt game. Both setbacks came against Troy.
With the Trojans paying a midweek visit to the 'Boro, here's guessing the Blue Raiders finally get that elusive victory against the conference's top program and wind up atop the league. If that happens, bank on Stockstill being a coveted commodity when some mid-level openings surface at the end of next season.
No. 66 DUKE
On the surface, the Blue Devils' biggest concern would seem to be replacing Thaddeus Lewis, though Sean Renfree did get some experience as the backup to Duke's career passing leader.
In reality, Duke has another problem to deal with. I like to call it "November."
The Blue Devils have dropped 20 straight games after Halloween, including a ghoulish 0-9 mark under third-year coach David Cutcliffe. Blaming Cutcliffe for Duke's propensity for losing is unfair, especially since the Blue Devils have gotten off to 4-3 and 5-3 starts the last two years before collapsing. Still, there is a need to play well in the season's closing stages.
The opportunity to start fast exists again. Duke will probably get pulverized by Alabama, but Elon, Wake Forest, Army and Maryland all represent reasonably decent opportunities for victories before the bye week.
Duke still has to figure out its offensive and defensive lines, and Cutcliffe pointed those out (in addition to QB) as his team's biggest question marks in the spring. If some of those problems get solved, maybe the Blue Devils will beat Virginia or Boston College or even North Carolina in Durham during the season's final month.
Otherwise, Duke will simply extend its misery in November. The good news, though, is one of the three longest late-season skids will come to an end when Virginia visits Wallace Wade Stadium on Nov. 6.
LONGEST ACTIVE LOSING STREAKS, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER/JANUARY
13: New Mexico State
9: Miami (Ohio)
9: Western Kentucky
7: North Texas
5: Arizona State
5: Washington State
4: Eastern Michigan
4: Notre Dame
4: San Diego State