At this point, just about every edition of the countdown will feature some program of substantial prominence.
That's to be expected at the end, but maybe not at this stage.
Nonetheless, Tennessee went off the board in yesterday's interval. Today, it's time to finally trot out Michigan --- as well as four other teams.
Read on. ...
No. 50 SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
Every now and then, there's a team that for whatever reason just catches your attention. It doesn't have to make much sense. Southern Mississippi is that team for this countdown.
The Eagles are coming off a fairly nondescript 7-6 season, but have been to eight straight bowls and should contend for the Conference USA East title with East Carolina's roster wiped out by graduation.
A defense that was midpack nationally --- but in the top third of C-USA --- brings back nine starters. Despite the pass-heavy nature of the league, the Eagles should hold up on defense better than most of their fellow conference members.
Southern Mississippi loses a lot from its offense, but neither of the quarterbacks who combined to throw 26 touchdowns against five interceptions. And then there's also the matter that coach Larry Fedora kind of knows what he's doing on offense.
A look at his teams' yards and points per game since 2004:
2004: 427 ypg, 31.8 ppg (Florida OC)
2005: 325 ypg, 20.2 ppg (Oklahoma State OC)
2006: 410 ypg, 35.2 ppg (Oklahoma State OC)
2007: 486 ypg, 34.6 ppg (Oklahoma State OC)
2008: 434 ypg, 30.6 ppg (Southern Miss HC)
2009: 416 ypg, 32.9 ppg (Southern Miss HC)
We should all be smart enough to quit tossing around the label "offensive genius," but Fedora is clearly doing something right. Even with some rebuilding to do in crucial spots (ahem, offensive line), the Eagles should be fine. Fedora's track record certainly suggests the offense won't be a problem.
No. 49 MICHIGAN
For those who figured Rich Rodriguez would make history at Michigan, well, they were correct.
Just not the sort anyone would have guessed.
A few notable Rodriguez facts before moving along:
* He's the first Michigan coach to produce consecutive losing seasons to begin a career.
* He's the first Michigan coach whose career record in Ann Arbor ever reached eight games below .500 (8-16 entering this season).
* He's the first Michigan coach to land the program on probation.
* He's lost 13 Big Ten games --- or the same number of conference defeats Bo Schembechler suffered in his first 13 seasons with the Wolverines.
All that being said, Michigan should be better this year. Maybe a lot better. The Wolverines at least has a chance to have the same starting quarterback (Tate Forcier) in consecutive seasons for the first time since Chad Henne, a name Michigan fans have probably grown quite wistful for in the last two years.
Rodriguez's stumbles will be forgotten if Michigan can get back its accustomed spot near the top of the Big Ten. Another losing season will probably be seen as a trainwreck and get Rodriguez shown the door. There might not be a more glaring spotlight in the entire sport this fall than the one focused on the Big House for seven Saturdays. Trips to Penn State and Ohio State won't help, but the Wolverines should show enough improvement to get back to the postseason.
No. 48 NORTHWESTERN
Somehow, some way, there's a midpack major-conference team that grabs attention by beating up on flotsam and jetsam, only to deflate once the real schedule begins.
This year, the Wildcats are that team.
Northwestern is a nice enough team --- certainly one that could land in a middle-to-lower tier bowl, even with the need to replace its quarterback and top two receivers. But take a look at this schedule:
Folks, that has 7-1 (or perhaps even 8-0) written all over it. Sure, there are four road games, but the toughest test (Michigan State) comes in Evanston and after a bye week. Advantage: Purple.
It's a great setup for the Wildcats to be in the top-15, only to author a "collapse" with a November slate of Penn State (in Happy Valley), Iowa, Illinois (at Wrigley Field) and Wisconsin (in Madison).
The reality is Northwestern should be in the 8-4 or 7-5 ballpark anyway. The Wildcats just have a really interesting way they can arrive at that point.
No. 47 CALIFORNIA
The Golden Bears began four of the last five seasons ranked, but not once in that stretch did they land in a better place in the top 25 than they started.
That shouldn't be a problem this year, as enough voters will look at the departure of tailback Jahvid Best and knock Cal down a peg or two.
The problem isn't Best, who will be capably replaced by Shane Vereen. Nor will it be a veteran offensive line, that will continue to open holes as efficiently as its many Jeff Tedford-coached predecessors have.
No, the issues here are inconsistency at quarterback and a secondary that was torched for nearly 267 yards a game despite enjoying the services of one of the Pac-10's best corners (Syd'Quan Thompson).
The margin between fourth and eighth in the Pac-10 is likely to be slim, and Cal certainly will have the chance to crack the top half of the league. But with holes to plug all over the defense, it looks like the Golden Bears are a candidate to take a step back in 2010.
No. 46 SOUTH FLORIDA
Skip Holtz (Connecticut, East Carolina and now South Florida) is halfway to matching his nomadic father Lou (William and Mary, N.C. State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina) in total head coaching stops at the collegiate level.
He probably won't come close to matching Pops in rambling, nearly indecipherable on-air speeches, but that's a matter for another day.
He takes over a program that plateaued under Jim Leavitt, the only coach the Bulls have known. South Florida is part of a massive cluster behind Pittsburgh in the Big East, and it has every bit as much of a chance to challenge for a league title as Connecticut, Cincinnati, Rutgers and West Virginia do.
One thing that has tripped up the running of the Bulls toward a BCS berth --- Big East road trips. A month-by-month look at that category since South Florida joined the league in 2005:
Take out three enjoyable jaunts to Syracuse, and the Bulls are 3-12 on the road. There were wins at Rutgers in 2005, West Virginia in 2006 and Pittsburgh in 2007.
Holtz has a little bit of work to do to further solidify South Florida as a perennial Big East contender. This year, that will probably mean winning at least one of three road games (West Virginia, Cincinnati, Louisville) in conference play.