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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

A Meet and Greet With the New Guys

Three more teams will join the F.B.S. in 2012, with a fourth, South Alabama, entering its second and final year transitioning upwards from the F.C.S. to the Sun Belt. Massachusetts will join the MAC, taking a spot in the East division and giving the league two even, seven-team divisions; Bowling Green will move to the West, a move that makes sense on multiple levels. Texas State and Texas-San Antonio — the former run by Dennis Franchione, the latter by former Miami (Fla.) head coach Larry Coker — will join the WAC, helping that conference make up for the loss of Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii to the Mountain West.

Make up for in numbers, even if two is less than three, but not in terms of prestige or competitiveness. U.T.S.A. has been playing college football for all of, oh, one year; the program was built from the bottom up, with Coker as the prime architect, so asking the Roadrunners — that’s the mascot — to step into the F.B.S. and compete is a tall order.

I think that’s the case, at least, and any reservations about that comment stem from the fact that the WAC isn’t exactly bustling with top-notch contenders, Louisiana Tech notwithstanding. Who’s to say that the Roadrunners can’t step right in and shock a few WAC foes en route to a winning mark in conference play?

Seeing that there are questions still unanswered, it’s probably a good time to begin looking into what the Roadrunners, Texas State and Massachusetts bring to the table. Three more teams means three more Countdown previews, by the way, and while some may be looking forward to that, I most assuredly am not.

These are three programs coming to a home game near you: the Minutemen play Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan and Vanderbilt in non-conference play next fall, for example. After playing Texas Tech and Wyoming in 2011, Texas State will add another date with the Red Raiders to a non-conference slate that includes Houston, Nevada and Navy.

So let’s take a look at each, touching on the strengths — not too many — and the weaknesses — too many to count — each will bring to the table in 2012, beginning with the Roadrunners, perhaps the most intriguing of the trio. Football? U.T.S.A. had heard of it before, but didn’t put a team on the field before August.

Conference affiliation WAC
Head coach Larry Coker
Offensive coordinator Travis Bush
Defensive coordinator Neal Neathery
2011 record 4-6
Returning starters 20 (10 offense, 10 defense)

As you’d expect, seeing that U.T.S.A. just christened its football program, the Roadrunners are loaded with freshmen. There were only two seniors on the roster altogether last fall, both of whom were starters: left guard Mike Sanchez and strong safety Mark Waters, the latter a transfer from New Mexico State. Five additional F.B.S. transfers return in 2012, including Lekenwic Haynes, who came over from Mississippi, and Sean Luchnick, a transfer from Penn State.

Thirteen true or redshirt freshmen started a November game against McNeese State, one the Roadrunners lost by a field goal. Another six sophomores started that same game, including quarterback Eric Soza, who threw for 2,148 yards and 14 touchdowns in starting all 10 games for the Roadrunners.

U.T.S.A. runs the spread on offense, as you’d expect; it’s the offense of choice for underdogs everywhere, and there’s no bigger underdog than a program moving from nothingness to the F.B.S. in the span of 12 months. Offensive coordinator Travis Bush was hired away from Texas State, his alma mater, where he’d been the Bobcats’ coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The offense remains an extreme work in progress, also as you’d expect, and every practice — every workout, every second in film study — is gold for the Roadrunners, who are not only extremely young but nearly unfathomably inexperienced. Strides will come in the future, but both sides of the ball need a tremendous amount of work.

Defensive coordinator Neal Neathery, formerly of Drake University, runs a 4-2-5 base system predicated on speed and aggressiveness in the secondary, two qualities the program hopes to add with a few junior college transfers. The defense as a whole played well over the final three games of 2011, but shutting down Minot State doesn’t exactly prepare the Roadrunners for Sonny Dykes and Louisiana Tech.

Texas State will be in the same boat, to a degree: the Bobcats will likewise join the WAC this fall, but the program is much farther ahead in its progression than is U.T.S.A., if only because Texas State has been playing football since 1904. You may recognize its head coach, Franchione, for his stints at T.C.U., Alabama and Texas A&M — or at Texas State, if you can think back to 1990-91.

Franchione returned last fall, taking over the reins of the program which gave him his first major shot. Franchione parlayed two years and 13 wins with the Bobcats into the job at New Mexico, and the rest is history. Here’s a look at what his team will bring to the table next fall; if nothing else, the Bobcats should beat the Roadrunners.

Conference affiliation WAC
Head coach Dennis Franchione
Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz
Defensive coordinator Craig Naivar
2011 record 6-6
Returning starters 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Texas State had two offensive coordinators, with Darrell Dickey joining Schultz, but Dickey joined Justin Fuente as his coordinator at Memphis. That leaves Schultz in charge, though Franchione may very well add another assistant to share those duties in 2012.

Schultz also coached the quarterbacks, but the Bobcats had issues under center in 2011: Shaun Rutherford and Tyler Arndt shared snaps, with neither playing with the sort of consistency in the passing game that the offense demanded. Arndt started six games, with Rutherford participating in certain packages before taking over for good after Arndt suffered a knee injury.

Rutherford has the athletic ability to make a difference, but he’s probably best suited as a receiver, not a quarterback. He’s signaled that he’d be happier playing receiver, not quarterback, but that option might not be available unless Arndt takes a step forward heading into the fall.

The passing game is an issue, and a fairly significant one at that. But the Bobcats ran the ball well in 2011, led by the combination of Terrence Franks and Marcus Curry, who combined for 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. Franks, a redshirt freshman, rushed for 234 yards in a road loss to Southeastern Louisiana.

The defense is a bigger concern, even in a depleted WAC. The Bobcats allowed an average of 28.5 points per game in 2011, including a combined 95 points in losses to Texas Tech and Wyoming. Texas State won’t face that level of competition in 2012, outside of Louisiana Tech, but take note: the level of competition still marks a substantial step forward, and the defense — and the offense — needs to make a commensurate improvement.

The same can be said of Massachusetts, which hoped to catapult into the F.B.S. on a high note — even if it was ineligible for a C.A.A. title in 2011 — but struggled, losing four of five to end the season. For the Minutemen, the deadly non-conference schedule is just the beginning; UMass will go 0-4 outside of the MAC, I’d wager, but the MAC itself, which seems to improve every year, will be similarly unkind.

Conference affiliation MAC, East
Head coach Charley Molnar
Offensive coordinator None
Defensive coordinator None
2011 record 5-6, 3-5
Returning starters 14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

For a time, it seemed as if UMass would be the only team Boston College would beat all season. The Eagles got the better of the Minutemen in September, 45-17, after losing to Northwestern, U.C.F. and Duke to open the year and prior to dropping another trio of games in A.C.C. play.

The Eagles improved, but the Minutemen scuffled along the road to mediocrity nearly throughout, posting a pair of two-game winning streaks but eventually finishing below .500 for the second time in three years under Kevin Morris. Hence the program’s decision to make a coaching change, hiring Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar as its first head coach on the F.B.S. level.

Molnar’s a Brian Kelly disciple, not only at Notre Dame but also at Central Michigan, where he joined Kelly in 2006, and Cincinnati, where he was the Bearcats’ wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. He’ll bring with him the same sort of offensive philosophy, which should play well in the MAC — as it did with the Chippewas, if you recall.

A number of things remain undecided, however, like the rest of Molnar’s debut staff. If history is any guide, he’ll take at least one or two low-level assistants from one of his previous stops, like Notre Dame, and install them in more prestigious roles. But as of today, Molnar’s staff consists of only one name: Andrew Dees, a holdover from the previous staff, will serve as Molnar’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

Those roles need to be filled; in addition, the Minutemen need to settle on a quarterback. Three made at least one start in 2011, led by Kellen Pagel’s seven. Pagel didn’t impress, though he did throw three touchdowns in a loss to Old Dominion. Brandon Hill — he made three starts — had the best passing game of any UMass quarterback, hitting on 27 of 45 attempts for 300 yards in a home loss to Villanova.

Finding a quarterback would be nice, but the offense has bigger fish to fry: the Minutemen lose their top four receivers, including two, Julian Talley and Emil Igwenagu, who earned first-team all-conference honors. The offense will need to rebuild on the fly, with junior-to-be Rob Blanchflower, a tight end, one target to watch in Molnar’s offense.

One thing all three teams share? While the move up to the F.B.S. comes with its perks — far more positives than negatives, obviously — there is one drawback: while the F.B.S. has prestige, it does not have a playoff. That seems like a fair trade, though it does make every game count, as the B.C.S. will happily tell you, even if that proved not to be the case in 2011.

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Comments

  1. Josh H. says:

    I’m glad that the MAC finally evened out its divisions and look forward to seeing what UMASS brings to the table. It doesn’t help the East division though be any stronger than the West’s counterpart. I think they can win a game or two though in the MAC (I’m looking at you Akron). They can definitely make strides though moving up.

    As for the Roadrunners, for their first season as a football team, winning 4 games isn’t too bad. It’s encouraging for them to know that they do have some talent even if it is very raw. Taking a look at the WAC, they could still win a game or two probably too.

  2. Noefli says:

    UTSA drew a lot of support in the San Antonio area. A number of the school’s alums paid attention to the season, and the school has committed to a decent stadium. That program could go places.

    Texas State, though it has played for a while, lies in much smaller city (town?) between Austin and San Antonio. If the Roadrunners have any success, Texas State may lose some recruiting battles.

  3. Adam Nettina says:

    I’m willing to bet one of these teams makes a bowl in 2011. I’d put my money on UMass. Winning programs find ways to win at any level, and the CAA has shown us for a few years now that they can play some pretty good football.

  4. Ezra says:

    Texas State has another TCU former coach: Mike Schultz at OC was Gary Patterson’s OC for many years.

    When Schultz left for Illinois after the ’08 season, TCU’s offense really took off.

  5. Burnt Orange says:

    Am fascinated with the size of #99 in the photo above. After checking multiple UTSA rosters, I am not sure if he is still with the team. This looks like a practice or spring game photo. Reminds me of that little nose guard Colorado had in the 86-87 or so time frame whose name escapes me. Kid was about 5’9, 210 but he could play.

    In doing this, I noted the UTSA lines on both sides of the ball are decent sized- who knows if they can play.

    Paul: His name is Tyler Foster. He’s a sophomore linebacker out of Dallas that U.T.S.A. lists at 5’10, 220. If he’s 5’10 and 220, then No. 44 is 6’8, 240. I’d wager Foster is 5’7 or thereabouts. Good for him.

  6. Noefli says:

    Burnt, I’m more fascinated by the size of Larry Coker in the photo above.

  7. jjncaa says:

    “I’m willing to bet one of these teams makes a bowl in 2011″

    When none of them will be bowl-eligible?

  8. JFT says:

    UTSA did break some very impressive NCAA attendance records the first year out. The first game had about 57,000 through the gate with a season average of around 35K. And this was accomplished while playing obscure D1-AA and D2/D3 schools. That’s pretty impressive considering a lot of FBS programs would love to have that level of support. The city of San Antonio has really rallied behind this team and with that kind of excitement it is only a matter of time before this team starts picking up the recruits to make headlines.

  9. Burnt Orange says:

    Kyle Rappold was Colorado nose tackle I was thinking of. 3rd team AP All American in 87. Still cannot find his height and weight but he was a fireplug and a solid player

  10. raider says:

    #99 in the picture above was a walk on kicker that made the team during the first wave of tryouts. He was cut shortly after the spring game, where this picture was taken. He was listed at about 5’6/5’7 260

  11. Shaun says:

    Yea, on the rosters it shows Tyler Foster as #99 but as his former Hs teammate I can vouch that’s not him. That kid looks more like a bowling bowl then football player

  12. Tyler Foster says:

    I am the real Tyler Foster and that photo is not me that photo is from the 2010 spring game before I joined the team and that guy was a kicker Hispanic kid named Matt Guerrero if I’m not mistaken

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