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The Countdown

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

P.S.R. Op-Ed

Keeping the Faith in Akron and Beyond

Months of time spent away from your team have made you soft. Given time to reflect on the year past and optimistically consider the future, you’ve started the process of raising expectations to a unhealthy level: you actually think your team — your overwhelmingly mediocre team — can compete at a high level. No, you’re not crazy. Well, maybe you’re a little crazy, especially if you live in one of the following cities: Akron, Albuquerque, Buffalo, Memphis, New Orleans or Ypsilanti.

At least a program like Akron can take solace in the fact that it is still in the opening stages of what seems to be a longterm rebuilding project, one piloted by Rob Ianello, the former Notre Dame assistant. It may be premature to say that Ianello laid the groundwork for future success a season ago, when only a win over Buffalo — more on the Bulls in a moment — saved the Zips from a winless season.

Only time will tell if 2010′s lowly finish pays dividends down the road. What a 1-11 finish does do, however, is lower expectations for 2011: now, after posting only a single victory last fall, 4-8 doesn’t look too bad. At least Ianello has time, one would think, though tempers and leashes grow short when improvement proves hard to come by.

There are few stages in big-time collegiate sports: as one successful sports figure once said, you’re either rebuilding for something special or you’re on the verge of something special — there is no in-between. The hope for Akron is that Ianello is rebuilding for something special; again, time will prove this out.

Likewise at places like Memphis, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan: as at Akron, there is hope that Larry Porter, Jeff Quinn and Ron English have their teams on the verge of breaking through. Each enters the 2011 season under the microscope. The only saving grace for this entire quartet is this: it can’t get much worse.

It can’t get any worse in Memphis. It’s one thing to struggle, as Porter did in his first year as an F.B.S. head coach; it’s another thing to nearly lose your team, as Porter seemed in danger of doing near the end of last season. Geoff Calkins of The Memphis Commercial summed up Porter’s debut campaign thusly:

When the Tigers lost to Central Florida on Saturday, 37-17, Porter became the first coach in Memphis history to lose 11 games in a season. His play-calling was mind-numbingly conservative. A disturbing number of players fled the program. Worse, Porter managed to alienate much of the already dwindling Memphis fan base.

Calkins does stress that Porter deserves another year to prove his worth, which is only fair both to the program and its coach — as disappointing as 2010 might have been. Same for Ianello, even if both may be damaging their short-term futures by forcing such a large number of incumbent scholarship players to flee the program.

You’re either rebuilding for something special or on the verge of something special. Don’t get caught in between. Is it too early to close the book on Memphis, Akron and Buffalo? Of course: Buffalo’s Jeff Quinn might have inherited a program confident in its ability to win football games, as it proved under his predecessor, but work remains to be done nonetheless.

It could be worse: the above programs have nothing on New Mexico, which is stuck firmly in that purgatory between rebuilding and something special. Porter, for all his faults, has nothing on Mike Locksley. Ianello may have run off a portion of his roster, but at least he can sell that attrition to potential recruits. New Mexico’s Mike Locksley can only sell a smile and a tiresome refrain about turning things around, though I can’t imagine how that pitch still works on the recruiting trail.

Keeping the faith in Akron, for example, merely involves getting a good night’s sleep: if cheerful enough, an Akron fan can easily convince himself that this coming season will be better than last. Keeping the faith in New Mexico might involve a priest — some sort of higher power, at least — or the aid of adult substances.

On the other hand, if there’s a time for raised expectations it’s now, before any team even takes the field for spring practice. Maybe my team will be improved, you’ll say to yourself, looking through the projected depth chart and the talent added in February. Maybe this is the year, you’ll say. Then your team takes the field for spring practice, rapidly changing your tune.

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  1. WashingtonDCduck says:

    One program that could be included with the likes of Buffalo, Akron, Eastern Michigan, New Mexico, ect.. I’d argue would be UNLV. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas has really struggled to gain any traction in the Mountain West. UNLV in my opinion has to be one of the biggest underachieving FBS programs in the nation. Not necessarily with big time elite recruits coming in and then underachieving, because they certainly have never had a Top 20 recruiting class – but their inability to be competitive and be regular bowl participant.

    UNLV sits on a very under hyped recruiting bed, the Las Vegas metropolitan area. A lot of talented D-1 recruits annually leave the area, and go play with other larger programs or just simply leave UNLV’s backyard. Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams, their All Pro RB comes to mind, as he played his college ball at Oregon State. UNLV is a morning drive from Los Angeles, as everyone knows produces elite H.S. football players every year that schools from all over the country visit to plunder the likes of Crenshaw, Long Beach Poly Tech, amongst other big time H.S. football programs. UNLV also is not very far from the Phoenix metro area, where another large amount of D-1 players are churned out every year.

    I’m just waiting for the right coach to bring in a staff with the right amount of energy, and swagger, to change the football culture in Las Vegas. Maybe it will never happen. Sometimes it’s just the culture of the administration at the school, and add in the peculiar nature of Las Vegas in itself, and possibly your 21 yr old juniors and seniors are more interested in hitting clubs on the strip than getting in film time and playing 7 on 7 drills in the months of May and June. If you are in Tuscaloosa, Eugene, or Blacksburg, not much else to do than spend time with your teammates at the football facilities, lifting, throwing balls on the grass practice fields, and not star gazing on the Vegas Strip.

    You know the funny thing, is that it was only 15-20 years ago that my team, the Oregon Ducks and their fans, thought about in the winter / spring / summer how their Ducks could get back to the Holiday Bowl, or Sun Bowl. If Oregon ended up in the Las Vegas Bowl or Emerald Bowl, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. OH MY how expectations have changed. My Ducks don’t hold trophy cases full of Heisman Trophies and National Titles like the Nebraska’s, Penn State’s, or Alabama’s of the world, but I can certainly assure you the crazed and rabid fan base of Oregon faithful rightfully so, dream of getting back to the National Title Game and not just getting their but finishing the undefeated season.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Another program that should be included is Washington State. 5-31 in three seasons under Wulff.

  3. duston says:

    include any directional school from louisiana.

  4. tulaneoutlaw says:

    You didn’t even mention Tulane in this post! Why did you tag the school?! You had me excited that you mentioned them.

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