It’s that time of year.
In a 15-week season, we are now squarely at the midpoint of the 2014 college football season, halfway between the seventh and eighth Saturdays.
We’re also to the point where midweek football is here to fill the void between Monday and Thursday. The Fun Belt gets it going tonight with Louisiana-Lafayette at Texas State, and continues next Tuesday with Arkansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette. MACtion gets going Tuesday, Nov. 4 with a Bowling Green-Akron and Toledo-Kent State twin bill.
With that said, it’s time to take the temperature of each team in both leagues, with measured preseason predictions. We’ll do pair up each conference in FBS, starting with the Sun Belt and MAC.
Georgia Southern (5-2, 4-0): Cue the DJ Khaled because all Willie Fritz does is win. A head coach with one losing season in 17 years has the Eagles in position to contend for the Sun Belt title in their first year in the league. Jeff Monken left a solid foundation behind, and Fritz has immediately improved upon it, upping the Eagles rushing average from 360 to 370 yards per game while bumping Georgia Southern’s judicious passing game from 9.82 to an even 10 yards per attempt. The Eagles rank second in FBS in yards per rush and third in yards per carry. With its only losses coming by one point to N.C. State and four points at Georgia Tech, this team is for real.
Arkansas State (4-2, 2-0): Speaking of picking up where previous coaches left off, Blake Anderson has grabbed the torch lit by Bryan Harsin, and Gus Malzahn, and Hugh Freeze. The Red Wolves are now 22-3 in Sun Belt play since the beginning of the 2011 season, and in contention for what has to be an unprecedented fourth straight conference title under four head coaches. Important note: Arkansas State does not face Georgia Southern this season.
Texas State (2-2, 1-0): Dennis Franchione teams have always run the ball effectively, and this one is more of the same. The Bobcats rank 16th nationally in rushing yardage at 259.8 yards per game, and 18th at 5.6 yards per carry. (Starting the year with 378 yards on 7.6 yards per pop in a 65-0 blasting of Arkansas-Pine Bluff certainly didn’t hurt.) The Bobcats led Illinois through three quarters in Champaign, and beat American member Tulsa in three overtimes. Texas State faces both Georgia Southern and Arkansas State, though both must come to San Marcos.
Louisiana-Lafayette (2-3, 1-0): One of the most perplexing starts of the season, Hud’s bunch must finish 7-1 to push its streak of 9-4 seasons to four. Blowout losses to Ole Miss and Boise State are forgivable (especially the former), but a 48-20 blowout loss to Louisiana Tech was shocking. The Ragin’ Cajuns wins have come by way of a blowout of Southern and a 34-31 squeaker over Georgia State. Louisiana-Lafayette has dropped from 33rd to 69th in yards per play, from 82nd to 113th in yards per play allowed, and watch their turnover margin plummet from nearly even (23 takeaways, 22 giveaways) to the third worst in the country (one takeaway, 10 giveaways).
South Alabama (3-2, 2-1): What if I told you South Alabama did something Texas A&M and Auburn could not do and hold No. 1 Mississippi State to 35 points? Before anyone gets too excited, South Alabama also has the flimsiest resume of any over-.500 team in college football, with its trio of victories coming over 0-6 Kent State, 0-6 Idaho and 1-5 Appalachian State.
Louisiana-Monroe (3-3, 2-1): The year started off such a success, beating Wake Forest on Camo Night with Duck Dynasty phenomenon Willie Robertson partying with the Warhawks in the locker room. Since then, ULM has beaten Idaho and Troy, and suffered blowout losses to LSU and resurgent Kentucky. Todd Berry’s club has struggled to score, ranking last in the conference and tied for 117th nationally with 13 touchdowns on the season.
Troy (1-5, 1-1): Larry Blakeney announced his retirement on Oct. 5, and the Trojans went out and played their best game of the season six days later with a 41-24 defeat of New Mexico State. Here’s betting Troy grabs a couple more victories before he hangs up the whistle for good.
New Mexico State (2-5, 1-2): The good news: Doug Martin matched the win total of his debut season by Sept. 6. The bad news: the Aggies have since dropped five straight. New Mexico State has been fantastic in the red zone, converting 17 touchdowns and four field goals in 22 trips. If only they’d get there more three times a game.
Appalachian State (1-5, 0-2): App State’s move from FCS to FBS has been much more typical than their fellow SoCon expat at the top of the standings. With only a 66-0 rout of Campbell to their credit, the Mountaineers are still looking for their first win over FBS team as an FBS team. Though App State isn’t the three-peating juggernaut it was toward the end of the previous decade, the program hasn’t picked up under Scott Satterfield where it left off with Jerry Moore, falling from 16-8 in Moore’s final two seasons to 5-13 in a season-and-a-half under Satterfield.
Georgia State (1-5, 0-3): It’s a good thing Georgia State held off Abilene Christian way back on Aug. 27, fighting back from a 30-21 fourth quarter deficit and hitting the game-winning field goal with four seconds to play, because – with no Idaho on the schedule – I’m not sure there’s another win on the slate for Trent Miles’ bunch. At a program that was 1-10 before moving to FBS, it’s a crime Miles only gets a $1,000 bonus for every win.
Idaho (0-6, 0-4): And now we get to Idaho, with what has to be the bleakest picture in FBS. The Vandals are a 26-24 defeat of Temple away from a 24-game losing streak. They’ve dropped 13 straight as it is, and only three have been within one score. They’re 110th in yards per play and 126th in yards per play allowed. All this while playing 2,500 miles away from the rest of its conference, and in one of the most talent poor areas in the country yet surrounded by successful FCS programs in Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State. I don’t know where the answers are, and I don’t think Paul Petrino does either.
Bowling Green (5-2, 3-0): Passing yards are up nearly 50 yards per game, total plays have jumped from 70 to 81 per game, and only Wisconsin has held the Falcons to below 31 points. Yep, this is a Dino Babers team. The defending MAC champions have now won their last eight and 17 of their last 19 conference games under the combination of Dave Clawson and Babers, and should be favored from here on out.
Akron (4-2, 2-0): One of the best turnaround stories going, you have to feel good for Terry Bowden, Chuck Amato and staff. The Zips haven’t had a winning season since 2005 and went 3-33 from 2010-12, but climbed to 5-7 in 2013 with only a 28-24 near-upset of Michigan keeping them from bowl eligibility. With all four of its wins coming by double digits, including a 21-10 defeat of Pittsburgh, and the MAC’s best scoring defense by a large margin, Akron should go bowling in 2014.
Buffalo (3-4, 1-2): Athletics director Danny White said everything necessary about his thoughts on the program by firing head coach Jeff Quinn on Monday, one year removed from an 8-5 season.
Ohio (3-4, 1-2): What do South Alabama and Ohio have in common? They’re the only teams to beat both 0-6 Kent State and 0-6 Idaho. Add in a 34-19 win over 1-5 Eastern Illinois, plus four losses all by 17 points or more, and you’re left with a 20-3 loss at Kentucky as this team’s best performance of the season.
Miami of Ohio (1-6, 1-2): A win over Massachusetts – 42-41, with a 28 unanswered to fight back from a 41-14 hole – snapped a 21-game losing streak and gave Chuck Martin his first win as an FBS head coach. Let’s check back in a year.
Massachusetts (1-6, 1-2): The same team that blew a 41-14 lead to Miami (Ohio) beat Kent State 40-17, if you’re looking for a status update on the Golden Flashes. Mark Whipple has already matched the win total of the last two seasons. One undoubtedly positive sign: Whipple has already doubled the Minutemen’s passing offense. A group that ranked 12th in the conference in passing yardage and threw only nine touchdowns against 18 interceptions now leads the league with 314 yards per game, with 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Kent State (0-6, 0-3): Kent State has Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 25 for its best shot at a victory, and a chance to complete a reverse three-way tie of what Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech did in the 2008 Big 12 South race. This program has had one winning season since 2002, when it went 11-2 and came one play away from winning the MAC. Figure that one.
Toled0 (4-3, 3-0): Matt Campbell is 21-12 in his short tenure at Toledo, and has a golden opportunity to win his first MAC title this season. Northern Illinois is down (more on that below), and the Rockets already have wins over Western Michigan and Central Michigan. The Rockets lead the conference in total offense and rushing offense, and rank second in scoring.
Central Michigan (4-3, 2-1): Quietly, Dan Enos has done some really nice things in Mount Pleasant. After starting his tenure with back-to-back 3-9 seasons, Central Michigan went 13-12 over the past two years and is off to a healthy start to 2014 with blowout wins over Purdue, Ohio and Northern Illinois. The Chippewas have chopped half a yard off their yards per play defense, dropping from 5.85 to 5.33.
Northern Illinois (4-2, 1-1): The Huskies have dropped from 10th to 69th in yards per play, fifth to 40th in total offense, and 11th to 75th in scoring offense. That tends to happen when an all-timer of a quarterback that happens to be as versatile, durable and forceful as a Range Rover graduates. Still, Rod Carey’s team started strong with a blowout of Presbyterian and wins over Northwestern and UNLV, but has since been blown out by Arkansas, beat Kent State by three and lost to Central Michigan.
Western Michigan (3-3, 1-1): What some dubbed the best recruiting class in MAC history is already paying dividends, as P.J. Fleck’s team has improved from 1-11 (the one win a 31-30 decision over similarly 1-11 Massachusetts) into three wins, plus a near win over Toledo (the Rockets tied the game on a field goal as time expired and won 20-19 in overtime).
Eastern Michigan (2-4, 1-1): Chris Creighton’s first win over an FBS team turned out to be the final straw against Buffalo’s Jeff Quinn. The Eagles had scored zero, three, 14 and six points (averaging 188.5 yards of total offense in the process) against FBS foes before exploding for 484 yards in a 37-27 win over the Bulls.
Ball State (1-5, 0-2): We close with the biggest head-scratcher of 2014, where a Ball State program that was 19-7 over the past two seasons has puttered to a 1-5 start. The Cardinals haven’t been blown out, and lost three games by seven points or less, and they did lose 13 starters off last year’s team, including quarterback Keith Wenning and wide receiver Willie Snead. They don’t have turnover luck to blame like Louisiana-Lafayette, though, actually coming out ahead with seven takeaways against five giveaways. This one is proof, that despite how good your coaches are, without enough returning depth each year it’s hard to win on the field. The silver lining for Ball State is this helps keep Pete Lembo another year.