Twenty-five teams down, 99 to go. When you put it that way, it’s hard to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Id be wise to take a cue from the triple-digit portion of this summer’s Countdown, which carries a different feel than in years past. I can think of one clear reason why: For many of the bottom 25, the coming season brings with it tremendous reason for optimism. Not optimism in the traditional sense – in the idea that despite the odds, a program feels it can challenge for a major breakthrough – but in the sense that come win, lose or draw, a program is playing with house money. This is somewhat a result of the four new F.B.S. programs that came off of the board in April: Texas-San Antonio, South Alabama, Texas State and Massachusetts.
These teams don’t care for wins as much as they care simply about the games themselves: whether the Roadrunners go winless doesn’t matter, but the fact that the Roadrunners are in a position to go winless does – the program has joined the party, and that fact, not the final standings, will define its first season on the F.B.S. level.
Another six schools are in the same body of water, though not the same boat. Akron, Memphis, U.A.B., Florida Atlantic, Tulane and Colorado State realize that the tide won’t immediately turn, but these programs are happy to take on another downtrodden finish under a new coaching staff if it means better days lie ahead. The new staff brings hope; for now, hope is as good as wins.
Kansas has Charlie Weis, but B.C.S. conference programs are less willing to accept more of the same – another last-place finish – than their non-B.C.S. conference counterparts. For evidence, look no further than Kansas itself: the Jayhawks jettisoned Turner Gill after two dreadful seasons, though Kansas seemed to get worse as Gill’s tenure progressed, leading to his dismissal.
So this has been somewhat of a feel-good bottom 25: not feel-great, mind you, but there’s less negativity surrounding this cellar-dwelling portion of the F.B.S. than in the recent past. More than a third of these teams – those mentioned above, and even Kansas, to a degree – carry enough excitement about the future into the fall to ignore the looming specter of a rebuilding season. Or simply a building season, when it comes to the fresh-faced, wet-behind-the-ears Roadrunners.
The negativity is focused in one spot: Chestnut Hill. The Eagles are a train wreck on the field and off, thanks to mishandling of the program on a large scale and smaller, day-to-day missteps by those charged with leading B.C. back into A.C.C. contention. Don’t blame the players; instead, find fault with those in charge of the football program.
But there’s a difference between B.C. and the vast majority of the bottom 25: the Eagles have a chance. Not a chance at winning 10 games, or even challenging Florida State and Clemson for the Atlantic division title. But the Eagles have a so-so chance at reversing this current three-year slide and moving back into bowl play – actually improving, which is something this program hasn’t done since Jeff Jagodzinski’s first season.
B.C. is one of three triple-digit programs with the wherewithal – if the program can get out of its own way – to surge back into the postseason. The second is Ball State, which despite a moderately difficult schedule and some personnel issues seems poised to be a perennial factor in the MAC under Pete Lembo. The third is Troy, which needs only to button up defensively to move back into the Sun Belt’s good graces.
Consider each in turn. What does B.C. have? A new offensive coordinator in Doug Martin, formerly of New Mexico State. A quarterback growing into the position – growing on the fly, which has led Chase Rettig to hit more than a few speed bumps along the way. Talent in the backfield. Returning experience along the offensive line. Promising youth along the back seven on defense.
In my mind, Ball State has one of the best young coaches in college football – even if Lembo remains completely unknown on a national level. The Cardinals will be better offensively in their second season in Lembo’s season. The defense has holes, true, but as on offense, there’s reason to think that the added experience with the new coaching staff will lead to an improved performance.
And Troy is Troy: the Trojans dominated the Sun Belt for so long as to make last season an aberration, even if the swoon carries over into this coming season. All the Trojans need to do, even if this sounds easier in theory than in action, is become more physical in the running game and limit the number of big plays in the passing game.
So why so negative about the Eagles, seeing that the team does have the ability to surpass its preseason expectations? One is the program’s location: expectations differ when you move to the B.C.S. conference landscape, and doubly so when Frank Spaziani and the current staff – with a few new additions on offense – are set to enter their fourth season.
A second reason is harder to define. Think of like this: Boston College’s decline was of its own making. The Eagles were there, winning eight or more with ease, for more than a decade. Then the program spit the bit, slowly but surely self-destructing following its decision to fire Jagodzinski early in 2009. The first error was hiring Spaziani, since that hire was motivated solely by the desire to avoid another broken heart; B.C. didn’t like getting jilted at the altar, and knew that Spaziani was never, ever going to leave the program for greener pastures.
How many programs in college football would kill to experience the sort of run B.C. went through from 1999-2008? Kent State hasn’t won more than six games in a season in 25 years. Tulane is 52-103 since Tommy Bowden left after the 1998 season. Things are looking up at Eastern Michigan, but that program remains more than two decades removed from its last winning season. Northwestern? Vanderbilt? U.A.B., Akron, Duke?
Think any one of that group – or countless others in the F.B.S. – wouldn’t kill for a run like the one B.C. experienced for 11 years? Or even half of that run, or a third of that run, or just one eight-win season? That’s why it’s so easy to be negative about the Eagles: because they were the envy of so many, without even knowing it, and threw it all away. It wasn’t taken away; it was given away. Twenty-four of the bottom 25 can find one reason or another to be excited about 2012. At B.C., there’s enough negativity to go around.