Spring primer: Burning questions for Notre Dame, non-AQ conferences
It won't be too many more seasons until "mid-majors" are a dated concept, but until then, we present assorted burning questions for non-AQ conferences and independents heading into spring ball:
Time once again for everybody's favorite game show, "Name! That! Irish! Quarterback!" A familiar question for Notre Dame, with a couple familiar answers. The oft-maligned Tommy Rees returns, as does Andrew Hendrix, both of whom you'll remember from the 2011 position race. In hot pursuit: dual-threat redshirt freshman Everett Golson, who topped Bruce Feldman's Tuesday Top 10 "most intriguing" list, and shiny recruitnik brass ring Gunner Kiel, whose chest has been insulted by Les Miles. Standout veteran tailback talent Cierre Wood will alleviate some of the pressure to produce yardage, but star receiver Michael Floyd won't be around to make whoever wins out look pretty anymore.
Will changes at Houston hobble forward progress? Pinball wizard Case Keenum isn't walking through that door, and neither is Kevin Sumlin. Gone, too, are Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes, Tyron Carrier, Justin Johnson and Patrick Edwards. Newly installed head coach Tony Levine is running right at these vacancies, and creating a few more, announcing open competition at every position with a cheeky depth chart graphic. Look to last year's leading rusher Charles Sims to shoulder the bulk of offensive production as the rest of his unit readjusts. Also re-acclimating: A defense that didn't spend enough seasons in Brian Stewart's 3-4 to build a full complement of players to run it and is now flipping back to the 4-3 under promoted former linebackers coach Jamie Bryant. Whee!
What the Cougars do have, apart from Sims, is a poppin' fresh, patisserie-made schedule that should allow them plenty of room to flex and grow into Levine's regime. And then some. Get past Louisiana Tech on September 8 and they won't face another team that finished 2011 with a winning record until SMU on October 20. Tulsa and Marshall are Houston's only other opponents not currently smarting from sub-.500 seasons. It's a nice lull in which the Cougars can get their feet set as a team before they head off to the Big East, which will provide marginally fewer pushover teams.
Will UMass win a game in Year 1? It's a brave new conference and a mostly brand-new staff for the Minutemen, and an inopportune time to be leveling up in competition. A 5-6 record in 2011 doesn't provide the sturdiest stepping stone, and UMass' experience in FBS ball last season consisted of getting wrecked by a miserable Boston College squad. The Minutemen won 10 games back in '07, but haven't managed so much as seven wins since '08, and to compound all that, they'll open 2012 against three Big Six conference teams, including Michigan. Regular Michigan, the one that just won a Sugar Bowl.
However! Before they get to Ann Arbor, the Minutemen will play UConn and Indiana. Wouldn't it be something if either squad provided that first crucial W?
Is Chris Petersen ever leaving Boise? No. What else you got? Will we recognize anybody in a Broncos jersey this season? Another repeat topic, ahoy! Where last year's burning question for Boise was "Who's Kellen Moore's new top target?" ... this year's is "Who's Kellen Moore?" Or who's anybody, really. Four foals jostle for starting QB honors: Grant Hedrick, Jimmy Laughrea, Nick Patti and Joe Southwick. Southwick has a leg up in the race, according to offensive coordinator Robert Prince.
But there are holes to plug all over: The Broncos are down a whopping 17 starters from last year's 12-1 scoring machine, most notably Moore and Doug "Muscle Hamster" Martin. All-Name aficionados, stand ready: Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe is one of a scant few familiar faces on a decimated defensive line.
Can the Cajuns sustain that fiery momentum? Though Arkansas State is the more high-profile squad thanks to the mere presence of new head coach Gus Malzahn, it will not shock even casual onlookers if Malzahn takes the leavings of a 10-win 2011 team, recruits well and wins some games. Of burnier interest to us is what will happen over in Lafayette, where the Ragin' Cajuns are looking to live up to a nine-win season that culminated in a bowl victory. Expectations are running high; fortunately, so are the talent reserves. On offense, the Cajuns return starting quarterback Blair Gautier, favorite receiving target Javone Lawson and leading rusher Alonzo Harris, a rising sophomore. (Of special importance: All-Name receiver Harry Peoples also returns. You're welcome, internet wags.) The make-or-break personnel moves will practically all take place on the defensive side of the ball, where attrition has ravaged a unit that wasn't particularly stout to begin with. The graduations of leading tackler Lance Kelley and corner Dwight Bentley will be keenly felt.
Also on the Cajuns' side: their schedule. The two money games, Florida and Oklahoma State, will be nasty ones, but they draw their toughest league opponents (FIU and Arkansas State) at home and face favorable matchups at Louisiana-Monroe, against South Alabama and at FAU late in the season.
Can you name the teams in the WAC? For the 2012 season, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Utah State, Texas State and UTSA. Anything else? Will a certain hatchling Airraid offense grow claws down in Ruston? This would be the year to do it. Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin are entering Year 3 at Louisiana Tech, are fresh off a conference championship and return two quarterbacks with starting experience in Nick Isham and Colby Cameron. Those signal-callers will be winging balls to two of 2011's team-leading trio of receivers, Quinton Patton and Myles White. Top-producing rusher Lennon Creer is off to seek his fortune in the draft, but returning is rising sophomore Hunter Lee, who saw touches in all 13 games last season. All told, Tech returns 16 starters. Playing the teams listed above, the final record might look impressive even if the Bulldogs don't lose their egg teeth just yet. But don't write off this team just for existing in the WAC. Remember how closely it played TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl, and pay attention early: LaTech will face three high-profile tests in the form of Texas A&M, Houston and UVA before the end of September.