by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

AIR FORCE OVER 8.5 wins... If there has been one constant thread among Troy Calhoun’s best Falcons teams, it’s those with solid defenses that soar the highest. Such as last season when the Force blew past its preseason projection of 6.5 wins and ended up a 10-game winner after disposing of Louisville in the First Responder Bowl at Dallas. Indeed it was one of the best stop units in Falc history, ranking fourth nationally, and many of last season’s defensive playmakers return plus a handful of new starters who nonetheless saw considerable action a year ago. Watch OLB Vince Sanford, a breakout star in 2021 with 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Of course, Calhoun’s “option with a twist” offense needs no introduction after another nation’s best rushing performance last season (328 ypg) with punishing north-south FB Brad Roberts still around to make the belly series work after pouding for 1352 YR a year ago. And while the Force still doesn’t throw much, they make their deep balls count, as QB Haaziq Daniels has demonstrated an ability to get the ball downfield on the sneak deep missiles the Falcs often break for long gainers Daniels’ completions a year ago went for nearly 20 yards per pop, as the ‘Ville found out in the bowl when Daniels completed 9 of 10 for 252 yards and a pair of TDs. Three losses by one score or fewer prevented the Falcs from a perfect 2021, and there is still a lingering bad taste from the 21-14 OT loss to Army at Globe Life Park in Arlington that denied the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy from returning to Colorado Springs. This year, we’ll say the “Chief” returns to the foot of the Rockies, where the Falcs will host most of their big games. Barring an injury siege, the Force looks like it will crack the national rankings and threaten double-digit wins.

CAL OVER 5.5 wins...Okay, we’re going to admit some peripheral factors influencing our projection in Berkeley after recent word that longtime play-by-play man Joe “The band is on the field!” Starkey is going to be retiring from the Golden Bears broadcast booth at the end of the season. Good luck to UCLA, which will be the opponent for the regular-season ender on November 27 that has already been designated “Joe Starkey Day” in Strawberry Canyon. So, a lot of sentiment this season in the swansong for the guy who has been around and doing the same job in Berkeley since the magic Joe Roth year of 1975. But there might be more to like about Cal 2022 than any feel-good about sending Starkey out on a high note. No one doubts sixth-year HC Justin Wilcox’s commitment to the cause after rebuffing overtures from alma mater Oregon after Mario Cristobal bolted Eugene for native Miami. And there haven’t been too many programs that have been thrown for more of a loop by Covid across the past two seasons than the Golden Bears, whose gathering momentum for Wilcox after 2019 was effectively stopped in its tracks by the pandemic and predictable draconian restrictions in the Bay Area. Wilcox has nonetheless  featured granite-like defenses for most of his Berkeley tenure and this fall should be no different, especially with star DE Brett Johnson back in the fold after missing the entirety of last season. As usual, Cal’s ceiling will be determined by how much improvement can be made by an offense that has mostly been pedestrian in recent years and will need Purdue transfer QB Jack Plummer to hit the ground running after Chase Garbers finally graduated. But the Bears don’t have to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 64 years to make the “over” recommendation work; a minor bowl would do the trick, and out of the gate vs. UC Davis and UNLV should have the Bears flying early. Though wouldn’t it be something for Cal’s past tendency for the dramatic to return in time to give Starkey a going-away gift for the ages with a New Year’s trip to Pasadena?

FIU OVER 3 wins... Flying well under the radar might look a best-case scenario for the Golden Panthers, whose mere existence as a football entity has come under some scrutiny lately. Especially a year ago when there were rumblings in south Florida that FIU might be better off going the way of Calder and shutting down its program completely rather than embarrass itself as it did in 2021, when a complete breakdown between the administration and vet HC Butch Davis resulted in a 1-11 train wreck, with the only win in the opener vs. lower-tier Long Island (Long Island?). Enter Mike MacIntyre, preferred to the paratroopers and other daredevil types who risked applying for the job, and looking for a spot to rehabilitate his coaching career that has featured some real highlights, such as propping up a moribund San Jose State and getting Colorado competitive enough in the Pac-12 that it actually once won the South Division title. (Given where the Buffs appear to be now under successor Karl Dorrell, MacIntyre’s work in Boulder is looking better all of the time in retrospect.) MacIntyre’s presence in Miami speaks to one important factor; coaching and direction, both lacking last year amid the turmoil, when the Panthers simply stopped competing as the season progressed and changes were imminent, further distracting the player base. That sort of submission is uncommon and would not be expected to continue under a focused coach in his first season with a bit of a positive track record. Having only four starters back in the fold from a year ago might not be the worst thing as MacIntrye will be blooding a vast collection of transfers on both platoons, with the D especially in need of help after ranking 128th a year ago. Another newcomer, ex-Duke QB Gunnar Holmberg, who passed for nearly 2400 yards in the ACC last season, is expected to pilot the offense and at least provide some seasoned direction. The thought here is that there is no way FIU should be as bad as a year ago simply because it has a serious coach focused on the situation at hand, and there are several winnable games (lower-tier Bryant, Texas State, New Mexico State, UConn) on the slate into early October, and other opportunties vs. modest CUSA opposition. Though it’s MacIntyre’s presence, and expected upgrade from an epically bad 2021 that would be hard to replicate, that has us interested in the “over” with the Golden Panthers.

KANSAS OVER 2.5 wins... Look hard, and there were signs of progress last season in Lawrence. It took a while for Lance Leipold’s presence to resonate; as a late hire in spring after a successful run at Buffalo and wildly successful lower-level stint at Wisconsin-Whitewater, where Leipold compiled a W-L mark (109-6, plus six D-III titles in eight seasons!) that was even envied by Geno Auriemma, many thought Leipold crazy to take on the thankless assignment at KU, which didn’t win a game in 2020 as the ill-conceived Les Miles regime crashed and burned and has endured a decade-long drought thjat makes Lake Mead look full capacity by comparison. But in the last three games of 2021, the Jayhawks would upset Texas at Austin in a wild OT shootout, then push TCU and West Virginia to the limit, suggesting they’re at least paying attention to Leipold. A fairly-full cupboard of 16 starters and the tenth most-returning production returns this fall, and while a slew of starters coming back from a 2-10 team is not always a good thing, the way KU rallied down the stretch suggests things might be starting to click for Leipold. Leipold found a proper triggerman last November, too, as QB Jalon Daniels emerged as a real playmaker, accounting for ten TDs (seven via pass, three via rush) in the late three-game push, and most of the RB corps returns, led by promising soph Devon Neal (707 YR in 2021). True, Leipold and o.c. Andy Kotelicki are going to need some transfers to step in at the WR spots, and Leipold worked the portal pretty hard to add numbers on the stop end, where the Jayhawks remained extremely vulnerable a year ago (ranked 129 in scoring D at 42.2 ppg). But home games vs. Tennessee Tech and Duke offer real chances for a pair of wins before Big 12 play commences, and those competitive efforts at the end of last season, plus Leipold’s glimmering track record, suggest the Jayhawks can probably exceed last year’s pair of Ws.

MEMPHIS UNDER 7.5 wins... The American will be undergoing quite a transformation after this season, though still in the fold, despite their best efforts otherwise, will be the Tigers. Like a coed waiting for a date tot he prom but never getting asked, Memphis continues in a holding pattern for an invite from the Big 12, ACC, Pac-12, you name it,  to become part of the Power 5. The on-field fortunes, however, seem to be trending in the wrong direction under third-year HC Ryan Silverfield (among other things still looking for his first spread cover as a visitor) after the wildly-successful run of predecessor Mike Norvell. The Tigers dropped all fo the way to 6-6 last season, guilty of sloppy play in the losses, and Silverfield is hoping to change the mix with a pair of new coordinators (Tim Cramsey-offense and Matt Barnes-defense). Cramsey will have promising soph Seth Henigan (25 TDP last season) back at QB but not Henigan’s favorite target Calvin Austin, who carried the offense much of last season. The infantry has also sagged under Silverfield; perhaps Northern Illinois transfer Jevyon Drucker will provide an upgrade. Meanwhile, Barnes will be hoping for portal additions on the stop end to bolster a front seven that was hit hard by graduations/departures. The schedule is also tricky, with revenge-minded Missisippi State on the road in the opener and then always-awkward Navy at Annapolis, so the chance at an 0-2 break from the gate is very real. With Cincinnati off of the slate, there looks to be enough give in the slate for the Tigers to get back to a bowl, but there remain too many questions (and a wrong-way trajectory) to forecast a big recovery at the Liberty Bowl this fall.

OHIO UNDER 5.5 wins... It’s easy in hindsight to blame the rapid decline of the Bobcats all of the way down to 3 wins last fall on the sudden resignation last July of longtime HC Frank Solich for health reasons. Pre-Covid 2020, Solich had led Ohio to an unprecedented 10 bowls in 11 years. So maybe the late start had something to do with first-year HC Tim Albin having problems in his maiden run. Except that the eventual transition to Albin had been in works for some time after he had been with Solich all of his previous seasons at Athens since 2005 (and in recent years the offensive coordinator) and indeed on Solich staffs at prior stop Nebraska, too. So this was hardly like the situation at Buffalo, where Lance Leipold left after spring practice and Maurice Linguist was tabbed to replace him after just accepting a job on Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan staff. And Albin wasn’t treated like an interim, either, given a four-year contract right off of the bat. Still, the thought persists in the MAC that the Bobcats wouldn’t have dropped as much with Solich, as the offense would fall to 10th in MAC scoring and the defense would crumble all of the way to a 104 ranking nationally. Though QB Kurtis Rourke has played with some flair in the past, questions elsewhere on the attack end at RB, WR, and on the line suggest improvement this fall might be hard to notice, and the schedule provides few breaks with early road trips to Penn State and Iowa State. If the Bobcats can’t beat Florida Atlantic (which will have had a game under its belt) in the opener, Albin might be looking at a re-run of 2021... and Ohio brass checking out the buyout terms on Albin’s deal.

SOUTH FLORIDA UNDER 4.5 wins... To say the Jeff Scott era has undershot expectations to date in Tampa would be quite an understatement; try three wins the first two seasons on the job with more lopsided losses than the Pittsbiurgh Pirates. While we’re inclined to give any team a mulligan that struggled in Covid 2020, we began to wonder early about Scott, who at the outsey seemed more occupied with outside distractions than coaching his team. As noted, the Bulls have suffered some heavy defeats the past couple of years, six of them alone by 15 points or more last season, as too often in the brief Scott era, USF simply hasn ‘t competed, something we can’t say about some other Ameircan reps (like Navy) that at least lost with some honor last season. Scott, Dabo Swinney’s o.c. at Clemson, hasn’t had Trevor Lawrence the past couple of seasons, either, and will now apparently turn to Baylor transfer Gerry Bohanon at QB as the Bulls hit the portal hard in the offseason, looking for reinforcements (especially for a defense that ranked among the worst in the nation). That trasnfer strategy might be the new reality in college football but it looks like nothing but a risky quick-fix for Scott, whose defense ranked in triple digits last season and might not have the manpower to cope with the expected accelerated pace of USF games if new o.c. Travis Trickett plays the sort of go-go style that he preaches. We’re hardly sure that 18 starters back in the fold from a 2-10 team is a plus, and improving three wins looks a pretty big ask for the Bulls as Scott’s seat becomes exponentially warmer.

SOUTHERN CAL UNDER 9.5 wins... Not many saw that coming last Thanksgiving weekend when Lincoln Riley shocked the masses 24 hours after the wild Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State and decided he would pack up the moving vans and leave Oklahoma for Los Angeles. (The "not seeing that coming" theme would repeat in late June when SC would announce a defection to the Big Ten with UCLA effective 2024; more on that as the season porgrsses.) Much of the season-long conjecture at USC had focused upon sorts such as Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell (a past connection with Trojan AD Mike Bohn from days at Cincy), Penn State’s James Franklin and a few others flying instead across the coaching radar following Clay Helton’s early-season dismissal, with no one thinking Riley was about to move from Lincoln. But move Riley did and brought along high-octane QB Caleb Williams with him. Then, using some NIL hocus-pocus, the Trojans were able to make a late buy (and that's what it was) of  decorated WR Jordan Addison from Pitt after working the same strategy earlier in the portal. NIL or no NIL, however, Riley is hardly inherited the full cupboard that Bob Stoops handed him at OU; indeed, transfers are going to be lining up almost everywhere, which might not be a bad idea after last year’s SC defense was its worst in memory during a train wreck of a 2021 campaign that was effectively sabotaged by Bohn when he pulled the plugged on Helton after just two games. There is also the thought among more than a few Sooners backers that Riley didn’t do all that great a job last year in Norman despite the 10-2 mark, with plenty of closer-than-expected calls and spread losses. The Trojans still flung the ball a lot with Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart (both since transferred) a year ago, as the real problems were on the stop end. SC should score a lot, but the key to a big upgrade is how d.c. Alex Grinch (brought along from Norman) can improve the stop unit after his Oklahoma platoons played a lot of bend-but-don’t-break the past couple of years. SC is being priced almost as if this is the same OU that Riley coached last season, but we don’t think that’s the case. There is lots of room to undershoot 9.5 especially witha tricky non-league slate including dangerous Fresno State and Notre Dame, and the Trojans were throttled last season by almost all of the Pac-10 foes (inclduing Oregon State, Utah, and UCLA) they must play away from the Coliseum and with the exception of the Bruins looking to take their best shot at Troy before the move to the Big Ten. . Nine might be an optimistic win result; 9.5 seems a bit too steep to clear.

UCLA OVER 8.5 wins... For a school with a long history of taking on all comers, the Bruins have instead borrowed a page from John Thompson’s old Georgetown basketball non-conference scheduling playbook. UCLA won’t be facing St. Leo’s, but instead welcomes Bowling Green, Alabama...State, and South Alabama to the Rose Bowl, causing some to wonder why not Troy or UAB, as AD Martin Jarmond has crafted a heavy does of Alabama in the non-league slate while managing to steer far clear of the Crimson Tide and Auburn. Meanwhile,  the game with the FCS Hornets marks UCLA’s first-ever vs. a lower-division foe, leaving only Notre Dame and USC among major colleges that have never dipped into the FCS or lower ranks for a game (and the Fighting Irish are going to drop from those ranks in the near future). It was Michigan cancelling a home-and-home series that gave the Bruins an open date that to be filled by SWAC ASU, which lost at Auburn 62-0 last season, though sources tell us that Fresno State was available for a game that the Bruins didn’t want. Whatever, it’s hardly like 1983, when UCLA’s four non-confernece foes (Nebraska, Georgia, BYU, and Illinois) all finished in the final top ten! No matter, for the purposes of this discussion, UCLA should have three wins in the bag by mid-September and could easily be 5-0 by the time Utah arrives for a Pac-12 South showdown at the Rose Bowl on October 8. Chip Kelly is also off of by far his best season in Westwood when the Bruins forged a semi-breakthrough to an 8-4 record, complete with a 62-33 annihilation of crosstown USC, and the best news in the offseason was that fifth-year QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson was returning to the fold after portal movers such as Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and UCF’s Dillon Gabriel were rumored to be headed to Westwood. A healthy DTR makes their additions uinnecessary, as his dynamic run-pass dual threat accounted for over 3000 yards and 30 TDs via land and air a year ago. The return of chop-busting ex-Michigan teransfer RB Zach Charbonnet (1137 YR in 2021) also provides the vaunted Kelly ground game with plenty of horsepower. Meanwhile, the D features few returnees but plenty of high-profile portal additions (including the Murphy twin DEs from North Texas), and Pac-12 insiders believe new d.c. Bill McGovern, with NFL experience, will prove an upgrade from Jerry “Cave Man” Azzinaro’s recent platoons. The Bruins are being curiously overlooked by pundits blinded by the news of the pending defection to the Big Ten and the hype surrounding Lincoln Riley’s arrival a few miles away at USC. But it’s UCLA which to us looks well the best win value in the South.

ULM over 2.5 wins... At this time last year we stuck out our necks re: the Warhawks and forecast an “over” (just 1.5 wins) for the Terry Bowden debut at Monroe. That wasn’t an automatic pick, either, despite the low win total, as ULM had been winless when strafed by Covid during the winless 2020 campaign (when the Sun Belt played a full season),, putting an end to the Matt Viator regime. But last year’s “over” became our easiest winner in a long while as Bowden pocketed wins in two of his first three, and we had nothing to worry about after a September 25 win over Troy. For an encore, Bowden is being asked to clear an extra win, with the hurdle now at 2.5. Though the non-conference schedule looks a bit of a nightmare with early trips to Texas and Alabama (and we assume Nick Saban is going to need no reminders that his first Tide team in 2007 lost to ULM, then coached by Charlie Weatherbie!), the key game for “over” purposes is probably the one in the middle against Nicholls. Win that one and the sage veteran Bowden ought to be able to cobble at least two more wins from the rest of the slate, much of which against considered the lesser (West) of the Sun Belt divisions. There was some coaching going on last season, too,  as ULM looked much more organized than previous years, and confirmation of stated upgrade was the fact the Warhawks were the least-penalized team in the nation. Bowden has new coordinators for 2022 but veteran d.c. Vic Koenning has been around the track many times, and new o.c. Matt Kubik returns after shepherding some potent ULM offenses earlier in the Viator era. Both QBs, Chandler Rogers and Jiya Wright, are dual-threats. So, with the bar set this low, no reason Bowden can'tt replicate last year's mark, which means we won’t hesitate to back Bowden again.


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