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Mid-Major Monday: The Young and the Hopeless

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The mid-major focus this preseason has centered mostly around the programs the prognosticenti predicts will make some run at the big money bowls, namely TCU, Hawaii and Boise State, consensus top 25 selections (that's consensus, not unanimous). But these big fish/small pond types don't get anywhere without racking up absurd stats at the pitiful expense of their mostly anonymous conference underlings, whose generosity goes so unheralded in their counterparts' Cinderella runs. These teams are like the famous heroine's rats, transformed into coachmen, escorting their improbably glamorous peer to the grand ball in a makeshift carriage of bad angles, missed blocks, dropped passes and rock bottom coordination.

As much as making that heartwarming run up the polls, it takes a special set of circumstances to guide a hardworking team to the absolute bottom of the standings. Only a handful of teams have that right combination of non-existent talent and low morale to challenge for the title of "Worst Team in America." Let the record reflect this fall's leading, uh, contenders...

Florida International
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2006 Record: 0-12 (0-7 Sun Belt)
Avg. Stat Rank*: 77.1
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 16.5
Most Embarrassing Moment: Before the infamous, season-killing brawl at Miami, before the suspensions and the all-time inept offense that was shut out three times and scored 17 total points in the last six games of the season, there was a moderately competitive team that had lost its first four games by a total of 11 points, and that found itself fighting for its first win in overtime at North Texas. And fighting. And fighting. And fighting some more. And, well, you get the picture: through seven overtimes they fought into the dusty Denton twilight, through fatigue and an impossible eight missed field goals between the two kickers, until Dustin Rivest's fourth errant attempt in the seventh OT capped the epic contest of wills. The Orange Bowl fight and subsequent sanctions effectively ended the season/Don Strock's career the following week.

They were 0-12, but don't think the Panthers didn't put up a fight.
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It didn't help perception that FIU lost a DI-worst nine scholarships under the NCAA's initial APR crackdown in the spring, and was the only school that lost scholarships in both football and basketball.
Sliver of Hope: The Panthers were close enough early last season against teams like South Florida (one-point loss) and Maryland (four-point loss) to instill some confidence in a refreshed roster and environment under new coach Mario Cristobal. The defense was actually solid, finishing 28th in total defense and leading the country in tackles for loss; three guys finished in the top ten nationally in individual TFL, though they're all gone now, a sign of the Panthers' aggressiveness on that side of the ball.
Massacre Watch: The first four games are against reigning BCS bowl teams: at Penn State, Miami and Kansas and home against Maryland, whose main goal despite the close game last year is scouring south Florida for talent. The Panthers are also a break for Arkansas in early November.
Helplessness Rating: This was a competitive team before it was gutted by suspension, but the fresh start is a sideways move with the schedule and without most of last year's best players.

Louisiana Tech
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2005 Record: 3-10 (1-7 WAC; 2-9 vs. DI-A)
Avg. Stat Rank: 97.9
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 23.5 ppg
Most Embarrassing Moment: The Bulldogs were 118th of 119 teams in both run defense and pass efficiency defense, and finished dead last nationally in scoring (41.7 ppg) and total defense (483.2 ypg) as well as sacks and tackles for loss, i.e., they were thoroughly manhandled every week. Allowing 393 yards rushing to Clemson in a 51-0 defeat is one thing, but just before Halloween, Tech yielded an unbelievable 476 on the ground on 8.2 per San Jose State. The Bulldogs lost, 44-10.
Sliver of Hope: A new staff brings new enthusiasm. Last year's defense only returned two starters from 2005, and this year gets back ten, so improvement is inevitable. Ex-coach Jack Bicknell loved defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith, who started eight games as a true freshman.
Massacre Watch: Back-to-back games with Hawaii and California will be stat-padding bloodbaths, and September ends with a trip to Fresno State, which ran for 336 on Tech last year. Ole Miss will have the rare opportunity to do whatever it is they do when they manage to score in Oxford, preceding more unspeakable beatings at the hands of Boise State and, worse, LSU in November. The last two games are against SJSU and Nevada, which combined to outscore Tech last year by 76 points.
Helplessness Rating: Relative to its peers, last year's defense might have been the worst in modern history. Experience or no, such extremes are hard to recreate.

North Texas
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2006 Record: 3-9 (2-5 Sun Belt)
Avg. Stat Rank: 90.9
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 12.5
Most Embarrassing Moment: It's all bad when you lose 35-0 at home to Middle Tennessee, but it got really, really ugly here by the end of the year, when frustrations boiled over into a fistfight between offensive coaches at halftime of an eventual loss to Florida Atlantic. That was the same game outgoing boss Darrell Dickey pissed off the marketing overlords by sneaking generic, rec-quality black jerseys onto players without permission, thus missing a chance to sell sell sell the UNT brand to the 9,000 people on hand (that's 9,000 announced). When you're 3-8, you take what you can get.

A raucous night at Fouts Field.
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Sliver of Hope: The new coach is Texas high school legend Todd Dodge, who left the offensive coordinator position at then-I-AA UNT in the early nineties to build a juggernaut at Carroll High, where his pass-happy spread won 79 of its last 80 games and four 5-A state title in five years. "Dodge Ball" drew almost three times the crowd for a playoff game last year (46,000) than North Texas averaged all season (15,600).
Massacre Watch: The Mean Green hope to get out of trips to Oklahoma and Arkansas with their lives, but otherwise, only a November game with Navy is guaranteed to get out of hand.
Helplessness Rating: I understand the optimism with Dodge on board, but face the facts: a lot people expect UNT to be the worst team in the worst conference in America.

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2006 Record: 1-11
Avg. Stat Rank: 105
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 32.1
Most Embarrassing Moment: Certainly teams like Temple realize what they're getting into when they schedule back-to-back paydays with Minnesota and Louisville, but even the most pessimistic of Owl fans, whoever they are, couldn't envision a fate indifferent enough to allow identical 62-0 humiliations in consecutive weeks. Unfortunately, Temple's incompetence exceeded even the limits of cosmic mercy; Louisville took it easy and finished with 671 yards and 31 first downs.
Sliver of Hope: Temple was probably the youngest team in the country and was vastly more competitive against schools from its new conference (MAC) than those from outside it. Receiver/return man Trent Shelton missed half the season but was a difference maker when he got on the field.
Massacre Watch: Joining a conference allowed the Owls to scale back the murderer's row they've endured the last couple years, limiting the certain killers this time to Penn State, which visits in November. Navy and UConn are most likely to administer deep psychological scars before then.
Helplessness Rating: From this far behind, just keeping opposing starters on the field for four quarters is an acceptable moral victory for now.

Utah State
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2005 Record: 1-11 (1-7 WAC)
Avg. Stat Rank: 104.5
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 27.7 ppg
Most Embarrassing Moment: The Aggies were the only defense worse against the pass than fellow WAC doormat Louisiana Tech, but through the first 16 quarters of last season - four full games - the defense had outscored the USU offense, 7-0, via an interception return for touchdown at Wyoming. The Aggies lost that game 38-7 and were outscored over the next three weeks 106-0 by Arkansas, Utah and BYU before taking the opening possession against Idaho 71 yards for the first offensive touchdown of the year. Idaho eventually won 41-21, but cracking double digits was a substantial moral victory.
Sliver of Hope: All eleven starters return on defense. Quarterback Leon Jackson was atrocious in part-time duty (sub-50 percent completion rate, 3:7 TD:INT) but is a senior and Kevin Robinson is a theoretically dangerous receiver/return man; he scored five of the team's 14 offensive touchdowns.
Massacre Watch: The lopsided in-state rivalry with Utah continues, to the Aggies' ongoing pain, two weeks after they get run over by Oklahoma. Hawaii and Boise State are looking forward to weak resistance on their unstoppable drive to the WAC's Game of the Millenium on Nov. 23.
Helplessness Rating: The following clip is titled "USU football scores!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!," with some clarification: "The only Aggie to score in the Utah-Utah State game."

If you can eventually win a game with this defense, its inevitable maturation might get you to two.

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2005 Record: 2-10 (1-7 MAC)
Avg. Stat Rank: 92.4
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 22.1
Most Embarrassing Moment: After surviving a 9-3 overtime thriller against Temple, the Bulls went on the road in subsequent weeks and allowed 356 rushing to Bowling Green, 344 to Northern Illinois, 261 to Auburn and 232 to Ball State en route to losing ten of the last eleven.
Sliver of Hope: The run defense improved at the end of the year and was respectable against Wisconsin (3.0 per carry) and league champion Central Michigan (1.6 ypc), even if the Bulls were nowhere near competitive in 35-3 and 55-28 losses. Inexplicably routed division contender Kent State by four touchdowns for no apparent reason.
Massacre Watch: Two of the first three games are ugly matchups at Rutgers and Penn State. Down the road there's a trip to the Carrier Dome, where even the shadow of the program formerly known as Syracuse trounced the Bulls 31-0 in 2005.
Helplessness Rating: Amazingly, the Bulls have managed to win at least one game every year of their I-A existence. The odds have to catch up with them at some point.

Eastern Michigan
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2006 Record: 1-11 (1-7 MAC)
Avg. Stat Rank: 91.4
Avg. Margin of Defeat: 12.9 ppg
Most Embarrassing Moment: Even for a MAC bottom dweller, there's nothing to be said for gaining five first downs on 47 yards passing at Northwestern, but the finale against Northern Illinois was an appropriately head-hanging comedy of errors: the Eagles were outgained 501-112 and outscored 27-0 on their own field despite a plus-three turnover advantage, were 0-9 on third down and went three-and-out seven times in eleven possessions.
Sliver of Hope: EMU had a run of competitive games, upsetting Toledo and playing Northwestern, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Ohio U. of Ohio and Kent State within a touchdown. And, uh...scoring points is overrated?
Massacre Watch: The Eagles open at Pittsburgh and bend over for a lucrative but unnecessarily humiliating violation at Michigan in October. Vanderbilt and Northwestern aren't likely to be very nice, either, but could conceivably fall short of becoming complete wipeouts.
Helplessness Rating: I see nothing positive about this team.

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* - Average rank (out of 119) of 14 non-special teams stat categories tracked by the NCAA.