28 College Football Teams That Will Struggle with Losing Top Talent

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2012

28 College Football Teams That Will Struggle with Losing Top Talent

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    Often, the phenomenon of a college football team being excellent one year and then poor the next is all about personnel turnover.

    College football is fluid by nature, and factors such as the NFL draft, graduation and eligibility mean that last year’s talent stacked teams may be next year’s struggling squads.

    The truth is, sometimes a team isn’t “bad” as much as they are young and inexperienced.

    The following slideshow pinpoints 28 teams who will fight an uphill battle in 2012 simply because they have lost a bunch of experienced guys from last season. Some will be more successful than others at filling their holes (the top-tier recruiting programs), while others will have what most of us see as an “off” year.

    This list includes some of the teams we’ll be thinking about in December along the lines of, “What happened to so and so? They were so good last season, and boy, did they struggle this year.” And, again, sometimes it’s not that they are not good; it’s just that they aren’t experienced.

    As a note, returning starter figures in this delightful presentation come via the master of gridiron numerals himself, Phil Steele.



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    After going just 2-10 in 2011, it seems cruel to give Vandals supporters any additional bad news, but sadly, the numbers don’t lie.

    Idaho returns just 12 starters in 2012, which includes only five guys to an offense that ranked No. 106 nationally in scoring and five guys to a defense that ranked No. 98 in points against. 


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    After winning nine games for the first time since 1970 and achieving the first bowl bid in program history, the Ragin’ Cajuns will have a rebuilding project on their hands (or claws) in 2012.

    ULL returns just 12 starters this season. Though it brings back its starting QB and a whopping seven other starters to an offense that ranked No. 32 in the nation in scoring, the defensive forecast is scary. The Cajuns welcome back a mere two defensive starters in 2012, and this to a unit that ranked No. 84 in scoring, No. 46 against the run and No. 100 (yikes!) against the pass.


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    The Thundering Herd went 7-6 in 2011, including a win over FIU in the St. Petersburg Bowl, but they’ll have their work cut out for them to see a repeat performance in 2012.

    Marshall returns a mere 12 starters this season, which ties it for the No. 96 slot in the land and No. 8 in C-USA.

Southern Miss

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    After blazing to a 12-2 finish that included their first full-blown conference title since 2003, the Golden Eagles' new head man, Ellis Johnson, will have some restocking to do in 2012.

    Southern Miss returns 12 starters this season, which are spread reasonably on each side of the ball (six on offense and five on defense). But it will be without QB Austin Davis, who has moved on to the NFL ranks.


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    After leading the Mustangs to three consecutive bowl games for the first time since SMU suffered the death penalty in the early '80s, June Jones will have his work cut out for him to get to No. 4.

    SMU returns 12 total starters in 2012 and only three (not including QB J.J. McDermott) to an offense that ranked No. 24 nationally in passing yards.

    The good news is that the Mustangs bring back seven to a defensive unit that ranked No. 40 in scoring.

San Diego State

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    By virtue of returning six starters to each side of the ball in 2012 from a team that went 8-5 last season, the Aztecs are in better shape than some of the other teams on our list.

    Still, gone for SDSU are the two-punch offensive combination of QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Hillman, who both made it to the NFL ranks.


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    Nevada’s maiden voyage in the Mountain West conference will be done with six returning starters on offense and six on D from a team that went 7-6 in 2011.

    The good news is that QB Cody Fajardo is back (who accounted for almost 40 percent of the Wolf Pack’s offensive yards in 2011), but the bad news is the team’s No. 1 rusher, Lampford Mark, is gone.

    This all becomes a bigger deal when you remember that Nevada was the No. 8 rushing team in the land last season.


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    First-year head coach Norm Chow will have a tough job ahead of him, with only 12 guys back from the 2011 Hawaii product that dropped to 6-7.

    The biggest hits include the loss of QB Bryant Moniz, who led an offense that ranked No. 12 in passing yards and only No. 113 in rushing yards. Also, the Warrior D returns only four starters to a unit that ranked No. 80 in scoring.


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    Rich Rodriguez may have one of the steeper slopes to climb of any first-year head man in the nation in 2012.

    Rodriguez and Arizona return a mere 12 starters to a team that struggled to a 4-8 finish. This is a number that ties the Wildcats for No. 96 nationally and No. 10 in the Pac-12.

    Only five guys are back from a defensive unit that ranked an ugly No. 107 in scoring, and only six guys come back on offense.

    What’s most disturbing is the loss of QB Nick Foles, who led Arizona to an unbalanced offensive attack to the tune of a No. 3 ranking in passing yards and a No. 114 rating in rushing yards.


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    Pat Fitzgerald’s valiant quest to achieve Northwestern’s first bowl victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl will be hamstrung by the fact he brings just 12 starters back from his 2011 team.

    Most notably, the Wildcats will be without the services of QB Dan Persa.

    All in all, they bring back just five guys to each side of the ball and then two special-teamers.


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    After dropping all the way to 7-6 in 2011 (their worst mark since going 6-6 in 2007), the Hawkeyes will have to try to tack on a few additional W’s, with only 12 starters back on campus from last year.

    Though QB James Vandenberg returns, gone is leading rusher Marcus Coker, who racked up 1,384 yards and 15 TDs last season.

    Defensively, Iowa brings back just five starters from a unit that ranked No. 46 in scoring, No. 62 against the run and No. 58 versus the pass.

Penn State

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    Though it’s pretty obvious that new Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien has a lot more than football to deal with, he’s still got a team to field, and he’s only got 12 starters returning from last season.

    The Nittany Lions rank No. 9 in the Big Ten in terms of experience, and they return only five guys to each side of the ball and two on special teams.

    What’s most concerning is the mere five defenders coming back to a unit that blistered opponents, allowing only 16.8 points per game (No. 5 in the nation).


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    After going 10-3 in 2011, the Bearcats return only 12 starters for their 2012 campaign. That earns them the dubious ranking of No. 7 in a Big East that currently has only seven football members.

    UC brings back only four offensive starters—a number that doesn’t include QB Zach Collaros or RB Isaiah Pead, who combined for over 60 percent of the Bearcats' total yards in 2011.

    Cincinnati brings back six defenders to a unit that dazzled in every way, with the exception of pass defense (No. 2 in scoring, No. 6 against the run and No. 99 versus the pass).

Wake Forest

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    After improving from 3-9 in 2010 to a 6-7 finish in 2011, including a bowl bid, Wake Forest brings back 12 starters in 2012.

    Though the Demon Deacons bring back seven defensive starters to a unit that performed reasonably well, only three starters come back on offense.

    The good news is that the young QB Tanner Price is back on campus, which is a significant factor for a team that ranked No. 39 in passing yards in 2011 and only No. 99 in rushing.

Miami (Fla.)

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    Adding to Al Golden’s rebuilding woes at Miami is the fact that he brings back just 12 starters in 2012—a number that ties it for No. 10 in the ACC.

    Though the Hurricanes will welcome back six defensive starters to a unit that allowed only 20.1 points per game (No. 18 nationally), only four are back on an offense that sputtered to a No. 63 ranking in scoring.

San Jose State

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    After going just 1-12 in his first season at the helm in 2010, Mike MacIntyre led the Spartans to a 5-7 finish in 2011, including back-to-back wins over Navy and Fresno State to close out the season.

    SJSU returns a mere 11 starters in 2012, which ties it for the dubious ranking of No. 111 nationally.

    Six guys are back from an offense that ranked No. 79 nationally in scoring, and only four return from a defensive unit that ranked No. 85 in points against.


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    After winning a whopping 10 games in coach David Baliff’s second season on campus back in 2008, Rice has won just 10 games combined over the past three years.

    For 2012, the Owls will try and right the ship with only 11 returning starters from their 4-8 product in 2011. Five players come back on each side of the ball, and only one player returns from the special teams unit.


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    Last season’s OC at Arkansas, Garrick McGee, will have a difficult task for him in 2012. The first-year UAB head coach takes over a team that went 3-9 in 2011 and returns just 11 starters.

    Six are back from the offense, which ranked No. 108 in scoring. Only four come back from a defense that ranked No. 110 in points against.

    The last time that the Blazers won more than five games was in 2004, when they went 7-5. This makes you think that if McGee can win in Birmingham, then he’s destined to become the next hot coaching commodity in college football.


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    The bad news for Golden Bear enthusiasts is that Cal returns just 11 starters in 2012 (tied for No. 111 nationally and No. 11 in the Pac-12). But the good news is that they’ve recruited really, really well.

    Yes, only six starters are back offensively (including QB Zach Maynard) and only five are back on the defense, but Cal has some serious firepower to fill their holes.

    The group that is technically Cal’s senior class in 2012 was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 42 class back in 2009. And watch out, because the next two groups were ranked No. 11 (2010) and No. 17 (2011) when signed.

    Golden Bear fans ought to see the start of something special in 2012, which could turn into something wonderful in 2013.


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    After turning a huge corner in his second season Charlottesville, coach Mike London will bring back only 11 starters in 2012 from a team that played to a promising 8-5 mark in 2011.

    Though six starters—including QB Michael Rocco—are back on campus, gone are all but five starting members of a defense that held opponents to 23.8 points per game.

    The Cavaliers are another team that has some top-25 recruiting classes locked and loaded. So, while 2012 might not exceed 2011, good things are on the horizon for Virginia football.

New Mexico State

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    New Mexico State has struggled to put a winning program together for a decade.

    The last time the Aggies fielded a winner was back in 2002 when they went 7-5 under coach Tony Samuel.

    For 2012, New Mexico State will return a mere 10 starters in total. That includes five players to an offense that ranked No. 79 nationally in scoring, only three from a defense that struggled to a No. 110 finish in points against and two on special teams.

Arkansas State

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    After charging to their best finish last season (10-3) since joining Division 1-A (now the FBS) in 1992, Arkansas State returns a paltry 10 starters in 2012.

    The Red Wolves return six starters on offense, but what is really alarming is that only three players return to a defense that was spectacular last season.

    Arkansas State’s 2011 defense earned a No. 25 national ranking in scoring, a No. 13 ranking against the run and then was No. 69 versus the pass.

    Gone, too, is one-year wonder coach Hugh Freeze, who took the Ole Miss job replacing Houston Nutt.

Arizona State

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    Todd Graham’s first season at Arizona State might be somewhat underwhelming due to the fact that the Sun Devils return only 10 starters in 2012.

    Arizona State went just 6-7 last season, in a year where experience was aplenty and expectations were high. Now it welcomes back a mere four starters to each side of the ball.

    Among the losses is QB Brock Osweiler, who led an unbalanced offensive attack that finished the year ranked No. 10 in passing yards and No. 85 in rushing.

    Fear the fork…in 2013.


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    After winning back-to-back Big Ten titles and walking away with a win in the first-ever Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin may struggle to repeat due to a huge rebuilding project.

    Yes, RB Montee Ball is back on campus, but gone are all but four offensive and six defensive starters from the 11-3 Rose Bowl team of a year ago.

    The Badgers' woes are compounded by the fact that they doesn’t recruit at the same level as Ohio State and Michigan. But still, you have to give them the nod for taking care of business anyway.


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    Toledo’s glorious 9-4 run in 2011 must be viewed in the light of its four losses.

    The Rockets dropped two of their four defeats to BCS teams (Ohio State and Syracuse, both bizarre losses), and the others were to very talented Boise State (12-1) and Northern Illinois (11-3) teams.

    For 2012, gone are coach Tim Beckman and all but nine starters: four on offense, four on defense and one special-teamer.

    This gives the Rockets the unsavory rank of No. 120 (out of 123) nationally and No. 13 in the MAC.


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    After enjoying three consecutive seasons with eight-plus wins, Temple may take a step backwards in 2012 by virtue of returning only nine starters.

    The Owls suffer a bit of a combination punch in terms of personnel losses.

    They return a mere five starters to a defense that was stifling enough to earn a No. 3 ranking nationally, scoring allowing only 13.9 points per game.

    On the other side of the ball, Temple returns a paltry two starters on offense. Among the legion of leavers is RB Bernard Pierce, who was the No. 1 back on a squad that ranked No. 7 nationally in rushing yards and only No. 116 in passing yards.

Air Force

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    The Falcons will come into their 2012 campaign under the very real cloud of returning the second-fewest starters in the FBS.

    Air Force returns a mere seven starters from their somewhat disappointing 7-6 2011 product. That includes a measly three guys on each side of the ball and one on special teams.

    Notably, gone from the squadron are both QB Tim Jefferson Jr. and RB Asher Clark, who combined to account for a whopping 46 percent of the Falcons' offensive yard production in 2011.

Boise State

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    Boise State hasn’t dropped out of the double-digit-win range since 2005, and it hasn't suffered a losing season since it went 5-6 in 1997 under Houston Nutt.

    The 2012 season represents risky business for the Broncos, who must find a way to keep the streaks alive, with only six returning starters. That number earns the Blue Turfers the No. 123, or last place, slot nationally.

    Yes, the eternally youthful QB Kellen Moore has left the building, but so too have all but three starters on offense, two on defense and one on special teams.

    Especially given the fact that they don’t recruit like a top dog, the 2012 Boise State squad may be the best example this year of a team that underperforms not because it is bad, but because it is really, really young.