Top 10 off-season storylines in the non-AQs

Bill Blankenship and Kevin Sumlin
We’ve already given you the biggest off-season storylines in the Pac-12, ACC, Big XII, Big Ten, SEC and Big East. Our look around the country concludes with the non-AQs.

(We’re including the independents in that group for expediency’s sake.)

10. Tulsa retools.

By just about any measure, Bill Blankenship’s first season at the helm of the Golden Hurricane should be considered a success. TU’s five losses: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Houston and BYU. That’s not bad.

Blankenship has a tougher task ahead of him now. A year ago, he was returning 18 starters, including star quarterback G.J. Kinne. This spring, he’s looking to replace Kinne along with three starters on the offensive line and four defensive starters.

9. Navy looks to right the ship.

Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist the awful pun. Done in by a six-game losing streak at mid-season, the Midshipmen failed to reach a bowl game last season for the first time since 2002.

An inexperienced defensive unit that returned just three starters struggled all year as Navy allowed 6.1 yards per play (99th nationally), up from 5.7 a year earlier. Meanwhile, following the graduation of triple-option maestro Ricky Dobbs, the Middies just couldn’t replicate their previous level of offensive production. Navy saw its offensive yards per play fall from 6.2 in 2010 to 5.8.

The D brings back five senior starters and should benefit from the growing pains of a year ago. On the other side of the ball, rising junior Trey Miller looks poised to step in at quarterback after playing back-up to Kriss Proctor last fall. A major key in the off-season will be getting an offensive line that only returns one starter up to speed.

Tim DeRuyter8. Fresno State starts a new era.

The Bulldogs finally bid longtime head coach Pat Hill adieu at the end of the 2011 season, his 15th in the San Joaquin Valley. Hill’s “anytime, anywhere” philosophy lost its novelty around the time Reggie Bush snuffed out Fresno’s monumental upset bid in 2005, and its fair to say whatever rep Fresno once had was dead as well.

Tim DeRuyter’s stock on the coaching circuit dropped a bit after his D at Texas A&M put together a lackluster showing in ’11. He did still manage to nab this gig, however, and will try to implement his funky 3-4 base defense between now and the fall.

7. Hattiesburg needs a new Fedora.

Spread offense guru Larry Fedora took Southern Miss to the top of Conference USA before skipping town in December to try and clean up the agent-induced mess at North Carolina.

Enter Ellis Johnson, a Steve Spurrier disciple who last coordinated the Ol’ Ball Coach’s defense at South Carolina. Johnson, 60, is a grinder whose experience as a head coach consists of a season at Gardner Webb in the early 1980s and and three years at The Citadel from 2001 to 2003.

Did Fedora max the Golden Eagles out? It’s on Johnson to keep the ball rolling.

6. Um, awk-ward at SMU.

Remember that whole thing about June Jones taking the Arizona State job and then somehow not getting it? Yeah, he’d probably prefer you just as soon forget about it.

It’s a fact of life in college football that successful coaches will look to upgrade, so the fact that Jones interviewed with the Sun Devils really isn’t a huge deal. Of course, for all intents and purposes, Jones had accepted the job. He remains head coach at SMU by no choice of his own.

That’s going to make for a weird vibe around the Ponies this spring.

5. Is that the Gus Malzahn?

Arkansas State got the blue light special when Hugh Freeze’s departure for Ole Miss opened the door for Malzahn to take over as head coach. Not to mention, he took a pay cut for the opportunity to coach a Sun Belt squad.

This has the makings of a nice marriage of convenience for ASU and Malzahn, a situation in which the coach can show his stuff at the lower level until a high-profile suitor comes along to snatch him up. With eyes on a bigger gig, you can count on the offensive innovator to hit the ground running to minimize his time spent toiling outside the limelight.

4. All Riley Nelson, all the time.

Did you know the BYU Cougars won 10 games last year? Shocked the hell out of me, too.

Brigham Young’s season took a dramatic turn for the better when coach Bronco Mendenhall benched touted QB recruit Jake Heaps in favor of journeyman Riley Nelson, a Utah State transfer. In addition to coming off the bench early in the season to lead BYU to a win over his former school, Nelson ran up a 6-1 record as a starter and piloted the Cougars to a win over the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.

If there was any doubt Nelson has a stranglehold behind center, Heaps has left for the Sunflower State and the ample bosom of Charlie Weis. Given how Nelson carried BYU late in the season, the coaching staff has to be giddy at the prospect of having a full season with him.

3. An era ends in Houston.

The bright lights of College Station seduced Kevin Sumlin. After nine years on campus, prolific passer Case Keenum finally exhausted his eligibility. Dangerous wide receiver Patrick Edwards is gone, too.

You’d barely recognize the Houston Cougars these days.

New coach Tony Levine made a nice little statement in his first game, a 30-14 whipping of Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. Now, however, the UH faithful, assuming they exist, are counting on him to pick up where Art Briles and Sumlin left off.

Don’t look for the Cougs to stray too much from the Air Raid offense that took them to prominence. Best of luck to the new regime in producing the same way, though.

2. What does Brian Kelly do to unwind?

We saw it time and again in 2011. A Notre Dame QB would commit a back-breaking boner. Fightin’ Irish head honcho Brian Kelly would lose his shit. A new QB would take over. And the cycle would begin anew.

Thanks to some spotty play behind center, the Domers didn’t quite live up to expectations last season. It clearly took a toll on the hot-tempered Kelly, who was good for about one meltdown per game.

ND has as much work to do as anyone this off-season. For Kelly’s sake, though, he just needs to work on chilling out.

Kellen Moore
1. Boise State: Rebuild or reload?

Fifty wins and three losses.

Knock them for their level competition, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Boise State Broncos put together a run for the ages over the last four years.

Now, the entire roster has almost been gutted by departures. A mere six starters from the 2011 team return in 2012, fewest in the country.

Chris Petersen built his rep as one of the best coaches in college football on the backs of all those guys who’ve now gone their separate ways. The next chapter in his legacy as a coach starts now.