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May 24, 2010

Teams walk fine line between winning, losing

The fates of Iowa and Maryland couldn't have been more different in 2009.

The Hawkeyes won 11 games and landed in the Orange Bowl. The Terrapins were 2-10, with one of the wins over FCS member James Madison in overtime, at home. (The other was over ACC Atlantic champion Clemson. Go figure.)

In 2008, though, both played numerous close games. That season, Iowa lost four games by a total of 12 points and Maryland won six one-possession games. Last season, then, was a reversal of fortune for each program from '08.

Each offseason, Rivals.com examines the teams that lived on the edge the previous season. In some cases, the close calls indicate a quality team that caught some bad breaks; can those teams poised to learn from their experiences and turn it around this fall?

In other cases, the close calls indicate a team that had a lot of luck. A drop-off in returning starters or a more challenging schedule could lead these teams to a precipitous fall.

Here are our picks of living-on-the-edge teams in each conference who are about to take flight or take a fall.

Luck is turning: Maryland (2-10 last season)
The Terps have alternated between winning and losing seasons each year since 2005. In the last five games of '09, Maryland at least put a scare into its ACC foes; four of its last five games were decided by seven or fewer points. The last two losses came by three at Florida State and by two to Boston College. Despite its embarrassing record, Maryland has good talent at running back and linebacker.

Luck is running out: Georgia Tech (11-3)
ACC Coastal rivals Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Miami appear to be on the rise. That could hurt the Yellow Jackets, who are the defending conference champion. The Yellow Jackets went 5-1 last season in games decided by less than a touchdown. The offense could become even more one-dimensional without wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and 1,000-yard rusher Jonathan Dwyer also is gone. The defense must replace defensive end Derrick Morgan, a first-round draft pick, and strong safety Morgan Burnett.

Big 12
Luck is turning: Oklahoma (8-5)
The Sooners suffered through a thoroughly unlucky season. Defending Heisman winner Sam Bradford was lost to injury during the season, and All-America tight end Jermaine Gresham was lost for the season before the first game. There also were injury problems in the offensive line. With redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones pressed into duty, the Sooners lost four games by seven or fewer points, including two by one point (BYU and Miami). Three Oklahoma players went in the top four of the NFL draft, but the talent pool at OU rarely is dry.

Luck is running out: Oklahoma State (9-4)
Three-year starting quarterback Zac Robinson is gone. So is star offensive tackle Russell Okung. Even with those two (plus wide receiver Dez Bryant for a time), the Cowboys couldn't crack Oklahoma's and Texas' hold on the Big 12 South. In 2009, Oklahoma State won three conference games by a touchdown or less before losing its last two games by a combined 48-7. The 2010 season shouldn't be that bad, but Cowboys fans shouldn't expect another nine-win season, either.

Big East
Luck is turning: Connecticut (8-5)
The Huskies' five losses came by a combined 15 points, including three consecutive losses immediately after the killing of cornerback Jasper Howard. The Huskies regrouped by winning their final four games, including a dominating 20-7 victory over South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl. After ranking a surprisingly low sixth in the Big East in total defense, the Huskies should finish in the top half of the conference in that category this season. UConn also saw encouraging signs out of a passing game that ranked second in the league last season.

Luck is running out: Cincinnati (12-1)
The Bearcats went 5-0 in one-score games in 2008, but instead of falling back into the pack, they followed that up by going 12-1 last season. Maybe we'll get it right this season. The Bearcats went 4-0 in games decided by eight or fewer points last season. Three of those games came in November: at home against West Virginia and Connecticut and at Pittsburgh. Cincinnati's defense can't be as bad as it was last season, but the flipside is that the offense is not going to be as good as last season's unit, which averaged 38.6 points per game.

Big Ten
Luck is turning: Michigan State (6-7)
Each of the Spartans' first five losses came by eight or fewer points, and four of those were decided in the game's final minutes. Talk about bad breaks: Central Michigan used an onside kick to beat Michigan State, Notre Dame intercepted a pass in the end zone and Minnesota needed a replay review to turn a lost fumble into an incomplete pass. Michigan State played out of character last season, with a porous pass defense and a pass-oriented offense. That can't happen again, can it?

Luck is running out: Northwestern (8-5)
The Wildcats' luck may have started running out in last season's Outback Bowl; the Wildcats amassed 621 yards (532 passing) against Auburn but still lost in overtime. Six of the Wildcats' wins came by seven or fewer points, including each of the last three.

Conference USA
Luck is turning: Tulsa (5-7)
After winning double-digit games in 2007 and '08 and at least eight games every season since 2005, the Golden Hurricane stumbled to a 5-7 mark last season, including a six-game losing streak. Three losses during that streak came by seven or fewer points. Tulsa lost to Boise State 28-21 but had a chance to tie the score late in the fourth quarter. The Golden Hurricane also went toe to toe with Houston in a shootout before losing 46-45 on a field goal as time expired.

Luck is running out: East Carolina (9-5)
Five of East Carolina's wins came by fewer than seven points on the way to a Conference USA title. The Pirates couldn't catch a break in the Liberty Bowl against Arkansas, though, missing four of five field-goal attempts. Only two starters return to what was the league's best defense last season and there's also a new coach, a new quarterback and a new feature back.

Luck is turning: Northern Illinois (7-6)
The Huskies lost four games by eight or fewer points, including games to bowl-bound Wisconsin, Idaho and Ohio. The narrow wins over hapless Miami (Ohio) and Ball State are a concern, but most of Northern Illinois' best players last season were sophomore and juniors. The Huskies improved from two wins in 2007 to six in '08 to seven last season, and further improvement can be expected this season.

Luck is running out: Ohio (9-5)
The Bobcats won the MAC East thanks to their performance in tight games. Three teams were separated by one game at the top of the division and Ohio finished the season with five wins decided by seven or fewer points; three of those came against mediocre-or-worse teams North Texas, Ball State and Buffalo.

Mountain West
Luck is turning: Air Force (8-5)
No one played TCU closer last season before Boise State beat the Horned Frogs in the Fiesta Bowl. Four of Air Force's losses came by seven or fewer points, including overtime losses on the road to Navy and Utah. Air Force does have to replace its starting offensive line, but the Falcons still have a solid chance to climb in the Mountain West standings.

Luck is running out: BYU (11-2)
Wyoming won more close games (six), but the Cowboys were a young team with a first-year coach. The Cowboys appear to be trending upward. BYU, on the other hand, could fall short of 10 wins for the first time since 2005. The Cougars need a new quarterback (Max Hall was a senior) and a new running back (Harvey Unga left school after he running afoul of the honor code). With those two in the backfield, BYU was 3-0 in games decided by five or fewer points.

Luck is turning: Washington (5-7)
After going from zero wins in 2008 to five wins in '09, Washington fans have every reason to believe a bowl bid is on the way in 2010. The Huskies lost four games by eight or fewer points last season, including three on the road. With 17 returning starters, led by quarterback Jake Locker, the Huskies appear poised to return to the postseason.

Luck is running out: USC (9-4)
The Trojans should be lauded for winning nine games with a true freshman quarterback last season, and four of those came by seven or fewer points. But USC may be vulnerable without Pete Carroll. There's talent all over the roster, but the team was full of five-star recruits last season, too. Now it's Lane Kiffin coaching them up rather than Carroll.

Luck is turning: Kentucky (7-6)
Naming anyone from Kentucky's roster is a bit of a challenge for the average fan, but the Wildcats should continue to be bowl contenders under new coach Joker Phillips. Each of the Wildcats' last four losses came by eight or fewer points after they lost starting quarterback Mike Hartline to injury. A stabilized quarterback situation and a schedule without Alabama, LSU or Arkansas could help Kentucky work its way up the SEC's bowl pecking order.

Luck is running out: LSU (9-4)
The Tigers caught the right breaks on the way to the 2007 national title, but they haven't been quite as fortunate in recent seasons. Some of that has been their own doing; for proof, just take a look at the disastrous final minutes of last season's 25-23 loss to Ole Miss. Still, LSU won five games decided by eight or fewer points last season. This season, there still is come concern about quarterback Jordan Jefferson, the running game lacks an established feature back, the offensive line remains in flux and there is no proven pass rusher. Hey, there's a reason Les Miles is feeling the heat.

Sun Belt
Luck is turning: North Texas (2-10)
North Texas won four consecutive Sun Belt titles earlier this century, but the Mean Green has fallen hard. But there is hope. North Texas lost six games by a touchdown or less, including four conference games. If the defense catches up to the offense, North Texas could at least return to respectability.

Luck is running out: Louisiana-Lafayette (6-6)
The Ragin' Cajuns can't seem to get over the 6-6 hump. At least in 2009, Louisiana-Lafayette could count itself thankful to finish .500. The Ragin' Cajuns beat the two worst teams in the league, North Texas and Western Kentucky, in one-score games.

Western Athletic
Luck is turning: Louisiana Tech (4-8)
Last season was expected to be a breakout for Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs fell short on the road. The Bulldogs lost three road conference games by one or two points (Utah State, Idaho and Fresno State) and lost by eight at LSU. With a returning starter at quarterback and a legitimate big-play threat in Phillip Livas, Louisiana Tech should finish better than 91st in the country in pass offense. With Mike Leach disciple Sonny Dykes in charge, it won't be for a lack of trying.

Luck is running out: Idaho (8-5)
The Vandals were a major surprise last season after winning eight games and the Humanitarian Bowl. But four of Idaho's wins came by four points or fewer. Later in the season, Idaho returned to earth by losing by wide margins to Nevada and Boise State. Quarterback Nathan Enderle and safety Shiloh Keo are back, but programs like this don't replace first-round draft picks (guard Mike Iupati) easily.

Luck is turning: Notre Dame (6-6)
The Irish played only two games decided by more than seven points (wins over Nevada and Washington State). Losing quarterback Jimmy Clausen is a major hit, but the schedule does get significantly easier. And as we noted earlier, new coach Brian Kelly had a tendency to win the close ones the past two seasons at Cincinnati.

Luck is running out: Army (5-7)
Army won five times last season, but look at who the Black Knights beat: Eastern Michigan (0-12), Ball State (2-10), Vanderbilt (2-10), VMI (2-9 in the FCS) and North Texas (2-10). Plus, each of those wins except the one over Eastern Michigan came by seven or fewer points.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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