After we’ve seen a non-AQ school bust into the BCS each of the past four seasons — six, if you count independent powerhouse Notre Dame as outside the BCS structure… which I’m not about to do, seeing as how they have their own sweetheart qualification deal with the power brokers of the sport — it stands that we have likely reached the horizon where we’re going to see a BCS Buster every January.
But who is going to break through in 2010? The past few years have been the age of the Mountain West… and after this year it should become even more so, as the top team on this year’s preseason rankings moves from the WAC over to what has become the preeminent non-AQ conference in the country. Of course, that could be a net gain, as another top-five team in this rankings graduates to BCS status with conference expansion. So the time is now, for both the WAC and MWC to see if they can generate some magic yet again. And the other three younger siblings to the BCS conglomerate — the MAC, Conference USA and the Sun Belt — hope that this might just be their year to finally land a team onto the shortlist for headliner status on the biggest stage in the sport. Be sure to tune in after every game-day Saturday during the season as I break down the current state of affairs with the BCS Buster Power Rankings every Sunday.
1. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (WAC — LAST SEASON: 14-0)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 11 OFF/10 DEF/2 ST
- FIRST GAME: Sept. 6 (Virginia Tech @ Landover, MD)
Chris Petersen’s veteran-laden team plays out the school’s last season as a member of the WAC before moving on to the Mountain West in 2011, and with the Broncos having earned enough respect on a national level after two Fiesta Bowl victories in the past four seasons (including their January 2007 overtime thriller over Oklahoma) to begin 2010 in the top five of the coach’s poll they have the chance to do what no other BCS Buster has done: go all the way to the national title game.
They’re starting the season ranked fifth in the USA Today coach’s poll, one-third of the BCS formula and an apt measuring stick for the kind of preseason respect they are finally receiving from the national press. That position will be tested immediately as they head to less-than-entirely-neutral FedEx Field in Landover, MD, home of the Washington Redskins and just across the border from the Hokies’ native Virginia. (Virginia Tech will travel 275 miles to the game; Boise State’s cross-continent journey takes them 2383 miles from home.) If they can win this game, there’s no telling how far this team can go. A top-two spot in the final BCS standings, for the first time ever for BCS Busters, is actually an attainable goal this season.
Of course, it helps having all eleven starters from the top-scoring offense in the country last season. There will be no learning curve for QB Kellen Moore this year, one of the handful of trendy preseason projections as the next Heisman Trophy winner — all he has to do is sit back with a familiar cast and do what he does best, which is win games. Only CB Kyle Wilson is departed for the NFL, ten of eleven back on a defense that was the #14 unit in the nation last season. Look for Boise State to be right there in the hunt at the end of the year, as they enter 2010 with the most stacked returning roster of any team regardless their conference affiliation…
2. TCU HORNED FROGS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 12-1)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 9 OFF/7 DEF/2 ST
- FIRST GAME: Sept. 4 (v. Oregon State @ Arlington, TX)
The Horned Frogs would be right where Boise State is this year if it weren’t for their loss head-to-head in the Fiesta Bowl to kick off their 2010. After missing a qualifying opportunity in 2005 (they would’ve fallen within the new parameters for non-AQ teams instituted the following season) TCU finally got its opportunity to play in a BCS bowl game for the first time in the modern era… and were rewarded with fellow undefeated BCS Buster Boise State for their troubles. A rematch of the previous year’s Poinsettia Bowl, the rematch on the bigger stage went the Broncos’ way this time.
But despite the loss to end the 2009-10 season, Gary Patterson’s team returns eighteen of its 24 starters from the defending Mountain West champions, with the offense losing just starting RB Joseph Turner and LT Marshall Newhouse. The defense will have to replace disruptive DE Jerry Hughes, dangerous LB Daryl Washington and its cornerback tandem of Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders. The top-ranked defense of 2009 shouldn’t drop off too much, though, with a veteran presence remaining all throughout that side of the ball — rarely does TCU rank outside the top five in most every defensive category, and 2010 should be no exception. The Horned Frogs will be led by a deceptively-good offense as well, with QB Andy Dalton returning for his senior season and itching to return to the BCS to gain his team’s redemption.
Falling just two positions lower in the standings than the Broncos, TCU is in prime position to step into the pole position for BCS Busters with just one Boise State loss. The schedule does them no favors again this year, with Oregon State traveling to the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX for the neutral-site opener on September 4. And the Mountain West gauntlet offers little respite, more and more depth (five bowl teams in 2009-10, 4-1 record) serving to challenge at a level not unlike a Big East or Big XII or ACC. If the Horned Frogs run the table again, we might just see another two-Buster season for the second straight year…
3. HOUSTON COUGARS (C-USA — LAST SEASON: 10-4)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 9 OFF/7 DEF/1 ST
- FIRST GAME: Sept. 4 (v. FCS Texas State)
The Cougars showed great promise last season of becoming the first BCS Buster outside of the MWC and WAC when they beat Big XII opponents Oklahoma State (then ranked #5 nationally) and Texas Tech in back-to-back September games to go to 3-0 and vault to poll recognition. But then October rolled around and Kevin Sumlin’s crew blew their first game of the new month when they began C-USA play with a loss to lowly UTEP. They would ultimately not even win the conference, beaten by Skip Holtz’s East Carolina Pirates in the championship game, and were done in by Air Force on New Year’s Eve in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish the year with two straight losses heading into 2010.
The nation’s best offense in 2009 returns largely intact, led once again by high-flying QB Case Keenum. Keenum, who last year led all players nationally in yards generated per game (416 yards/game) and was sixth in passing efficiency, returns for his senior season hoping to shake out the mistakes that have seen him blow some big games (3 INT in C-USA Championship, 6 INT in Armed Forces Bowl) and demolish his own late-season stats. The defense was the biggest Achilles heel last season, but should stand to get at least mediocre given two important factors. First, seven true freshman played significant time last year; the experience gained at the collegiate level should allow them to be more productive in their second season at this step in their careers. Second, the arrival of former NFL defensive coordinator Brian Stewart — and his desire to switch this defense over to a 3-4 — should serve to bolster their chance at stopping opponents.
Their record gets a little bit easier this year, but they’ve maintained a non-conference schedule loaded with BCS conference schools. Houston travels to Los Angeles the third weekend of the season to face Pac-10 host UCLA; they host SEC opponent Mississippi State, who they knocked off in Starkville last season; and they close their 2010 regular season with a trip to Lubbock to take on the Red Raiders of Texas Tech in their first year with Tommy Tuberville at the helm. If they can negotiate their C-USA schedule with fewer missteps than in 2009, Houston might just be busting through as the first non-MWC and non-WAC team to reach a BCS appointment…
4. NAVY MIDSHIPMEN (INDEP. — LAST SEASON: 10-4)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 8 OFF/5 DEF/2 ST
- FIRST GAME: Sept. 6 (v. Maryland @ Baltimore, MD)
Last year the Midshipmen took the college football world by storm with just the third ten-win season in the Naval Academy’s long history of football tradition. The Middies haven’t missed a step, with head coach Ken Niumatalolo picking up right where Paul Johnson left off when the latter took the job at Georgia Tech. Navy narrowly lost at Ohio State by just two points in their 2009 opener, lost at Pittsburgh, and sustained its only home loss of the season against MAC contender Temple. An improbable loss at Hawaii prevented Navy from earning the first-ever 11-win season in school history, but the school has a lot of upside looking ahead into 2010.
QB Ricky Dobbs returns yet again, the perfect compliment to the team’s clock-chewing option attack (tied with Wisconsin for most time of possession per game in 2009). Dobbs, the 6’1″, 198-pound junior who got his first taste of starting action last year and proceeded to lead the team in both passing and rushing (compiling over 1000 yards in both categories), has seven of his fellow starters from last season back on offense and could conceivably, with the right combination of results, become the first Navy team to play in one of the current BCS bowl games since the 1960 team faced the Missouri Tigers with the national title on the line in the Orange Bowl. The defense has to replace six starters, but the five they have coming back — including DE Jabaree Tuani and SS Wyatt Middleton — should help the Midshipmen maintain its fearsome defense as long as the replacements at linebacker (which does include a guy who, while not a starter, was the 3rd leading tackler on the team in Tyler Simmons) manage to make the plays the scheme calls upon them to come up with.
The schedule isn’t the most fearsome it possibly could be; there is no one marquee matchup the level of either Ohio State or Pittsburgh this season. Their neutral-site opener against Maryland should be a walkover for Navy, a chance for Dobbs and crew to flex their offensive muscle and the defense to warm up to full speed with the new parts. In fact Navy should be 6-0 when they square off against Notre Dame in the new stadium erected at the New Meadowlands Stadium on October 23 — their contest against Air Force in Colorado Springs could be a stumbling block, as could their home date against SMU, but both should be manageable after the first quarter of the season has given Niumatalolo’s team time to get its feet under themselves. Another win against the new-look Irish and more consistent play in 2010 against lesser opponents could just send these Midshipmen to a warm-weather destination for a date with BCS destiny…
5. UTAH UTES (MWC — LAST SEASON: 10-3)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 7 OFF/4 DEF/2 ST
- FIRST GAME: Sept. 2 (v. Pittsburgh)
In a rematch of the original BCS Buster, Utah has a chance to show their win in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl over the Pitt Panthers was no fluke. Of course, since that game, they’ve seen one head coach leave to win two national championships at Florida, returned to the BCS with their current head coach (stunning vanquished SEC Championship contestant Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl in the process) and now have earned so much respect that next year they’ll no longer even be a challenger to bust the BCS thanks to their invitation to join the Pac-10. So after a ten-win season in 2009 achieved despite losing some core players from their Sugar Bowl team and retooling with youth, the Utes return for their last Mountain West season aiming to go out with a bang before their time as an outsider runs out.
The Utes should have a much better offense now that they’ve settled on Jordan Wynn as their starter. Last year he and Terrance Cain fought it out to replace Brian Johnson as the new Utah quarterback; after Cain faltered in their November contest at home against Wyoming, Wynn came into the game and lead the Utes to the comeback victory. Since that point he never looked back and grabbed hold of the starting job. His only losses from a 5-2 record as the offense’s leader were at TCU and at BYU, and with six teammates returning from last year’s first-string offense Wynn should be able to settle in for his first full season comfortably. The defense, however, must find replacements at seven positions from a unit that was amongst the top 25 in college football last year. As long as the offensive gains outpace the inevitable statistical backslide on defense, this team should be right there in the hunt for another BCS Buster appearance that would further validate their call up to the big league on the Pacific coast…
6. BYU COUGARS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 11-2)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 7 OFF/4 DEF/2 ST
- FIRST GAME: Sept. 4 (v. Washington)
The Cougars have the same number of starters returning on both sides of the ball as do their in-state rival to the north from a team that won last year’s Holy War and finished a spot higher in the Mountain West standings. So why are they sitting a spot behind the Utes?
It all comes down to the biggest loss of them all. After three-year starting QB Max Hall graduated this past spring, it left a huge void in Bronco Mendenhall’s backfield that he hopes will be sufficiently filled by the highly-touted prep star Jake Heaps. Hall, last year the #4 most efficient quarterback in all of college football, was the inspirational leader of this team. They’re going to miss the way he got the team fired up for the biggest games, especially quotations like this:
“They didn’t deserve it. It was our turn, and our turn to win. We deserved it. We played as hard as we could tonight. And it felt really good, again, to send them home, to get them out of here, and so it is a game I will always remember. I think the whole university, their fans and their organization is classless. They threw beer on my family and stuff last year, and they did a whole bunch of nasty things, and I don’t respect them, and they deserved to lose.”
Heaps should be able to adjust in time, and unlike Wynn up at Utah last year he’s got no competition to start the season. Worse, though, is the fact that their top 30 defense returns just four players. Just like Utah, it is imperative that they get the defense under control as soon as possible. The #5 and #6 teams could easily flip spots, but conventional wisdom says the Utes will have the upper hand this year when they host the Holy War at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City…