All the Broncos can do now is weep their way back to Boise from the Biggest Little City in the World. Just like all their fellow preseason BCS Buster hopefuls, a loss has brought Chris Petersen’s team back to earth. We now know, with one weekend remaining in the regular season, that only TCU remains in the hunt for the lucrative non-AQ spot in the Rose Bowl. And should Oregon or Auburn falter in their final showdowns next weekend, in the Civil War and SEC Championship respectively, the Horned Frogs may well make their way not to Pasadena but a little closer to home for the BCS National Championship game in Glendale, Arizona.
It will now take a long shot for the Broncos (or their conquerors, the gutsy Nevada team that prevailed Friday night in overtime in Reno) to reach a BCS berth despite the fact that one or both could finish alongside TCU in the top twelve of the BCS standings. For in the landscape that currently prevails, a solitary loss is enough to fell even the mightiest of contenders from the “Little Sisters of the Poor” conferences.
But let’s think, before we give one final look at where the fallen BCS Buster hopefuls stand currently in the pecking order, about those words from Ohio State president Gordon Gee. Enough has been said about his absurd, damning and ultimately counterproductive statements. But let’s just focus on those five words for a moment. If teams like Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii in the WAC; TCU and Utah (for one last bowl game) and Air Force and San Diego State in the Mountain West; or even Central Florida or Northern Illinois out east… well, if they’re the Little Sisters of the Poor, it is solely because of the system put in place by Big Brother to keep them in their poverty-stricken lockstep in the college football pecking order.
Teams from coast to coast from the BCS conferences are all too happy to schedule the “Little Sisters of the Poor” for their own non-conference games. What do you think it really is other than a blatant easy win grab when, say, 1-11 San Jose State is scheduled by Wisconsin and Alabama, or 4-7 Utah State gets scheduled by Oklahoma, or 3-9 Wyoming plays Texas, or 1-11 New Mexico gets waxed by Oregon and Texas Tech — and all except the last on the BCS team’s home turf?! The problem with Gee’s argument is simply that the BCS conference teams can complain about the teams that get to undefeated records with fluff in their schedules yet turn around and schedule that fluff with a wave of a few dollars and without recrimination in their own ranking.
When a team can rise out of that pool of seeming mediocrity and string together a season of victories, rising above rivals for whom this date is their biggest game of the year week in and week out, enduring even but one blemish against an equally-potent foe regardless of conference affiliation, it should be cause for celebration — and that celebration is worthy of a stage bigger than Albuquerque or Boise or Shreveport. Hell, that’s where these teams get to play every week… not because they wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to play the big boys in a second, but because the big boys know a knock against these upstarts is an irreparable blemish on their season (Virginia Tech’s example notwithstanding).
But perception has changed. By this point of the season pollsters have a wide body of work to examine for all 120 FBS teams, and we’re seeing excellence outside the BCS conferences rewarded rightly in those polls. The Associated Press rates six non-AQ schools among its top 25 this weekend, highlighted by the WAC getting three schools in the polls this late in the year for the first time since 1994. Northern Illinois’ surging season has been rewarded as they get set to battle in the MAC title game. And the Mountain West, respected unlike any other non-AQ conference by the establishment, is highlighted by TCU but also counts the Utes amongst its schools in the top 25.
This holds true as well with the coaches poll, long a greater bastion of conservatism. Only Hawaii — who skirted in at #25 in the AP as it was — was missing from their list amongst the five BCS Buster schools who did make the cut. So in this penultimate ranking of BCS Busters (I’ll be doing a final season ranking following the bowls), let’s look beyond what is merely feasible to those seasons that deserve notice nationally with a comprehensive ranking of every bowl-eligible team before looking at where my predictions went horribly wrong from the preseason to now…
1. TCU HORNED FROGS (MWC/12-0)
2. NEVADA WOLF PACK (WAC/11-1)
3. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (WAC/10-1)
After Kyle Brotzman missed not one but two field goals from inside thirty yards to give Nevada the improbable come-from-behind home upset of the Broncos, I’m really surprised there hasn’t been much furor over a Nevada team who is undefeated in the continental United States (their only loss coming to 2007 BCS Buster Hawaii on the island) being completely glossed over as a potential BCS at-large candidate. When Nevada took that loss, I rued their obsolescence in the national picture and it bears echoing:
“Still, it’s a shame to see them take the fall. Nevada looked like the real deal in other games, as the above comparables show. Their defense was still shaky at times, but the prolific offense masked that with yard after gluttonous yard until confronted with a team that could unholster their pistol in a shootout faster than the team which popularized the Pistol. So while Hawaii plays a different style of football, we’re also left with the reality that the WAC is far better than the computers allow. With potentially five or even six teams bowling this year — Boise State, Hawaii, Nevada, Fresno State, Idaho, Louisiana Tech and/or Utah State all have a shot — this conference looks better than ever. It’s just a shame that they won’t exist as a viable entity following this year… so all that’s left for Nevada now is to spoil the going-away for Boise and taking the last WAC title in the league’s current form for itself.”
All the talk still centers around Boise State and the ramifications about what their loss means to the bid picture, but that picture now only numbers TCU amongst the non-AQ teams likely to earn a spot despite the fact that both Nevada and Boise State have earned spots here. Those are the shakes of the BCS, though, where one loss means you can be a top-five team… if you’re blessed enough to have earned a spot in one of the six major conferences when the shuffling went down a dozen years ago. Nevada, though, did at least bear down and earn that last prize that was within their grasp.
4. UTAH UTES (MWC/10-2)
Utah has fallen back to earth a bit from the past few seasons, but still can boast another ten-win effort for their rebuilding efforts. Their BCS dreams ended at home, when they were trounced by TCU. After that game, this is what I wrote:
“Adios, Utes, it was fun getting to take one last ride with you on the BCS Buster gauntlet. Sure, they couldn’t survive the onslaught that is TCU, but this is still one hell of a Utah team. While they found themselves absolutely obliterated by the Horned Frogs, this is still a top-ten school — and once they’re in the Pac-12 next year, 11-1 could easily be enough to get them in.
But that’s small consolation this year for a school that already had two BCS Busts to its name and was hoping for another. That’s the real next frontier for non-AQ schools — getting enough respect that one loss isn’t an automatic disqualifier. Utah, alas, won’t be around to fight the good fight anymore, looking out instead from the opposite side of the aisle. But fight on BCS Busters from across the nation will, until their opportunities are truly equal in one form or another…”
Of course, they then turned around and lost to a Notre Dame team that is the one school of 120 that exists in a shady have-it-both-ways zone where they get to remain independent yet still get their sweetheart deal with the BCS powers to get in any time they get relevant. Because they’re not there yet, Utah’s second loss was an absolute momentum killer. But the words about 11-1 schools ring just as true for Boise State and Nevada as they would’ve for Utah.
5. NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES (MAC/10-2)
After losing two of their first three games of the season on the road to Iowa State and Illinois, the Huskies have rolled off nine straight wins to play its way into the MAC championship game. It’s been an impressive season, and despite the fact that losing two of its three BCS opportunities this year (they won their second showdown against Big Ten competition at Minnesota) completely eliminated them from the Buster picture before their year could really get started the opportunity to play for a conference championship is usually the best that non-AQ schools can hope for before they suit up for the first game. Congrats to Northern Illinois for getting this far after it all played out and running off nine straight victories to end the regular season.
6. UCF GOLDEN KNIGHTS (C-USA/9-3)
7. HAWAII WARRIORS (WAC/9-3)
8. NAVY MIDSHIPMEN (IND/8-3)
I was high on the Middies before the season opened, rating their chances better than Nevada, Utah and all but three other teams to bust into the BCS this season. What was it I said?
“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 [Ricky] 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…”
Goes to show how much I know. Maryland won that opener 17-14 in Baltimore, and Navy just wasn’t the same. The Air Force game did prove a stumbling block, their second loss of the season. SMU was skirted by a touchdown, 28-21, and they polished off Notre Dame in New Jersey 35-17 in a display that showed why I was so high on this team when the season started. So what better way to follow up that season-defining victory… than with a loss at home to ACC bottom-feeder Duke. Sure, they’re 8-3, with the Army-Navy Game still to come and both teams bowl eligible for the first time in ages, but this feels like a season lost for the Middies.
9. TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE (C-USA/9-3)
10. SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS (MWC/8-4)
11. AIR FORCE FALCONS (MWC/8-4)
Week 3 was unkind to both San Diego State and Air Force, as they took on tough road tests against Big XII opposition and lost by identical 27-24 scorelines. The Falcons, at the time the top rushing team in the nation after resounding defeats of FCS Northwestern State and conference opponent BYU, came to Norman and scored two unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns in an upset bid that fell just short of time. San Diego State took the lead in the fourth quarter on a 93-yard touchdown burst by Ronnie Hillman — who would finish with 235 rushing yards on the day and a second, earlier 75-yard touchdown run — but the Aztecs were thwarted by Blaine Gabbert in the final minute when he found T.J. Moe for a 68-yard catch and run for the winning points. San Diego State would later win the conference showdown between these two teams, 27-25 in California.
12. TOLEDO ROCKETS (MAC/8-4)
13. SOUTHERN MISS GOLDEN EAGLES (C-USA/8-4)
14. MIAMI REDHAWKS (MAC/8-4)
15. OHIO BOBCATS (MAC/8-4)
16. FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS (WAC/7-4)
17. TEMPLE OWLS (MAC/8-4)
The Bulldogs and Owls were among the final six teams with their name in the hat to bust the BCS, getting to the final weekend of September before succumbing to a road test against a BCS school and bowing out of the race. Temple opened the season with wins against FCS Villanova, a conference win over Central Michigan and then a home upset of Big East contender UConn ahead of their in-state clash with Penn State in Happy Valley. The first half was a great sight as Temple looked fit for the upset, but a Bernard Pierce injury derailed the dream. Fresno State went to Ole Miss on the same weekend, 2-0 in the standings following wins at home against two-time defending Big East champ Cincinnati and away to Utah State. But despite a comeback bid, they fell to Jeremiah Masoli and the Rebels 55-38 to fall from the unbeaten ranks before October fell. Both teams will go bowling, though, and both Al Golden and Pat Hill have done a fine job molding their respective squads into mid-level contenders fit for any level of FBS football.
18. SMU MUSTANGS (C-USA/7-5)
19. UTEP MINERS (C-USA/6-6)
20. EAST CAROLINA PIRATES (C-USA/6-6)
21. BYU COUGARS (MWC/6-6)
The Cougars had an unkind 2010. Following a fifth straight appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl, BYU ushered in 2010 in earnest over the summer with the announcement that, amidst all the conference shifting, they would be going independent starting in 2011. The school didn’t make that decision any easier for themselves in terms of making themselves an attractive sell to big-name schools they’d try to schedule in an independent framework. Instead of competing for a conference championship in their last Mountain West go-around, they barely hung on and could still finish with a losing record unless they survive whatever bowl opponent against which they get matched up. This is hardly what Bronco Mendenhall’s team envisioned despite losing QB Max Hall to graduation after last season.
22. ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS (IND/6-5)
23. WESTERN MICHIGAN BRONCOS (MAC/6-6)
24. FIU GOLDEN PANTHERS (SUNBELT/6-5)
25. TROY TROJANS (SUNBELT/6-5)
And looking back on my preseason top sixteen, I had five huge strikeouts — four of which won’t be going bowling this year, and one more that must win its season finale just to get to .500 in a season that will likely end up having more than teams eligible than bowl slots available. (Preseason ranking in parentheses…)
(3.) HOUSTON COUGARS (C-USA/5-7)
After three years of steady progress by Case Keenum, this was supposed to be the year the star QB forced his way into the Heisman conversation and entered the Cougars into the race for a first-ever BCS slot out of Conference USA. But Kevin Sumlin’s worst nightmares struck in the Rose Bowl September 18 against UCLA when Keenum suffered a season-ending knee injury after trying to tackle Bruin DB Akeem Ayers after tossing an interception in the first half. His backup, Cotton Turner, was also lost to a season-ending shoulder injury before halftime. Nothing went right for the Cougars, who fell back to third in C-USA West and will miss out on a bowl for the first time since 2004.
(9.) IDAHO VANDALS (WAC/5-7)
(10.) MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS (SUNBELT/5-6)
Technically the Blue Raiders could still go bowl-eligible, but this season was considered a disappointment before it even started when QB Dwight Dasher was suspended four games for his acceptance of a “loan” which he was forced to repay as stipulation for his reinstatement. The team went 2-2 in his absence, defeating FCS Austin Peay as well as Louisiana-Lafayette. The problems have been just as prevalent with the offense with Dasher back, going just 3-4 since his return. He throws almost an interception more per game, but has been throwing about a touchdown and a half less than he did in the team’s apparently overachieving 2009. I mentioned the Georgia Tech game as a potential defining moment, but they couldn’t even get through the opener against Minnesota without taking that first loss.
(11.) WYOMING COWBOYS (MWC/3-9)
(13.) CENTRAL MICHIGAN CHIPPEWAS (MAC/3-9)