John Mitchell: It’s finally here. This is my favorite time of the year and college football is ready to begin. I hope you enjoyed our conference previews. As always, Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl are joining me in our first in-season edition of the tailgater.
Zach Bigalke: We were already treated to a real thriller last night at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City as the Utes took down Pitt in overtime for the first sting of the BCS Busters in 2010, but that was mere prelude for the bigger weekend to come. It’s great to have the season upon us again, and I’m stoked to be here with you guys once again for the ride through the new year.
Matt Strobl: It’s always a long wait, but always worth it as well. I was so pumped up by ESPN’s commercials for the weekend’s games that I almost broke the treadmill at the gym this morning.
Mitchell: I want to apologize to all of you, because time constraints will keep us from previewing the final non-AQ FBS teams. Instead, we are just adding it into the opening of this one. So, who do you think will win the Conference USA?
Bigalke: The obvious pick is Houston. QB Case Keenum returns for his senior year with a loaded offensive cast that is ready to finally lay claim to the mantle of top dog in C-USA that they’ve allowed to wander in recent years. They’ll certainly score enough… and honestly that might be enough this year. But there’s going to be another strong team in the west this year, and I honestly think SMU can do some damage. They face off against the Cougars at home this year and will be looking to avenge last year’s 38-15 loss in Houston. If the Mustangs can pull it off, watch out — with the balance of power shifted following the departure of Skip Holtz from East Carolina to take the helm at South Florida, the C-USA West winner is likely going to emerge the conference champ.
Strobl: The Houston Cougars certainly have the inside track. With Keenum returning and Kevin Sumlin’s demonstrated ability to mount a dominant offense, it will be a major challenge to keep this team under control. With the tailback tandem of Bryce Beall and Charles Sims, the running game could be almost as good as the air attack, and that could mean upward of 40 points per game. The Cougars will be pushed by June Jones and SMU, and will likely have to get past a talented Southern Miss team in the C-USA title game. But I think the conference is the Cougars’ to lose.
Mitchell: It’s certainly Houston’s to lose in my opinion. Fifteen returning starters from a ten win team are back and that includes Case Keenum and most of his offensive weapons including James Cleveland. It really all depends on how Houston plays within the conference again this season. The Cougars showed they could compete with the best with wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech out of conference, but they suffered setbacks to UTEP and Central Florida in conference play before falling to Skip Holtz’s East Carolina in the C-USA Championship game. I was thinking Houston/Southern Miss in the C-USA Title Game, but after Southern Miss laid an egg against South Carolina in the season opener, I’m leaning toward UCF making it over them. I think Houston beats Central Florida in the C-USA Title game.
What about the MAC?
Strobl: This conference, in my opinion, is Temple and a bunch of also-rans. The Owls return 16 starters included the talented runner Bernard Pierce, and should be the best MAC team on both sides of the ball. Their tests will come against Kent State and Northern Illinois—both are road games, and these two programs are probably the next best teams in the conference. Temple should be able to get past both. Last year Temple just missed a chance to go to the MAC title game. This year they’ll have a shot at avenging the loss that kept them out when Ohio comes to town. Don’t be surprised to see Temple run the conference table.
Mitchell: I think Temple is the team to beat for good reason. The Owls won nine games last season and they return eighteen starters including sophomore Bernard Pierce who had a huge freshman season for Al Golden. Central Michigan won’t give up their claim as the conference’s best team that easily either, even with a new head coach and being without the services of Dan LeFevour. After these top two teams in the conference, I think there is a pretty big fallout to the Northern Illinois’, Toledo’s and Ohio’s of the world. I think Temple and Central Michigan face off in the MAC Title game and Al Golden delivers a conference championship to the Owl faithful.
Bigalke: Sure, Temple returns damn near all of its talent this season. But then the Ohio Bobcats also return a fair portion of last year’s MAC East champs, and Frank Solich is one hell of a coach (no matter what Nebraska may have thought back in the day). With 14 starters returning (to 18 for Temple), this will surely come down to that matchup on November 16 between the two elites of the MAC this season. Northern Illinois will also pose a threat (Thursday’s 27-10 loss to Iowa State notwithstanding), and Central Michigan should be in the thick of things in the West despite losing do-it-all QB Dan LeFevour. Watch out for Buffalo as well — they return most of their defense from last year’s unit that ranked top-50 nationally. In the MAC, that could be enough to cause a stir… but in the end the road through the title goes through the Owls or the Bobcats depending on the winner of their head-to-head battle in Philly.
Who will come out on top of the Sun Belt?
Mitchell: It really depends on how long Dwight Dasher will be ineligible. Dasher is one of my favorite players in college football with his dual threat ability. He’s probably the best player you have never heard of. But, if he isn’t able to play this season, then I believe it will be Troy continuing their recent trend of conference supremacy. But, if Dasher is back in time for the start of conference action, then Middle Tennessee State should take the Sun Belt Title.
Bigalke: You took the words right out of my mouth, John. It does all really depend on how long Dwight Dasher is ultimately suspended for the $1500 loan he accepted. We saw that Logan Kilgore can run this offense for Middle Tennessee State, but Dasher gives the Blue Raiders another dimension that can allow them to finally overtake Troy for the conference title. MTSU was in the hunt against Minnesota in the season opener on Thursday until the fourth quarter — precisely the time they need Dasher in the game to keep the clock running and the chains moving downfield. Without him I fear this might be another year for the Trojans to sweep along and claim the honors. After all, for as much as MTSU has been hyped, Troy returns seven offensive starters (though they must replace seven on defense) and knows precisely what it takes to win in the Sun Belt. I’ll tab the Trojans for now, with a caveat: If Dasher is back in time for the conference opener against the Ragin’ Cajuns on September 25, the Blue Raiders should overtake Troy.
Strobl: MTSU. Dwight Dasher is the best player in the conference. For that matter, he’d be among the best players in almost any conference. He is a true dual threat, compiling more than 1000 rushing and 2000 passing yards last year. He’s got four fifths of his line coming back, and has skill players returning at every key position. The Blue Raiders’ defense will probably struggle, but with an offense this potent, all the stop unit has to do is avoid being embarrassed. The Sun Belt’s traditional power, Troy, must face MTSU in Murfreesboro—that edge should be enough to give MTSU the crown.
Last but not least, who do you think is the best of the Independents?
Bigalke: For the first time in a half-century, Navy football is truly relevant once more. The cat is out of the bag regarding QB Ricky Dobbs, who was the perfect complement to the triple-option offense run by coach Ken Niumatalolo in Annapolis. Navy has a schedule in which they have at least a realistic shot at running the tables. The Midshipmen have a decent-but-not-overwhelming schedule. Dates against Air Force in Colorado Springs and against Notre Dame on neutral turf are their toughest tests, and they should have three easy wins against BCS opponents in Maryland, Wake Forest and Duke. It’s not a BCS-conference-caliber schedule, but it’s every bit as strong top to bottom as anything Boise State can offer. Navy has an outside shot at running the table and forcing the BCS’s hand — there’s no way they’ll deny the government, will they? (I think I heard Orrin Hatch cough somewhere nearby…)
Strobl: Though I hate to say it, I expect big things out of Brian Kelly. I think he instantly transforms the Notre Dame offense into a contender despite the difficult schedule. However, the best Independent over the past few seasons has been the Navy Midshipmen, and I see no reason not to give them the benefit of the doubt in 2010. Kelly has to make some major adjustments, not to mention find a new quarterback. While he’s getting comfortable in South Bend, the Naval Academy will enjoy yet another quality season.
Mitchell: I think Notre Dame will be good, but at this point I can’t pick against Navy. From what we have seen, the Naval Academy is still the class of the Independent schools. I’m not saying Notre Dame won’t jump up and retake that crown with new head coach Brian Kelly, but at least for now, Navy is still the team to beat. With Ricky Dobbs returning along with many others, Navy is going to be a tough team to beat each week.
Moving right along, if you had to take a shot in the dark and predict the Heisman winner, who would you choose and why?
Strobl: Mark Ingram’s knee problem probably takes him out of the running, but there are several other early favorites. There are quarterbacks: Ryan Mallett (Arkansas), Jake Locker (Washington), Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State), Matt Barkley (USC), Kellen Moore (Boise St.), and Case Keenum (Houston). There are running backs: Dion Lewis (Pitt), John Clay (Wisconsin), Evan Royster (Penn State), Jacquizz Rogers (Oregon State). And then there are dark horses like Georgia receiver A.J. Green and even Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich. As much as I’d love to see a defensive player win it, that won’t happen. I’m going to go outside the box here and say Evan Royster. I think that in a year when Penn State needs a leader—the Nittany Lions will be starting a true freshman at quarterback for the first time—Royster will be a force in the Big Ten. With due respect to Clay, I think Royster’s numbers will be more impressive and his impact more profound.
Mitchell: My pick a few weeks ago was Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor. Now, after seeing Pryor play against Marshall and how Jim Tressel has opened up the playbook for Pryor and as much as he did for a season opener, I am sticking with that pick. Pryor looked as good as I thought he would be this season last night, and if he continues playing like that for the rest of the season, then come December, he could be hoisting the 25-pound bronze statue and stiff arming his and Ohio State’s way into the BCS National Championship game.
Bigalke: Personally, I think this is the year that a BCS Buster plays for the national title. I think that BCS Buster will be Boise State, and a large reason for that will be their undersized quarterback with the oversized sense of intelligence and leadership that it takes to succeed at the most elite levels of college football — no matter where your dorm room may be located. If I had to go out on a limb today and call someone out as the front-runner, it’d be Moore. After the astounding numbers he put up in 2009 for the 14-0 Broncos, he’s definitely my pick to do even more damage this season. (Though I really am fascinated by that Royster pick, Matt, and like the sheer boldness of it…)