And then there were four. We came into the fourth weekend of the 2010 season with just six teams harboring realistic hopes of busting through the BCS hoops and reaching one of the big bowl games. Only one team east of the Mississippi still held dreams of becoming the first squad from outside the MWC/WAC non-AQ hegemon to earn a lucrative BCS berth.
But after two of those squads, including the lone MAC wolf (er, Owl), dropped heartbreakers on the road against BCS-conference opposition, only four teams are still afloat. For while any AQ team merely has to win its conference — losses be damned — to reach the Promised Land, non-AQ schools incur a loss and are automatically shunted into the December bowl picture.
So without further ado, let’s salute the Final Four in the fight to become this year’s BCS Buster(s). The field, as per usual, has been whittled down to the elite of both the WAC and Mountain West, the last time we’ll see this grouping with these affiliations. (Were it 2011, it’d be a three-horse MWC race and Utah would be pushing Oregon and Stanford for the Pac-12 lead…)
1. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (WAC/3-0)
- LAST WEEK: 1st
- LAST GAME: W v. Oregon State 37-24
- NEXT GAME: October 2 @ New Mexico State
Boise State had its last BCS-conference showdown of 2010 Saturday night when they welcomed the Oregon State Beavers to town. QB Kellen Moore was his usual high-quality self, and RB Doug Martin was the most impressive back in a game that featured OSU’s Jacquizz Rodgers. But while the Broncos’ defense allowed half the hardage that their offense piled up, there were several uncharacteristic penalties of emotion that Chris Petersen will have to rein in before their conference slate begins. They’ve got time — the November 26 matchups against Nevada in Reno and against Fresno State the week before (the two teams joining them in defecting from the WAC to the MWC next year) remain their biggest tests left.
2. TCU HORNED FROGS (MWC/4-0)
- LAST WEEK: 1st
- LAST GAME: W @ SMU 41-24 (9/24)
- NEXT GAME: October 2 @ Colorado State
The Horned Frogs battled for the Iron Skillet in a cross-town derby with former Southwest Conference rival SMU in Dallas and came away 17-point victors. QB Andy Dalton wasn’t his usual self, tossing a couple of second-half picks that let SMU stay in the game far longer than Gary Patterson would’ve liked. The defense allowed their first 100-yard rusher of the season in the Mustangs’ Zach Line (17 carries, 139 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown). There are still some creases to be ironed out of the TCU team on both sides of the ball, and luckily they get to ease into conference play on the road against the lightweight Rams — all their non-conference games are behind them, and it’s up to the respect (or relative lack thereof) that voters choose to bestow on the Mountain West.
3. UTAH UTES (MWC/4-0)
- LAST WEEK: 3rd
- LAST GAME: W v. San Jose State 56-3
- NEXT GAME: October 9 @ Iowa State
The Utes have all cylinders running smooth as butter as they try to unseat TCU and claim one last Mountain West title before heading to the Pac-12. They kept San Jose State well in its place, just as they did against New Mexico the week before and UNLV before that. The Spartans amassed just 172 total yards of offense, failing to put up over a hundred yards either passing or rushing. The defense is on fire and awaiting the heart of the MWC schedule. So too is QB Jordan Wynn, who returned from a thumb injury to play the first half before Terrence Cain came into the game in relief. The sophomore went 14-of-18 for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his return game, and will be licking his chops for the challenge awaiting — a road game against the Big XII’s Iowa State. The Cyclones currently boast a top-ten passing defense, and it should be a great litmus test for where the Utes stand this season.
4. NEVADA WOLF PACK (WAC/4-0)
- LAST WEEK: 4th
- LAST GAME: W @ BYU 27-13
- NEXT GAME: October 2 @ UNLV
The Wolf Pack are playing a schedule that almost looks as though they’ve already joined the Mountain West, taking on BYU in Provo before their state rivalry matchup against UNLV. Against the Cougars, QB Colin Kaepernick didn’t have his best game — and that meant he “only” put up 16-of-25 passing for 196 yards and a touchdown and 17 carries for 82 yards and another score, about 65 yards and two touchdowns fewer than his season average. The senior did throw his first interception of the season, as well, and it was RB Vai Taua (29 carries, 133 yards and a touchdown) who was the heavy lifter in the running game. Nevada is looking like a well-oiled machine at this point, and Chris Ault has a phenomenal chance to have his team still in BCS Buster contention once Boise State comes to town on November 26.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN…
Two teams endured heartbreak in the games that could’ve pushed them over the hump and on the long conference road toward some sort of BCS salvation. While both figure to make bowl games this year, no longer can they hope to reach any of the four January contests amongst the titans of the sport. Their tango in the lion’s den of hostile BCS-conference stadiums derailed the ultimate goal, but there’s still a lot to play for at these two schools:
5. FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS (WAC/3-1)
- LAST GAME: L @ Ole Miss 55-38
Now I feel even more vindicated in dropping the Bulldogs in the poll two spots despite their win last weekend. Fresno State traveled to Oxford to take on an Ole Miss club that was reeling after starting the season 1-2 with home losses against FCS Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt. If they won it diminished the stature of their BCS victory further; a loss would eliminate them altogether from the BCS picture barring a wacky apocalyptic scenario even wackier than 2007. (Did UCLA get us started with their undoubtedly-wacky upset of Texas in Austin?) So what happened for Pat Hill’s crew? They got the Jeremiah Masoli treatment, the former Duck finally finding his legs in Houston Nutt’s offense. Tossing 8-of-12 for 153 yards and two scores and getting another 59 yards on 8 carries, Masoli did enough to keep the offense in it. And special teams, usually Fresno’s forte, came up small on Jesse Grandy’s 3rd-quarter punt return to take a 41-10 lead at that point. The trap was set, and while Fresno clawed back it was that punt return that put the score out of reach. The Bulldogs get their high-and-getting-higher profile contests against Nevada and Boise State still as well as a regular-season closer against Big Ten school Illinois to try to regain BCS footing, but now they also need some prayers as well thanks to the deflating defeat in SEC country.
6. TEMPLE OWLS (MAC/3-1)
- LAST WEEK: 6th
- LAST GAME: L @ Penn State 22-13
The most integral man in the Owls offense left the game while the team held an advantage in Happy Valley, and his departure cut the legs right out from underneath the MAC power’s chances of the upset. Leading 13-9 at halftime thanks to Bernard Pierce’s two touchdown carries, Al Golden’s crew were hoping for the upset. But with Pierce sidelined with right ankle troubles in the second half, the Owls stalled and sputtered. Penn State’s defense closed in on everything Temple tried, and there would be no joy in Philly as the Nittany Lions scored the last 16 points en route to the home victory. It was going to be tough enough as it was for Temple to claim a BCS berth even had they gone undefeated; there will likely never be more than two BCS Busters in a given season, and with the higher profile of teams in the Mountain West and even the WAC it was a long shot that they’d vault up the charts enough to garner attention. But without the signature victory over their in-state Big Ten foe, there’s now absolutely no chance of anything other than a MAC championship and a conference-affiliated bowl game.