The changing conference landscape has made for an interesting new situation. Gone from the picture (but not forgotten) is the original BCS Buster, Utah, who has graduated to AQ status with a spot in the expanded Pac-12. No longer will perfection be the measuring stick and one of the secondary BCS bowls their highest final destination; now all Kyle Whittingham’s team will have to do is win their division, and then the conference title game, and they’re at least guaranteed a spot in Pasadena.
Last year’s lone BCS Buster, TCU, will be making a shift in the opposite direction after this season when they move up to membership in the Big East starting in 2012. This is the last chance for Gary Patterson’s school to get a third BCS berth as a non-AQ school and break their tie with Boise State and Utah for the most appearances from outside the BCS conference framework.
To get there, they’ll have to go through the team that defeated them two years ago in the Fiesta Bowl. Boise State, who announced their presence on the national stage when they defeated Oklahoma in overtime on the first night of 2007. They backed it up by returning to Arizona two years ago, defeating the Horned Frogs in the process. With a move to the Mountain West, the Broncos will now have to square off against TCU one last time in the regular season to determine conference superiority — unless another team leaps up and surprises out of the league.
At this point of the year, when football looms oh-so-close on the horizon, teams and their fan bases start to prepare for the roller coaster of emotions that rides in waves from coast to coast over a 15-week window that settles the score on the field. This is the time of year when every team has hope, knowing that a few breaks for or against them could be the difference between a bowl berth and a losing season.
The elite know that a few plays can define their season — just ask Boise State’s Kyle Brotzman, whose missed field goals spelled doom for their BCS hopes at Nevada last season. For non-AQ schools, the margin is paper-thin. Either you attain perfection, and look as good as possible doing so… or you count your lucky stars if a trip to Albuquerque or Boise or St. Petersburg or Shreveport is forthcoming at the end of a blemished season.
Who will challenge for entry into the biggest of the bowl games this season? Which teams could potentially stay perfect and bust through to the next level and give their school’s reputation a quantum leap going to 2012 and beyond? Let’s look at the top contenders for the title of BCS Buster ahead of the kickoff of the 2011 season…
1. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 12-1)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 7* OFF/7 DEF/0 ST
- PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 7th
- GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/3 @ Georgia
Now that Boise State is in the preeminent non-AQ conference, there will be no excuses for the BCS to deny them a spot in one of their premier contests should the Broncos run the table. The Mountain West — even without Utah and BYU (who left the conference for football independence) — still constitutes the most potent combination of non-AQ teams out there, and running that schedule gives a team a leg-up on other BCS Buster contenders.
The Broncos know this all too well. Three years ago the team went 12-0 in WAC play, including a win over Oregon at Autzen Stadium, yet they could vault no higher than #9 in the standings and were bypassed in favor of 12-0 Utah for the coveted BCS Buster position. Instead of New Orleans, Boise State went to San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl and a narrow 17-16 defeat… to TCU.
Opening the season with a tough road test at Georgia right off the bat, Boise State will have plenty of chances to showcase their talents. QB Kellen Moore returns to lead the team once more, and while several favorite receivers have departed there is still plenty of skill on this squad to make waves in their first MWC season.
2. BYU COUGARS (IND — LAST SEASON: 7-6)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 10* OFF/5 DEF/2 ST
- PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 43rd
- GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/3 @ Ole Miss, 9/10 @ Texas, 9/17 v. Utah, 10/15 @ Oregon State
Going independent certainly didn’t hurt BYU’s strength of schedule, which is the only non-AQ calendar containing four BCS-conference opponents. One is their old MWC foe Utah, as both schools keep alive their Holy War rivalry game with the trip to Provo this year. Every other game sees the Cougars traveling to hostile territory, one stadium in each of the SEC, Big XII and Pac-12.
But it doesn’t stop there for Bronco Mendenhall’s team. They’ll play road games against top teams from both the Mountain West (at TCU on October 28) and the WAC (at Hawaii on December 3), as well as a highly touted C-USA team that everyone thinks could be the next Big East target for expansion (UCF in Provo on September 23). Of course, they also play four other WAC schools and FCS Idaho State, so the lack of that mid-tier Mountain West pack could zero out the increased competition on the front end.
We’ll find out right away in their three-game opening swing if BYU is for real. With ten offensive starters returning, they should be able to score enough points to be competitive. The real question will be whether a defense that replaces five starters can remain among the top quartile of teams in the FBS. They have the toughest path… but also the one with the greatest potential rewards, should they somehow survive the run through the gauntlet.
3. TCU HORNED FROGS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 13-0)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 3 OFF/5 DEF/2 ST
- PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 15th
- GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/2 @ Baylor
Gary Patterson has a major rebuilding project ahead of him in Fort Worth to get this team ready for Big East contention in 2012. But that doesn’t mean the team is ready to mail in this year just yet. The schedule isn’t difficult enough to make it impossible to work their way toward an undefeated November date in Idaho’s capitol city.
But while just three players return on offense, TCU had the #26 recruiting class last year. The school is getting nothing less than three-star prospects in their talent searches year after year. And with a forthcoming move to the Big East, they will have the BCS name-brand to help pull in more recruits. Last year’s haul, one of the top recruiting classes in school history, will need to contribute immediately.
Can the Horned Frogs manage to reach the BCS one last time as a Buster? If they run their schedule, the potential exists given the name recognition they’ve gained in the past four years (really putting themselves back on the map in 2008 with their undefeated showdown against Utah and their defeat of Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl), though a weaker non-conference schedule could hurt that reputation. Of course, their rubber match against Boise State will almost certainly be the conference decider.
4. HAWAII WARRIORS (WAC — LAST SEASON: 10-4)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 3* OFF/6 DEF/1 ST
- PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 39th
- GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/3 v. Colorado, 9/10 @ Washington
So far we’ve seen two Mountain West schools and a former Mountain West school. In the fourth slot we finally see a representative of a different conference — and the last of the three schools to have ever broken through in the BCS era. Hawaii might not have a ton of talent returning (especially on offense), but what it does have is QB Bryant Moniz — and when the system is the paramount concern, and that system was tops in the land in passing last year, having the general back makes everything easier.
Also making things easier for the Warriors is the absence of Boise State, whose departure for the MWC made this year a golden opportunity for one of the remaining contenders to make some noise. Factor in the departure of Colin Kaepernick from Nevada to the NFL and the path is open for the third of last year’s three-way co-champions to steal ahead and snag their first outright WAC title since going to the Sugar Bowl with June Jones and Colt Brennan after the 2007 season.
With a couple of beatable Pac-12 opponents to start the season, Hawaii could win themselves a quick boost into the Top 25 and a strong case as the best school outside MWC affiliation to bust into the BCS this season for their second appearance in the big show. (Of course, come 2012 Hawaii will be part of the Mountain West when they move over with Fresno State and Nevada. So enjoy this opportunity while it lasts.)
5. MIAMI REDHAWKS (MAC — LAST SEASON: 10-4)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 8* OFF/9 DEF/1 ST
- PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
- GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/3 @ Missouri, 9/17 @ Minnesota, 10/1 v. Cincinnati
Like San Diego State, Miami has to worry about working a new head coach into the equation. Mike Haywood had turned the team from a 1-11 doormat into a 10-win team in his two seasons at the school before signing on to succeed Dave Wannstedt in Pittsburgh. (Of course, he would get domestic violence charges served against him soon after, and would be cast aside by the Panthers as the school distanced itself from the potential PR headache.)
But the RedHawks, who hired away Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell (who had his own on-the-fly head coaching audition last year during Mark Dantonio’s convalescence), are in great position to repeat as MAC champions. Last year they backed into the championship game when Ohio lost to Kent State on the final day of the regular season. Then they shocked a Northern Illinois team that almost everyone expected to win before beating Middle Tennessee in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
This year Miami, who returns eight offensive starters (including QB Austin Boucher) and nine defensive starters, will not sneak up on anybody. Even with a new head coach, Miami has the players to seriously challenge all three of their BCS opponents. If they win, a run of the table would potentially be enough to make voters seriously consider them for the honor of first BCS Buster east of the Mississippi River…
6. SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 9-4)
- RETURNING STARTERS: 8* OFF/5 DEF/2 ST
- PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
- GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/17 v. Washington State, 9/24 @ Michigan
The third wheel in the Mountain West, San Diego State vaulted into national prominence last year with their narrow defeat at Missouri that looked oh-so-close to having upset written all over it. The Aztecs will hope that their return of more offensive starters than any other team in the conference helps them stay in the top 20 in scoring and total yardage nationally.
Of the main Mountain West contenders, San Diego State plays more BCS-level competition yet might have the easier path to success than either Boise State or TCU (both of whom they get to play at home). The home game against Washington State is a case of an AQ minnow against a non-AQ contender; while the boost of beating a Pac-12 team will be palpable to pollsters, it is a winnable game first and foremost. And going to Ann Arbor to play former coach Brady Hoke’s new team is an even bigger confidence boost.
Getting a powerhouse on the downswing of its pendulum gives you the benefits of name recognition in your opponent while remaining beatable. The Aztecs have a schedule that positions them for maximum exposure and limited liability — a potent combination that leans in the favor of any team with BCS-busting aspirations.