The mid-majors are on the map in big-time college football these days. Three straight years, one of their number has crashed the BCS party. In two of those years (2006 & 2008) they have come out on top. One of those was Boise State’s win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, a game on anyone’s short list of the best college games this decade. The second was Utah’s shocking win over Alabama last January 2. The Mountain West Conference, home to a trio of powers in Utah, BYU and TCU used its newfound muscle to try and push their way into either an automatic BCS slot or a new national playoff system. They fell short, but between the publicity this endeavor got, and the recent on-field success of the mid-majors, the chances one of them will land another BCS bowl bid have only increased as we enter into 2009.
Who are the likely party crashers? The conferences that fall in the mid-major category are the aforementioned MWC, the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the Western Athletic Conference (WAC, home of Boise State), the Sun Belt and Conference USA. The College Football Notebook will admit to some power conference bias, by acknowledging that I’m not going to cover all these conferences in-depth, but only based on the likelihood of their entering the BCS party. So this overview will only look at teams that either the national media has designated as a contender, or that I myself think has the tools to make a major run.
We’ll open the conversation in the Moutain West, where Utah remains front and center on everyone’s mind. The Utes are going to have a good team, but Kyle Whittingham has enough holes to plug that I really can’t see them pulling off the 11-1 or 12-0 season it will take to scale the heights again. They have a new quarterback in Corbin Louks, and three tough road games. They go to Oregon on September 19, and must visit TCU and BYU within the league. They have enough on hand to win the conference and get its automatic bid to the Las Vegas Bowl, but that’s about it. As for their rivals, TCU is very inexperienced in both lines and will not survive back-to-back September road games against ACC schools Virginia and Clemson. BYU will put points on the board with Max Hall pulling the trigger, but only one returning offensive lineman is not the sign of a team about to rip off a 12-0 season.
Boise State went 12-0 last year, and ranked high enough to qualify for a BCS game, but were angled out by Utah. The Broncos subsequently lost the Poinsettia Bowl, natural home of the WAC champ, to TCU, and expectations are high for the boys of the blue turf. But a third perfect regular season in four years is not in the cards. They start five sophomores in the front seven and replace all their skill people. Chris Peterson’s offense will still be fun to watch, as last year’s WAC Freshman of the Year, southpaw quarterback Kellen Moore returns, but their BCS hopes could be over before they even start. Boise plays Oregon on September 3, part of a doubleheader package that will open the season on a Thursday night. Another WAC team to watch is Louisiana Tech (please don’t ask me to explain that geography lesson), but they have a road game at Auburn to open the season and another at LSU in November. Also don’t underestimate the danger in their September 12 trip to Navy, a game that could trip them up even if they do upset Auburn the previous week.
East Carolina won Conference USA last year and went to the Liberty Bowl. They started the season strong with upset wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia before a three-game hiccup took them off the national radar. They’ve got the horses to make a run at the national stage with experience in both trenches and senior Patrick Pinkney back calling the signals. But with road games at West Virginia (September 12) and North Carolina (September 19) this is another Cinderella story that I don’t see making it out of the opening month. Nor is the Pirates’ conference rival Tulsa likely to pull it off, being soft up front and having a road trip to Oklahoma to deal with. But an October game between Tulsa and Boise State could be interesting as college football’s equivalent of the “Bracket Buster” series that’s been put together in college hoops.
In the Sun Belt, Troy has all the talent to dominate most of its competition, and senior quarterback Levi Brown could be a darkhorse Heisman candidate. But the schedule isn’t strong enough for them to do it unless they go 12-0. One loss will knock them out and there is no way they are going to win at Florida on September 12. Similarly, over in the MAC , Central Michigan is interesting, but not tough enough to win at Michigan State.
So is all hope for Cinderalla lost? I’ve knocked down virtually every contender. Except one. Chris Ault’s team in Nevada will be on the NBC radar to open the season on September 5 at Notre Dame. They return the WAC’s Offensive Player of the Year in junior running back Tai Taua and the 2007 rushing champ Luke Lippincott. Talk about depth. They have three-year starter Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. They have an experienced defensive front. There are weaknesses—a freshman starter at right guard and another at safety. But they offer the best balance of talent and marquee games, while keeping the schedule manageable. Look for the Wolfpack to beat Notre Dame to open the year, to beat Boise State to end it and to win everything in between. Nevada will be the fourth different midmajor team in four years to crash the BCS.
Up Next: Notre Dame & The Academies (Thursday)