Boise State has really had the country's college football writers all shook up with their No.3 AP ranking. 21 returning starters from an undefeated season and win over 2010's Pac-10 favorite, Oregon, cements them as a national title contender.
However, there are other mid-major schools that can make some noise on the national scene before Utah is the first exile into the new Pac-12. Non-BCS success has been a trend since 2005 when an Alex Smith and Urban Meyer-led Utah Utes won the Fiesta Bowl against overrated Big East champ, Pittsburgh. Since then, six at-large teams have crashed the BCS party and gone 4-2 (one-trick pony Hawaii's loss to Georgia and TCU's defeat at fellow mid-major Boise St. the exceptions).
Watch out for these under-the-radar teams to earn top 25 rankings and break into the BCS castle once again, and maybe earn the Mountain West an automatic bid with the impending additions of WAC stalwarts Boise State, Nevada, and Fresno State.
Until the 2009 season, the Idaho Vandals and the 16,000-seat Kibbie Dome were the laughingstock of the college football universe.
However, under wunderkind coach Robb Akey, the Vandals went 8-5, beating Bowling Green on an exciting last second two-point conversion by Nathan Enderle. Their offense was potent, led by dynamic duo Enderle (2,906 yards) and Max Komar (1,052 yards), but their defense was weak, allowing Nevada to drop 70 on them and surrendering 63 points to WAC champ Boise St.
This season, Enderle returns as a senior with four new offensive linemen, who didn't allow a sack in Tuesday's scrimmage. Komar graduated, but seniors Daniel Hardy (691 yards) and Eric Greenwood (401 yards) will walk tall (6'4" and 6'6") in Akey's spread offense.
Nine starters return from a much maligned defense, but Aaron Sakarias (four sacks) will attempt to rejuvenate a pass rush that finished 114th in the country. The key to Idaho's success on D is senior safety Shiloh Keo. He's an All-WAC candidate, who had 113 tackles and three picks last year. With national TV games against UNLV, Nebraska, and Boise State, Keo will have many chances to shine for NFL scouts.
Renewed effort on defense and the return of Enderle and Princeton McCarthy (5.9 yards per carry) will take Idaho to new heights and a possible runner-up finish in the WAC.
Junes Jones showed he wasn't a one-hit wonder at Hawaii, turning the SMU Mustangs from 1-11 Conference USA bottom-feeder to legit West division contenders.
With freshman Kyle Padron at the reins, the Ponies won eight games with their exciting run-and-shoot offense. The defense was no slouch either, holding Nevada's vaunted Pistol offense to 10 points in the Hawaii Bowl, which ironically, Jones's former Warrior squads often played in.
In 2010, the Ponies return 15 starters and have only lost 13 lettermen. The offense will miss feature back Shawnbrey McCeal, but freshman track star Daryl Fields and red zone bruiser Kevin Pope (seven touchdowns) will be a two-headed monster. Sophomore year is usually a breakout year in June Jones's offensive system (Colt Brennan, Timmy Chang), and Kyle Padron will be no exception with junior Kevin Beachum to protect his blindside and All-Conference USA receiver Aldrick Robinson (2,013 yards in two seasons) as his safety valve.
The defense is missing a leader in tackle king Chase Kennemer, but Taylor Thompson (6'6", 276 lbs) has an NFL body and will build on his total of six sacks in '09. The key to winning a Conference USA title will be improving their special teams, which finished 118th in kick return defense. Case Keenum and Houston may have a leg up, but watch out for these wild Mustangs.
Under Troy Calhoun, the Air Force Academy has made three straight Armed Forces Bowls and finished in the top half of a highly competitive Mountain West.
The Falcons won't lack for playmakers on the offensive end, returning starting quarterback Tim Jefferson (848 yards) and their top two slotbacks Jared Tew (970 yards) and Asher Clark (865 yards). Air Force should "air" it out a little bit more this year with experienced, big play receiver Kyle Fogler (23.9 yards per catch), but must replace an entire offensive line.
To keep in the eight/nine win range, the Falcons must continue to defend the pass (10th in the nation) in the frenetic MWC, which features NFL prospects like Andy Dalton of TCU. The secondary should be the strength with corners Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright fresh off a six-pick outing against Case Keenum's high-powered Houston team in the Armed Forces Bowl. The weakness of the D is the interior line where three starters are gone.
Also, the 2010 recruiting class only finished 97th nationally. With tough early dates at BYU and Oklahoma, the Falcons must cobble together an offensive line and will finish fourth in a loaded Mountain West that will make some national noise.
The Central Michigan Chippewas have two holes that can't be filled immediately: The loss of Head Coach Butch Jones to replace his mentor at Cincinnati and Dan LeFevour's departure to the Chicago Bears. Dan Enos is the new coach, bringing a wealth of experience from previous stops at Michigan St., Cincinnati, and rival Western Michigan to Mount Pleasants.
On offense, LeFevour is gone and leading rusher Bryan Schroeder (533 yards) left the program. Ryan Radcliff and Paris Cotton will take their places. The top two receivers, including 110-catch man Antonio Brown are gone, but four of five offensive line starters are back, including All-MAC center Colin Miller.
However, the defense should dominate the MAC. The top returner is inside linebacker Nick Bellore, who is a one man wrecking machine (132 tackles, 10 for loss) all over the gridiron, winning All-American honors. Matt Berning is another great run stopper (108 tackles), and two defensive line starters return, so expect a decent pass rush.
If Radcliff can play half as well as LeFevour in the spread, the Chippewas should win nine or 10 games and win the MAC title. This little program is truly becoming a coaching cradle (Brian Kelly, Butch Jones) and a regional power.
The Blue Raiders have really cut out a little niche in the football-mad state of Tennessee.
Rick Stockstill has led them to a pair of bowls over four years, including a New Orleans Bowl win. The offense should be power-packed with Dwight Dasher (3,943 total offense, 36 total TDs) playing a poor man's Vince Young. Running back D. D. Kyle, who gained over 800 yards last year, was eclipsed by redshirt Phillip Tanner after a poor spring, but MTSU should still have plenty of balance on offense. Three offensive linemen return, and once again, the Blue Raiders will have the premier offense in the Sun Belt.
The defense is a different story. The secondary is full of ball hawks like Kevin Brown (four int) and Jeremy Killen (three int), but only three starters return on the front seven. Watch out for Stephen Roberts, who is a 3-star middle linebacker, and one of the most highly-touted recruits to play in Murfreesboro.
MTSU opens against Big Ten bottom feeder, Minnesota, which will be an opportunity to show that they are a national power.
BYU will miss the guy in the picture in 2010. Max Hall is on the Cardinals' roster and will be replaced by junior Riley Nelson, who threw all of 10 passes in 2009.
The Cougars were extremely successful last season, going 11-2 and defeating National Champion runner-up Oklahoma in the opener and Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl. They were in the top 20 in points per game, passing yards, and total offense. Leading rusher Unga (1,087 yards) is also gone, but backup DiLuigi averaged over five yards a carry and three touchdowns.
He will be running behind a great offensive line that returns four starters, including preseason All-MWC Matt Reynolds. The receivers aren't too shabby either, with deep threat McKay Jacobson (556 yards) providing a big play star. 4-star signal caller Jake Heaps could be the starter by midseason as the crown jewel of one of BYU's best recruiting classes.
The defense has a great secondary led by third-year starter Brandon Bradley at corner, which will stifle the potent pass attacks of Utah and TCU. However, only one starter returns on the front seven, which could make the Cougars vulnerable to Air Force's triple option.
A loaded schedule that features up-and-coming Washington and nationally-ranked Florida St. will test BYU's new skill position players. If Heaps lives up to his billing, DiLuigi contains to be a productive runner, and the front seven acclimates to playing three downs, BYU could finish second or third in the Mountain West and win 10 games again.
Case Keenum is the main reason that Houston went from a washed-up basketball school to a 10-win powerhouse with the best offense in the country. His video game-like stats (5,671 yards, 44 TDs) could make him a Heisman finalist, and he has Bryce Beall (nine touchdowns) at tailback as a changeup in Kevin Sumlin's spread offense. Along with Keenum, the Cougars return three 1,000-plus yard receivers in James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards. Three starters return on the line, but Keenum's Peyton Manning-like release should give them a break.
Even with an undersized quarterback, this Texas high school-inspired offense has no peer in the Conference USA unless Kyle Padron and SMU make a quantum leap.
The defense is severely overshadowed by the potent, headline-grabbing offense, but LB Marcus McGraw is a hitting machine (156 tackles) and preseason Nagurski candidate. Houston finished 115th against the run, but Brian Stewart's new 3-4 scheme should remedy that along with BYU transfer, Matangi Tonga.
The offense alone should be able to beat every team on the Cougars' schedule except for Texas Tech and SMU. That November game against Tuberville and the Red Raiders could be the difference in a possible BCS campaign.
In their last season as a mid-major before joining the Pac-10, the Utah Utes will attempt to seal their legacy with a MWC crown and a third BCS berth.
They return two quarterbacks who started significant games last year, including sophomore Jordan Wynn (1,329 yards, eight TDs). He will be complemented by 2008's leading rusher Matt Asiata and last year's lead runner Eddie Wide (1,069). This two-headed attack will run behind an offensive line that is excelling in spring drills, paving the way for a 92-yard run by third-stringer Tauni Vakapuna.
On defense, the line should be a strength. Former walk-on Christian Cox (5.5 sacks) is a pure pass rusher who really came on in the bowl game and Holy War against BYU. Nelli A'asa will clog the middle at nose tackle. The rest of the defense is raw and inexperienced, but defensive guru Kyle Whittingham will whip 'em into shape.
Utah must open against Big East favorite Pittsburgh in a matchup between two possible BCS teams. TCU and Utah will be tough dates, and they have to travel to South Bend and play a new-look Irish team. Because TCU is untouchable this year, Utah will have to settle for runner-up in the Mountain West and a borderline top 25 ranking.
From the early days in the Conference USA with LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU has always been one of the top mid-major teams. They played in their first BCS bowl last year against Boise State, and their offense was stymied.
This usually high-powered (fifth in FBS) offense will be led again by the cool Texas gunslinger Andy Dalton (2,756 yards), who's my third cousin. His top target is Jeremy Kerley (532 yards), who is also an ace on reverses (three rushing touchdowns). Jimmy Young (517 yards) and Antoine Hicks (478 yards) are taller (6'1" and 6'4") deep threats who will really stretch BYU's tough pass defense.
The running game is just as loaded with three rushers gaining at least 600 yards. Sophomore Matthew Tucker (eight touchdowns) is great in the red zone and has decent burst for his size (210 lbs). The offensive line returns four starters including All-American candidate Marcus Cannon, who acted as Dalton's personal body guard.
But TCU is more famous for their tenacious defenses. This bunch lost NFL first-rounder Jerry Hughes, but the line should be just fine with All-MWC performers Wayne Forrest (5.5 sacks) and Cory Forrest (2.5 sacks) up front. Tank Cardner is a true warrior (89 tackles) at middle linebacker and also an adept pass rusher (three sacks). The Horned Frogs lost a corner and safety this past season, but All-MWC corner Tejay Johnson can play with anyone (three picks), and Alex Ilbioye is undersized (183 lbs), but a great last line of defense (70 tackles).
This TCU looks invincible, but they will face a tough Oregon State team on opening day. Their MWC-leading defense will be tested by aspiring Heisman candidate Jacquizz Rogers.
Finally, my preseason national championship pick, the undefeated Boise State Broncos, who have won two Fiesta Bowls and have the talent on both sides of the ball to be the first non-BCS team since 1985 to win a National Championship.
Boise State returns 21 starters, losing cornerback Kyle Wilson to the pros and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the Tennessee Vols.
Along with Keenum, Kellen Moore (3,536 yards, 39 TDs) is a legitimate Heisman contender with national TV games against Virginia Tech and Oregon St. to show what he's got. Moore is blessed with one of the best receiving corps in the country led by Austin Pettis (10 TD) and Titus Young (14 TD). But the Broncos aren't your typical WAC run-and-shoot club, they have an excellent run game led by underrated Jeremy Avery (1,150 yards) and battering ram Doug Martin (15 TD). This tantalizing pro-style offense will be protected by the best five hogs in the country who only gave up five sacks last year.
But what amazes me about this Boise State team is defense. Broncos teams in the past have had offensive standouts (Jared Zabransky, Ian Johnson, Legedu Naanee, Ryan Clady), but their defenses were average and occasionally exploited by tough passing teams like June Jones's Hawaii squads.
This Boise D is the exact opposite.
Hometown Idaho boy Shea McClellin and seasoned senior Ryan Wintesrwyk (nine sacks) are bookend pass rushers. Tackle Billy Wynn isn't bad either (six sacks) and is a great nose tackle in the 3-4. All the starters return at linebacker, and backfield nightmare Aaron Tevis is the standout (54 tackles, 7.5 for loss). The secondary will miss Wilson, but Jeron Johnson is a pure hybrid of excellent hitting (91 tackles) and playmaking (four int). Brandyn Thompson is also ready to build on his Fiesta Bowl performance of two picks and touchdown.
On paper, this squad has no flaw. Their toughest will be Virginia Tech, but if the Broncos can stop the two-headed monster of Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, they will cruise. In summary, it's National Championship or bust for Boise!