Perhaps it started with Gonzaga in college basketball.
A team from a little-known conference on the West Coast popped up and stole the hearts of Americans with NCAA Tournament runs and unprecedented success.
Gonzaga thus became the identity of the little guy taking on the schools from the big money conferences.
Gonzaga, through a pattern of continued success, has since become a power, and Butler seems to be following the same model.
In college football we’ve seen the same thing.
TCU and Boise State have differentiated themselves, making them ineligible for this list. Utah, on the other hand, has gotten itself into a BCS conference (granted, not all of that had to do with success, but television contracts as well).
Now it is time to look at the other schools that may be able to take that next leap from standard mid-major to contender.
Art Briles seemed to get the ball rolling for the Cougars. He put in an offensive system and mined the state of Texas for overlooked but eager talent. Since that time, Houston has continued to find coaches and players that fit their system.
New head coach Kevin Sumlin has done nothing to interrupt Houston’s rise, using the same offense and nabbing wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in the process.
Starting and backup quarterbacks injured...no problem. The Cougars are already 2-0 in the conference and knocking on the door for a Mountain West invite.
The Wolf Pack joined the so-called Division I-A or FBS a little over a decade ago, and their rise has been somewhat remarkable.
Head coach Chris Ault, a Hall of Fame coach in his third stint as the school’s head coach, has found dynamic players like quarterback Colin Kaepernick to elevate Nevada’s play.
Many will point to the fact that Nevada has reached five straight bowl games but lost their last four. Still, they are the only team from the WAC that has consistently competed on the field with Boise State the last three years and are off to a 4-0 start this year, including wins over Cal and BYU.
Look out for the Wolf Pack when they move to the Mountain West.
I know people will say it is unfair to rank Houston ahead of East Carolina. After all, ECU has won the last two Conference USA titles. The accomplishments earned Skip Holtz the job at South Florida.
Although Ruffin McNeill has shown no signs of slowing down so far, we’ll have to wait and see. McNeill became a popular guy at Texas Tech and is capable of doing the same at ECU.
With several intriguing players, there are many who believe ECU may someday earn a Big East invite. They're off to a good start this year: 2-0 in conference play.
Trimmed from the Big East, Temple joined the MAC and has since found success. Dropping from a BCS conference shouldn’t be seen as a good thing, but in Temple’s case it has allowed the program to rebuild and find a new direction.
From 2003 through 2006 Temple won just four games, including a winless 2005 season. Since that time they’ve taken baby steps to contention, winning four, five, and recently nine games last season—putting them in their first bowl game in three decades.
Off to a 3-1 start and putting a scare in Penn State, Al Golden’s squad may force alum Bill Cosby to reconsider adopting a new team to follow each year.
Many people will think I’m crazy, but Idaho has improved. It is a program like Idaho that makes me believe that the WAC is actually stronger than the Mountain West right now (Mountain West fans, feel free to disagree).
With Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada leaving, I have to think that Idaho is the top team in the conference. Winning the Humanitarian Bowl last year was a nice start. We’ll see if the Vandals can keep the ball rolling after years of struggles.
Receiving the punishment of the “Death Penalty” from the NCAA was an “oh so cruel” blow to the program in the late '80s. Despite coming back, the program hasn’t been the same since. Now with a coach in June Jones and a new commitment, SMU could be a team to watch in the future.
Pat Hill has always managed to have successful teams. Knocking off the occasional team from BCS conferences is nothing new for the Bulldogs, but they haven’t been able to really take that next step. Playing in the same conference with Boise State doesn’t help, but the Bulldogs may have a breakthrough season in them.
Larry Fedora appears to be a good offensive coach, and Southern Miss appears to be attracting more talent. The Eagles could compete with East Carolina in the C-USA East if they keep it up.
The rumor is that the Big East is considering expansion and Central Florida could possibly be added. The team does have talent but will need to raise its play. George O’Leary is an accomplished coach, and quarterback Jeff Godfrey could help them do that.
The Golden Hurricane took a step backwards last season, but don’t expect that to last. Todd Graham is a good coach, and Tulsa has shown the ability to attract and find overlooked talent. It wasn't that long ago that Tulsa was on top of C-USA, and Graham is determined to get them back.