Perhaps the strangest thing about this final year of the BCS era is the fact that we are down to just four non-AQ leagues with the demise of the WAC as a football conference. With all the realignment over the offseason, and with the newly-renamed American Athletic Conference still clinging for one last time to the Big East’s automatic qualifying berth, we also must re-evaluate which teams are actually in the hunt to be BCS Busters.
Say goodbye to Houston, whose run of dominance under Kevin Sumlin and Case Keenum came crashing to earth last season when the former moved on to coach last year’s Heisman winner at Texas A&M and the latter graduated. Say goodbye to SMU, as the former NCAA bad boys move on to the AAC and an outside shot at an automatic BCS berth. Adios too to last year’s Conference USA champion, UCF, who will now try its hand at the Cincinnatis and Louisvilles and UConns of college football. (Oh, yeah… and Memphis, thank your lucky stars that realignment is far more about geography than competitiveness in football.)
Next year they’ll all be right back in the fold of these rankings of the mid-majors of the FBS ranks when the BCS gives way to the College Football Playoff and the AAC loses its auto-qualifier status. For 2013, though, they count among the haves rather than the have-nots of college football.
Even those teams that remain in the hunt for an elusive BCS Buster distinction are in many cases tackling the challenge in new leagues. At the top of the list, though, stability reigns, as the top two contenders in the rankings are solidly locked into their conference. Two former Busters grapple for pole position, while behind them a slew of teams adjust to new alignments.
With just four conferences vying for the chance to emerge with one last BCS Buster, stability will also denote which leagues get the bulk of the national media’s respect. The Mountain West, having gained the strongest two teams from the WAC carcass, will once again have the greatest probability of putting its champion in a BCS bowl game. After NIU’s trip to the Orange Bowl last winter, the MAC will also get a lot of looks as well.
But while the Sun Belt and Conference USA were less poacher than poached, both leagues still have legitimate contenders in the hunt. If anything, the top-to-bottom strengths of the MWC and MAC could work in a C-USA or Sun Belt champion’s favor should the other non-AQ teams knock one another out of the hunt entirely.
As we have witnessed in the past few seasons, there is bound to be a surprise team or two as the season moves along. But before a single down is played, these are the teams most likely to play a prominent role in threatening the BCS bluebloods in 2013…
1. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West)
- 11-2 in 2012 (T-1st in MWC)
- 13 returning starters (6 OFF/7 DEF)
- 2012 rankings: 68th OFF/12th DEF
- Five toughest games: Aug. 31 @ Washington, Sept. 20 @ Fresno State, Oct. 12 @ Utah State, Oct. 25 @ BYU, Nov. 23 @ San Diego State
Chris Petersen’s Boise State teams have averaged a 12-1 record over his seven seasons as the team’s head coach, reaching BCS bowls in 2006 and 2009. They had a third undefeated regular season in 2008, but were superseded that year by a Utah team that would crush Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Only an upset could deny the Broncos a BCS berth in 2010 and 2011.
Last year’s 11-2 campaign would leave most schools overjoyed, but the standards have been perceptibly skewed in Boise. The Broncos have one final opportunity to become the only three-time BCS Buster, and with another stacked defense complimenting a more mature offense in 2013 the odds are in their favor. The combination of marquee out-of-conference road games against Washington and BYU and playing in what has quickly become the deepest of the mid-major conferences will benefit the Broncos in the computer rankings, and public perception is squarely in Boise’s favor. Unless they suffer yet another inexplicable upset along the way, little resistance stands in the path of Joe Southwick and crew.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (Mid-American)
- 12-2 in 2012 (MAC champion/BCS Buster)
- 12 returning starters (8 OFF/4 DEF)
- 2012 rankings: 20th OFF/40th DEF
- Five toughest games: Aug. 31 @ Iowa, Sept. 28 @ Purdue, Oct. 5 @ Kent State, Nov. 13 v. Ball State, Nov. 20 @ Toledo
Last year’s BCS Buster, the first-ever team to pull off the feat from the MAC, returns the bulk of the offense that broke records en route to the conference title and the Orange Bowl. Led by do-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch, the Huskies’ biggest loss is head coach Dave Doeren, who left NIU before their bowl game to take over duties at NC State. In his place stepped offensive coordinator Rod Carey, who has been promoted to the top spot on a full-time basis despite starting his leadership role 0-1 with the Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.
Carey’s biggest task will be replacing seven departed starters on defense from a unit ranked in the top 40 nationally in 2012. Northern Illinois’ new defense will get tested immediately against Iowa, the only team to deal the Huskies a loss in the regular season last year. If they can survive the Hawkeyes, the only tests that remain are surviving the MAC slate. While they are somewhat lacking in the strength of schedule department, neither that nor a defeat in the opener was enough to deny the Huskies a BCS berth last season — but this time around, NIU might be playing against the same stacked deck that has hindered Boise’s recent Buster bids.
3. UT-San Antonio Roadrunners (Conference USA)
- 8-4 in 2012 (4th in WAC)
- 19 returning starters (10 OFF/9 DEF)
- 2012 rankings: provisional/NR
- Five toughest games: Sept. 7 v. Oklahoma State, Sept. 14 @ Arizona, Oct. 5 @ Marshall, Nov. 2 @ Tulsa, Nov. 30 v. Louisiana Tech
Perhaps a bit of a surprise in this listing, the Roadrunners thrived as they transitioned to the I-A ranks last season. UTSA won eight games in 2012, good enough for a mid-pack finish in the WAC’s final season. This year, UT-San Antonio enters Conference USA as a Lone Star replacement for departed programs like Houston and SMU. Returning more starters than any other team across the nation, including Manning Award contender Eric Soza at quarterback, the Roadrunners have the potential to make a big impression in their new league.
UTSA will face several tough tests, though, hosting Oklahoma State on September 7 before heading to Tucson the following weekend to take on Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona Wildcats. If the Roadrunners can surprise at least one of those teams, they would have the BCS-conference victory on their record that could propel them into the national consciousness. They’ll have to hope that the Mountain West and the MAC cannibalize themselves out of the race. But if anybody can harness the full potential of this squad and threaten the BCS establishment, it is former national championship-winning head coach Larry Coker.
4. Fresno State Bulldogs (Mountain West)
- 9-4 in 2012 (T-1st in MWC)
- 13 returning starters (7 OFF/6 DEF)
- 2012 rankings: 16th OFF/22nd DEF
- Five toughest games: Aug. 29 v. Rutgers, Sept. 14 @ Colorado, Sept. 20 v. Boise State, Oct. 26 @ San Diego State, Nov. 29 @ San Jose State
In just one season, head coach Tim DeRuyter made everyone forget longtime leader Pat Hill as he led the Bulldogs to a share of the three-way tie atop the Mountain West standings in their inaugural season after transitioning from the WAC. Fresno State, one of only three teams in the country to rank in the top 25 in both total offense and total defense last season, returns 13 starters — including 2012 Mountain West offensive player of the year (and little brother of a former number-one NFL draft pick), quarterback Derek Carr.
For the Bulldogs, their BCS-conference tests — at home in the season opener against Rutgers, and a trip two weeks later to Boulder to take on Colorado — are both entirely manageable affairs. Fresno should reasonably expect to win both matchups, and then it’s merely a matter of battling San Diego State and San Jose State for the West Division. The showdown in Fresno against Boise State on September 20 could be a preview of the inaugural MWC championship game three months later and an elimination game in the BCS Buster hierarchy.
5. Utah State Aggies (Mountain West)
- 11-2 in 2012 (1st in WAC)
- 15 returning starters (8 OFF/7 DEF)
- 2012 rankings: 21st OFF/14th DEF
- Five toughest games: Aug. 29 @ Utah, Sept. 21 @ USC, Sept. 27 @ San Jose State, Oct. 4 v. BYU, Oct. 12 v. Boise State
Like Fresno State, the Aggies were one of just three teams to field top-25 units on both offense and defense. (Florida State was the third of the trio.) They actually return two more starters from last season’s squad that claimed the 51st and final WAC football championship. But because they must contend with the loss of head coach Gary Anderson to Wisconsin and the move up in competition to the Mountain West, the path to a potential BCS berth won’t be easy.
Utah State’s out-of-conference schedule is laced with potential minefields, as the Aggies open the season in Salt Lake City against Utah and must also face USC in Los Angeles. The week before they square off against Boise State in a game that could decide the Mountain Division title, USU hosts their other state rival BYU in a Friday-night showcase. A lot will have to go in their favor, but if the Aggies can reach the Boise game undefeated and upset the Broncos the path is clear in the second half of their schedule to steal the crown in their inaugural MWC season.