Less than a month from now, we will begin to have hard data on how the impending College Football Playoff era will impact mid-major teams at the FBS level. How will teams from outside the power-broker conferences be perceived by a revamped version of a system that for so long sought to reduce their access to the lucrative paydays of the biggest bowl games?
The bigger question, though, is how does this new era impact independent programs? As of now, only three institutions fit that description. One, BYU, made a resolute decision to eschew Mountain West membership starting in 2011. After years of playing down to WAC and MWC competition, the Cougars finally decided to strike it out on their own as a Rocky Mountain, Mormon version of Notre Dame’s Catholic powerhouse radiating to a national audience from its humble Midwest base. The other two institutions, the service academies of the U.S. Army and Navy, are going in divergent directions. The Midshipmen are set to join the American Athletic Conference in 2015, while Army reverted back to independence after a seven-year stint in Conference USA from 1998 to 2004.
The automatic bid to the top team from the mid-major conferences is extended only to members of those conferences. Navy’s move to the AAC next season will soon leave only two teams (and Notre Dame, a separate case with separate rules) left to wonder what effect the new system will have on independence. Essentially these schools will be living in the same sort of nether-region that marked the station of all mid-majors in the early years of the BCS era.
One assumes that the CFP selection panel would not be so far-sighted as to turn away an undefeated season by the Black Knights or Cougars. But while both schools play above their weight class, as evidenced by having two of the four toughest schedules of any non-power-conference school, that also makes it less likely that these schools will become test cases for the selection committee any time in the near future.
Instead we’re left to evaluate the fate of five conferences as we boldly advance away from the era of BCS Busters and into a new realm where access of some sort is guaranteed annually (but inclusion in the final-four format for the grand prize is probably as elusive as ever). To determine this year’s preseason rankings, we are looking at several factors:
- Strength of schedule
- Strength of non-conference schedule
- Last year’s record
- Returning experience
- S&P projections
There is no real skill to this preseason prediction, just a lot of analysis and guesswork. What must be taken into account, ultimately, is which teams have the balance of name-brand recognition, a manageable schedule, and enough challenges to remain relevant through the end of the regular season. It also depends on which conference a team is affiliated; right or wrong, the AAC and MWC champions are going to be viewed in a more favorable light than the best teams in the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt.
This is merely an effort to provide a window into which teams might best be expected to contend for the honor of a berth in one of the six biggest bowls on the postseason calendar. Think one of these teams is rated too highly? Feel free to let me know how wrong I am by dropping me a line via email, Twitter, or Facebook.
1. UCF Knights (AAC)
- 2013 RECORD: 12-1 (AAC champion)
- BOWL RESULT: defeated Baylor 52-42 in Fiesta Bowl
- RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 OFF/9 DEF)
- NON-CONFERENCE: v. Penn State 8/30 (in Dublin), at Missouri 9/13, v. Bethune-Cookman 9/20 (FCS), v. BYU 10/9
The Knights were technically a BCS-conference school in 2013, earning their bid to the Fiesta Bowl as an automatic qualifier from the American Athletic Conference. But UCF, which had only just moved from Conference USA and was essentially playing in a gutted version of the former Big East, made the most of its opportunity. Their victory over Baylor established George O’Leary’s team as the squad to beat coming into the 2014 season as the AAC falls back to non-AQ status. Though they moved to a league that is essentially C-USA 2.0, UCF is in a far better position to continue building on their successes now than they were two years ago as C-USA champion.
The X-factor for the Knights is whichever quarterback steps in to replace Blake Bortles, the senior who ended up being the first quarterback drafted in this year’s NFL Draft. The defense should be fine, returning nine of its 11 starters from a unit that ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense in 2013. But with Bortles, tailback Storm Johnson, and three other offensive starters moving on from UCF, the Knights will have to integrate new players quickly if they are going to contend for the mid-major berth. There is no margin for error, with back-to-back road games against Penn State (all the way in Dublin, Ireland no less) and Missouri in the first three weeks of the season..
2. Boise State Broncos (MWC)
- 2013 RECORD: 8-5 (2nd in MWC Mountain)
- BOWL RESULT: lost to Oregon State 38-28 in Hawaii Bowl
- RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 OFF/8 DEF)
- NON-CONFERENCE: v. Ole Miss 8/28 (in Atlanta), at Connecticut 9/13, v. UL-Lafayette 9/20, v. BYU 10/24
Yes, Boise State failed to even reach the Mountain West championship game last season. And yes, the Broncos are emerging into a new era after the departure of Chris Petersen for the vacant Washington gig. But there is still a lot to like about the team that defined “BCS Buster” more than perhaps any other mid-major of the era. When looking at the state of the rest of the MWC, Boise suddenly emerges as the front-runner yet again and the team that has both the long-term cachet and the short-term potential to get the results necessary to push UCF for the guaranteed berth.
The Broncos will get plenty of players back from an injury-plagued 2013 season that saw a youth movement on both sides of the ball. That increase in depth should bode well for Bryan Harsin as he takes over the helm at his alma mater. Among the top contenders in the conference, nobody returns more experience. Also working in their favor is a schedule that serves up far fewer challenges than in the past. Other than a season opener in hostile territory against Ole Miss, their hardest challenges will come at home against UL-Lafayette and BYU. They also get to play Fresno State, San Diego State, and Utah State on the Smurf Turf, setting them up as the MWC favorite in 2014.
3. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC)
- 2013 RECORD: 11-2 (MWC champion)
- BOWL RESULT: lost to USC 45-20 in Las Vegas Bowl
- RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (5 OFF/8 DEF)
- NON-CONFERENCE: at USC 8/30, at Utah 9/6, v. Nebraska 9/13, v. Southern Utah 9/20 (FCS)
Fresno State fell short of its BCS Buster dreams in 2013 when it lost a high-flying shootout with San Jose State reminiscent of the heyday of the WAC 62-52 in their final game of the regular season. The Bulldogs rebounded with a win over Utah State in the inaugural Mountain West championship game, but they then fell flat against a depleted USC team in the Las Vegas Bowl. So why put them so high on this list?
The defending MWC champs have lost a fair number of key players, starting with quarterback Derek Carr. But the defense returns most of its starters, and the team has plenty of opportunities to bolster their claim on poll position with three powerhouse opponents in the first three weekends. If the Bulldogs can survive trips to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City with even a split against Pac-12 opponents USC and Utah, Fresno might very well enter their home opener against Nebraska as the favorites. The Bulldogs missed their window for BCS perfection, but this year the margin for error is greater than ever before. With three AQ-conference opponents on the schedule, they can afford a loss or even two and still be alive for Playoff bowl riches.
4. Houston Cougars (AAC)
- 2013 RECORD: 8-5 (4th in AAC)
- BOWL RESULT: lost to Vanderbilt 41-24 in BBVA Compass Bowl
- RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 OFF/9 DEF)
- NON-CONFERENCE: v. UTSA 8/29, v. Grambling State 9/6 (FCS), at BYU 9/11, v. UNLV 9/20
Another team that joined up with the Big East just as it was ceasing to be the Big East, Houston’s season paled in comparison to UCF’s run to the Fiesta Bowl but was still solid in its own right. The Cougars won eight games with true freshman John O’Korn running the offense, and with seven other starters returning around him the sophomore should be in position to avoid a slump. And while the defense allowed a lot of yardage to opposing teams in 2013, they return nine starters from a unit that was 20th nationally in points allowed. Thus a team that will benefit from playing no AQ-conference opponents could ostensibly run the table and win the AAC without any challenges beyond UCF and Cincinnati in conference play.
Until further notice, the AAC is going to be perceived by most selection committee members as the preeminent mid-major league despite the loss of many of its more storied name-brand programs. UCF’s emergence helped the league start growing beyond the Louisville era a season early, and the Cougars have set themselves up to be a legitimate contender for the conference title in 2014 and beyond. While other conferences such as the Mountain West have been nearly as dominant recently, the fact is that the MWC has also been gutted and lacks the depth of contenders next season to benefit from the new rules. Of course…
5. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC)
- 2013 RECORD: 12-2 (MAC runner-up)
- BOWL RESULT: lost to Utah State 21-14 in Poinsettia Bowl
- RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 OFF/6 DEF)
- NON-CONFERENCE: v. Presbyterian 8/28 (FCS), at Northwestern 9/6, at UNLV 9/13, at Arkansas 9/20
It almost felt like 2008 all over again last year, as Northern Illinois went 12-0 through its regular season and then fell flat against Bowling Green in the MAC championship game and Utah State in their bowl game. Head coach Rod Carey no longer has Jordan Lynch to turn to at quarterback — but then again, when Lynch first took over the job he was an unknown commodity replacing the otherworldly Chandler Harnish, so look out for redshirt junior Matt McIntosh as he finally gets his chance in the starter role. He’ll have nine returning starters to work with on offense as he eases his way into the leadership role of a veteran unit.
The real question for the Huskies comes not on offense but on defense. They were exposed by Bowling Green in the MAC championship, they were similarly outgunned by Utah State (who didn’t even have Chuckie Keeton running its offense), and they will be dealing with inexperience after losing five starters from a group that already allowed over 25 points a game. The Huskies will need to avoid falling flat in their AQ-conference tests against Northwestern and Arkansas, though, to outshine the AAC and MWC front-runners.
6. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA)
- 2013 RECORD: 10-4 (C-USA runner-up)
- BOWL RESULT: defeated Maryland 31-20 in Military Bowl
- RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 OFF/7 DEF)
- NON-CONFERENCE: at Miami/OH 8/30, v. Rhode Island 9/6 (FCS), v. Ohio 9/13, at Akron 9/20
The conference that looked like it was best positioned to break the western hegemony of the Mountain West and the WAC earlier in the BCS era is now fighting the MAC for relevancy in the new era. Conference USA has seen its best teams ripped away by the rebranded Big East/AAC as that league fought to remain relevant in the College Football Playoff hierarchy. The AAC’s gain, thus, was to become a bulked-up version of Conference USA. The response has been an effort to maintain quality (or at least numbers) by introducing FCS teams like Old Dominion and UT-San Antonio as well as Sun Belt teams like Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.
For a team like Marshall, that has led to a much easier path to the C-USA championship. Last season’s star, quarterback Rakeem Cato, is one of the six returning offensive starters that join seven defensive starters on the 2014 roster. The schedule is positively mistake-free, as Marshall plays three MAC schools and a FCS squad in Rhode Island that went 3-9 last season. Cato and crew will need to put up big numbers throughout the season to eke past schools with tougher schedules, but an undefeated season heading into the C-USA championship game would put the Thundering Herd on course for the long-sought equivalent of the BCS berth they were denied in 1999.