Best of BCS Busters Will Get Tested Early
Six times in the past six seasons, a non-BCS school, a.k.a. "BCS Buster," has qualified to participate in a BCS bowl. Utah and the Broncos have each played twice and are each 2-0 in their BCS bowls. Hawaii and TCU have each been invited once and are each 0-1. Last season, for the first time, a pair of BCS Busters garnered invites ... and were pitted against one another (Boise State beat Texas Christian 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl; both schools were 12-0 entering the game).
The final threshold to be crossed, then, remains the championship game itself. And this is the year it will happen. Why? Because the SEC and the Big Ten have enough good teams -- and no dominant ones -- to foresee no one in either conference going undefeated. Meanwhile, programs such as Boise State and TCU have stockpiled enough street cred over the past decade that they'll both enter 2010 ranked in the Top 10. And why not? The Broncos have the nation's highest winning percentage (.868, 112-17) since 2000 and the Horned Frogs are in the top 10 at .766 (95-29).
Sports Illustrated plans to rank the Broncos No. 2, right behind defending national champion Alabama. TCU will probably land a Top 10 ranking as well. That means the Horned Frogs will have fewer teams to leapfrog between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
In the past, the margin for error for BCS busters has been non-existent: the aforementioned sextet entered their respective bowl games with a combined 72-0 record. That still may be. The difference this year, for the first time, is that the reward for an undefeated season may be greater.
A spring review of the more prominent non-BCS schools:
1. Boise State
Key Game: September 6, vs. Virginia Tech
Key Player: Kellen Moore, QB
The Broncos lost as many starters from last year's team as they have lost games in the past two seasons - one. Cornerback Kyle Wilson, who was taken by the New York Jets with the 29th overall pick in the NFL draft, is the only starter coach Chris Petersen (above, right) must replace.
Move over, Notre Dame, Boise State is now America's Team. And so how apropos that the Broncos will launch the 2010 season in the nation's capital against another Top 5 foe, Virginia Tech? Should the Broncos win at FedEx Field- - no minor feat - -they will have cleared the greatest hurdle in the way of an undefeated season in the first week of the campaign. Expect an SI cover -- the school's first -- the following week should that happen (Iowa, Ole Miss an Oklahoma State have made the cover the past three seasons, but not the Broncos).
So robust are the Broncos that the most outstanding player of their spring game may have been redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Southwick, who was 10 of 15 for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Southwick will have to settle for that moment -- for now -- as the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Kellen Moore, threw for 39 touchdowns and just three interceptions in directing the nation's No. 1 scoring offense a year ago.
Boise State's top passer, top rusher (Jeremy Avery), top receivers (Austin Pettis and Titus Young), top tackler (safety Jeron Johnson) and top sacker (defensive end Ryan Winterswyk, a former walk-on) all return. And, if you are looking for omens, the BCS Championship Game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Boise State has something of a history at that venue.
Key Game: Sept. 4, vs. Oregon State
Key Player: Tank Carder, LB
Coach Gary Patterson sounds as ornery as his school's namesake. "Right now, we're a 6-6 football team," Patterson said of his Horned Frogs, who in the past two seasons have been a 23-3 football team.
"The offense went straight down the field and scored Tuesday and they did the same thing today," Patterson moaned two days before his team's spring game. "I mean, we've been the No. 1-, No. 3- and No. 15-ranked red zone defense in the country, and in seven plays our offense scored twice (against it). But then they come back and they just tried to run it in and they got their ass kicked. I mean, they've got to finish."
To translate: Patterson is furious with his defense when the offense scores against it, but he is irate with his offense when the defense stops them. One wonders how many of the Horned Frogs have ever read Catch-22.
Those three losses in 2008 and 2009, by the way? All were against opponents who finished the regular season unbeaten (Utah in '08 and Boise State in '09) or with one loss (Oklahoma in '08).
The offense lost its two tackles but the other nine starters return, including record-setting quarterback Andy Dalton. The next game that Dalton wins will be his 30th, passing Sammy Baugh as the school's winningest signal-caller.
Defensively, TCU will miss sacks leader Jerry Hughes and linebacker/tackles leader Daryl Washington, both of whom were selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. This was the nation's No. 1 total defense a year ago, after all. Linebacker Tank Carder just underwent shoulder surgery and was once feared lost for the season. But Tank is, well, aptly named. In junior high, he broke seven ribs and punctured both lungs in a single-car accident. Word now is that he should be ready to return by fall camp. The team's second-leading tackler a year ago will be counted on to fortify a unit that lost four starters.
Like Boise State, TCU gets its prime-time closeup on Labor Day weekend. The Horned Frogs will travel east across the Metroplex to Cowboys Stadium to face Oregon State (the Beavers deserve a special award for agreeing to face both TCU and Boise State this September, and neither in Corvallis) on Sept. 4.
Currently, TCU's biggest impediment to a BCS bowl, the brothers James and Jacquizz Rodgers of Oregon State notwithstanding, is their television package. Outside of that season-opener on ESPN, the Mountain West Conference champs will appear on Versus, CBS College Sports or The Mountain in all but one of their final eleven games. That could potentially mean a second consecutive undefeated season and a second straight finish outside the top pair in the final BCS Standings.
And if you think Patterson is grumpy now ...
Key Game: Nov. 13, at Notre Dame
Key Player: Nai Fotu, MLB
The Utes will face better teams (Pittsburgh and TCU, both in Salt Lake City) than the Fighting Irish this fall, but no victory would give Kyle Whittingham's program more oomph. Consider that with a win in South Bend, Utah would be able to boast that it has beaten three of the all-time winningest programs in college football history (Michigan, Alabama and Notre Dame) in the past three seasons, all on the road. That could be the type of signature win, especially in the season's final third, that could propel the Utes to a third BCS bowl in seven years.
Freshman Jordan Wynn took over as the starting quarterback in November and delivered a three touchdown, 338-yard passing performance in a Poinsettia Bowl victory over Cal. However, the Utes can win without Wynn having to carry them. Matt Asiata, a 700-yard rusher in 2008 before missing most of last season with an injury, returns along with Eddie Wide, a revelation as a fill-in for Asiata last season with 1,100 yards, most coming in the final ten games.
Still, the Utes have plenty of holes to fill. Such as their entire starting linebacking unit. And three of their top four receivers.
Whittingham has made it look easy as Utah, just like Boise State and TCU, has rarely lost the past two years and then only on the road to quality opponents (in their case, at Oregon, TCU and BYU). With games versus Pitt, Notre Dame, TCU and Utah (albeit, all but the Irish at home), BCS expectations in Utah's capital should be taken with a grain of salt.
Key Game: Nov. 13, Tulsa
Key Player: Case Keenum, QB
With the return of Keenum, the nation's leader in total offense a year ago, the Cougar offense will be -- how did Bill Miller put it in "Almost Famous"? -- "incin-, incendiary." Houston finished in a dead heat with Boise State last year in scoring offense and led the nation in total offense and passing offense. Three 1,000-yard receivers return. The Cougars, who scored at least 45 points six times last season, could get by with a walk-on punter. Or no punter.
Alas, as potent as it is offensively, Kevin Sumlin's team is that feckless defensively (kudos to me for not resorting to the "Houston, you have a problem" construct). The Cougars were 115th in the nation versus the run last autumn and by midseason, every opponent had figured out the best way to ground Houston's aerial attack was to keep it on the sideline and shorten the game.
Keenum (right, with Sumlin) had three 500-plus yard passing games a year ago, and with Mike Leach out at Texas Tech, Houston has regained the crown (last held during the days of David Klingler and Andre Ware) as Texas' most unabashedly one-dimensional yet eye-poppingly prolific offense. If not team.
Then again, Keenum threw six interceptions in Houston's Armed Forces Bowl loss to Air Force last December. Before Houston can even ponder a BCS bowl, it will want to field a top-50 defense.
One (or Two) Liners
Nevada: Colin Kaepernick is still the Wolf Pack QB -- he's been in Reno nearly as long as coach Chris Ault, it seems -- but the senior was just 4 of 16 and threw three interceptions in the spring game. This is either very bad news for the Wolf Pack offense or it demonstrates that their pass defense, which was 118th in the nation last season, has greatly improved. We'll ask Gary Patterson what he thinks.
BYU: Ten years ago, if you had said that four different schools would play in a BCS bowl and none of them would be BYU (the only school in the past half-century to win a national championship that is not currently in a BCS conference), few would have believed you. And it won't happen this year, as the Cougars have to replace quarterback Max Hall, Mackey Award finalist Dennis Pitta and leading rusher Harvey Unga (unless BYU reinstates him).
Fresno State: The Bulldogs replace the nation's leading rusher, Ryan Mathews (chosen 12th overall by the San Diego Chargers), with 5-7, 185-pound Robbie Rouse.
SMU: The Mustangs are a dark horse. We have to mention June Jones, the only coach besides Urban Meyer to have led a BCS buster (Hawaii) to the promised land not already mentioned in this story (the others being Peterson, Patterson and BYU's Bronco Mendenhall). In just two years Jones has transformed the equines from 1-11 to 8-5 and Hawaii Bowl champs. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron will be Jones' next gunslinger protégé.