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July 16, 2010Several years ago, a prediction that a team from a non-automatic qualifying conference would play in a BCS bowl might have led to a sobriety test.
Now that least one "BCS buster" has emerged in each of the past four seasons and in five of the past six, the prediction has become more like a multiple-choice test.
What team from a non-automatic qualifying conference will play in a BCS bowl game this season?
Boise State and TCU would appear the most likely. Utah certainly has a chance. BYU has yet to reach a BCS bowl, but the Cougars are respected enough nationally that it's seems just a matter of time.
But some wonder whether there should be an addition to the BCS-buster multiple choices.
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Can Middle Tennessee State be the BCS buster at some point? We were 10-3 last year and finished with seven consecutive victories, including a bowl win over Southern Miss. Plus, the Sun Belt Conference is getting better.
There is every reason to expect a big season in Murfreesboro. Dynamic quarterback Dwight Dasher, who had a record-setting performance in the 42-32 New Orleans Bowl victory, heads a list of 14 returning starters.
But the goal for Middle should be to usurp Troy as the Sun Belt Conference champion. Reaching a BCS bowl is too ambitious for this season and even for the foreseeable future.
No doubt, the Sun Belt is getting stronger. That much has been made apparent in recent seasons by Troy's victory over Oklahoma State in '07, Arkansas State's victory over Texas A&M in '08, Louisiana-Lafayette's victory over Kansas State in '09 and Middle's wins over Maryland in '08 and '09.
The Sun Belt has had some impressive near-misses, too. Arkansas State lost by three to Iowa last season, while Middle had a controversial six-point loss to Kentucky in '08. That season, Troy came tantalizingly close to upsetting LSU in Baton Rouge.
But the Sun Belt doesn't garner the same national respect as other non-automatic qualifying conferences such as the Mountain West or the WAC (because of Boise State). The Sun Belt still is widely viewed as the weakest conference in the FBS.
Even if Middle went undefeated, the "Big Six" conference opponents on its schedule may not be good enough to stir up support for a BCS invitation. Middle opens at home against Minnesota, which is projected as a lower-echelon team in the Big Ten. An Oct. 16 trip to Georgia Tech would be a chance to grab national attention if the Yellow Jackets go on to win the ACC's Coastal Division. But Georgia Tech could finish as low as fourth in that division, too.
Troy, which has won four in a row over Middle and usually in blowout fashion, has to visit Murfreesboro this season, so there is definitely a chance for this to be a memorable season. But if any team emerges as a "BCS buster," look for the usual suspects -- Boise State, TCU, Utah and BYU.
Boise likely will open the season in the top five and has the potential to make a national statement with September games against Virginia Tech and Oregon State. TCU returns a ton of starters from last season's team, which finished 12-1. Utah has earned some national cachet with two unbeaten seasons this decade and bowl victories over Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Alabama, among others. The Utes also have games against Pitt and Notre Dame this season. BYU also has an experienced team coming off an 11-2 finish and has Washington and Florida State on the non-conference schedule.
If any of those teams go undefeated, they would draw favor over an unbeaten Middle Tennessee. Even an unbeaten Middle likely would be overlooked for a BCS bowl, just like Conference USA champion Tulane in 1998 and MAC champion Marshall in 1999.
So, Middle Tennessee fans should be satisfied if the Blue Raiders can match or improve upon last year's 10 victories, win the Sun Belt championship and return to the New Orleans Bowl.
In that scenario, you'll have to worry about losing coach Rick Stockstill, who surely will be an attractive candidate for any higher-profile coaching positions that come open.
Looking for challengers
What is going on in the SEC East? Can anyone challenge Florida even with the Gators having a new quarterback?
Even without Tim Tebow, the Gators remain my pick to win the SEC East.
John Brantley didn't play much in '09, but did well when he was on the field. Normally, having a first-time starting quarterback is sufficient cause to expect a team to decline at least to some degree. But look at the quarterback situation in the SEC East.
Georgia will start redshirt freshman Aaron Murray. Tennessee will start junior college transfer Matt Simms. Kentucky and Vanderbilt have had shaky quarterback play. South Carolina's Stephen Garcia is the most experienced and accomplished quarterback in the division, but he's had issues, too. Besides, South Carolina's struggles in the offensive line and running game raise doubts about the Gamecocks.
Brantley won't be as good as Tebow. Plus, the top two receivers and six defensive starters must be replaced, so Florida doesn't figure to be as dominant as it was last season, when the Gators beat every SEC East opponent by double figures.
But they still look like the class of the East because they've recruited so well.
What if ...
What will happen if USC goes undefeated this season?
In 1994, Texas A&M was on NCAA probation and ineligible to compete for the Southwest Conference championship, to go to a bowl or to be ranked in the coaches' poll. The Aggies easily were the best team in the conference and went undefeated; they finished eighth in the AP poll. Five teams -- Texas Tech, Texas, Rice, Baylor and TCU -- finished tied for the "official" conference championship with 4-3 league records. All of them presented their players with conference championship rings.
Auburn went unbeaten in Terry Bowden's first season in 1993, but the Tigers were on probation and ineligible for the SEC title or a bowl bid. They were ineligible for the coaches poll but finished fourth in the AP poll.
Oklahoma was on probation in 1974, but the Sooners were eligible for the Big Eight championship. The undefeated Sooners won the conference championship that year and also were voted national champion by The Associated Press.
Under your scenario, the Trojans -- who are ineligible for the Pac-10 crown -- could be in position to win a portion of the national championship. The Associated Press can award its version of the national title to a team on probation. But the Trojans will be ineligible for the postseason and for the coaches' and Harris polls.
Doubting the Huskers
Everyone is saying Nebraska is going to win the Big 12, but I have a hard time believing it. How do you see the Big 12 playing out?
Count me among those who predict Nebraska will leave the Big 12 in a blaze of glory and win the conference championship.
Of course, neither Texas nor Oklahoma will concede anything to the Huskers, and both are capable of winning the conference championship. Overall, though, Nebraska appears to have the best team returning.
Huskers coach Bo Pelini has proved himself over and over to be an expert on defense. And he's declared that this year's "Black Shirts" could be five times better than the unit that led the nation in scoring defense last season.
Personally, that seems a bit far-fetched. I don't see how a unit loses a dominant tackle such as Ndamukong Suh, its best linebacker and two starting safeties and somehow gets better. But based on his impressive track record, you have to give some credence to Pelini's prediction. He knows his team's talent better than anyone else.
Obviously, the Huskers need dramatic improvement on an offense that scored fewer than 20 points in six games last season. But it was learned after the season that quarterback Zac Lee was playing hurt most of the year; he should be healthy this season. If he isn't, the Huskers have some interesting options with sophomore Cody Green and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez.
In addition, the Huskers anticipate being much better along the offensive line with the arrival of junior college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick at tackle, among other moves.
The schedule is advantageous, too. A home game against Texas on Oct. 16 and trips to Washington on Sept. 18 and Texas A&M on Nov. 20 would appear to be the greatest threats to an undefeated season.
Texas definitely been a thorn in the Huskers' side since the creation of the Big 12, and certainly could be again this season. But the Longhorns have a new quarterback, with Garrett Gilbert replacing Colt McCoy, and lost big-time playmakers in wide receiver Jordan Shipley and free safety Earl Thomas.
Oklahoma, which lost to Nebraska last season, never can be overlooked. But like Nebraska, the Sooners are filling major holes on defense after the loss of star tackle Gerald McCoy, two starting linebackers and both starting cornerbacks from last season.
Again, it would come as no surprise if Texas or Oklahoma won the Big 12. After all, teams from the South Division have won the past six Big 12 titles. But all streaks come to an end sometime. Hey, the National League won the All-Star game this week. I think Nebraska will put an end to the Big 12 South's streak of dominance, too.