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September 15, 2009

Hope springs for potential BCS busters

Now is the time of year for optimism in Boise, Provo and other college football hotbeds that don't have the luxury of major conference affiliation.

Soon enough, the teams from the Big Six conferences will steal away all the attention as they get into the heart of their league schedules. Now's the time when an upstart can pull an early season upset and start dreaming of earning a BCS invitation.

Boise State got things started by whipping Oregon on the opening night of the season. BYU followed with its stunner over Oklahoma two nights later. Houston became the talk of college football last weekend by surprising an Oklahoma State team that had beaten Georgia a week earlier.

Maybe one of those teams will become this season's version of Utah, a Mountain West Conference program that parlayed its season-opening victory at Michigan last year into an undefeated season. The Utes capped their perfect season with a Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama.

Then again, perhaps they will have to settle for being this season's East Carolina, Tulsa or Ball State.

East Carolina opened the 2008 season with upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but the Pirates later endured a three-game losing streak before rebounding to win the Conference USA title after they had faded from the national spotlight. Tulsa won its first eight games and Ball State won its first 12 games last season, but neither team even won its conference championship.

Here's a rundown of the five programs most likely to emerge as "BCS busters" this season, listed alphabetically.

Boise State
BIG GAMES: def. Oregon 19-8 on Sept. 3.
UPSET ALERT: at Tulsa on Oct. 14.
POSITIVES: The Broncos already have won the biggest game on their schedule. And their play the past few seasons - especially the win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl - makes them a "name" program.
NEGATIVES: There are no other opportunities for a marquee win this season. They play at Fresno State on Friday, and that may be the biggest game left on the schedule. They also play at Tulsa on Oct. 14. But those games aren't going to raise the Broncos' national profile. And if Oregon stumbles to a seven- or eight-win season, that victory loses some luster.
BUZZ: The Broncos look like a good bet to finish 13-0. Given their schedule, that likely would get them a BCS berth, but there's no chance they'll be in the title game unless all the other major contenders have two losses. And if BYU, TCU or Utah finish unbeaten, Boise would be behind that team in the BCS pecking order, too. If Boise loses a game, its BCS hopes almost certainly end.

BIG GAMES: def. Oklahoma 14-13 on Sept. 5; vs. Florida State on Saturday; vs. TCU on Oct. 24; vs. Utah on Nov. 28.
UPSET ALERT: at UNLV on Oct. 10.
POSITIVES: The Cougars already own the biggest upset thus far with the win over Oklahoma, and it could end up as the biggest upset of the season. BYU is an established program and sells a lot of tickets. And an unbeaten team from the Mountain West will have far more cachet this season than ever before. The Cougars also have zero road games against teams that went to a bowl last season.
NEGATIVES: The Cougars still have a lot of tough games remaining, starting Saturday with Florida State. A rebuilt offensive line will be tested, especially by TCU and Utah - teams that hammered the Cougars last season. Star running back Harvey Unga has been bothered by injuries thus far this season, and his health is important.
BUZZ: BYU won the national title in 1984, and here we are 25 years later, with BYU squarely in the title mix again - though it's obviously early. An unbeaten BYU team would have a case for a title-game bid, especially if there is no unbeaten team from a Big Six conference. If BYU does finish unbeaten, the Cougars would love for Oklahoma, Florida State, TCU and Utah to have good seasons; that would just add to BYU's resume. A one-loss BYU team could be in the BCS mix, though there's no way it would go to the title game in that scenario.

BIG GAMES: def. Oklahoma State 45-35 on Sept. 12; vs. Texas Tech on Sept. 26; at Mississippi State on Oct. 10.
UPSET ALERT: vs. Southern Miss on Oct. 31.
POSITIVES: The Cougars already have won the biggest game on their schedule. In addition, they have the opportunity to beat another Big 12 team and an SEC team - albeit a mediocre one - in the next month.
NEGATIVES: Houston's offense can hang with anybody's, but there still are questions about the defense. The Cougars lost five games last season, and while the offense is better this season, the defense might not be. Winning Conference USA doesn't hold much weight nationally.
BUZZ: Coach Kevin Sumlin has one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Case Keenum, and he also has a lot of talented skill-position players. That means Houston can win some shootouts, a good thing considering the Cougars' questionable defense. It would help their cause if Oklahoma State has a good season. Houston has a shot at a BCS bid if it finishes unbeaten, but it has no shot at the title game. And consider this: Houston won at Oklahoma State, which was ranked fifth in the nation. Yet, the Cougars are unranked in this week's coaches' poll.

BIG GAMES: at Clemson on Sept. 26; at BYU on Oct. 24; vs. Utah on Nov. 14.
UPSET ALERT: at Air Force on Oct. 10.
POSITIVES: All three big games are eminently winnable for the Horned Frogs, who have been one of the nation's most consistent non-Big Six programs this decade. TCU always has a stout defense and that will keep the Horned Frogs in every game. Finishing unbeaten in the Mountain West has become a big deal.
NEGATIVES: Beating Clemson may not end up being that big a deal, meaning the Horned Frogs might not have any notable non-conference victories. While the defense is good, the offense has some questions.
BUZZ: TCU was our pick to win the Mountain West before the season began, but the Horned Frogs have lost some of their "sizzle" because of big early wins by Boise State and BYU. But there's time for TCU to get that sizzle back. An unbeaten TCU would have a case for a title game appearance, but the lack of a marquee non-conference victory would pose problems. Still, an unbeaten TCU would be ahead of an unbeaten Boise State in the BCS pecking order.

BIG GAMES: at Oregon on Saturday; at TCU on Nov. 14; at BYU on Nov. 28.
UPSET ALERT: vs. Air Force on Oct. 24.
POSITIVES: The Utes' 13-0 finish and No. 2 ranking last season garnered much positive publicity, and a second consecutive unbeaten season would guarantee a BCS spot - maybe even a title game shot. Plus, finishing unbeaten would mean three big road victories, which always is impressive.
NEGATIVES: A victory over Oregon may not end up being that big a deal. The Utes have not looked all that sharp in starting 2-0; they looked anything but dominant in beating WAC members Utah State and San Jose State in their first two games. That shouldn't really be a surprise, considering all the talent lost off last season's team. The offensive line remains a work in progress, and the secondary is breaking in some new starters, as well.
BUZZ: While the Utes fittingly received a ton of offseason publicity, this season's team doesn't look to be in the class of last season's. But if they somehow manage to go unbeaten, a BCS bid is a lock. A third-place finish in the Mountain West looks more likely than an unbeaten season, though.

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