Monday, July 18, 2011

Conference Blast: Independents and The Non-AQ's

Well, this will be the last conference blast in the summer preview series here at FTS. Even I don't have the patience - or interest, honestly - to predict, rank, and write-up all the non-AQ conferences and independents in cfb. However, there are some truly talented football teams among all those unwashed masses and it would be a dereliction of my duty if I didn't provide you at least quick and dirty breakdown of who those teams are. I'll also do a quick drive-by of the independents, whose ranks are surprisingly growing.

Keenum and Moore will be responsible for most of their respective teams' success.
First, the Non-AQ's. I see the top small-time teams in two groups of three and then everyone else; it's the top of the MWC, the top of C-USA's Western Division, and the other 2 conference champs. They're not really ranked below by who I think is the best overall, so to that end, here's a top-5:

  1. Houston
  2. Boise State
  3. TCU
  4. Nevada
  5. SMU
It's tough since the main non-AQ's with BCS-busting potential play other teams that are legitimate contenders for that role, but that top-5 is how I see it, talent and potential-wise.

The MWC:

Boise State - Once again, if the Broncos clear their big-boy match-up in the season opener, they'll be in the national title discussion. After that, they'll have to finish out the year undefeated and avoid slip-ups like last year against Nevada. Can they do that? Absolutely. Will they? Well that's the rub. There's really not much to dislike about this team. Kellen Moore is back with six other starters, including the top rusher and almost a hundred starts along the O-line, and the defense returns seven to a top-5 unit from last season. All the pieces are in place for them to actually make a BCS run, but there will be one big hurdle in their way: the season opener in ATL against Georgia. I've already said I think Boise loses that game, but if they don't, the Broncos will be in the mix for a championship spot.

TCU - While this will be a down year for the Frogs, they'll still be a better team than most of the creampuffs in the non-AQ world. And honestly, what does a "down" year mean in Ft. Worth? To me, it means 11-1 record, with the only loss coming in the visit to the blue turf of Boise in November. They lose Andy Dalton, but Patterson runs such a tight ship, that I doubt the offense will slouch and I don't see the defense falling too far from their top-3 national perch. The Frogs will need to be careful when newly independent BYU comes calling, though.

Air Force - The Falcons are included here as a MWC spoiler more than a BCS-buster. Their triple option attack can be tough to handle and could give Boise State fits.


Houston - I think Houston is poised to be the best non-AQ team in the nation and they're a home win over UCLA to start the season away from controlling their BCS destiny. But, they are not a talent deep team or a solid program; no, Houston is all one player: Case Keenum. He'll break all the major QB records this season and should be able to lead the Cougars through a surprisingly competitive division. Barring another injury to the golden arm, I see no reason why UH can't be 12-0 at season's end, despite the treacherous b2b SMU-Tulsa end to the season.

SMU -This could be June Jones' year, especially if Houston slips. The Mustangs get back 10 offensive starters, including starting QB Kyle Pardon, and have the firepower to run the table. I do not think they'll take down Texas A&M in the season opener, but beyond that, SMU should cruise until road trips to Tulsa and Houston.

Tulsa- Todd Graham turned Tulsa into a very successful program before leaving for Pitt. New HC Bill Blankenship served as an assistant under Graham and should be more than capable of maintaining Tulsa's success. To help out the new head man, the Golden Hurricane return 18 starters - ten on offense - and draw SMU and Houston at home. Working against Blankenship - and all of Hurricane nation - is the fact Tulsa plays both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. I don't see them winning either of those games, but even with four losses, this team should be considered among the non-AQ elite.

Kings of Their Little Hills:

Troy - I wonder if they ever get tired of winning the Sun Belt. There's really no team in the league that I see challenging the Trojans' reign, and even though the only return five offensive starters, Blakeny should have them ready to win. If the offense does slip, the defense should be there to help out, as 8 starters back should vastly improve this unit's performance. While Troy does draw Clemson and Arkansas to start 2011, they should win the next ten and capture another conference title.

Nevada - Who else is there left in the WAC? Remember when they beat Boise last season? Yeah, that was awesome.

The Independents - Like I promised, here's a quick run-down of the unaffiliated teams from the FBS.

Notre Dame - The Irish are tough to get a handle on this season. Brian Kelly's a great coach and there are 17 returning starters, but the ND notoriously underachieves and I don't know if that's going to end anytime soon. Michigan State, Air Force, South Florida, USC, BC, and Stanford are all loseable games, but Kelly's boys are in year 2 of his systems, so I'll give them a little more credit - they'll only lose three of those games. At 9-3, they probably won't be ranked in the top-12, so we won't have to suffer through another BCS-blowout...but we'll certainly be hearing about the Irish all year long.

BYU has a lot to prove with newly found independence.
 BYU - Ah, the Notre Dame of the West. The newly independent Cougars could have a nice year if things get started right, but b2b road trips to Ole Miss and Texas won't be fun. They also draw trips to TCU and Oregon State as well as the Holy War tilt with Utah. BYU has already agreed to play in the Armed Forces Bowl, which, with an 8-4 record, will be right where they belong.

And, lastly, Navy will beat Army in December, but both teams will struggle to get bowl games.

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