BCS Buster Power Rankings: 2012 Preseason Preview

This will be the third year that we’ve followed the trials and tribulations of teams outside the power structure trying to burst through onto the big stage. It might very well also be the penultimate opportunity we have to track them, at least in the terms that have been dictated over the past decade by the Bowl Championship Series. But a Buster by any name will be just as sweet, no matter what the future landscape of the college football postseason holds in store, and the little guy will always help dictate the terms — as much as the powerhouses hate to admit the fact.

Does conference expansion start to look as crazy if there isn’t a team the caliber of Louisville, or Utah, or Boise State, or TCU out there for the power leagues to snatch away from the minnows that swim around their ankles? Would a league like the WAC, with a half-century of history as the preeminent mid-major presence in college football, be on life support and staring at its final season of existence — and would it have overextended itself in the first place trying to gain a seat at the main table? Would a conference like the Mountain West, born from the ashes of the superconference days of the WAC to replace its punier big brother in preeminence, be such a revolving door if there was a new system in place? Will there be such a revolving door once a new system — whatever semblance of a sure-to-be-inadequate playoff structure the power conferences might decide upon to try to placate the masses — takes hold in 2014?

Last season the system won, as no teams managed to break the stranglehold of the power conferences. Best among the bunch was Boise State, who was a Dan Goodale field goal against TCU away from a perfect season… yet got passed up in favor of Michigan and Virginia Tech, two teams ranked lower in the BCS standings, for the at-large berths in the Sugar Bowl. TCU, meanwhile, took losses to in-state rivals Baylor and SMU to fall out of contention despite finishing as the Mountain West champ. Houston also gave the establishment a scare, entering the C-USA Championship Game with a perfect 12-0 record. But Southern Miss deigned to end that dream, costing their conference millions in bowl returns and precipitating the exodus of schools from that league.

With just two more chances left to break the current arrangement open, which teams have the best shot at making 2012 a season to remember for non-AQ dreamers everywhere? Is this the year a C-USA team finally puts it together for all 13 regular-season games and the conference championship? Can Boise State reclaim the Mountain West in their final season there despite losing Kellen Moore and a grip of other starters? Can one of the three least-heralded leagues rise up to create a contender? Let’s look at the top contenders for the title of BCS Buster ahead of the kickoff of the 2012 season…

THE TOP FIVE

1. BYU COUGARS (IND — LAST SEASON: 10-3)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 8* OFF/7 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: T-36th
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 8/30 v. Washington State, 9/15 @ Utah, 10/13 v. Oregon State, 10/20 @ Notre Dame, 10/27 @ Georgia Tech

With the toughest schedule of any non-BCS school, BYU has the opportunity to party like it’s 1984. Of course, they’ll have to beat three Pac-12 opponents and win road trips to South Bend and ACC country to do so. In between, the Cougars face a rebuilding Boise State team, a realigned Hawaii team and a rising Utah State squad. If they can reach November undefeated, they will already have the resume to withstand a final month featuring three schools from the terminal WAC.

Returning to Provo is QB Riley Nelson, who took over the starting job midseason and put up 1700 yards and 19 touchdowns in half a season. Benefiting from a full preseason as the unquestioned starter, Nelson will be working with a veteran group of receivers and could be the next Cougar to eclipse the 4000-yard passing mark. With the top two running backs gone from last season’s 10-3 squad, it will be imperative on Nelson to improve his accuracy (57.4% completion rate in 2011) and cut down on mistakes (7 interceptions, 13 sacks).

The defense returns seven starters to a unit that ranked in the top 25 in every major statistical category. They will be tested by Mike Leach right away in his return to coaching, but if they can withstand that test the Cougars should be able to stifle every other opponent on their schedule. With the right breaks, BYU might be bowling their way into the BCS discussion.

 

2. SOUTHERN MISS GOLDEN EAGLES (C-USA — LAST SEASON: 12-2)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 6 OFF/5 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 40th
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Nebraska, 9/29 @ Louisville

The defending champions of Conference USA are poised to retain hold of the conference heading into 2012. They avoid Houston in the regular season, but road games at UCF and SMU will provide plenty of challenge within C-USA. Out of conference, the Golden Eagles take on the Cornhuskers in Lincoln in the season opener for both teams. At the end of the month, they travel to Louisville to face former their former C-USA rival before returning home to host Boise State in their first game of October.

Twelve of the team’s 24 starters return from last season’s championship team. The biggest loss will undoubtedly be that of dual-threat senior QB Austin Davis, who put on a clinic to ruin Houston’s BCS Buster dreams in the C-USA Championship Game last December. They must also replace six starters on one of the 30 stingiest defenses of 2011.

The Golden Eagles don’t play the depth of schedule of BYU, but the two BCS-level opponents they face are of a higher caliber than the Cougars. If both were to finish undefeated, the 13th showdown that is the C-USA Championship could be the tiebreaker that sends Southern Miss to one of the marquee bowl games.

 

3.  HOUSTON COUGARS (C-USA — LAST SEASON: 13-1)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 5 OFF/7 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 39th
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/15 @ UCLA

With just one BCS-level non-conference game on their schedule in 2012, the Cougars obviously planned for the departure of otherworldly QB Case Keenum — and David Piland, who started when Keenum went down in 2010, should be just fine taking the reins in Houston. He will be working with a new receiving corps, but RB Charles Sims returns and should receive more carries to help ease Piland’s transition from backup to starter.

The Cougars hadn’t also counted on losing head coach Kevin Sumlin to the job opening at Texas A&M. As Conference USA has shown in recent seasons there is ample potential for upsets among the league’s seeming bottom-feeders. Plenty of potential land mines loom for new coach Tony Levine: 9/8 at home against Louisiana Tech, 10/18 at SMU, 11/3 at East Carolina, 11/10 at home versus Tulsa… or even their date with UAB, as Southern Miss can attest all too well.

The team should be stronger defensively than it was in 2011, with new DC Jamie Bryant switching the team over to a 4-3 base alignment to better utilize the personnel at hand. If Houston can retool rather than having to rebuild, another shot at Southern Miss in the C-USA Championship is wholly conceivable in 2012.

 

4. LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS (WAC — LAST SEASON: 8-5)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 8* OFF/6 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: T-36th
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 8/30 v. Texas A&M, 9/22 @ Illinois, 9/29 @ Virginia

 

Louisiana Tech gets one final chance to defend its WAC crown before the Bulldogs leave for Conference USA and the WAC dissolves as a casualty of conference realignment. With three winnable games against SEC, Big Ten and ACC opposition, the Bulldogs have a legitimate shot at allowing the 50-year-old league to enjoy one final moment in the sun before the last shovelful of dirt buries it in the conference graveyard.

Tech returns eight starters on offense, including their entire line as well as QB Colby Cameron, who split time under center with Nick Asham in 2011. However, they lose prolific tailback Lennon Creer to graduation. The defense should remain among the best in the WAC, with six starters returning to Ruston. And coaching stability means that those returning will be imminently familiar with the system in place.

Despite the stain against the WAC in recent years, Louisiana Tech has the schedule and the personnel to make some noise nationally. If the Bulldogs can get the bounces to go their way in 2012, they have the opportunity to punctuate the WAC’s final season with a third BCS Buster in league history.

 

5. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 12-1)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 3 OFF/2 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 22nd
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 8/31 @ Michigan State

The first season of the Broncos’ short time in the Mountain West was unkind to their BCS aspirations. Otherwise undefeated, Boise State had the last-second opportunity to defeat TCU but hung their heads for a second straight season as a field-goal attempt flew untrue off their kicker’s foot and cost them a shot at a third BCS appearance.

This season, like Houston, the Broncos must replace a prolific longtime starter. Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in FBS history, saw time run out on his career. Now head coach Chris Petersen turns to one of four passers that have battled to inherit Moore’s perch under center throughout the offseason. But unlike Houston, Boise State must also replace a wide swath of starters on both sides of the ball. The opportunity to see Petersen’s recruiting acumen in action comes in 2012.

After the opener against preseason Big Ten contender Michigan State in East Lansing, Boise’s biggest threats are home games against BYU and San Diego State and its 10/27 trip to Laramie to face a fast-rising Wyoming squad. As always, the equation is simple for Boise State — win out and they’ve built the goodwill to go BCS bowling. Lose along the way, and it’s a third straight near-miss.

THE REST OF THE CONTENDERS

After the top five, it will take a lot of lucky bounces for any of these other candidates to bust through the BCS hoops to emerge unscathed at the end of the regular season. But college football is a game full of strange plot twists, and this group of eleven has the potential to make noise throughout 2012.

Some come from conferences that have always been afterthoughts in the race. Some have been overshadowed by more well-known national brands in their non-AQ leagues. But while each team has a flaw that would conceivably render it mortal, there is also a logical reason to assume the potential for greatness.

 

6. NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES (MAC — LAST SEASON: 11-3)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 3 OFF/8 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: 46th
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 v. Iowa, 9/22 v. Kansas

The Huskies lose QB Chandler Harnish and the bulk of an offense that was among the dozen best in the country, but former Wisconsin DC Dave Doeren should have an improved defense with eight starters returning. The MAC has never produced a BCS Buster, but with two straight 11-win seasons under their belt NIU can take the next step toward breaking that streak with a strong showing in its season opener at Soldier Field against the Iowa Hawkeyes.

 

7. ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (SUN BELT– LAST SEASON: 10-3)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 6 OFF/3 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Oregon, 9/15 @ Nebraska

A new coaching staff is being viewed positively, as Hugh Freeze leaves to take over at Ole Miss and Gus Malzahn returns to his home state, bringing a reputation for explosive offenses with him. The Achilles heel for the Red Wolves could be a young defense that loses eight starters from last year’s top-25 unit. If the replacements can step up and maintain that level of dominance, the Sun Belt could yield a surprise contender.

 

8. FIU GOLDEN PANTHERS (SUN BELT — LAST SEASON: 8-5)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 7 OFF/10 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Duke, 9/22 v. Louisville

Mario Cristobal’s team has been on the cusp of greatness the past few seasons. Despite losing QB Wesley Carroll and speedy jack-of-all-trades T.Y. Hilton, the offense shouldn’t tail off. The defense will be even more dominant in 2012, with ten of eleven starters returning from a unit that was ranked 14th nationally in opponent scoring. Winnable games against ACC afterthought Duke and Big East contender Louisville could vault FIU up the field of BCS Buster candidates.

 

9. TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE (C-USA — LAST SEASON: 8-5)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 6 OFF/7 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Iowa State, 11/3 @ Arkansas

Three offensive line starters will protect a new quarterback, but the entire backfield aside from QB G.J. Kinne returns for a potent Tulsa offense. The schedule is much easier than the gauntlet the Golden Hurricanes tackled in 2011, and if Tulsa can make it to Fayetteville undefeated on the first weekend of November there could be a big upset in Bill Blankenship’s future.

 

10. UTAH STATE AGGIES (WAC — LAST SEASON: 7-6)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 5 OFF/7 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/7 v. Utah, 9/15 @ Wisconsin

The Aggies nearly surprised defending national champion Auburn last season, and they will look to wrest away the last WAC title from Louisiana Tech before they transfer to the Mountain West in 2013. Utah State lost both backfield stars to the NFL Draft, and will have to retool their offense as they seek greater balance. Their defense will hope to hold their own in games against in-state rival Utah and a trip the following weekend to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

 

11. OHIO BOBCATS (MAC — LAST SEASON: 10-4)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 6 OFF/8 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Penn State

Frank Solich has run/pass QB Tyler Tettleton back for a final season, and the Bobcats are justifiably excited about their chances to reach the MAC Championship Game a second straight season. Ohio returns eight players from a strong defense, and despite losing five players on offense Tettleton provides the glue that should bring the new starters on line quickly. With an opener in Happy Valley, Ohio will know immediately if perfection is possible.

 

12. SMU MUSTANGS (C-USA — LAST SEASON: 8-5)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 3 OFF/7 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/2 @ Baylor, 9/15 v. Texas A&M, 9/29 v. TCU

June Jones is in his fifth season in Dallas, and he will have to rebuild an offense that loses eight starters. Luckily he returns seven starters from a defense ranked 27th in the country in 2011, so at least the offense shouldn’t have to outscore opponents to have a shot. The team plays an old-school SWC schedule, with Big XII schools Baylor and TCU and SEC newcomer Texas A&M on tap. The offense will have to be one of Jones’ finest to outmuscle old conference rivals.

 

13. SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 8-5)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 6 OFF/6 DEF/0 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Washington

The Aztecs piggyback their way to the Big “East” next season with Boise State, but for now they will try to fulfill their long-standing promise of Mountain West contention. Losing QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Hillman doesn’t make the task easy. A season opener in Seattle provides their only BCS test of the regular season; they will have to depend on the collective strength of the MWC to state their case for Buster worthiness.

 

14. LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE RAGIN’ CAJUNS (SUN BELT — LAST SEASON: 9-4)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 8 OFF/2 DEF/2 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/15 @ Oklahoma State, 11/10 @ Florida

The Ragin’ Cajuns enjoyed their finest season since Jake Delhomme was under center, and things look promising once again in Lafayette. While Louisiana loses nine defensive starters, it loses them from a mediocre unit; the hope is that the replacements are also improvements. They’ll have to be, if the Cajuns are to stop high-powered BCS outfits on the road in Stillwater and Gainesville.

 

15. WYOMING COWBOYS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 8-5)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 6 OFF/7 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/1 @ Texas

Dave Christensen was floored by the transfer of QB Austyn Carta-Samuels before the start of the 2011 season; he was pleasantly surprised by the performance of true freshman replacement Brett Smith. Optimism reigns in Laramie, where the Cowboys will take on Texas to start the season before trying to contend for a conference title. They’ll need their defense to continue generating turnovers (31 in 2011, T-10th nationally) to have a shot at BCS glory.

 

16. AIR FORCE FALCONS (MWC — LAST SEASON: 7-6)

  • RETURNING STARTERS: 3 OFF/3 DEF/1 ST
  • PRESEASON COACHES RANK: NR
  • GAMES AGAINST BCS: 9/8 @ Michigan

The Falcons have a major retooling project to deal with in Colorado Springs. The entire backfield from last year’s prolific triple-option offense is gone, and only three starters return on either side of the ball. Troy Calhoun has his biggest project ahead of him yet, but if any team can stifle Brady Hoke’s ambitions — Air Force went 1-1 against Hoke’s San Diego State teams before he left for Michigan — it is the Falcons. Win in Ann Arbor and Air Force sets itself up for a 1985-like season.

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