Non-automatic qualifiers were seen but not heard only 10 years ago for the most part. However with the rise of TCU and Boise St. in the last decade, more attention is paid to those teams outside the power conferences. As popular as it is to predict national champions and Heisman winners, it’s almost as popular to find the next BCS crasher that will get their shot at the big boys. Boise St., TCU, Utah and Hawaii have all played in BCS games since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. As a result of their rise, Texas Christian University was invited to the Big 12 conference starting this season and will get their chance to show what they can do against the big boys on a week to week basis. That leaves Boise St. as the class of the non-AQs and given the program they’ve built over the last decade, would be a slam dunk most years for the top spot. So for the sake of this portion of the off-season preview we’ll exclude Boise St. from the rankings, giving them their respect as the class of Non-AQs until someone proves otherwise.
Before we jump into the Non-AQs though, be sure to check out some of the previous work from this offseason as we dive into the 2012 preview.
Also Parts 1-3 of the offseason preview that preceded this one can be found below:
Who else has the chance to climb the rankings in 2012? Here’s the top five candidates this season:
5. UCF Knights
Last year I was high on the Knights coming into the season with their trifecta of running backs and a quarterback in Jeff Godfrey who although was well documented as a one-dimensional threat, was a playmaker that gave their offense more weapons. The defense was expected to be strong and they had an experienced team coming back. Nonetheless UCF blew up in my face as not only did UCF not perform as one of the top non-AQs in America, but they didn’t even qualify for a bowl game. The defense did its part ranking ninth in the country overall with both the pass D and run D ranking in the top 25 nationally but the offense had a misleading 54th national ranking and they were abysmal away from home. They were 0-6 away from home and beat only one team (Marshall) with a winning record. Not very BCS-buster like at all. So why the redeemed faith in the Knights heading into 2012? The Knights get the bulk of their tough CUSA games at home, they will again have a stable of running backs to compliment a new starting QB that is still up in the air coming out of the spring game. On top of backs Latavius Murray and Brynn Harvey, the Knights welcome Storm Johnson into the program, a transfer from the University of Miami, FL who was the Hurricanes scout team offensive player of the year before leaving the program. There is a number of returning defensive starters from the team coming back and they don’t have any back to backs that provide brutal challenges. It’s a leap of faith with UCF. There’s other teams in their ballpark that may appear safer plays. But the talent in the backfield and the defense they’ll put on a field, playing for a coach George O’Leary who has rebounded from each of his four or five win seasons prior with at least eight wins while at UCF is reason enough to put my backing the the Knights heading into this season.
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4. Ohio Bobcats
The defending champions of the eastern division of the MAC conference, Ohio won 10 games in 2011 including a season-ending victory over Utah St. in the Famous Potatoes Bowl for the first bowl win in program history. Frank Solich enters his eighth season on the job and expectations may never be higher than they will be entering 2012 for a program who has been to a bowl game four times in the past five seasons. With six offensive starters and eight defensive starters returning in 2012, the Bobcats will again be an experienced group and should be considered the favorites to repeat as division champs despite the expectations I made already this offseason for Miami, OH to bounce back. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton will have a heavy load with his leading rusher and two leading pass catchers gone from a year ago but he will have running backs Ryan Boykin and Beau Blakenship back who each had roughly 100 carries a year ago. Tettleton was able to make plays through the air and on the ground with his feet a year ago and will need to repeat much of the same if the Bobcats offense will match the balance they had last season. The Bobcats have a manageable non-conference schedule with Penn St on the road to open the season representing the one major challenge. In league play the Bobcats catch a break as they’ll avoid Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan in cross-division play, the top three teams in the Western division a year ago. With Temple’s departure to the Big East, the trip to Miami, OH in late October could play the biggest role in whether they can return to the MAC title game. Of the top teams in the conference last season, Ohio is the only one with significant starters returning on both sides of the ball. The MAC showed last year it was one of the wildest, most unpredictable conferences in America, but things look bright for the Bobcats in 2012 and they should be back in contention for the conference title they let slip away in the second half of the conference championship game a year ago.
3. Troy Trojans
Noticing a trend here? I tend to be stubborn when it comes to teams I pick to succeed. After going into a little detail earlier in this offseason preview on Troy, they again appear on a list, this time of the best non-AQs in America coming into 2012. Troy has owned the Sun Belt in the past decade as the one consistent program who seems to be in the hunt nearly every year. Last year was the exception as Troy crashed and burned to a 3-9 record, something that coach Larry Blakeney certainly will use as a motivating factor this offseason as they prepare for their opener against UAB. Offensively they bring back almost everything from a year ago and the progress Corey Robinson made last year should be a big advantage to them as he corrects the mistakes he made. The top five pass catchers and their leading running back also will return to school, and with a schedule that isn’t overly daunting they should be in position to win most of their games. The non-conference schedule offers a few challenges with home games against Mississippi St. and Navy as well as a road test at Tennessee which would be a tough game to win. Still, they’ll be welcoming nine starters back offensively and six back defensively where they were dreadful last season. The more I scour over the Sun Belt the more I like Troy’s chances to contend for a conference crown again. It may be rolling the dice a bit, but who doesn’t enjoy a good gamble every once in a while?
2. Wyoming Cowboys
Coming into the 2011 season, the top of the Mountain West conference figured to be a three-way battle with the favorites Boise St challenged by TCU and San Diego St. Noticeably absent from that group is the Wyoming Cowboys who also were picked to finish behind Colorado St. and Air Force according to the media’s preseason poll. So when they manged to finish 5-2 in league play, good for third place, and went 8-4 before a bowl loss to Temple, it took most by surprise. The question to ask oneself coming into 2012 is whether the Cowboys did it with smoke and mirrors or if we can expect more of the same from a team who returns six offensive starters and seven on defense. After all there was nothing Wyoming did exceptionally well a year ago. They were above average running the ball and stopping the pass, but their passing game and rush defense were so poor that they were a mere 55th nationally on offense and 95th defensively. The defense has been raved about by the coaching staff coming out of spring ball for the depth they’ve shown and their athleticism which had coach Dave Christensen saying “I really noticed Mark Nzeocha today. I’m really pleased with his progress. There aren’t a lot of 6-4, 230-pound safeties that can move like he can. He’s the one guy who really stood out to me. A lot of great performances though. We’ll evaluate the film — it’s been a great spring. We’ll need to get some guys ready who are coming in the fall, but overall I’m very pleased.” He went on to talk about how he thinks this is the most complete team he’s had since going to the program in 2009. Quarterback Brett Smith is back for his sophomore season with Brandon Miller, the team’s third leading rusher a year ago. Three of the teams’ top five receivers are back as well. With TCU off to the Big 12, Boise St. is likely still the favorite in the Mountain West but the new additions of Nevada, Fresno St. and Hawaii will probably counter-balance that with a tougher league. Wyoming is well equipped to compete still near the top of the Mountain West. Road games at Nevada and Frenso St along with a home game vs Boise will tell us most of what we need to know about this team’s chances.
1. BYU Cougars
The BYU program has a much stronger history than other non-AQs and in fact even recently you could argue that they shouldn’t be included in this discussion along with Boise St. and (formerly) TCU. Bronco Mendenhall hasn’t simply made BYU a strong non-AQ program but a very strong program overall. With the exception of a down 2010 season where they finished 7-6, the Cougars have finished with 10 or more wins every other season since 2006 while finishing the season in one of the two major polls. Last season BYU had numerous close calls that pushed them to 10 wins but could have been anywhere from eight-eleven. The Cougars biggest controversy last year was the back and forth debate over Jake Heaps vs. Riley Nelson for the starting quarterback spot. Bronco Mendenhall eventually got fed up with Heaps’ inconsistencies and poor decisions and rolled with Nelson, eventually losing Heaps this offseason to transfer (Notre Dame). With Nelson back and the obvious starter for this season, the Cougars have had all spring to get acclimated to their offense under Nelson who isn’t the passer Heaps was and often makes plays with his legs. With nine offensive starters returning including their third and fourth leading rushers as well as their top three receivers, Mendenhall will certainly expect more from a respectable offense a year ago. Cody Hoffman is coming off a season where he had 61 catches for 943 yards and 10 TDs and will be expected to be the lead contributor in the receiving game this year for a team that tends to struggle in the passing game. Defensively is where BYU will be the most potent in 2012 with seven starters coming back from the nation’s 14th-best defense a year ago. The top five tacklers on roster from last season will be back as well including their starting linebacker core that was the strong point of the team in 2011. The likelihood of BYU being able to play the BCS buster is slim given the challenge their schedule will present. They open the year with a Washington St. team who I expect will be improved this year, get Utah and Boise St on the road before September ends and have three games in a row in October against Oregon St, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech with the last two on the road. They may not end up with the most wins of the teams on this list or among other non-AQs, but make no mistake about it, they’re the best non-AQ not named Boise St (and even that is up for debate) heading into 2012.
Comments and feedback are always encouraged and appreciated. Check back in a few weeks when we go over the coaches faces the hot seat this upcoming season.