And sadness descended upon the column, its very reason for existence put into question as the cartel won this installment. But we soldier on, knowing that while this year’s battle may be lost, the war rages on and Busters will live to fight another day.
For the first time in six years, the college football regular season ends without a non-AQ conference invoking the auto-bid stipulations and Busting into the BCS party. It was a dark weekend for mid-majors, as one lost its argument outright in a championship game while the other two were #1 and #2 in the conference that has produced more than half of the BCS Busters in the fourteen years of the system’s existence.
How did it all come to this? For a brief moment there it looked like yet another undefeated Buster was going to emerge. Then the curtain fell at Robertson Stadium. It looked as though the loss by the Cougars would leave the door open for their old Southwest Conference rival to Bust the BCS for a third straight year. But the system conspired to keep the Horned Frogs far enough down in the standings not to evoke the auto-bid concessions. And there was no way in hell that they were going to take Boise State as an at large if they weren’t forced to do so…
Since Utah was the first BCS Buster in 2004, soundly routing Big East champ Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, the Mountain West has improved its record to 4-0 in BCS games against representatives from the SEC West (Utah over Alabama, 2009 Sugar Bowl), the WAC (TCU over Boise State, 2010 Fiesta Bowl) and the Big Ten (TCU over Wisconsin, 2011 Rose Bowl). Yet the conference, when push came to shove, was denied a chance to compete in the system as soon as there were any means by which the cartel could justify their exclusion.
And now the conference dissipates once again, as TCU heads for sunnier pastures in a more centralized Big XII that increasingly becomes reminiscent of the SWC. SMU and Houston, other former SWC members, are headed for the Big East along with C-USA member UCF. In the biggest part of the coup, though, the Big “East” will also welcome Boise State and San Diego State as the former regional basketball powerhouse expands its footprint nationally.
Now just one of the historical BCS Busters — Hawaii, who is headed to the Mountain West along with half of the WAC in another classic mid-major shuffle — will remain at the non-AQ level. Already this year we had seen the Utes, the epitome of the BCS Buster, join the establishment in the expanded Pac-12. Now the two other teams that have defined the era as multiple-appearance Busters will be gone from the picture.
While we lament the lack of a Buster this year, forced to watch every non-AQ school denied a shot against top-tier competition and playing in lesser bowls, the reality is that the mid-major programs are only continuing to rise. When one gets called up to the BCS level, another is ready to take its place. Who will contend next year in the Mountain West or in Conference USA? Who will emerge in the new-look WAC, the relatively stable MAC and the burgeoning Sun Belt? Those answers will come in due time. While we know that the Broncos and Horned Frogs and Cougars won’t be fitting into that equation, other programs are destined to emerge in the equation. That’s the beauty of the Cinderella story… you never know when or where it might emerge.
In that spirit, the final regular-season BCS Buster Power Rankings will rank every one of the bowl-eligible teams from the five non-AQ conferences. Some won’t be on our radar next year, moved up to a higher level and the status for which they long pined. Some won’t be on our radar, one-hit wonders that recede back into the woodwork after their pumpkin carriages rot away in the wintertime frost and fail to blossom again the next autumn. But some… some, indeed, will be back, and we will have somebody to regale us with tales of glory and keep alive our dreams of the little guy winning once again…
1. TCU Horned Frogs (MWC/10-2)
NEXT GAME: Poinsettia Bowl v. Louisiana Tech
Next year TCU would likely be feeling the same sting that they are right now, the same sting that future Big XII rival Kansas State is feeling right now — that of the jilted two-loss team left behind while other two-loss teams with arguably-shoddier resumes get into the party. It was the third straight outright Mountain West title for the Horned Frogs, their one-point victory in Boise the difference between them and the next team on this list. They missed out on the BCS by a far wider margin than the one I’d anticipated possible, and their hopes of setting history both as the first three-peat BCS Buster and the first two-loss BCS Buster were thwarted by a system that was never going to tolerate that much funny business getting through one of its loopholes…
2. Boise State Broncos (MWC/11-1)
NEXT GAME: Las Vegas Bowl v. Arizona State
The difference between the BCS National Championship and a date with 6-6 Arizona State? Wide right, the second straight season that an errant field goal cost the team a BCS berth and a potential shot at the biggest title of them all. In a season when no BCS-conference team seemed to truly want to step up and own the second slot behind LSU in the standings, the Broncos had all the opportunity in the world to seize that opportunity and show the world what BCS-conference status is really worth. Of course, were they in the Big East (as they will be by 2013 at the latest), they would be BCS bound as the clear champion of that beleaguered conference. So here’s to next year, when having one blemish on their record would make the Broncos the prettiest conference champion the Big East has had in quite some time…
3. Southern Miss Golden Eagles(C-USA/11-2)
NEXT GAME: Hawaii Bowl v. Nevada
The Golden Eagles earned themselves a trip to Hawaii to take on Nevada. They cost their conference over ten million dollars in the process. How? When the Hattiesburg Huns ransacked Robertson Stadium and trudged off with the championship trophy, they wiped out the clearest chance this season that there would be a BCS Buster for a sixth year in a row. In the end, winning the last C-USA Championship Game might have done more harm to the Golden Eagles than it helped. Watching a quarter of its membership flock to the Big East, the Golden Eagles positioned their coach to flee for a bigger gig of his own with their victory and left the remaining teams a lot poorer for their success…
4. Houston Cougars (C-USA/12-1)
NEXT GAME: TicketCity Bowl v. Penn State
Everything was there for the taking. I’ve already lamented the death of the BCS dream in Houston, so let’s not dabble further in detail. It was to be a coronation day for Case Keenum and the rest of the Cougars; instead, the conference will wave goodbye to a Houston team that would have been neck and neck with Boise State in the conference standings were they alongside them in the Big East already. How long will it be before it is the Big East and not the ACC that is earning a second at-large BCS berth, causing people’s jaws to drop in disbelief?
5. BYU Cougars (IND/9-3)
NEXT GAME: Armed Forces Bowl v. Tulsa
BYU didn’t want to deal with being an also-ran in the Mountain West anymore, and it was rewarded for its independence with a date against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. Once again, though, this was a team of close calls and near-misses. They narrowly skirted by Ole Miss on the road, and should have rightfully beaten Texas had they simply failed to beat themselves. But the Utes proved that they are far closer to BCS level than their Holy War rival in a 44-point whitewashing in Provo, and TCU further showed that there was reason why the Cougars were never BCS material during their time in the Mountain West. Bronco Mendenhall has a program solid enough to get to ten wins, but not yet in the ranks of the elite…
6. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/10-3)
NEXT GAME: GoDaddy.com Bowl v. Arkansas State
7. Arkansas State Red Wolves (SUN/10-2)
NEXT GAME: GoDaddy.com Bowl v. Northern Illinois
The Huskies would have been forgiven for experiencing even the slightest of dropoffs when Jerry Kill left to take the head coaching job at Minnesota and Dave Doeren stepped in to the leadership role at Northern Illinois. But they dominated the MAC West once again, and this time in the MAC Championship there were no RedHawk surprises. After spotting the Bobcats a twenty-point lead in the first half, NIU came out in the second half and put the clamps on Ohio and started to get their offense driving against Frank Solich’s defense. Chandler Harnish capped his penultimate performance as a Husky with a three-touchdown comeback for the ages that was settled as time expired with a 33-yard field goal that gave Northern Illinois the first lead of the night.
Now the MAC champion gets Sun Belt champ Arkansas State in a showdown that will settle out this portion of the rankings unequivocally for the 2011 season. The Red Wolves were the pleasant surprise of a Sun Belt that saw traditional powerhouse Troy down on its luck this year, their only losses coming on the road at Illinois and at Virginia Tech. In his first season Hugh Freeze has already inserted his name among the list of rising stars in the non-AQ coaching ranks, and already word is that Ole Miss is a-callin’ for his services. Will contract questions prove a distraction for Arkansas State like they did for NIU last season with Kill?
8. Toledo Rockets (MAC/8-4)
NEXT GAME: Military Bowl v. Air Force
The Rockets came into the season with hopes of soaring into the upper echelon of college football, with all-purpose threat Eric Page back for another year and a slew of statement games on the schedule. But they weren’t able to seal the deal against Ohio State, they faltered against Boise State at home, Syracuse thwarted their last chance for a victory over a BCS-conference opponent and not even sixty points were enough to knock off Northern Illinois in a high-flying offensive thriller. Will the Rockets triumph in the Military Bowl? This game will prove a classic test of new-age football versus old-time football, a multifaceted attack up against the steady punishing ground game of the inaptly-named Falcons…
9. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (WAC/8-4)
NEXT GAME: Poinsettia Bowl v. TCU
Before the season started, everyone was curious what would happen in the WAC now that Boise State was no longer around to hog all the glory. It was widely assumed that the arm of Bryant Moniz in Hawaii or the systems of Chris Ault in Reno or Pat Hill in Fresno would rule the day, one last hurrah from among this trio of teams that would be playing out their last season as WAC members before bolting for the Mountain West. Instead it was the Bulldogs who arose from the dead, shaking off a 1-4 start that included a home loss to Hawaii in conference to run the table the rest of the way and emerge as champions. The faithful in Ruston were rewarded with a bowl matchup beyond their wildest dreams — a date with TCU in San Diego. With the Horned Frogs hoping for more and looking ahead to AQ status in 2012, will the Bulldogs catch them off guard for the Poinsettias?
10. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/9-4)
NEXT GAME: Idaho Potato Bowl v. Utah State
It was the most heartbreaking way possible to watch a championship slip out of your fingertips. The Bobcats had everything going for them in the first half. Not only did they take a 20-0 lead into the locker room, they were up by 13 in the fourth quarter. That’s when everything came apart for Ohio, as Harnish and the Huskies finished the comeback for the ages and finally exacted some karmic payback for all their own near-misses. It won’t make it any easier for Solich’s crew to swallow, knowing that their consolation prize is a trip to Boise’s Smurf Turf to play Utah State in the Spud Bowl. At least this time for Ohio, long-suffering since 1968 for a MAC championship, it was somebody other than Central Michigan (see: 2006, 2009) thwarting their conference title dreams…
11. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (C-USA/8-4)
NEXT GAME: Armed Forces Bowl v. BYU
No team in the country played a harder out-of-conference schedule than the Golden Hurricane, who took on Oklahoma in Norman and Oklahoma State in a weird delayed game late into the wee hours at home and then traveled to Boise to face the Broncos. Unfortunately for Tulsa, all three were losses. And when their marquee moment came against Houston, G.J. Kinne and the Hurricane offense fell woefully short of claiming a surprise shot in the C-USA Championship Game. For a team that lost its head coach Todd Graham to the Pitt job in the offseason, it was a masterful run. Hats off to Bill Blankenship and the rest of the coaching staff for eking out the most possible… and one final chance to get a ninth win remains when Tulsa faces BYU.
12. Wyoming Cowboys (MWC/8-4)
NEXT GAME: New Mexico Bowl v. Temple
13. Temple Owls (MAC/8-4)
NEXT GAME: New Mexico Bowl v. Wyoming
When two-year starting QB Austyn Carta-Samuels decided to transfer in the offseason, it left Dave Christensen scrambling for a viable signal-caller to operate his version of the spread offense. In stepped true freshman Brett Smith, a gangly dual-threat from Salem, OR who fell into the lap of the Pokes when nobody else recruited him. Playing even better than the incumbent might have, Smith was a 60% passer in his first season and threw for nearly 2500 yards with 18 touchdowns and just 8 picks. Coupled with his rushing ability — a 5.2 YPA average, nearly 650 yards and 10 running scores — Smith allowed a second Christensen renaissance to blossom in Laramie. They’ll return to Albuquerque for the second time in three years after a surprise 3rd-place finish in the Mountain West…
… there they will face Bernard Pierce and a Temple team smarting after being left out of the bowl picture last year despite the same record. The Owls are excited to be back bowling, but knew there were several missed opportunities that could have allowed them to enjoy a matchup against somebody other than one of the Mountain West’s early contenders for 2012 now that the two teams above the Pokes are both departing. With near-defeats of Penn State and Ohio, Steve Addazio’s team is oh-so-close and yet oh-so-far from BCS contention. But they can show how far they are one way or the other in Albuquerque in the bowl season opener…
14. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/8-4)
NEXT GAME: New Orleans Bowl v. Louisiana-Lafayette
San Diego State was expecting to be the team that contended closest with the Broncos and Horned Frogs, viewed by many as a dark-horse BCS contender in the preseason if only they could skirt by their closest conference foes. Instead, after a year where they were just the fourth-best team in the Mountain West, they’ll head to New Orleans… but not for the BCS Championship, nor for the Sugar Bowl. Instead they’ll be playing the New Orleans Bowl against the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette, a tough team but hardly in the same caliber as the LSUs they dreamed about when preparing for 2011… at least they’ll soon be the westernmost school imaginable for the Big East save Hawaii (and who knows — they probably already asked the Warriors)…
15. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (SUN/7-5)
NEXT GAME: shut out of a bowl
Despite a 7-1 record in the Sun Belt conference, with wins over both the teams below them in the end-of-season BCS Buster Power Rankings, the Hilltoppers were shut out of a bowl game after enjoying the best season in school history. Instead of being rewarded for surmounting the odds and finishing with their first winning record as a full I-A member in the school’s young football history with its first-ever bowl berth, the Hilltoppers are a casualty of the NCAA’s postseason waiver to a 6-7 UCLA team that fired its head coach — win or lose — before the Pac-12 Championship and then left him in to squirm for one final game. We can rant about the BCS all we want, but this snub is as painful if less well-noticed as any Buster being left out of the big games…
16. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (SUN/8-4)
NEXT GAME: New Orleans Bowl v. San Diego State
The Ragin’ Cajuns enjoyed their best season since Jake Delhomme was under center in Lafayette, and a team that was projected to finish dead last in the Sun Belt Conference ends up getting a trip to the big city to take on a tough San Diego State team with conference and personal prestige on the line. One interesting fact about Louisiana-Lafayette? Other than their thriller against Kansas State, no other team hung more points on the Oklahoma State defense than the Ragin’ Cajuns. If ULL wins on home-state soil and knocks off the Aztecs, we’ll truly know that the Sun Belt is a rising power…
OTHERS MERITING CONSIDERATION
17. FIU Golden Panthers (SUN/8-4)
NEXT GAME: St. Petersburg Bowl v. Marshall
18. Utah State Aggies (WAC/7-5)
NEXT GAME: Idaho Potato Bowl v. Ohio
19. Nevada Wolf Pack (WAC/7-5)
NEXT GAME: Hawaii Bowl v. Southern Miss
20. SMU Mustangs (C-USA/7-5)
NEXT GAME: BBVA Compass Bowl v. Pittsburgh
21. Air Force Falcons (MWC/7-5)
NEXT GAME: Military Bowl v. Toledo
22. Western Michigan Broncos (MAC/7-5)
NEXT GAME: Little Caesars Bowl v. Purdue
23. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/6-6)
NEXT GAME: St. Petersburg Bowl v. FIU