In 2011, the non-automatic qualifier conferences failed to produce a representative in one of the BCS bowl games for the first time since 2005. Don’t expect to see a so-called mid-major in a marquee postseason event this winter either, especially now that TCU and Utah have joined the big leagues over the past two seasons. However, just because smaller programs won’t have quite the same bite in 2012 doesn’t mean that they can’t do serious damage to some unsuspecting powerhouse from a name brand league.
Less prominent conferences, such as the Mountain West, MAC and even the Sun Belt, continue to produce underrated schools, each of whom is just itching for a chance to make national headlines by taking down a nationally-known opponent.
Gus Malzahn did not leave his high-profile job as the Auburn offensive coordinator to tread water in Jonesboro. In fact, he’s been outspoken about wanting to transform Arkansas State into the “Boise State of the South.” Considering the coach’s track record, it’d be foolish to doubt him. His first Red Wolves team won’t play much D, but should flourish running Malzahn’s trademark hurry-up, no-huddle attack. He inherits an ideal triggerman, senior Ryan Aplin, who accounted for 29 touchdowns in 2011, and will reunite with top receiver Josh Jarboe.
On Upset Alert: Oregon (Sept. 1), Nebraska (Sept. 15)
This will not be a vintage Broncos team, the result of wholesale changes on both sides of the ball. However, as long as Chris Petersen is on the sidelines, the mindset around campus is to reload and not rebuild. We’ll all know right away whether or not Boise State is still the game’s most dangerous BCS buster, with the opener coming at Michigan State. While Petersen needs to develop a successor to iconic QB Kellen Moore, likely Joe Southwick, he expects to unleash a new wave of standouts, such as DT Michael Atkinson, CB Jamar Taylor, RB D.J. Harper and WR Matt Miller.
On Upset Alert: Michigan State (Aug. 31)
The hope around Provo is that the 2012 edition is Bronco Mendenhall’s best in his seven years on the job. We’ll see. The coach has quietly done a terrific job with the Cougars, winning at least 10 games in five of the last six seasons, but he wants to break through with a bigger splash in the postseason. BYU has enough key pieces on both sides of the ball to build on last year’s 8-1 finish. Senior Riley Nelson will once again be the steady, athletic hand on offense, delivering the ball to receivers Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo. The D is stacked at linebacker with Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga. The Sept. 22 trip to Boise State could be a BCS buster elimination game for both schools.
On Upset Alert: Notre Dame (Oct. 20), Georgia Tech (Oct. 27)
This may not be Chris Petersen's best team, but Boise State could still be a giant-killer.
Mario Cristobal is still on the payroll. Everything else is secondary in Miami. The rising star of the coaching staff could have been in the Big East this year, but opted instead to remain with the Golden Panthers, where he’s methodically building a Sun Belt heavyweight. Last year’s squad went 8-5, including wins over Louisville and UCF. This year’s edition returns enough starters to raise the bar even higher by competing for a league championship. Kedrick Rhodes is a 1,000-yard rusher capable of carrying the offense, while the D is steeped in veteran playmakers, with all-star ceilings.
On Upset Alert: Louisville (Sept. 22)
The Bulldogs have a new staff, with Tim DeRuyter replacing longtime head man Pat Hill, and a 4-9 campaign in the rear view mirror. What they also have, though, is the Mountain West’s premier backfield. Junior Derek Carr and senior Robbie Rouse give Fresno State one of the nation’s sneaky good quarterback-running back combos, which is the source for plenty of optimism in the Valley entering 2012. Carr threw for 3,544 yards and 26 scores, while Rouse rushed for 1,549 yards and 13 touchdowns. When those two are clicking, this program will be a tough out for everyone on the schedule.
On Upset Alert: Oregon (Sept. 8), Colorado (Sept. 15)
Yeah, the Cougars lost plenty of talent from last year’s 13-win team, including head coach Kevin Sumlin, record-smashing QB Case Keenum and playmaking LB Sammy Brown. Still, the cupboard won’t be empty for first-year head coach Tony Levine, who has earned rave reviews since being hired. Keenum’s successor, David Piland, already has starting experience, RB Charles Sims is an unassuming star and the line brings back four starters. Oh, and the D has more returning starters than glaring holes. No, Houston won’t duplicate last season’s success, but it remains a top-tier Conference USA program, with plenty of bite left.
On Upset Alert: UCLA (Sept. 15)
After breaking through with a long-awaited WAC title, the Bulldogs are looking to control the watered-down league once again. It’s Year 3 for head coach Sonny Dykes, whose fast-paced offensive system has started to sink in with the personnel. Tech will go about as far as the attack will take it, which could be a long way. QB Colby Cameron caught a lot of folks by surprise last fall, supplanting Nick Isham, and helping guide his team to seven straight wins. He’ll be flanked by a solid supporting cast that includes a veteran O-line and next-level WR Quinton Patton. With Texas A&M, Illinois and Virginia on the docket, Dykes is capable of notching a signature win in the first month.
On Upset Alert: Texas A&M (Aug. 30), Illinois (Sept. 22), Virginia (Sept. 29)
This figures to be Doc Holliday’s best team in Huntington. Okay, that’s not saying too much, but the Thundering Herd should not be taken lightly this season. The program finally has a potential franchise quarterback, Rakeem Cato, and is flush with talent at the skill positions, such as game-changing WR Aaron Dobson. The defense has had a knack for exceeding expectations, and will be getting an influx of talent from transfers and the latest recruiting class. If the Herd can solve its problems along the lines, it’s capable of capturing the East, and playing for a Conference USA crown.
On Upset Alert: West Virginia (Sept. 1), Purdue (Sept. 29)
Sans a lot of hoopla, head coach Chris Ault just keeps getting the job done in Reno. His team has been to seven straight bowl games, and an eighth is well within its reach. The Pack’s run-based Pistol offense can cause fits for opponents, much the way Oregon has done ever since Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene. The pieces are in place for Nevada to once again control the tempo of the game on the ground. Reigning WAC Freshman of the Year Cody Fajardo is an exciting dual-threat, RB Stefphon Jefferson is a bust-out candidate and the Chris Barker-led line could be the Mountain West’s best. The Pack won’t flinch at the sight of its first two opponents, Cal and South Florida.
On Upset Alert: Cal (Sept. 1), South Florida (Sept. 8)
After winning a bowl game for the first time in school history, the Bobcats are looking for even bigger mountains to climb in 2012. Head coach Frank Solich continues to do a fine job in Athens, coaching up the modest talent he attracts to the program. He’ll again be led by playmaking QB Tyler Tettleton and an underrated defense that just might be his best in eight years at the school. Throw in PK Matt Weller, the 2011 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year, and it’s no surprise that Ohio is favored to win the East and the league title. The opener in Happy Valley promises to be rife with storylines, as Penn State begins a new era under Bill O’Brien, and the Bobcats aim to catch the Lions in a fog.
On Upset Alert: Penn State (Sept. 1)
Head coach June Jones has a dangerous team at SMU.
The Mustangs’ ceiling just might hinge on how well QB Garrett Gilbert transitions to his new school across state in Dallas. The former can’t-miss recruit of Texas joins SMU this summer, giving head coach June Jones his most heralded hurler since he arrived on the Hilltop. Obviously, the fate of the run-and-shoot hinges on the play of the quarterbacks, and the program has missed its mark at the position in recent years. If Gilbert assimilates and quickly digests the nuances of the playbook, he and bulldozing RB Zach Line will cause fits for opposing defenses. The Mustangs are a precise passer away from being a scary football team.
On Upset Alert: Baylor (Sept. 2), Texas A&M (Sept. 15), TCU (Sept. 29)
The Rockets won’t stop anyone this fall. If, however, they drag better teams into a track meet, look out. Even with the loss of some key personnel, this team will score fast and they will score often, pressuring the opposition with an up-tempo style of offense. The 2011 squad scored at least 42 points in each of the final six games, despite being forced to make an unexpected change behind center. After incumbent Austin Dantin went down, all Terrance Owens did was throw 12 touchdowns to one pick over the final month. Both quarterbacks return to challenge each other, and pilot an attack that’ll have its foot on the gas from September to December.
On Upset Alert: Arizona (Sept. 1), Cincinnati (Oct. 20)
There was no retreat for the Golden Hurricane in the first year for Bill Blankenship, who went 8-5 in 2011. Without much attention, the program has been consistently good despite a lot of turnover on the sidelines, bowling in seven of the last nine years. Tulsa appears loaded on both sides of the ball, especially if Cody Green, a former transfer from Nebraska, can handle being the heir apparent to G.J. Kinne at quarterback. The offense is loaded in the backfield, with Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas, and thrilled to have Bryan Burnham back at wide receiver. The defense could be even better as safeties Dexter McCoil and Marco Nelson lead an athletic and opportunistic unit.
On Upset Alert: Iowa State (Sept. 1), Arkansas (Nov. 3)
The Knights will not be eligible for the postseason in 2012. They will be eligible to ruin a larger program’s season. UCF is ready to rebound after sliding below the .500 mark in 2011. As usual, the defense will be fast, aggressive and nasty, especially up front, and the ground game will be in the capable hands of assertive senior RB Latavius Murray. The offense could also receive a major boost this fall from a trio of transfers who’ll be competing for playing time. QB Tyler Gabbert (Missouri), RB Storm Johnson (Miami) and OT Phil Smith (Georgia Tech) are about to give the school more depth and a noticeable injection of talent on the roster.
On Upset Alert: Ohio State (Sept. 8), Missouri (Sept. 29)
Although the Broncos are not a complete football team, anything is possible when a star occupies one of the key positions on the field. As long as QB Alex Carder is on the field, Western Michigan has a chance to knock off anyone on this season’s schedule. He’s a top-flight passer, with enough experience and arm strength to continue playing on Sundays. Not to be overlooked, the Broncos are going to be very strong along both lines. With Dann O’Neill on offense, and Freddie Bishop on D, Western Michigan is going to look an awful lot like a Big Ten team this fall.
On Upset Alert: Illinois (Sept. 1), Minnesota (Sept. 15), Connecticut (Sept. 22)
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