Now that Boise State has become a household name to the college football set and TCU and Utah have joined power conferences, it's time to identify the next generation of busters. Will one or more of the below mid-major squads pop up in a premier bowl over the next few seasons? Stranger things have happened (like the existence of Nachos O'Brady).
A note on conference realignment: For the moment, we're ignoring teams with rapidly approaching mid-major exit dates, which, in addition to a bowl ban to be served this season or next, is why you don't see the highly-regarded 2012 UCF team on this list.
Last year: The Red Wolves shouldered early losses to Illinois and Virginia Tech and defeated every mid-major team they faced, by widely varying margins. They earned a postseason bid and wrapped the season with a loss to Northern Illinois in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. They also hired Gus Malzahn to replace Hugh Freeze. You might have heard.
Key returning contributors: Malzahn, for one, who could make some noise in the Sun Belt if he chooses to stick around in Jonesboro that long. He'll be working his quarterback whispering on Ryan Aplin, who ran a top 20 passing offense last season without Malzahn and can take off running when called upon. Aplin will need to rely on his own skills after losing a lot of experience on the line.
Games to watch in 2012: It will probably be over very early for Arkansas State, polls-wise. Voters are notoriously unforgiving to mid-major squads with even one loss, and the Red Wolves travel to Oregon for their season opener and to Nebraska in Week 3. Western Kentucky and FIU lurk in Weeks 4 and 5. The Red Wolves can practically coast downhill the last half of their season (notable exception: That road trip to Lafayette in October), and will need every gimme game they can get to erase memories of September flailings if things go that badly in Eugene or Lincoln. But wouldn't it be something if we saw a real shootout between Malzahn and Chip Kelly on the first Saturday of the season?
Last year: The Bulldogs turned a 1-4 start into an 8-4 finish, a conference title and a Poinsettia Bowl berth, where injuries and ill-placed turnovers kept them (but only just) from knocking off a listless TCU squad.
Key returning contributors: Documented extensively in our spring visit piece; Tech loses a couple shining stars at linebacker and defensive end and its top running back, but returns promising back Hunter Lee, 1200-yard receiver Quinton Patton, talented center Stephen Warner and Ray Guy winner Ryan Allen.
Games to watch: Tech's schedule is highly front-loaded with nonconference contests; the Bulldogs open 2012 in Shreveport against Texas A&M and travel to Houston, Illinois and UVA before pew-pewing their way through the WAC. It's not all that unrealistic to think they could win a majority of those first contests, particularly with their coaches swearing the team plays better across the board on the road.
Last year: Six of the Bobcats' 14 2011 games were decided by less than a touchdown. They split those evenly, losing the MAC title game by a field goal and enduring a bizarre two-week skid against Buffalo and Ball State while edging out Temple and Bowling Green and, in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Utah State.
Key returning contributors: Fans of alliteration, rejoice! Tyler Tettleton, a top 20 offensive producer in 2011, returns at quarterback (and will be pitching to a notably depleted receiving corps, it should be noted), as does high-scoring kicker Matt Weller, who averaged close to nine points per game last season.
Games to watch: Treasure this moment, Bobcats sick of Buckeye supremacy: For this one year, you have a better chance of making a bowl than Ohio State. It's a technicality, but it's a fun technicality, consarnit. Ohio's even scheduling like a power conference team, with its one high-profile nonconference game (a Week 1 trip to Penn State) headlining a menu that includes New Mexico State, Norfolk State and Marshall. The schedule continues to forecast sunshine when the Bobcats get into their conference schedule, a slat which avoids every single MAC team that finished with a winning record in 2011. Just go on and book your hotel rooms in Detroit -- this season looks very nearly unjinxable. Unless the Bobcats lose to Buffalo again. Maybe try not to do that.
Last year: Had prolific quarterback G.J. Kinne not injured himself early in Tulsa's Week 3 home stand against Oklahoma State, the Golden Hurricane might have managed better than a 1-4 start against a nasty September slate that included not only the Cowboys, but road trips to Oklahoma and Boise State. Tulsa skated through conference play undefeated until its regular-season finale, a 16-48 pantsing at the hands of Houston, and fell to BYU by a field goal in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Key returning contributors: Tulsa loses Kinne, but returns potent ground power in the form of Ja'Terian Douglas and Trey Watts for an offense that averaged close to 200 rushing yards in 2011.
Games to watch: Mercifully for Tulsa, no Oklahomas of any kind are to be found. Tulsa opens 2012 at Iowa State as part of Week 1's Thursday schedule, travels to Arkansas in early November, and spends the two weekends immediately following attempting to exact revenge at Houston and hold off UCF at home.
Last year: We (in this case meaning Campus Union and Stewart Mandel) harbored real hipster Heisman hopes for hotshot FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton. That didn't work out so well for us, but Florida International went on to its second bowl game in conference history. Which it lost. So why are we excited? BECAUSE, that's why.
Key returning contributors: Pretty much everybody not named T.Y. Hilton or quarterback Wes Carroll. Running back Kedrick Rhodes, all-conference defensive end Tourek Williams (preseason Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year) and strong safety Jonathan Cyprien lead the pack. Games to watch: Every really interesting team in the Sun Belt (Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, South Alabama) pops up on FIU's schedule this year, in addition to UCF in Week 3 and rematches with Duke and Louisville.