Ever since Utah kicked down the door to college football's VIP room six years ago, the non-automatic qualifiers (né mid-majors) have been steadily building toward the ultimate playing-field leveler: a spot in the national title game.
Boise State staged a legendary upset over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Utah topped former No. 1 Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Last season, two non-AQ teams lifted the velvet ropes, as Boise met TCU in the Fiesta. The matchup was a landmark moment for the "little guy."
It also set the stage for what could be an even bigger 2010 season for the Broncos, who return the core of the team that left Glendale with a perfect record in tow.
The Broncos gained considerable respect by producing two undefeated seasons in three years. With 21 returning starters, including Heisman-contending QB Kellen Moore, who directed the nation's highest-scoring attack in 2009 (42.2 points per game), Boise figures to begin the season as a prominently ranked title contender.
But don't expect rankings or hype to become a topic of conversation in the Broncos locker room. Former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who recently left for the same position at Tennessee, said head coach Chris Petersen never discusses rankings with his team or staff. His ability to shelter his team from the hype will be tested immediately in 2010, as Boise faces Virginia Tech at Washington's FedEx Field over Labor Day weekend. Petersen kept the Broncos focused in the face of a season-defining opener against Oregon last season; he'll need to do the same this year.
But this experienced lineup faces a more immediate concern: replacing corner/punt returner Kyle Wilson, an all-WAC or all-America selection for four seasons in Boise. Jerrell Gavins showed he's prepared to take over Wilson's spot in the defensive backfield by starting in the Fiesta Bowl (Wilson played safety), but finding a new return man may not be an easy fix.
Redshirt sophomore Chris Potter served as Wilson's primary backup last season and posted a higher average yards per return (12.9 to 10.4). But Potter primarily saw action against Miami (Ohio) and UC Davis. Titus Young, who returned two kickoffs for scores in 2009, could be an option, as could Gavins, Doug Martin and a number of others. It's the only real opening on the Broncos roster, but it may not be decided until fall camp.
Kelly arrived in South Bend saying all the right things. Upon taking over an Irish program that had gone 16-21 over the past three seasons, he boasted "we don't have a five-year plan, we have a five-minute plan and we'll start to work on it immediately."
Job No. 1 for the offensive-minded Kelly is getting Dayne Crist, the heir apparent to QB Jimmy Clausen, comfortable running the up-tempo spread offense that resulted in 38.6 points per game for Kelly's Cincinnati squad last year. That comfort may be hard to come by, though; the 6-foot-4 junior is coming off ACL surgery, and while Kelly says he is healing exceptionally well, Crist will be limited this spring.
The Irish are extremely thin at QB behind Crist, with early enrollee Tommy Rees and former walk-on Nate Montana (better known as Son of Joe) among the only other passers on the roster. If Crist can get healthy and acclimated, he'll have plenty of weapons around him, particularly receiver Michael Floyd (18.1 yards per catch, nine TDs in an injury-shortened '09 campaign) and running back Armando Allen, who has 1,000-yard potential. Things could get dicey on the offensive line, though, where only two starters return from last year (guards Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson).
It won't matter how well Crist and Co. pick up the new offense, though, if the defense can't improve on last season. The Irish ranked 86th in total defense and gave up 425 yards per game during a season-ending four-game losing streak. On the plus side, they return eight starters, including a budding star in freshman all-America linebacker Manti Te'o.
Kelly was known for working wonders with overlooked talent at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. At Notre Dame, he'll inherit the remnants of two top 10 recruiting classes and a schedule that puts six or seven wins easily in reach. Getting bowl eligible won't stir any echoes, but it's a good place to start.
Hall took all but 34 of the Cougars' 1,416 snaps over the past three seasons. So while Bronco Mendenhall is charged with replacing 11 starters, the main mission for a school where missions are part of the culture is to replace the starting signal-caller of three years.
Vying for the job this spring: Riley Nelson, Hall's backup last season, who has attempted just 10 passes at BYU but started eight games as a freshman at Utah State before transferring; sophomore James Lark, who hasn't taken a meaningful snap in five years (he redshirted in 2006, then went on his Mormon mission); and early enrollee, true freshman Jake Heaps, the nation's top-rated pro-style QB recruit, who threw for 3,191 yards last season for Skyline (Issaquah, Wash.) High School.
Mendenhall had hoped to select a starter by the end of spring, but a lack of depth on the offensive line may prevent him from holding enough full scrimmages to give each candidate a fair chance.
The delay may benefit Heaps, who will have more time to digest the offense. That said, Mendenhall rarely plays youngsters, regardless of the hype. His first QB, John Beck, played as a true freshman, but Beck was 22. Hall, meanwhile, spent a year on the scout team before earning the starting spot.
While a surprise team will surely emerge, the list of potential BCS busters hasn't changed much from last season.
There's Boise, of course. There's also TCU, which returns nine offensive starters, including underrated QB Andy Dalton. The Horned Frogs must replace their four best defensive starters, including All-America DE Jerry Hughes -- and get past a dangerous opener against Oregon State and the Rodgers Bros.
Houston won't have any trouble burning up the scoreboard thanks to the return of Case Keenum, who passed for a nation's best 5,671 yards and 44 scores last season, plus its top four pass-catchers and a dangerous 1-2 punch at running back with Charles Sims and Bryce Beall. It won't matter how many points the Cougars score if the defense can't stop anyone, though. Last year, Houston ranked 111th in total defense and 115th against the run. The schedule includes nonconference games at UCLA and Texas Tech and a home date with Mississippi State.
Utah, with a more experienced Jordan Wynn at the controls, could be back in the mix as well. The Utes will get a boast from the return of runner Matt Asiata, who was granted an extra year of eligibility, but may struggle on defense while breaking in three new linebackers and two new starters in the secondary.
Dan LeFevour is gone. So too are Tim Hiller, Tyler Sheehan, Aaron Opelt and Theo Scott. Zach Maynard, Buffalo's starter from a year ago, unexpectedly left the program. Temple has yet to solidify a No. 1 QB. In all, the MAC lost a combined 15,773 passing yards from 2009.
Who's next? Good question. Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish is appealing, as is Kent State's Spencer Keith, but they are either out this spring (Harnish) or limited (Keith) due to injuries. That leaves two young candidates who seem capable of taking over the reins as the MAC's top passer. They are:
1. Zac Dysert, Miami (Ohio). The Redhawks suffered through a trying first year under Mike Haywood, posting a 1-11 record, but Dysert was one of the bright spots. The redshirt sophomore is the conference's leading returning passer (2,611 yards in '09) and improved as last season wore on, averaging 314.2 yards per game over the final five weeks. He must improve on his 12-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio if he's going to make the leap.
2. Austin Dantin, Toledo. Dantin was supposed to spend his freshmen year as a redshirt, but an injury to Opelt forced Tim Beckhman to play his QB of the future. Dantin threw for 962 yards in a little more than four games of work and can make defenses pay by connecting with freshman All-America WR Eric Page. If Dantin continues to improve, the Rockets could make some noise in the West.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance?ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge?Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati?Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year?Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off?SEC: What's happening at Florida?THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?