In rising from an 8-5 record and No. 22 preseason ranking to win the BCS championship, Auburn really messed things up for those of us in the prognostication business. Now everyone wants to know who "this year's Auburn" will be, and we simply can't answer that. For one thing, we obviously lack the imagination, as none of us even entertained the possibility of Auburn winning the title save for Kirk Herbstreit, who at least picked the Tigers to win their division. But more notably, history says the 2010 Tigers were an absolute anomaly. The six BCS national champions before Auburn all began the season in the Top 10; not since Oklahoma started 19th in 2000 had a team so under-the-radar risen up to win it all.
So I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say there won't be an Auburn in 2011.
However, history also shows that at least one team has broken through to reach its first BCS bowl in all 13 BCS seasons. In many cases those teams started the year unranked. And while it's true that the pool of candidates decreases every year, the trend continues unabated. Last year Stanford, Arkansas and Connecticut all reached their first BCS game, though only the Huskies began the year (and ended the year) unranked.
So I also don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say there will be at least one BCS newcomer in 2011. And while it could be an obvious candidate like Oklahoma State (preseason No. 9), South Carolina (No. 12) or Michigan State (No. 17), it's more fun to try to find a true sleeper: a team that's unranked. I'm going to offer five candidates and hope one proves correct. And just so you know: It worked last year.
The Bulls don't necessarily need to win double-digit games to reach the BCS; they just need to win the Big East, which Connecticut did at 8-4 last season. And while USF will be an underdog in its opener against Skip Holtz's alma mater, Notre Dame, the Bulls are fully capable of winning their mediocre but closely bunched conference.
Holtz's first team started slow before winning five of its last seven, including a 23-20 upset of Miami and a 31-26 bowl win over Clemson. Talented but inconsistent quarterback B.J. Daniels enters his third season as starter, but the real promise is on defense, where sophomore end Ryne Giddins should emerge as a star on a unit that allowed just 20 points per game last season.
If USF takes a second-year leap under Holtz, the Big East title could come down to a Dec. 1 showdown with West Virginia in Tampa.
UPDATE: I embarrassingly admit to a complete brain fart in including Washington on this list, considering its 2000 BCS appearance (Rose Bowl vs. Purdue). The Huskies are a BCS sleeper, but earning a berth wouldn't be unprecedented.
It's easy to overlook the Huskies considering they're stuck in the same division as preseason Top 10 teams Oregon and Stanford. And while winning the Pac-12 North is probably asking too much, Washington could certainly win 10 games, rise to second if either the Ducks or Cardinal disappoint and earn a BCS at-large berth in coach Steve Sarkisian's third season.
The seeds for a potential breakthrough were planted late last season when Washington won its last four games, including a 19-7 Holiday Bowl upset of Nebraska. During that stretch, junior tailback Chris Polk asserted himself as a powerful workhorse, rushing for 286 yards on 29 carries in the Apple Cup against Washington State, followed by 177 yards on 34 carries against the Huskers. The departure of Jake Locker opens the door for versatile sophomore Keith Price, who Sarkisian likens to Charlie Ward in terms of his versatility and field awareness. And Price has two talented veteran receivers in Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse.
Washington's road schedule (which includes a return trip to Lincoln) is tough, so it would definitely take a couple of upsets -- not to mention a dramatically improved defense -- for the Huskies to pull it off.
A trendy sleeper pick since the day last season ended, ASU has not enjoyed a particularly promising offseason. Several players, including standouts cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee, have suffered season-ending injuries, and notoriously hot-headed star linebacker Vontaze Burfict got into a locker room fight. Those might not be harbingers of a dream season.
ASU still has 31 seniors and 17 returning starters, however, including promising quarterback Brock Osweiller, tailback Cameron Marshall and defensive end Junior Onyeali. The 2010 team suffered several near-misses and blocked extra points actually marked the differences in losses to both Wisconsin and USC. Plus, someone has to win the Pac-12 South. USC is ineligible and Colorado and UCLA likely are non-factors. That means either ASU, Arizona or Utah will likely play for a BCS berth Dec. 3.
Boise State and TCU start out as the prohibitive favorites to be this year's "BCS buster," and understandably so: They've combined for three berths the past two seasons. But with the Broncos joining the Mountain West this year, they now have something else in common with the Horned Frogs: a road game at San Diego State, where new coach Rocky Long looks to continue the momentum from the team's breakthrough 2010 season under Brady Hoke.
The Aztecs don't yet have the overall talent level of Boise or TCU, but they do have one of the nation's most highly regarded pro-style quarterbacks, Ryan Lindley, and last year's MWC Freshman of the Year, running back Ronnie Hillman. SDSU put up 35 points on TCU's top-ranked defense last year and nearly knocked off Missouri. To crash the BCS, though, the Aztecs will have to pull off at least one road upset: Sept. 24 against Hoke's new team, Michigan.
Who says the designated BCS non-AQ representative has to come from the Mountain West? Record-chasing quarterback Case Keenum (13,586 career passing yards) tore his ACL in Week 3 last season, and when his backup was also lost for the year the Cougars promptly sunk from 10 wins to five. But Keenum, who led the Cougs to wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in 2009, was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He's back, along with veteran skill players like running back Bryce Beall and receivers Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards. Expect the yards to start piling up again.
What really stands out about Houston is its schedule. After opening with a winnable home game against UCLA, the Cougars face no one of note out of conference. And in Conference USA play, they miss both UCF and Southern Miss, the two best teams in the East division. Their toughest games may come at the end: Nov. 19 against SMU and Nov. 26 at Tulsa.
But make no mistake, they'll have to go 13-0 to have a shot.