Boise opens the season in prime position to make a run at the national title, ranking third in the AP poll and fifth in the coaches'. But what if Boise slips up while playing a schedule that includes six opponents that had winning records in 2009, including Virginia Tech and Oregon State? Or what if, in a repeat of last year's historic all-non-AQ Fiesta Bowl, two teams from outside college football's power structure break through?
The Broncos have dominated the headlines this preseason, and rightfully so. But their quest for a championship-game berth is no sure thing. Here are five teams other than Boise that could bust the BCS this season.
Coach Gary Patterson drew inspiration from an unlikely source after TCU's undefeated 2009 season ended at the hands of Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl: the coach who beat his Horned Frogs. "I listened and watched how Chris Petersen handled his one-point loss to us [in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl]," Patterson said. "Hopefully ... we'll learn from the same things that Boise State learned from and fight through things. There's a lot of obstacles in our way."
There are also are plenty of reasons to believe the No. 6 Horned Frogs can get back to the BCS and atone for that loss.
TCU returns nine starters from an offense that broke out of the defense's shadow last year, averaging 38.3 points per game behind Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Andy Dalton. And while the defense lost two All-Americas (Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington) there won't be much of a drop-off, with linebacker Tank Carder and end Wayne Daniels likely to emerge as stars.
The Frogs luck out by getting No. 24 Oregon State in what amounts to a home game at Cowboys Stadium in the opener, but face a potentially hazardous trip to SMU and must battle top Mountain West rival Utah on the road. Still, consecutive perfect regular seasons and BCS berths are within reach.
Predicted finish: 12-0 overall, 8-0 MWC
To make the case for the Cougars, look no further than, well, Case. Senior quarterback Case Keenum returns as the nation's leading passer after throwing for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns last season. He'll have plenty of toys to play with this season, as Houston also returns three 1,000-yard receivers in James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards.
The offense won't be a problem. But can the defense hold up its end of the bargain?
With six starters coming back, the defense won't lack experience -- but those players return from a unit that allowed 30 points per game last season. That leaky D resulted in six games being decided by seven points or less, including two of their losses (UCF by five, ECU by six).
The Cougars should be the class of Conference USA, and they have a manageable nonconference schedule (UCLA, Mississippi State and Texas Tech). But as last year proved, fireworks from Keenum and Co. won't be enough to keep the Coogs in the BCS hunt.
Predicted finish: 11-2 overall, 8-1 C-USA
The vast majority of Navy talk centers on quarterback Ricky Dobbs, and understandably so. Last year Dobbs demolished Tim Tebow's single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 27, while running for 1,192 yards and passing for 1,031 more. Dobbs is one of 13 starters returning from a 10-win team, including the Midshipmen's top six rushers. But the star power and experience are just part of the draw.
Take look at the schedule: The Midshipmen face three ACC schools (Maryland, Wake Forest and Duke) that could all struggle to make bowl games. And while Air Force and Army are on the upswing, the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy is still Navy's to lose. If the Mids beat Notre Dame for the third time in four years and win at improving SMU, they could knock on the BCS' door.
Predicted finish: 10-2
The Utes will join the establishment when they move to the Pac-10 next season, but what do the original BCS busters have in store for their last year among the non-AQ ranks?
Behind emerging quarterback Jordan Wynn, this Utah offense has the potential to be the most prolific in Kyle Whittingham's five seasons. In addition to Wynn, who is looking to build off a freshman campaign in which he passed for 1,329 yards and eight touchdowns while starting the last five games, the Utes return arguably the best non-BCS tailback tandem in Eddie Wide (1,101 yards, 12 TDs) and Matt Asiata (returning for a sixth year) and four starters on the offensive line.
The receiving corps will need some help after losing three of its top four pass-catchers, but the bigger question marks sits with a defense starting three new linebackers, two new safeties and a new corner. Those fresh faces will be tested early against No. 15 Pitt, and during an unkind end-of-season stretch that includes TCU, Notre Dame and BYU.
Predicted finish: 9-3 overall, 7-1 MWC
Coach Chris Ault's pistol offense reached historic heights last year, as the Wolf Pack became the first team in NCAA history to produce three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. They return two of those runners in Vai Taua (1,359 yards, 10 TDs) and Colin Kaepernick, who also happens to be Nevada's quarterback. The senior triggerman needs 94 yards to become the second player in WAC history with 3,000 yards rushing and passing in his career.
Nine starters return from a unit that racked up more than 500 yards per game last season, but the defense doesn't inspire much confidence after giving up 297.7 yards per to rank 119th out of 120 FBS teams. And then there's the schedule, which features potential road pitfalls at BYU, Idaho and Fresno State and a tough nonconference home date with Cal. Nevada does get Boise State at home over Thanksgiving weekend, but the Pack may be resigned to playing spoiler by then.
Predicted finish: 9-3 overall, 8-1 WAC