Carnival-goers, please put your hands together and make welcome to the center stage, SynTex.
We'll be adding his BCS-focused blog to the FanTake network later this week. In the meantime he's here to enthrall and captivate you with these preseason BCS musings. - S.R.
With the first slate of Thursday games mere days away, I thought I would provide some thoughts on how the BCS race might unfold during the upcoming season. Much of this discussion is driven by our natural biases about what teams are expected to do in 2010 based on how good they looked in 2009, and that alone makes this kind of preseason analysis dangerous (anyone been in touch with sure-fire Heisman candidate Jevan Snead and his NC-contending Rebels lately?)
With that devastating caveat stated, let's start making some ridiculous assumptions and take a look at the key contenders for the national championship game.
THE BOISE ISSUE
Boise State begins as the true hot-button topic of our preseason BCS breakdown. Many of us suspected Boise was going to make some noise in the preseason polls as they wrapped up an undefeated 2009 season with a solid win over TCU.
We've now had some time to digest that reality, as there sits Boise perched at #5 in the coaches' poll, along with a staggering #3 AP ranking. Without a doubt, Boise has shattered the glass ceiling on non-AQ teams, garnering by far the best preseason ranking ever (the polls would typically toss a bone to an up-and-coming Boise/TCU/Utah/BYU team with a preseason ranking somewhere in the low-teens... at best).
Before I decompose Boise's chances to truly make a run for playing in Glendale at the end of the year, I want to make clear I have a I high degree of respect for their program. As I have posted previously, Boise has the distinction of being the greatest outperformer (by a healthy margin) when it comes to how their final ranking compares to their preseason ranking. Boise can also claim the best winning percentage among all FBS teams during the decade of the "Aughts" (2000-2009), edging out Texas' 110-19 record with their own 112-17 record. Although they have achieved this success in weaker conferences, they have maintained the excellence under two different head coaches.
Boise State has also tended to win a decent amount of games against the "big boys" (see #4 TCU and #16 last year, #17 Oregon in 2008, #10 Oklahoma in 2006), although they have had their share of big game flubs as well (see the close bowl loss to TCU in 2008, the implosion against Georgia in 2005, the Liberty Bowl loss to Louisville in 2004, the lopsided loss to South Carolina in 2001, two losses to Arkie in 2002 and 2000, etc.). Overall, I feel like Boise's big game reputation has been built on the fantastic win over Oklahoma.
I also suspect Boise's big game reputation has been inflated somewhat by lazier impressions among the media, as they have a hard time remembering whether it was Boise State or Fresno State winning all of those big games at the turn of the millennium (it was the latter, for the record).
Has Boise earned its reputation to be seeded in the top 10? Absolutely. Should we immediately castigate them for playing in a weak conference? I don't think so... for example, how many years did the Noles get national championship opportunities after running the table in a diluted ACC. I will say that if Boise wants to pull this off, they cannot afford to be putting up conference game stinkers like their unimpressive 45-35 win against La Tech (they were only up 2 in the 4th quarter) or the mediocre 44-33 victory over Nevada.
So what do we really think about their chances in 2010? I think Virginia Tech is a powerful platform game, as it represents the highest quality opponent (at least by ranking) that Boise has ever had as an opportunity. It is the sole college football game being broadcast on Labor Day evening, and I am confident it will have a high level of viewership. If Boise State can defeat Virginia Tech and emerge from September with another victory over Oregon State, there is no question that they are a bona fide national title contender. Anyone who tries to argue otherwise is not being fair or honest.
Clearly, the real problem becomes the rest of the season. To be somewhat crude, Boise basically will have shot their wad (if Lee Corso can say it, so can I) too early in the year. While those intriguing Big 10, SEC and Big XII races are heating up, Boise will become somewhat of an afterthought against the San Jose States and Idahos. I project Boise's schedule strength at about 84th, even with the games against VT and Oregon St, which will create serious problems for Boise in the computers as the year goes on. Boise will also be constantly fighting a pervasive voter prejudice that they aren't as good as the top AQ-conference contenders, even if the lofty preseason rankings may indicate that prejudice is subsiding.
Bottom line, a schedule as weak as Boise's will make it impossible for them to take precedence over an undefeated SEC, Big 10 or Big XII team. But I do not at all subscribe to the consensus that they cannot jump one-loss teams from those conferences; after all, the humans still control 2/3 of this argument when all is said and done. If Boise makes its case on the field, the voters can do their best to send them to Glendale.
However, to pull it off, they will need a near perfect storm in terms of help from other teams. Obviously, key contenders like Bama, Florida, OU, Texas, etc. must all lose a game. Virginia Tech must post an impressive (if not ACC-winning) 10-2 type record, and Oregon State must at least match their 8 win type of year. And it wouldn't hurt if the "stronger" teams in the WAC could win a big out-of-conference game, to help improve the reputation of the conference.
Fresno State has some interesting possibilities against Cincinnati, Illinois and Ole Miss. Nevada can try and win a big game or two against Cal, Colorado State and UNLV. La Tech gets shots at Texas A&M, Navy, and Southern Miss. So in summary, if the powerhouses all rack up a loss, if VT and Oregon State can post impressive years, and if Fresno State, Nevada, La Tech and the rest of the WAC can give the conference more of a "MWC feel," I think Boise could very much be in the thick of the national title picture. It sounds outlandish now, but you never know (who thought Butler would be ever-so-close to winning the basketball championship?)
SEC AT THE FOREFRONT
Alabama and Florida control their own destiny. Until we see evidence to the contrary in September, Alabama belongs to the most powerful conference in football and appears to have another extremely difficult schedule ahead of it (#4 most difficult in the country), including a marquee out-of-conference game against Penn State. They are #1 in most polls and as the defending national champions will rightfully get a tremendous amount of support if they continue to win. Florida also enjoys significantly strong perception, and while their schedule doesn't appear nearly as strong (#38 ss), their SEC membership and marquee conference games make them a shoo-in. The rivalry game against Florida State could certainly help Florida's cause if the Noles outperform. Bama and Florida are also highly relevant in the BCS discussion if they sustain an early-to-mid season loss (obviously).
THE STRONGEST NON-SEC CONTENDERS
Virginia Tech (#15 schedule strength) and Oklahoma (#10 ss) both appear to be optimally positioned to take on the role of strongest contenders (based on their schedule and poll positions, not speaking to their teams) after the SEC juggernauts are considered. VT would not only end the Boise discussion out of the gate with an opening victory, but they would send a strong opening signal about their own NC aspirations. Their schedule also entails out-of-conference games against a solid East Carolina squad (granted with a coaching change) and a strong team in Central Michigan. They play a grueling 3 game stretch against ACC competition (GT, UNC and Miami) and have the potential ACC title game as a cap. While this may sound like a strong and unexpected statement to many, I think VT basically is guaranteed a NC bid if they go undefeated.
Oklahoma has a similar path and seems highly assured of getting to the title game if they can navigate through a challenging OOC slate (Florida State, Air Force and Cincinnati), although I'll be honest that I think the difficulty of these games looks harder "on paper" than the reality (particularly with Cincy). OU will also have the benefit of the RRS and a potential top 10 matchup against Nebraska on the final weekend. If it came down to VT and OU both winning out, I like VT's chances better, as I think their resume may look more impressive when push comes to shove.
THE NEXT TIER OF CONTENDERS
Make no mistake, Texas (#45 ss) and Ohio State (#50 ss) can be in prime position for the NC game if they go undefeated, but I do think they will need a little help in making sure a team of VT or OU's caliber sustains a loss (Texas can obviously have direct control over the OU side of the equation). Texas has the monumental games against OU and Nebraska, but little else beyond that (unless UCLA puts together a season way ahead of expectations). Texas would also have the oddity of getting a mixed bag of accolades if they were to win in a rematch against Nebraska in Arlington. But the Longhorn's reputation, preseason ranking, and numbers of the way their schedule strength comes together would probably get the job done if they win out. If the Big XII south restored its amazing strength from 2008 (when OkSt and TTU became top 10 teams along with Texas and OU), Texas can make waves even with an early/mid season loss. Looking to the Big 10, Ohio State has several key games against teams that appear to be top 20 quality (Miami, Wisconsin, PSU, Iowa), but none of those games at least from this early preseason perspective have the same cache as Texas/Oklahoma. Ohio State is also somewhat vulnerable by not having a conference title game, especially with the Michigan game consistently losing its luster year-by-year.
Nebraska appears to be a notch below most of the non-Boise contenders already mentioned (schedule #73), as they play in the weaker Big XII north and they don't sport a particularly impressive OOC schedule (unless you are buying the Jake Locker/Washington love, which I know many are). They do, however, have the opportunity to post big wins against Texas and Oklahoma, if the Big XII plays out right for them. I don't like Nebraska to jump VT or Ohio State if they all go undefeated, and I think Nebraska has a hard time getting back into contention if they sustain an early loss. But yes, if Nebraska truly is ready to return to its mid-1990s (or even early 2000s) form, then they have the ingredients for a NC run.
I think TCU is at best a long-shot for NC contention barring complete chaos among the other contenders. Their schedule is Boise-ish as far as its strength (#84), but without any kind of sexy matchup. The only intriguing games (at least from what we know now) are Oregon State and Utah. TCU is basically guaranteed to be stuck in its current ranking without any kind of platform game to help its cause. If your TCU, keep the at-large BCS bowls on speed dial.
THIS YEAR'S IOWA?
One final observation: who could be this year's Iowa? After all, Iowa came out of nowhere to create a lot of noise in the BCS standings during the mid-to-late parts of the 2009 season, as their undefeated record against a difficult schedule propelled them to a consensus #1 computer ranking at one point. I'll throw out a name (but not give them the honor of having their logo included in this post... that would just be silly)... Pittsburgh has a schedule that looks good on paper (#23) and features some big early matchups against Utah, Miami and Notre Dame. If Pitt is able to run the table in those games, I think they become a less-conventional BCS contender.
And obviously, yes, if teams such as LSU, Auburn, Oregon, Miami, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin make impressive runs for winning their leagues, they will be in the thick of things as well.