WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
THE ELITE: The question is if Boise State can keep up their winning ways withoug Dan Hawkins...who left for Colorado. Not only that, but can they be a BCS team??? Maybe. With Fresno, La Tech and Hawaii all making the trek up to the Spud State....things look favorable. Fresno State could be a solid BCS team as well...but they play a balls-out schedule that is hard even for BCS conference teams. They play at LSU and host Oregon...and have a tough WAC sked since they must go to Boise and to La Tech.
BOWL WORTHY: Nevada is another team that could fit into the mix. The Wolf Pack won 8 of their last 9 games last year...including a thrilling Hawaii Bowl. Even if they aren't winning...their games usually are exciting to watch.
SURPRISE TEAM: Hawaii should be in the mix for a bowl bid again. They have a whopping eight home games....but some of their toughest WAC matchups are on the road [BSU, Fresno]. Still, they could emerge as the best of the rest and make a name for itself with an upset or two.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Lousiana Tech may have a good WAC record...but a bad overall record. They open up at Nebraska, at Texas A&M, at Clemson and at Boise State [there is a Nicholls State game thrown in there]. They are breaking in a new QB and defense. They do get Nevada and Frenso State at home.
YOU SUCK!: San Jose State has a shot at getting a berth if they can find some short of consistency on offense. Dick Tomey can coach and is trying to build the program up from nothingness. Utah State has a beastly schedule that could stifle their progress. Idaho hasn't won more than 3 games since 2000. And New Mexico State went a whopping 0-12 last year. Maybe they can snap that streak against SE Louisiana or Texas Southern??
HOT SEAT: Fresno State's Pat Hill is one of the edgiest coaches in the nation. He isn't afraid of anyone...and that sometimes hurts his program. Sure, national exposure is nice...but turning a 7-1 team into a team that lost their final four games after a close shave loss to USC may not be what the doctor ordered. If a bigger school comes knockin'....he may want to really look into leaving.
TOUGHEST SKED: Again, I think it is Louisiana Tech. Roadies at Nebraska, Texas A&M, Clemson, Boise State, North Texas and Hawaii are really tough....with Nevada and Fresno State on their home slate.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Fresno State heads up to Boise State to try to knock off those Blue Broncos. Last year, Fresno humiliated Boise, 27-7, and giving the Broncs their lone WAC loss last year and ended their 31 game conference winning streak. The game will be an ESPN Thursday nighter.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Hawaii's Colt Brennan [ain't that a great name] could do a Timmy Chang number on everyone. Brennan threw for 4,301 yds and 35 TDs...on 68% passing. Wow.
OVERVIEW: The WAC should boil down to Fresno and Boise again....with Nevada possibly in the mix [remember, they are co-defending champions]. I think Boise State runs the WAC table with a huge win over Fresno State in Idaho as the topper.
THE ELITE: Elite in this sense means just elite in the C-USA. There really are nopossible BCS Busters in this mix. UTEP may be the closest thing. The Miners are building themselves into the C-USA's "it team". How long is it before coach Mike Price makes it back to the big time? Central Florida was the darling of the nation last year when they followed a 17 game losing streak to win 8 of 9 [and finish last year 8-5 and in a bowl]. Don't get it too twisted: of their 8 wins last year, only Memphis was bowl bound. They should be there for the Eastern division crown again. Tulsa won 9 of their last 11, including the C-USA's inagural title game and the Liberty Bowl over Fresno State.
BOWL WORTHY: Southern Miss could be the only real challenger to UCF in the East. Their defense is solid enough to keep them in most games. But, they must go to Florida and Virginia Tech. Ugh. Also, they get NC State in the non-conference. Their road in C-USA play takes them to UCF, to Tulsa and to Memphis. Not ideal. Houston's schedule lends for a promising season. All their tough conference games [UTEP, UCF, Tulsa] are at home.
SURPRISE TEAM: Marshall could make some noise. Sure, they will get off to a bad start...what, with road games against West Virginia, K State and Tennessee early on. But their conference slate isn't bad...with UCF and Memphis visiting Marshall. And with that beast of an early sked...the Herd won't be afraid of anything the conference has to offer.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Memphis was gutted after a very good 2005 season. And getting by without DeAngelo Williams will be no easy task.
YOU SUCK!: East Carolina is medicore at best. UAB's schedule takes them out of it immediately. SMU has a cake schedule of sorts [well, Tx Tech is no slouch]...but the team isn't good enough to play a real one. Tulane gets to go home after a nomadic 2005 caused by Hurricane Katrina. The fact that they were homeless and with all that was on their minds....they ended up losing their final 8 games. Rice's schedule is unreal. Especially for a team that isn't good.
HOT SEAT: Despite having one of the top offenses in the nation, Houston struggled to a 6-6 record. They lost home games Memphis and SMU last year...and were killed by Kansas in the Forth Worth Bowl. If Art Briles cannot get his team into a 3-dog fight with Tulsa and UTEP in the West division....he could be shown the door.
TOUGHEST SKED: How about Rice??? This schedule is the wildest thing I've seen in quite some time. They play at UCLA, Texas, at Florida State, at UCF, at UTEP and at Tulsa. WOW!
GAME OF THE YEAR: UTEP-Tulsa should determine the West's winner. Last year's game ended on a last second field goal from UTEP.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Houston's Kevin Kolb is the top returning career QB....stat-wise....in the nation. If the Cougars do some damage....Kolb could get DeAngelo Williams type Heisman coverage.
OVERVIEW: The races should be good atop both divisions. In the East, UCF and Southern Miss should be neck and neck all year long. I think UCF wins that one. In the West, Tulsa, UTEP and Houston should be strong.....with UTEP coming out on top. UTEP? UCF? I think Mike Price has his Miners as champs.
MID AMERICAN CONFERENCE
THE ELITE: Northern Illinois will be back amongst the top of the MAC. They had a decent 7-5 season [and the West division title]...but had a complete fallout in the MAC title game against Akron which cost them a bowl berth. Yes, that was Akron as a bowl team last year. And look for it again this year. They will be the favorites to win the East and could repeat as MAC champs again. They have one of those NFL-type QBs the MAC seems to produce...named Luke Getsy. Toledo will battle NIU for Western supremecy.
BOWL WORTHY: Bowling Green is usually tough...and usually play a tough sked. This year, they have Wisconsin and Ohio State on tap.
SURPRISE TEAM: Western Michigan was a bit of a surprise last year, winning 7 games....all in an 8 game stretch that saw their only loss a 5-overtime affair against Ball State. They return alot from that team.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Miami-OH has 12 straight winning seasons...which is the 5th longest current streak in the nation. That should end this year, as the Redhawks lost a lot of people from a 7-4 team.
YOU SUCK!: There are several. Ohio is building up it's young team and should be ready to compete in 2007. Kent State is also short in the tooth. Ball State, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan will languish in the bottom of the West. And Buffalo may be the worst program in Division IA.
HOT SEAT: Ohio's Frank Solich hasn't done much yet with the Bobcats....and had a drunk driving event to boot. Ohio will have to perform in an iffy Eastern division for Solich to stick around.
TOUGHEST SKED: It is one thing to suck....it's another to suck and play a tough schedule. Buffalo has non-con games at Auburn, Boston College and Wisconsin. In the MAC, they go to Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Akron. Not too kind.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Toledo heads to Northern Illinois on November 7 to basically determine the West division winner. It will be a nationally televised game.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: NIU's Garrett Wolfe has run for 34 TDs and over 3,200 yds rushing the last two seasons combined....and the nation's leading returning rusher. There is no reason that he can't keep it going.
OVERVIEW: The MAC figures to get two teams in....most likely Akron and Northern Illinois. But either Toledo or Bowling Green could sneak in as the third team in the mix. Either way, I think Northern Illinois avenges their loss to Akron in the MAC championship game.
SUN BELT CONFERENCE
THE ELITE: Just like The Waterboy's mama said, "a snake don't really have any parts"....the Sun Belt really doesn't have any "elite" teams. This is a conference filled with filler. Only two teams finished with an overall winning record and they saw one bowl bid. This year, there is a good battle for that bid. Louisiana-Lafayette are the favorites with their "zone read offense". That, plus they get the top three contending teams at home.
BOWL WORTHY: There will be no second team to make a bowl....but these teams could topple La-La. North Texas was the beast of the conference when it was first formed. But last year they fell apart with poor QB play. They do have a great running back in Jamario Thomas. Middle Tennessee have a very potent offense that could lift them to a league title.
SURPRISE TEAM: Troy could be a big surprise. They have a new offensive style and a transferring QB [Omar Haugabook] that will open things up. The key will be how the young defense forms.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Arkansas State went to the New Orleans Bowl last year....but they lost several players from that team. They will take a small step back this year before contending for the crown again.
YOU SUCK!: Florida International and Florida Atlantic are coached by big names [Don Strock and Howard Schenellenberger, respectively]...but aren't big name programs yet. Louisiana-Monroe changes it's name to the Warhawks this year...abandoning the "Indians" nickname.
HOT SEAT: North Texas coach Darrell Dickey was once the toast of the conference. But the team has underperformed greatly since their dominant run. Last year, they were an embarrassing 2-9.
TOUGHEST SKED: Troy has an early stretch where they go to Florida State, Georgia Tech, Nebraska and UAB...in a row.
GAME OF THE YEAR: North Texas at Louisiana-Lafayette. November 11. Sun Belt title on the line.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: North Texas' Jamario Thomas led the nation in rushing in 2004. With Cedric Cobbs now a Denver Bronco, Thomas has the lay of the land to himself.
OVERVIEW: The Sun Belt may as well be a Division IAA conference...as they went just 1-26 in D-IA non conference games last year. I think La-Lafayette wins it and heads to the N'Awlins bowl.