The best of the conferences without an automatic BCS bid has found a way to crash the party each of the past two seasons.
Utah earned a BCS invitation out of the Mountain West Conference in 2008 and even upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to complete an undefeated season. TCU continued the trend last season, though a Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State prevented the Horned Frogs from finishing unbeaten.
Can the Mountain West make it three in a row? The odds are against it.
Each of the top three teams in the MWC doesn't figure to be quite as good as it was last season. BYU must replace star quarterback Max Hall, tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Harvey Unga. Utah looks exceptional on offense but has plenty of holes to fill on defense. TCU is the clear favorite to win a second consecutive league title, but the Horned Frogs have to replace All-America defensive end Jerry Hughes and must break in first-year starters at each of the cornerback spots.
Don't expect this upheaval to cause any drastic changes in the MWC's caste system. Air Force has come a long way under Troy Calhoun, but TCU, Utah and BYU continue to separate themselves from the rest of the league.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: TCU OT Marcus Cannon. When you've spent your practices going up against first-round draft pick Jerry Hughes, the games are going to seem like a relative breather. That much became apparent last season, as Cannon didn't allow a sack all year and earned first-team All-MWC honors as the Frogs' starting right tackle. Cannon won't get the chance to test himself against Hughes this season, but he still should develop into one of the nation's top tackles.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: TCU FS Tejay Johnson. His ability to deliver big performances in big games gives Johnson the slight edge over teammate Tank Carder. Johnson delivered 14 tackles against BYU last year and had seven solo stops in the Fiesta Bowl. He also tied for the team lead with three picks to help TCU rank first in the nation in total defense and fourth in pass efficiency defense.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley. The Aztecs' utter lack of a rushing attack again will put plenty of pressure on Lindley and a talented receiving corps to carry the offense. San Diego State ranked 116th in the nation in rushing last season and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. The grind of carrying San Diego State's offense may have worn on Lindley late last season. He threw six interceptions and three touchdown passes in the Aztecs' final four games after tossing 20 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in the first eight contests.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: BYU LB Jordan Pendleton. As the only returning starter in BYU's linebacker corps, Pendleton needs to make the leap to stardom this season. Pendleton moved from the secondary to outside linebacker last season and made 52 tackles. He already is a good player. He needs to become great.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Utah QB Jordan Wynn. We're betting the momentum he established late last season carries over into this fall. Wynn started the Utes' final five games as a true freshman and threw for an average of 249.4 yards in each of his starts. He was named the Poinsettia Bowl MVP after throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over California. Imagine what he can accomplish in a full season as the starter.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STARS: TCU CBs Greg McCoy and Jason Teague. TCU must replace Hughes as well as each of its two starting cornerbacks (Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest), but McCoy and Teague should help the Frogs continue to boast one of the nation's top pass defenses. Each player earned starting experience last season while Priest and Sanders were hurt. McCoy picked off a pass in his first career start and showed off his blazing speed while scoring on a kickoff return against Wyoming. Teague -- who signed with LSU out of high school before attending a junior college -- showed his potential by delivering four tackles and breaking up a pass in the Fiesta Bowl.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: BYU QB Jake Heaps. BYU hasn't declared a starting quarterback just yet, but we're guessing Heaps will win the job at some point in the season. Heaps, the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, threw for 9,196 yards, 114 touchdowns and only 18 interceptions while leading Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline High School to three state championships. While it wouldn't surprise us if Utah State transfer Riley Nelson opens the season as the Cougars' starting quarterback, Heaps should have the job by the end of the season.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Utah SS Brian Blechen. Although he was primarily recruited as a quarterback or linebacker, Blechen has adjusted to the secondary well enough to emerge as the Utes' first-team strong safety at the start of preseason camp. Blechen set his school's punting record, forced three fumbles, picked off three passes and rushed for 414 yards as a dual-threat quarterback his senior year at Moorpark (Calif.) High. Blechen also lettered in track, swimming and basketball. He certainly has the bloodlines to succeed. Blechen's grandfather, Bob Blechen, was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1956 and continued playing organized football until the age of 64.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: New Mexico's Mike Locksley. His disastrous first season on the job included a 1-11 record and an altercation with an assistant coach. It's tough to imagine a coach being on the hot seat so soon in his tenure, but Locksley's first season was enough of a nightmare to make him an exception to the rule.
BEST COACHING STAFF: TCU. Gary Patterson and Dick Bumpas give TCU a coach/defensive coordinator combination that rivals just about any tandem in the nation. TCU's staff was supposed to take a step back after offensive coordinator Mike Schultz left for Illinois, but the Frogs didn't miss a beat last season with Jarrett Anderson and Justin Fuente serving as co-coordinators. Fuente, who also serves as quarterback coach, deserves part of the credit for Andy Dalton's improvement last season.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: BYU's Robert Anae. BYU has ranked in the top 25 in total offense in each of Anae's five seasons as coordinator. In three of those seasons, the Cougars also have ranked among the nation's top six teams in passing offense.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: TCU's Dick Bumpas. He's a major reason TCU has led the nation in total defense each of the past two seasons. Bumpas specializes in the defensive line, so the development of Jerry Hughes is a testament to his expertise. Hughes, who never played defense before coming to TCU, won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end last season and was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts. In each of the past two seasons, Bumpas has been one of five finalists for the Frank Broyles Award that goes to the nation's top assistant.
THE OTHER STUFF
Pittsburgh at Utah, Sept. 2
TCU-Ore. St. (Arlington, Texas), Sept. 4
BYU at Florida State, Sept. 18
BYU at Air Force, Sept. 11
BYU at TCU, Oct. 16
Air Force at TCU, Oct. 23
Utah at Air Force, Oct. 30
TCU at Utah, Nov. 6
Utah at Notre Dame, Nov. 13
BYU at Utah, Nov. 27
TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: San Diego State. With Lindley throwing to WRs DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown, San Diego State should be one of the MWC's most fun teams to watch. If the Aztecs upgrade their rushing attack and play better defense, they have a chance to go bowling for the first time since 1998. San Diego State went 4-8 last season, but a favorable non-conference schedule gives the Aztecs a realistic shot at six victories this season.
TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: BYU. The run of four consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories could end in 2010. BYU must break in a new starting quarterback and also lacks experience on the front seven on defense. The Cougars suffered an additional blow this summer with the loss of RB Harvey Unga. BYU will make a bowl and could finish as high as third in the MWC this season, but the Cougars figure to take a small step backward.
GAME OF THE YEAR: TCU at Utah, Nov. 6. BYU lost enough talent in the offseason that TCU and Utah enter the season as the clear-cut picks to compete for the MWC title. The Horned Frogs won this matchup in a blowout last season, but the last time these teams met in Salt Lake City, they produced a classic. Utah drove down the field in the final minute to beat TCU 13-10 in the Utes' greatest escape during their perfect season.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Wyoming. The Cowboys put together the kind of schedule that could make it tough for them to go bowling for a second consecutive season. Wyoming's non-conference schedule includes a home game with Boise State and a trip to Texas. The Cowboys also must travel to TCU and BYU, though they do get Air Force and Utah at home. You could make an equally strong case for BYU. The Cougars travel to Florida State and play host to Washington in their non-conference schedule, and they face their three toughest MWC foes (TCU, Utah and Air Force) on the road.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: San Diego State. The Aztecs do travel to Missouri on Sept. 18, but they should be favored in each of their other three non-conference games (Sept. 4 vs. Nicholls State, Sept. 11 at New Mexico State and Sept. 25 vs. Utah State). One warning sign for San Diego State: The Aztecs face BYU and Air Force on back-to-back weeks in October, then meet TCU and Utah in consecutive weeks in November.
1. TCU: T Marcus Cannon is an All-America candidate who anchors a line that returns four starters.
5. San Diego State
7. Air Force
8. New Mexico
9. Colorado State
1. TCU: The Frogs no longer have the star power of Jerry Hughes in their front four, but Wayne Daniels, Cory Grant and Co. should make sure TCU continues to harass opposing quarterbacks and running backs.
3. New Mexico
5. Colorado State
6. Air Force
7. San Diego State
1. TCU: This league as a whole seems relatively short on quality linebackers, but the presence of Tank Carder gives the Frogs the top spot.
3. Colorado State
6. Air Force
8. New Mexico
9. San Diego State
1. TCU: The Frogs, who run a 4-2-5 set, return their two starting safeties from last season and have plenty of confidence that Greg McCoy and Jason Teague can fit in seamlessly as first-year starters at cornerback.
2. Air Force
6. San Diego State
7. Colorado State
9. New Mexico
1. TCU: Ross Evans is one of the league's top kickers, and Jeremy Kerley is one of the nation's most dangerous return men.
2. Air Force
6. San Diego State
8. Colorado State
9. New Mexico
1. TCU: Are there 10 head coaches in the nation better than Gary Patterson? Is there a single defensive coordinator better than Dick Bumpas?