March 28, 2008

Who will crash the BCS party next season?

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
Mar. 21: Historical trend
Mar. 14: Glory days
Mar. 7: Double standard

Recruiting and National Signing Day always pique interest, and the NCAA Tournament is a nice diversion for a few weeks.

However, the time between college football seasons is a long, excruciating wait for many.

Predictions and analysis of potential national champions, conference champions, Heisman Trophy recipients and All-Americans help pass the time and keep the mind occupied.

Also, projecting the non-"Big Six" conference team most likely to reach a BCS game has gained interest the past few seasons. It's like guessing the Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor or what team will win the NIT.

Utah did it in 2004, Boise State did in 2006 and Hawaii last season, so what team is the most likely BCS party-crasher in 2008?

The envelope, please

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Party Crashers

BYU returns 10 offensive starters, a strong defensive line and some leaders in the back eight on defense. The Cougars might have a few holes until some of their new starters develop, but how do you see their season going? Do you think their offense will be able to carry them long enough for their defense to develop? Do you see a BCS berth in the making?

Ankit in Toledo
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Earlier this year, I listed BYU as the "mid-major" that had the best chance of playing in a BCS game this season ("Top 25 questions for 2008 season," Jan. 22), and that hasn't changed.

The Cougars may be on their way by Sept. 13. If they open with victories over Pac-10 members Washington and UCLA, they will have the required wins over "Big Six" teams needed to get into the BCS discussion.

After that, BYU projects as the class of the Mountain West Conference, although Utah and TCU don't figure to be pushovers - especially on the road.

The loss of seven defensive starters is a reason for some concern, but as you mentioned, the Cougars return 10 starters including quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga from an offensive unit that exceeded 30 points seven times last season.

BYU's schedule features eight opponents coming off losing seasons and six that ranked 71st or worse in scoring defense last season, so the possibility of a big year exists.

Avoiding injuries will be vital, as always, and some new starters on defense have to prove themselves. But if BYU can get past its first two games, it definitely will have an inside track at crashing the BCS party.

Spartan improvement

With the surprising progress Michigan State showed in its first season under Mark Dantonio, do you think it's possible for an eight- or maybe nine-win season in '08?

Jon in Lansing, Mich.
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Eight victories would equate to a one-game improvement, so that would seem a reasonable goal.

Losing wide receiver Devin Thomas and defensive ends Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin hurts, but there are more reasons to be optimistic about the Spartans. They didn't fall apart in the second half of the season, which represented remarkable progress by itself. And with quarterback Brian Hoyer and tailback Javon Ringer heading a list of seven returning starters, they figure to keep improving offensively.

The Spartans were respectable on defense, and that was with two freshmen starting at linebacker. They could get better there, too.

Still, it won't be easy. A look at Michigan State's schedule doesn't reveal many sure victories, but the Spartans don't appear overmatched, either. Another bowl appearance is without a doubt a possibility in '08

Hoping in Vegas

Why can't UNLV win games? We have problems with bad teams and play great against good teams, but find a way to choke. Is there any hope?

Brian in Las Vegas
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Your question brings to mind one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies "The Shawshank Redemption." Surely, you remember when Red tells Andy, "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."

No doubt, rooting for the Rebels recently would make anyone a little bit crazy. Want proof? Check YouTube for coach Mike Sanford's postgame meltdown after the Rebels' controversial loss at Iowa State in 2006.

Last season had to leave your eyes rolling like the symbols in a slot machine. UNLV came tantalizingly close to upsetting Wisconsin, then got blasted by Hawaii, then upset Utah, then lost eight in a row.

Ugh.

But four of last season's losses were by eight or fewer points. Quarterback Travis Dixon was a freshman in '07. Leading rusher Frank Summers was a junior. Top receiver Ryan Wolfe was a sophomore.

That trio heads a list of nine offensive starters returning. Five starters return on defense. So with all that, it's OK to hope for enough victories to become bowl-eligible in '08. I'm not predicting that, but it's OK to hope.

Andy reminded Red of that in a later "Shawshank" scene when he wrote, "Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies."

West Virginia's prospects uncertain

After looking at the new and in my opinion, improved coaching staff, along with some of the junior college recruits who could potentially start on defense (along with an already-established great offense), how legitimate is West Virginia's shot at running the table and getting into the BCS Championship Game?

T.D. in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
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Divorces can be so messy. The nastier they are, the harder it is to recall the good times.

A year ago, anything written that could have even remotely been interpreted as a knock on Rich Rodriguez would have been vehemently protested by West Virginia fans. Now, they're looking at Bill Stewart as a coaching upgrade.

After Rodriguez left for Michigan in December, Stewart did an admirable job getting the Mountaineers focused on the Fiesta Bowl and not the controversy and bickering that followed. Give Stewart tons of credit for the Mountaineers' victory over Oklahoma.

But that's still one victory. To suggest Stewart is an upgrade from Rodriguez doesn't make much sense to me. Have you forgotten that Rodriguez fielded six consecutive winning teams and hit double-digit victories in each of the past three seasons?

Of course, you don't want to look backward, anyway, and there is much to look forward to in Morgantown. Quarterback Patrick White is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, and tailback Noel Devine can score from anywhere on the field. Those two standouts will be playing behind a proven and experienced line.

But there were significant losses from a defense that ranked seventh in the nation, and there is no guarantee that any junior college transfer not even highly touted defensive ends Tevita Finau and Larry Ford will step in and make an immediate impact. And there is always the question of chemistry.

That's why I'd be apprehensive about West Virginia's prospects of going unbeaten in'08. There are too many uncertainties, especially facing a strong schedule that includes nonconference games against Auburn and Colorado and Big East road games at Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh.

West Virginia still appears to be the best team in the Big East, and I'd rate the Mountaineers as preseason favorites to win their third outright conference championship in four seasons. I'd also anticipate they would lose two or three games in '08.

But, hey, I thought Oklahoma would win the Fiesta Bowl.

Happy in South Bend?

Do you think Charlie Weis regrets leaving New England?

Patrick in Hartford, Conn.
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Almost every Golden Domer I've ever met is convinced that Notre Dame is Eden in Indiana. Weis, of course, is a Domer, so he's probably much like the rest of them and is thrilled to be in South Bend.

That he has a contract reportedly worth between $30 million and $40 million that extends through 2015 doesn't hurt, either.

Yeah, the Irish stumbled through a horrendous 3-9 campaign in 2007, but Weis still is 22-15 in three seasons as Notre Dame's coach. He's also assembled consecutive top-10 recruiting classes.

I doubt he regrets his decision to leave the Patriots. Besides, he already has four Super Bowl rings.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. Click here to send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag.



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