At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the coverage staff for their opinion about a topic in the sport.
THIS WEEK'S QUESTION
It's still mid-September, but talk already is heating up about potential BCS "interlopers." Do you think any non-"Big Six" teams will make a BCS bowl, and if so, which team(s)?
If you are going to make it into a BCS bowl from outside "the family," you have to bring an undefeated record to the table. In my mind, the only three schools that can do that are East Carolina, BYU and Utah. After broadcasting the BYU-Washington game, then watching the Cougars dismantle UCLA, I believe their explosive offense gives them the best chance to run the table and break the BCS bubble.
BYU and Utah certainly have a chance. History shows a non-"Big Six" team has to be unbeaten and have victories over teams from power conferences. BYU has defeated UCLA and Washington, while Utah has a win over Michigan and a chance for another big win against Oregon State on Oct. 2. If either the Cougars or Utes finish unbeaten, they should be in a BCS bowl. TCU also is unbeaten and has a victory over Stanford, but next week the Frogs go to Oklahoma - and I doubt they win that one. East Carolina would seem a good bet, too, having already beaten West Virginia and Virginia Tech – two possible champions of "Big Six" conferences. But the Pirates lost starting linebacker Quentin Cotton for the season and offensive tackle Stanley Bryant is out indefinitely. Those losses make East Carolina's hopes of finishing undefeated unlikely.
As awesome as BYU has looked. … as many hugs and high-fives as East Carolina has gotten … I still think Utah is the team that will break through.
This is a program that gets lost amid all the non-"Big Six" hubbub.
Utah was the original BCS-buster, going to the Fiesta Bowl after the 2004 season. And know this, people: The Utes have more victories vs. "Big Six" schools since 2000 (14) than any other non-"Big Sixer." Since 2003, Utah is 11-4 in those games.
Maybe, finally, Utah will get its due as the top non-"Big Six" program in the nation after Kyle Whittingham delivers the Utes to the spotlight in January. Oh, it'll happen. A big factor in the Utes' favor is their schedule. It's more favorable to running the table than any other non-"Big Sixer." Utah's most difficult remaining games are in Salt Lake City: vs. TCU (Nov. 6) and BYU (Nov. 22). There also is one game remaining vs. a major-conference foe – but it's only Oregon State, and the game is at Utah.
Add it all up, and Utah is your 2008 BCS-buster
I've said this since the BCS added a fifth game: Filling 10 spots for elite bowl games is tough to do, especially when some of the power conferences (and Notre Dame) are down. I'm not going out on a limb when I say the Big East, ACC and Pac-10 will not supply an at-large team to the BCS. That clears the path for a non-"Big Six" interloper. BYU was the favorite going into the season, and I still say the Cougars are the favorite for a major bowl bid. The Cougars have been almost unstoppable the past two-plus seasons. With so much of the cast returning, there's little reason to think that won't continue.
While East Carolina already has done most of the heavy lifting in its schedule, BYU's might get tougher. The Cougars have conference games against two other potential BCS crashers in TCU and Utah, plus two other opponents that beat Pac-10 teams last week. BYU already has a head start on the Pirates in the coaches' poll by six spots. Expect that to continue as BYU extends its 16-game Mountain West winning streak.
I think a Mountain West team will be in a BCS bowl; I'm just not sure if it'll be BYU or Utah.
Conference USA has East Carolina and Tulsa (because of its easy schedule) as possibilities. But I think ECU loses at least once and maybe twice. As good as Tulsa's offense is, the Golden Hurricane's defense is going to cost them at some point.
I can foresee a BYU-Utah regular-season finale where both are unbeaten. The winner wins the Mountain West – and a berth in a BCS game. Can an unbeaten Mountain West team make it to the title game? No.
The easy answer would be to go with one of the Mountain West teams. BYU is a particularly tempting choice after the way the Cougars decimated UCLA last week. But I'm still not convinced BYU can stay unbeaten after playing TCU and Utah away from home. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if those three Mountain West teams beat up on one another, though Oklahoma already will have knocked TCU out of BCS contention by that point. East Carolina is another trendy pick to finish unbeaten and earn a BCS bid.
But another Conference USA program is flying under the radar as a potential BCS interloper. Tulsa has looked extremely impressive in winning each of its first two games by at least 23 points. The departure of quarterback Paul Smith hasn't crippled Tulsa's high-powered offense. Tulsa is averaging 578 yards per game, and also has a favorable schedule. Its toughest non-conference game is a Nov. 1 trip to Arkansas, which needed late comebacks to beat Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. Nobody's discussing Tulsa right now, but this team just might be the talk of college football by the time BCS bids are awarded.