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Mid-Major Mon . . . er, Tuesday: BCS Bustin'

Mid-major discussions these days seem to quickly devolve from the real, modest goals of obscurity - a conference championship, a bowl game, a decent crowd at homecoming - to the big picture analysis of "BCS Busting," which is only slightly less annoying to partisans of such schools (of which I am one) as it is rare: in ten years of the dreaded Series, only two teams have broken the glass celiling into the big money bowls, and both had to run the near-impossible gauntlet of an undefeated season to get there. I say this from a Southern Miss-centric perspective, as a person from a school that hasn't won ten games in a season since 1989, who was recently asked by someone who should know better about USM's BCS chances, because small schools frankly are better off ignoring such hyperbole until Thanksgiving, if not later. It takes so many pieces and breaks to get to that position, most of them out of the control of the team in question.

But what fun is that? Both of those bids have come in the last three years, and every upstart that's mounted a respectable challenge on the vangaurd has done it since the BCS became slightly more friendly to outsiders in 2002. Prior to that, teams like Marshall or Tulane - undefeated in 1998, remember? - had nary a prayer of breaking the velvet rope between their plebeian reputation and the prestige and lucre bigger schools regard as a birthright. It wasn't even considered: Marshall went on to the Motor City Bowl and Tulane played its little heart out in the Liberty Bowl, and they were grateful!

But since roughly 2002, there have been annual challenges to the system from below, or teams that otherwise wound up ranked among the dozen in the country, some more successful than others:

TCU (2003): Defending C-USA champs opened 10-0 and climbed into the top ten before dropping the de facto league title game at streaky Southern Miss; finished regular season 11-1.
Miami, Ohio (2003): Lost early at Iowa but rode Ben Roethlisberger to twelves straight wins, the Mid-American title and the tenth spot in the final AP poll. Pretty easily the best MAC team of the decade.
Utah (2004): Blew out the entire schedule and made Alex Smith an improbable Heisman finalist/top draft pick. First peripheral team to successfully crash the BCS (unfortunately, it had to play the second, sorry Big East champ Pitt).
Louisville (2004): Despite Utah's scorched earth trail through the Mountain West, this was probably the best of the mid-major insurgency in `04, the year before UL jumped C-USA for the Big East. The only loss was a Thursday night heartbreaker at Miami. Nobody else came close.
Boise State (2004): Undefeated in the regular season, but scorned for the BCS by Utah and one-loss Texas. Had a New Year's Day-worthy Liberty Bowl with Louisville instead.
TCU (2005): Took down Oklahoma, lost inexplicably to SMU, and won its last ten. Eleventh in final AP poll.
Boise State (2006: Obviously. Undefeated, got into the party with the addition of the fifth game.
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That fifth game was essential for Boise, and probably for whichever upstart is bound to follow it. This year, that mantel falls to about five realistic challengers:

TCU: Four seasons with double-digit wins in the last five. Won eight straight to end last year, dominated the bowl game, consensus No. 21 in preseason. First rate, suffocating defense.
Hawaii: Novelty of Colt Brennan's absurd record-breaking and of the island itself and its quirks will attract attention. Lace-soft schedule will attract skepticism. Consensus No. 23 in preseason
Boise State: Defending darlings have a virtually identical slate as Hawaii and generate their own spotlights these days. Consensus No. 27 in preseason
Southern Miss: Near-unanimous favorite to win Conference USA. No. 24  by The Sporting News.
BYU: Broke through with 11 wins and perfect against the rest of the MWC. No. 25  by The Sporting News.
Darkhorses: Utah, Houston, Central Michigan, Tulsa
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Knowing what we know about their predecessors, which of those teams has the best shot at generating soft-focus introspectives and white knuckles in Nielsen-centric coporate board rooms? Five common traits stand out about the teams that have been to that sweet, sweet  river in the New Year, or been close:

Young/Upwardly Mobile Coach
Past Trendsetters: All seven
Exceptions: None
2007 Candidates: BYU, Utah, Boise State, Central Michigan, Tulsa
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Entrenched career types like Pat Hill, Jeff Bower and Sonny Lubick still strike occasionally, but the really big, storybook seasons have tended to be orchestrated by eager young minds en route to bigger jobs - Urban Meyer, Dan Hawkins, Bobby Petrino, Chris Peterson last year. The core of TCU's program was built by Dennis Franchione, who took a winless team in 1998 to 10-2 in 2000, and has been sustained by Gary Patterson. All of the teams that have challenged for the BCS since 2003 have done so with a coach less than five years removed from his arrival at the school, most of them - Utah, Louisville, TCU in `03 and Boise State last year - within the coach's first or second season; back in 1998, Tommy Bowden took Tulane to 12-0 in his second year there and landed his current gig. Terry Hoeppner was not exactly young in 2003, but he was in only his fifth season as boss at Miami, and rode that success to the Indiana job.

Can this 17-year-old coach a successful college football team? Sometimes you strike out, sometimes you strike gold.
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Peterson set the standard for rookie coaches, even if taking over Boise State in the WAC is the equivalent of Larry Coker inheriting the killer death squad version of Miami in the Big East. Butch Jones is probably not going to be such a first-year revelation at Central Michigan following the legendary Brian Kelly, but Todd Graham might be at Tulsa, especially if Gus Malzahn's offense is all it's cracked up to be. Kyle Whittingham seems to be running on Meyer's fumes entering his third season at Utah, but across the state Bronco Mendenhall has obviously taken BYU out of its doldrums in his first two years and back into the position of a perennial contender in the Mountain West.

Beat a Decent (not good) BCS Team Early
Past Trendsetters: All seven
Exceptions: None
2007 Candidates: Boise State, TCU, BYU, Utah, Central Michigan
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Every Cinderella needs a bitchy, arrogant ugly stepsister to vanquish, a role played with aplomb through the years by Texas A&M, Arizona, Northwestern and, on multiple occasions, Oregon State and North Carolina. Preferably this goes down at home; Utah in `04 and Boise State last year built their seasons by wiping out Texas A&M and Oregon State, respectively, in what counted as their early home showcase for the rest of the country before the conference kittens rolled in for ritual slaughter. I hasten to note that none of those teams finished in the polls in their respective victim seasons until Oregon State last year, and the Beavers had to squeak out three last-second wins in their last three games to close at twenty-first.

BYU has the best potential victim this year in a home game with quasi-respectable Arizona; no one will bat an eyelash at TCU for beating Baylor or Boise State for dispatching Washington, since both "little guys" will be more than tentative favorites in those games. Boise State's premiere game before Hawaii, in fact, might be Southern Miss, and the Eagles will definitely get more value out of playing well on national TV on the blue turf than they would from playing any lower tier BCS conference team, like, say, Mississippi State or Ole Miss - not that either will put itself in that position any time soon. Utah can put itself in voters' minds by beating Oregon State Thursday, but the Utes have another specific problem...

Avoid High Profile/Ranked Opponents
Past Trendsetters: TCU (2003), Miami, Ohio (2003), Boise State (2004), Utah (2004), Boise State (2006)
Exceptions: Louisville (2004), TCU (2005)
2007 Candidates: Boise State, Hawaii
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Technically, Miami, Ohio, beat two ranked teams in `03, but both were similarly-positioned MAC opponents late in the season, the same scenario that's likely to lead to both Hawaii and Boise State being ranked when they clash in November. Louisville built an impressive three-score lead at Miami in 2004 before watching it go up in smoke in the final minutes, its only loss of the season. That leaves TCU, which opened 2005 by shocking Oklahoma on the road, as the only example of a team that took on a true heavy and survived.

Back to Utah: the Utes have not only Oregon State to open, but UCLA two weeks later and Louisville down the line in October, essentially an automatic disqualifier before TCU and BYU even come into the picture. TCU will know its fate after it visits Texas next month; Tulsa has to face Oklahoma, Houston and its new quarterback have trips to Oregon and Alabama and Southern Miss' game with Boise won't do much for USM if it doesn't show up for the upset at Tennessee in Week Two. BYU will not be favored to win at UCLA, even if the Bruins' starting quarterback couldn't hack it against John Beck in Provo.

The Broncos, on the other hand, are expected to cruise into an undefeated showdown with Hawaii, because - and hey, maybe decent teams are just scared to schedule a nice island trip these days, as June Jones has been ceaselessly claiming - neither is going to venture far out of its comfort zone prior to that. The winner there (I tentatively like Hawaii) should be in a position to punch its ticket for the big money. Neither deserves a dime if it's not, especially the Rainbows or Warriors or whatever they are, whose entire season is riding on beating Boise and Washington in atonement for scheduling not one but two I-AA teams. Those are such negatives in public opinion, they'd earn more respect with a bye week. If they could get people to pay to sit in an empty stadium for a practice, it would raise the UH stock higher than humiliating some poor Championship Division lamb could. I feel that way about the bottom three or four teams in the WAC, too, but there's nothing they can do about that. Notice how describing Hawaii's schedule is like desrcibing a person with cerebral palsy? They'd better beat Boise.

Boise State's had such luck claiming competence against Oregon State, Utah thought it'd give the Beavers a try.
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On the Upswing
Past Trendsetters: TCU (2003), Utah (2004), Boise State (2004), Louisville (2004), Boise State (2006)
Exceptions: Miami, Ohio (2003), TCU (2005)
2007 Candidates: Hawaii, BYU, Houston, Southern Miss, Central Michigan
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This goes hand-in-hand with the "young/mobile coach" factor: teams that struck the memorable season did so as the culmination of a strong, multi-year push, best demonstrated in the quick, dramatic turnarounds orchestrated by Meyer at Utah and Petrino at Louisville: both coaches won nine games in Year One and blew the doors off everyone in Year Two. Boise State had three straight one-loss seasons under Hawkins when it went undefeated in the 2004 regular season, and is still on the same track (with the exception of a single aberration, 9-4 in 2005) under Peterson.

The peak rarely lasts more than a season, though, and Hawaii is the team that looks most like it's about to scale the extremes of its talent; again, it may be three months before we really know anything about them, so the excitement that precedes its season will be hitting a fever pitch at the right time to make it seem like unstoppable momentum, anyway. BYU looks a lot like Boise in 2004, when it broke in Jared Zabransky for prolific Ryan Dinwiddie and did what Dinwiddie never could by going 12-0 - the Cougars are high on Arizona State transfer Max Hall, and he's the main catalyst for sustaining the boulder Mendenahll got rolling with John Beck. At Southern Miss, running back Damion Fletcher almost singlehandedly made a very stagnant, mediocre team feel okay about itself again, and as long as he and senior quarterback Jeremy Young are healthy - not the case very often last year - USM is more confident than it's been in years and will carry some reasonable hope of breaking through a few longstanding barriers.

Stop the Run
Past Trendsetters: TCU (2003), Miami, Ohio (2003), Boise State (2004), Louisville (2004), Boise State (2006)
Exceptions: Utah (2004)
2007 Candidates: TCU
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Most of the examples from the past were led by a great quarterback - Ben Roethlisberger, Stefan LeFors, Alex Smith - but TCU has won with versatile guys who don't make mistakes and Boise State rode an untested sophomore (Zabransky) well past his expectations or performance, really, to a great season in 2004. But whether they ran or passed or did everything well offensvely, what almost every team had in common on the field was completely suffocating run defense: six of the seven held opponents under 3.5 per carry for the season (Utah in '04 allowed 3.8).

The only candidate this year that carries much confidence in that regard is, not surprisingly, TCU - the Frogs allowed a ridiculous 2.2 per carry, second nationally only to Michigan, and returns essentially the entire front seven. Boise State fell into the category last year (3.1 allowed), but loses both starting defensive tackles and ballhawk linebackers Korey Hall and Colt Brooks. The jury is very much out on the others, who either were soft up front or, if they were close to the 3.5 number, but don't have the necessary resources for improvement:

Boise St. Hawaii TCU BYU S. Miss. Utah Houston Tulsa CMU
Young Coach
Early BCS Win
Avoid Heavies
Upward Trend
Stop the Run ? ? ? ? ?

Ignore Central Michigan's check marks to the far right - should the Chippewas dominate the MAC, which is beyond speculative, they still have to play Kansas, Purdue and Clemson and have no shot at making the BCS. I don't know why I decided to include them, actually.

Of the rest, Boise State and BYU look the most like past underdog success stories, despite both starting new, untested quarterbacks in systems that rely so much on their passers  - either that's an indication they'll struggle, or an indication that the systems consistently produce great quarterbacks and there's no reason to worry. But BYU doesn't have the schedule that BSU has. As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Hawaii appears to have the chops and scheduling circumstances to either overcome (and therefore invalidate/alter) a few of those indicators, but if the trends hold and June Jones remembers he's an NFL retread with a few too many hairs left swirling in the drain of yesteryear, the most serious challenger will be the Broncos again.