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Mid-Major Monday: Auditing

The Year of Our Lord 2007 was a banner year for mid-majors, beginning with Boise State's perfection-securing upset in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, Hawaii's undefeated season in the fall and Colt Brennan's appearance in New York as a finalist for the Trophy Which Must Not Be Named. All of the year's accomplishments were immediately dismantled, burned and buried beneath a hastily-forged, mocking tombstone, a tragic turn in one fell, devastating swoop on the first night of the New Year that was so traumatizingly bad it either a) set the mid-major cause back ten years in its pursuit of a seat at the BCS table or b) ultimately aided the mid-major cause by forcing smaller schools to face facts: if you want to be invited to the party, and not be humiliated or permanently scarred in some way by it, earn the trip by upping the difficulty on the nonconference schedule.


Let's be fair: The defense was gashed, too.
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Not that Hawaii didn't "deserve to be there," based on what we knew going into the game - "if you're going to say that, then you have to say that Boise State didn't deserve to be in the Fiesta Bowl last year" - but the violence of it, the sheer lopsided, primal hunt-and-destroy mission launched against poor Brennan, the perception that Hawaii physically looked like a team that didn't belong on the field with Georgia for its own safety, fair or not, will be a stone cast against the little guy in the future, if the little guy's schedule is as woefully accomodating as the Warriors' in 2007. That last point is not entirely Hawaii's fault - the Warriors have consistently played and occasionally beaten BCS conference competition in the past; this year, Washington had potential to emerge as a quality opponent, and other big schools reportedly shied away from scheduling the Warriors - but without some kind of bar, there's a greater risk of things getting out of control. The gap between BCS and non-BCS leagues is not just a perception (see below). And in that light, Boise State's Fiesta Bowl is the exception and Hawaii's Sugar Bowl is the norm until further notice.

Take solace, whether you're a Warrior partisan or just sympathize with them - or with competitive football in big games - that at least Hawaii won't be on the other side of the velvet rope again anytime soon. The team was assembled for one big push, got busted into dozens of different pieces, and now those pieces are scurrying away from the islands as quickly as possible, anti-Iron Giant style: Brennan's eligibility is up after what seems like an eternity, along with that of prolific receiver Jason Rivers, and UH's two other prolific receivers of the last three years, Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen, have both put their name in for the draft a year early. Run `n Shoot mastermind June Jones is inexplicably the new boss at SMU, of all places, ostensibly a step down unless you're a man surveying the landscape, watching every significant piece of the machine you painstakingly built being dismantled and shipped away and realizing that you'll be starting over with the same poorly-funded hunks of scrap as before. At that point, maybe, it's time to look for a new project - particularly if it's one that will double your salary.  

Crystal Ball Revisited. Using Stassen.com's preseason prediction consensus (click here to see which outlets were most and least accurate), the first order of business is to give props to the teams in the five mid-major leagues - mostly anonymous teams about which the predictors in this case probably know precious little - the magazines collectively got exactly right in the summer:

• UAB (6th, C-USA East)
• Central Michigan (1st, MAC West)
• Utah (3rd, Mtn. West)
• New Mexico (4th, Mtn. West)
• UNLV (9th, Mtn. West)
• Troy (1st, Sun Belt)
• North Texas (7th, Sun Belt)
• Fla. International (9th Sun Belt)
• Hawaii (1st, WAC)
• Boise State (2nd WAC)
• Nevada (4th WAC)
And now, for much more fun, to those they got horribly wrong:
O-ver-Ra-ted
Preseason Finish Difference
TCU 1s MWC 5th MWC (4-4) -4 Spots
Southern Miss 1st C-USA E 4th C-USA E (5-3) -3 Spots
SMU 3rd C-USA W 6th C-USA W (0-8) -3 Spots
Ohio U. 1st MAC E T-4th MAC E (4-4) -3 Spots

Number of respondents not picking Southern Miss to win Conference USA and TCU to win the Mountain West: one. For entertainment purposes only, ATS Consultants Ultimate Football Annual picked TCU to tie for second place with BYU in the MWC, behind Utah, but even ATS (that's "Against the Spread," of course) tabbed Southern Miss to rule the C-USA's East Division, as did every single other outlet in the Stassen survey. The USM pick was unanimous, the TCU pick was near-unanimous - a majority of outlets had the Frogs in their preseason top 25 and pegged as the most likely "BCS buster" - and both were completely wrong. Southern disgracefully lost to Rice and finished 5-3 in-league, good for fourth place in a six-team division and sixth place overall in the conference; the Horned Frogs muddled through the first two months of the season, losing to Air Force and Wyoming before rebounding to win four of the last five (the only loss after Nov. 1 was to BYU, the thirteenth of the Cougars'16-game Mountain West winning streak), including a takedown of Houston in the bowl game to finish a respectable-but-disappointing 8-5 overall.

We'll Overrate Y'all Next Year
Preseason Finish Difference
Air Force 7th MWC 2nd MWC (6-2) +5 Spots
Buffalo 7th MAC E 3rd MAC E (5-3) +4 Spots
Memphis 5th C-USA E T-2nd C-USA E (6-2) +3 Spots
UL-Monroe 6th SunBelt T-3rd SBC (4-3) +3 Spots

That Air Force rebounded in a conference as relatively tough top to bottom as the Mountain West was a shock, not least because the Falcons actually changed very little in the transition from Fisher DeBerry to Troy Calhoun - the preseason rumbling was one of modernizing the flexbone, relegating it to a mere facet instead of the every-down base of the offense, incorporating spread looks and balance. Forget that: the academy was second in rushing offense and second-to-last in passing, as usual, and was balls-out triple option from the opening gun; the Falcons ran for 437 on Army and 569 on San Diego State in a three-week span that also included a win over Notre Dame in between. Back-to-back upsets of Utah and TCU, big favorites that would sort themselves later in the year, was the key to the turnaround; from there on, the Falcons were just able to win the games they were expected to win to hit nine victories for the first time since 2000.

Buffalo still has just the on winning season in the last twenty, even dating back to its last few runs in I-AA, but 5-7 was easily the best record the Bulls have put together since moving up in class and included back-to-back wins for the first time since 2001, also the last time Buffalo won more than two games over an entire season; the five conference wins matched BU's MAC win total over the previous five years (2002-06) combined. Turner Gill is making the right noises about turning the program around and Putting Buffalo Football On The Map, but he will be one of the most marketable young coaches in the country with anything short of a full reversion in `08.

Steppin' Up


The Record vs. BCS Conferences
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This year: 25-118 (.175)
Avg. Score: 38.2 - 19.3
In Bowl Games: 2-5
Hail to the Conquering Heroes
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Against the odds, three mid-major teams managed to engineer more than one win over opponents from BCS conferences, and two of them needed the bowl game; in all, BYU (over Arizona in the opener and UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl finale), Fresno State (over Kansas State and then Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl) and Utah (over UCLA and Louisville) represented nearly a quarter of all mid major wins over BCS conference opponents for the entire season. None of the three, it should be noted, nor any other mid major team, was undefeated against the more prestigious leagues - Utah lost its opener to Oregon State, Fresno State dropped a double overtime game at Texas A&M and another, more lopsided effort at Oregon and BYU lost its first attempt to knock off UCLA. Ultimately, the Bruins joined Notre Dame (Navy, Air Force), Iowa State (Kent State, Toledo, not to mention I-AA Northern Iowa) and Minnesota (Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, not to mention I-AA North Dakota State) as the only big-time schools to lose multiple games to mid-majors; those four teams, likewise, accounted for a full third of all BCS conference losses outside of its own ranks.

Mid-majors give thanks for the Minnesota defense.
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What Should Have Been...
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Three of the five mid-major losses to bigger schools in the bowls were close, winnable games that required fourth quarter rallies to put away. Central Florida was tied with Mississippi State deep into the second half, blowing makeable field goals for the lead on consecutive possessions in the third quarter before allowing MSU on its only remotely sustained drive of the game (the Bulldogs' only points on their first 13 possessions had come on a one-yard march following a UCF fumble, followed by six straight MSU punts) for the winning touchdown with less than two minutes to play. Air Force had Cal's defense completely fooled and out of its comfort zone early en route to a 21-0 lead and ultimately a 312-yard rushing game, but the Falcons had to settle for three field goals after solid drives in the second half when Cal was scoring touchdowns and lost by six. And Central Michigan, taking the opposite approach, rallied from 21 points down to score five second half touchdowns and tie Purdue in the closing minutes of the Motor City Bowl, only to lose on a Boilermaker field goal on the last play.

...and What Never Had a Prayer
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Hawaii...ugh, Hawaii. The Warriors' loss in the Sugar Bowl was two touchdowns worse than the average mid-major:BCS mismatch to that point.


Don't tell Bronco the SMQ Mid-Major National Championship is only mythical...
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An Arbitrary Mid-Major Top 10
This is more of a power poll.
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1. BYU (11-2): The Cougars own the toughest non-BCS league, having won two straight, undefeated Mountain West titles and 18 of their last 19 MWC games since Bronco Mendenhall lost his first two in 2005. BYU closed the year with ten straight wins and might have challenged Hawaii for the last big money spot had it not forgotten (as so many teams did) to play defense against Tulsa in a 55-47 loss way back in game three. Biggest win: Over Utah to seal a second straight unbeaten conference season.
2. Hawaii (12-1): Not as good as advertised before the Sugar Bowl, probably not as bad after. Lost a couple points for setting mid-majors back a good decade in public perception and still finished ahead of its "big win" victim...
3. Boise State (10-3): ... the Broncos lost in Honolulu and also to Washington, not bad enough despite the mediocre bag of wins (Fresno State, Southern Miss) to keep BSU from creeping up on the Warriors in most cicumstances - especially when one team has made good on the big stage and the other has flopped in the ugliest way - but only their own flop against East Carolina really knocks the Broncos back down a notch. It was Boise's first loss to an unranked, non-BCS team this decade, and playing in the WAC, that says something. Biggest win: Fresno State, somewhat disappointingly.
4. Fresno State (9-4): FSU couldn't get its early wins over Texas A&M and Oregon, but got its late ones against Kansas State and Georgia Tech. Still only good for third place in the WAC. Biggest win(s): K-State and Georgia Tech - like old times.
5. Troy (8-4): The Trojans wound up losing their presumed Sun Belt championship in the last game of the regular season and were somehow passed over for the school's third bowl bid in four years in favor 6-6 mediocrities like Alabama, Colorado and Nevada, but Troy upset Oklahoma State in September and prior to blowing the finale against Florida Atlantic had only lost in generally respectable fashion to representatives of the top half of the SEC: Florida, Georgia and Arkansas. Say what you will about the Sun Belt, but give it this: those boys play murderous out-of-conference slates. Troy was the only team in the conference, including FAU, to score more points on the season that it allowed, and did so by a mile. Biggest win(s): The aformentioned shivving of Oklahoma State.
6. UCF (10-4): Should fall off the earth next year without Kevin Smith, but pretty easily the class of C-USA for this go-round. Biggest win(s): Beat NC State in the opener, a week before taking Texas to the wire in Orlando, and ran over Tulsa for the C-USA championship.
7. Tulsa (10-4): Highest-flying total offense in the nation, statistically, but absolutely could not play defense except in bizarre, random circumstances, as when the Hurricane held the prolific offenses of Houston and Bowling Green to just seven points apiece; the other dozen opponents averaged almost 38 points. Biggest win: dealt BYU the second of its two consecutive losses in September.
8. Air Force (9-4): Not much scoring in the Mountain West, perfect for the Falcons to hang around with the option and score enough to win the academy's best season in a decade. Biggest win(s): Upset Utah and Air Force in back-to-back weeks to start MWC play 2-0.
9. Utah (9-4): Late bloomer was an early basketcase: lose to Air Force, destroy UCLA, get shutout by UNLV, hammer Louisville. The Utes were 8-1 after getting quarterback Brian Johnson back full-time in the fifth game; the only loss over the last two months to MWC champ BYU. Biggest win: Trounced UCLA 44-6.
10. New Mexico (8-5)(9-4): The Lobos were nondescript, just quietly winning the games they were supposed to win over the year, not including a slight upset over Arizona, the only BCS conference team on the UNM schedule. Got walloped by TCU in October but adequately filled a power void below the BYU-Air Force-Utah triumverate to beat out the Frogs (and tie Utah) for third place in the Mountain West. Biggest win: Blanked Nevada's top ten offense, 23-0, in the New Mexico Bowl.
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Waiting: Central Michigan, Bowling Green, Houston, Florida Atlantic, East Carolina.