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Mid-Major Monday: 'The Little Guy' in the Land of Opportunity

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Notes from the undercard, PRESEASON EXTRAVAGANZA edition.


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Last week, the Wall Street Journal took a long, sober look at the freshly unveiled preseason polls, and, no doubt sighing heavily as it did so, openly lamented "the death of the little guy in college football":

Boise State's appearance at No. 24 of the Associated Press poll is notable not only because it's the Broncos' worst ranking in four years. It also marks a low point for the little guy in college football.

Save for Boise State, this year's poll is populated solely by teams in the six power conferences—the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pacific-12 and Southeastern. (The Broncos are in the Mountain West.) The last time that the highest-ranked minor-conference team was this low in the preseason poll was 2001, when Colorado State of the Mountain West also was voted No. 24.

Until now, underdog conferences had been well-represented in the polls. In 2009, they landed four teams in the preseason top 25. In each of the past four years, at least one small-conference team finished the season in the top 10.

We can go back even further: Since Utah capped an undefeated, unchallenged season in the Fiesta Bowl in 2004, four different mid-major outfits have combined for ten top-10 finished in the January polls. Those four: Boise State, Louisville, TCU and Utah. Not coincidentally, by next year, all four will be playing in one of the "Big Six" BCS conferences. The "little guy" is suddenly absent from the polls because suddenly the little guy is getting promoted.

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Louisville climbed the ladder from Conference USA to the Big East; Utah ascended from the Mountain West to the newly expanded Pac-12; TCU happily hopped from the Mountain West to the Big 12, landing in the Big East just long enough to croak hellogoodbye in between. BYU, which crashing the polls when Boise State was still a junior college, grew weary of the whole scene and took its act solo. Next year, Boise is gladly accepting a promotion into the Big East, a significant step up competitively and (more importantly) economically, if not necessarily in terms of access to big-money bowl games in the post-BCS landscape. Five other teams from the MWC and C-USA – Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State and SMU – will make the same step up in 2013, followed by Navy in 2015. Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida all made the same move in the last decade, to their lasting benefit.

Does that sound like a "death"? For the programs left behind in the ever-widening schism between the Haves and Have Nots, maybe. But those programs haven't been competing on a top 25 level as it is. Among the ones that did – that do – when the realignment iron was hot, none of them are looking so little anymore.

THE CRIB SHEET. Elsewhere in mid-majordom…

Comings and Goings. If you're keeping count in the realignment race, first of all, stop wasting your time. Even if you somehow manage to remember everyone in their right place this year, the deck's just going to get shuffled again in 2013, and you'll just have to spend another nine months with the flashcards. Give it a couple more years, then start taking notes. In pencil.

But if you simply must know, 2012 will feature five programs making their I-A/FBS debuts: Massachusetts in the MAC, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State in the WAC and South Alabama in the Sun Belt. (A sixth team, fledgling Georgia State, is graduating from the FCS ranks as a "provisional" FBS member, but we are not counting a team whose schedule consists mainly of opponents from something called the Colonial Athletic Association, we're just… not going to do that.) Not including the "provisional" types, full-fledged membership in the FBS for the 2012 season stands at a robust 124 teams, 56 of which reside outside of one of the "Big Six" BCS conferences. Now forget all of that, including the BCS, because none of it is going to be true anymore by the time you finish reading this post.

Glad to have you aboard. Nowhere is the impact of high-profile transfers from bigger schools more apparent than in Conference USA, and nowhere in Conference USA is it more apparent than at Central Florida: Stuck with a losing (5-7) record last season despite fielding the league's No. 1 total and scoring defense for the fourth year in a row, the Knights imported instant help on offense from Missouri (quarterback Tyler Gabbert), Miami (tailback Storm Johnson) and Georgia Tech (guard Pete Smith) to get them over the hump. Including Gabbert, a full third of the starting quarterbacks in C-USA will refugees from the Big 12.

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Play for that money, boys. The lack of mid-major star power going into the season is evident in the preseason All-America teams, which are conspicuously mid-major-free, and is even more stark at the top of early draft boards: Most mock drafts at this point do not feature a single projected first-rounder outside of the "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame. (You can go ahead and make that "Big Five," because the Big East doesn't have a compelling candidate for the early rounds at the moment, either.) The best candidate to break through: SMU defensive end Margus Hunt, a former Estonian discus champion who was offered a scholarship by June Jones before Hunt had ever played a down of organized football, based on a workout after plans to revive the Mustangs' men's track-and-field team fell through. He's still learning to play the game, but with his enormous frame (6'7", 288 pounds) and athleticism, scouts have already sized Hunt up as a potential first-rounder.

MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE YEAR: Boise State at Michigan State (Aug. 31).
The "BCS Buster" meme begins and very likely ends – not for the first time – with Boise State, and with the Broncos' season opening trip to East Lansing on Friday night. Boise looks like a very different team sans quarterback Kellen Moore and many of the other departed seniors who orchestrated one of the most successful four-year runs in the history of the sport, but the narrative is the same: Clear one daunting hurdle at the beginning of the schedule – see Oregon in 2009, Virginia Tech in 2010, Georgia last year – and the rest of the season amounts to avoiding the random stumble.

The last two years, Boise has been better at the first part of that equation than the latter, thanks to some wonky field goal kicking against Nevada in 2010 and TCU last November that cost the Broncos perfect seasons despite their initial triumphs. If the post-Moore era begins with a loss at MSU, though, it will effectively end the discussion about an outsider crashing the part in January before it begins: No other darkhorse is in any kind of position to run the table.

MID-MAJOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Roosevelt Nix, DT, Kent State.
Even by MAC standards, Nix is a physical outlier, ostensibly too short (5'11") and too light (245 pounds) to hold up against towering offensive linemen who outweigh him by anywhere from 30 to 70 pounds per man. But they've yet to find an answer for Nix's combination of explosiveness off the ball and old-fashioned leverage, which makes blocking him akin to blocking a ballistic tree stump. (Just ask Alabama.) In two years on campus, Nix has racked up 37 tackles for loss, been voted first-team All-MAC twice and stood as the only freshman ever voted the league's Defensive Player of the Year. At some point, the All-America teams have to start paying attention, even if the pro scouts never will.

Honorable Mention: Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder has accounted for 7,700 total yards and 71 touchdowns over the last two years. … Houston running back Charles Sims quietly racked up 1,400 yards from scrimmage out of the backfield, despite averaging barely a dozen touches per game. … And at least as impressive as Nick Harwell's 97 receptions last year for Miami (Ohio) is the fact that he managed to average nearly 15 yards per catch in the process.

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A SOMEWHAT ARBITRARY MID-MAJOR TOP 10.

1. Boise State. One of the greenest teams in college football, and still probably the most likely to finish the season undefeated.
2. Tulsa. Nebraska transfer Cody Green certainly looks the part at quarterback, towering in the shotgun at a Newton-esque 6'4", 250 pounds. If he plays anywhere near as big as his underrated predecessor, G.J. Kinne, the Golden Hurricane ought to be favored to win every game on the schedule.
3. Central Florida. The Knights were a much better team on paper in 2011 than their record indicated – they outgained opponents by more than 100 yards per game and went 0-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less – and the roster is full of veterans and plug-and-play transfers from bigger schools. UCF already boasts the best defense in Conference USA, by far; once it settles on a quarterback, this team is going to give Ohio State all it wants on Sept. 8.
4. Houston. The Cougars lost their head coach, their top five wide receivers and the most prolific passer in NCAA history from arguably the best team in school history, and no one will blink if they average 500 yards and 40 points again with a brand new cast.
5. Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs ruled a watered-down WAC last year on the strength of a six-game conference winning streak to close the regular season. Once they get past a salty September slate (road trips to Texas A&M, Houston, Illinois and Virginia in the first five weeks), they'll find the pickings even easier this time around – their last before jumping ship to Conference USA in 2013.
6. Southern Miss. The Eagles are breaking in a new quarterback this weekend at Nebraska, just ahead of ominous visits from Louisville and Boise State. If he's settled down by the time the conference season rolls around, though, there's more than enough back from last year's C-USA title run to make a realistic go at another one.
7. BYU. The Cougars have won at least 10 games in five of the last six seasons, including last year, and would have every reason to expect to crack double digits again with this team – if it was playing against any one of those six schedules. Against this schedule, consisting of dates with Washington State, Utah, Boise State, Oregon State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech before Halloween, the goal is merely crossing the finishing line with limbs, dignity and bowl eligibility intact. But at least they're not using their independent status in an attempt to wuss their way into a BCS game.
8. Ohio U. of Ohio. Also known as "Hipster Ohio." The Bobcats came within a field goal last year of their first conference championship since 1968, and have no excuses for letting the drought extend to forty-five. If they manage to upset Penn State in the opener, it could be a very, very big year in Athens.
9. Nevada. The Wolf Pack took a giant leap back last year from their 11-1 breakthrough in 2010, the best season in school history, but it wouldn't be surprising at all if the Mountain West title came down to Boise State's visit to Reno on Dec. 1 – a scenario both teams will remember all too well.
10. Western Michigan. The Broncos are a little thin defensively, having sent off four of last year's top five tacklers. But considering that Alex Carder is still the quarterback, and that last year's D allowed 804 yards in a single game en route to finishing as the worst total defense in the MAC – I repeat, the worst defense in the MAC – nobody's sweating a little attrition.
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Honorable Mention: Arkansas State, Florida International, Fresno State, Northern Illinois, San Diego State.

AT THE OTHER END OF THE BARREL…
> Akron and Florida Atlantic each narrowly avoided the shame of a winless season in 2011, notching a single non-conference win apiece en route to last-place finishes in the two weakest leagues in the country. Both are under new management in 2012, but unless Terry Bowden and/or Carl Pelini have a secret gift for healing the blind and lame with a mere laying of hands, they're in for years of heavy lifting.

Ditto first-year boss Bob Davie at New Mexico, an outfit coming off three consecutive 1-11 seasons and desperate for healthy bodies. The only good new for Davie: At least here there is no way anyone is ever going to compare him unfavorably with his predecessor.

Tulane had one good thing going for it this season in senior linebacker Trent Mackey, a two-time All-C-USA pick who was honored in July as the league's preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Three weeks later, Mackey was effectively off the team following an arrest for armed robbery, and the Green Wave's prospects went from depressing to suicidal.

At least Tulane has a relatively stable conference to call home for the foreseeable future. Not so the long-suffering programs at New Mexico State or Idaho, soon to be "independent" – that is, homeless – casualties of the impending demise of the WAC after this season. "We are the unwanted red-headed stepchild, no offense to any redheads," Idaho coach Rob Akey said last week. "Nobody seems to want the Vandals right now."