For the first time in six years, the five non-Bowl Championship Series conferences didnt place a football team in a big-money BCS bowl last season.
And if you look at the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, they might get shut out again in 2012.
Boise State is the only team from the five outsider conferences ranked at No. 22. No other team finished higher than 36th, illustrating how little power is left in those conferences now that Utah (Pac-12), TCU (Big 12) and BYU (independent) have moved out.
That makes the Broncos the prohibitive favorite to earn the BCS berth available to the non-BCS conferences, if anyone does. A spot is available to a Mountain West, WAC, Sun Belt, Mid-American or Conference USA champion that finishes in the top 12 of the BCS standings or finishes in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of one of the six BCS conferences. Only one such team can qualify automatically.
This is the second-to-last year of the current system, and the final year for Boise State. The Broncos will play in the Big East in 2013, when they can receive a BCS bid simply by winning the conference.
Here are the top contenders besides the Broncos for a BCS berth all long shots. Keep in mind that BYU is not eligible for this list because it doesnt play in a conference.
1. HOUSTON (C-USA)
The Cougars just missed a BCS berth last year, falling to Southern Miss in the conference title game before beating Penn State in their bowl game. They lost coach Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and star QB Case Keenum, but they face the easiest non-conference schedule in this race vs. Texas State, vs. Louisiana Tech, at UCLA, vs. North Texas. New coach Tony Levine has been on staff since 2008 and has 13 returning starters, including four offensive linemen and two cornerbacks.
2. LOUISIANA TECH (WAC)
The Bulldogs are on the rise under coach Sonny Dykes. They lost a bunch of heartbreakers last year before winning their last seven regular-season games and challenging TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. They enter 2012 as the WAC favorites and theyve got a schedule that presents opportunities for marquee wins without serving up near-impossible tasks. The Bulldogs open against Texas A&M in Shreveport, La., and take road trips to Houston, Illinois and Virginia. Sixteen starters return, including eight on offense.
3. OHIO (MAC)
The Bobcats hope to follow Boise States path in 2005-06 from Boises bowl game one year to a BCS game the next. Ohio won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in December for the first bowl victory in school history. That momentum, combined with a huge scheduling break, could lead to much loftier history. Ohio opens with a who-knows-what-could-happen game at Penn State. The rest of the non-conference slate: vs. New Mexico State, at Marshall, vs. Norfolk State. The conference schedule is missing the three teams expected to compete for the West Division title, giving the Bobcats a clear path to the championship game. QB Tyler Tettleton is among six returning starters on offense; eight more return on defense.
4. NEVADA (MW)
Like Ohio, Nevada received a lucky break from its conference schedule. The Wolf Pack get Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State and Wyoming at home. The non-conference schedule includes games at Cal and Texas State and at home against South Florida and Northwestern State. QB Cody Fajardo leads 13 returning starters, but coach Chris Ault has called last years defense complacent.
5. SOUTHERN MISS (C-USA)
The defending C-USA champion lost its coach (Larry Fedora, to North Carolina) and quarterback (Austin Davis), just like Houston. But the Golden Eagles face a much more difficult non-conference slate than the Cougars at Nebraska, at Western Kentucky, vs. Louisville and vs. Boise State. Eleven starters return, including the three interior offensive linemen and three defensive backs.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH
Florida International (Sun Belt), Utah State (WAC), UCF (C-USA), Toledo (MAC), Northern Illinois (MAC), Arkansas State (Sun Belt).
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat