THE SEASON AHEAD: MID-MAJORS
It strikes C&F that he has yet to preview any of the conferences in the country for the 2007 season. Seeing as how it is now late July, this could put him on pace for an all-night posting session August 29, something he has no intention of doing.
Not following the Harry Reid theory of blogging.
So returning to an aspect of previewing that has gone neglected, C&F presents his preview of the mid-major conferences. All of them. In one post. Hopefully not a mammoth one, all things considered.
Tolstoy will not be writing C&F's previews.
A quick tour around the mid-major world:
Yeah, yeah, everybody knows about Boise State and its amazing victory over Oklahoma. But that was last year, and now Zabransky and much of his cast of characters are gone from the Broncos. In fact, just five starters return on offense -- four of those along the line. The only returning skill-position starter would be Ian Johnson, who could be distracted by the whole marriage thing and only rush for 1,500 yards this year.
All of which opens the door for the Hawaii Warriors, who return uber-quarterback and Heisman candidate Colt Brennan, he of the excellent name and single-season TD passing record, along with 75 percent of his starting wideouts. They stand to loosen Boise State's five-year stranglehold on the WAC championship.
But can he run the Statue of Liberty?
3. Boise State
4. Fresno State
5. San Jose State
6. New Mexico State
7. Louisiana Tech
9. Utah State
In the East, it's all about the gold -- the Golden Eagles and the Golden Knights. But mostly the Golden Eagles, with Southern Miss widely seen as the hands-down favorites to win the division and the conference.
The West is trickier, with defending conference champion Houston losing quarterback and centerpiece Kevin Kolb. Tulsa picks up Arkansas castoff OC Gus Malzahn, who will team up with co-coordinator Herb Hand -- one of many great names in a conference that features Southern Miss P Britt Barefoot and Marshall WR Darius Passmore. But I digress. SMU, still returning from its stint on the death penalty, could also play a role.
1. Southern Miss*
2. Central Florida
Staking your reputation on picking the winner of the Mountain West has recently turned into a fool's errand. So no reputation is staked here, even though C&F's picks are binding and will be reviewed at the end of the season, unlike some pundits C&F could point to.
Not that C&F would mention names.
The two teams mostly seen as the contenders to beat in the MWC -- TCU and BYU -- are both thin on returning players on offense, though both have a good crop of returning players on defense, particularly TCU. The mental dartboard throws things to BYU as far as C&F is concerned, with the Cougars getting TCU at home.
3. New Mexico
6. San Diego State
7. Air Force
8. Colorado State
Ah, the MAC, one of the originators of the increased interest in mid-major football, from Marshall's run in the early part of the decade to Northern Illinois' 10-2 campaign in 2003 to Miami OH's 13-1 season the same year. One of those teams, Marshall, is gone, and Northern Illinois has fallen on hard times.
But there is reason for hope for Miami to win the East this year, with returning senior QB Mike Kokal looking for another solid season and RB Brandon Murphy healthy again. The toughest conference road tests come during the first week of the season at Ball State and last week of the season, when the Redhawks play Ohio.
As with C-USA, things get messier in the West, where Western Michigan, Ball State, Central Michigan all could plausibly lay claim to at least a shot at the division title.
1. Miami OH*
3. Bowling Green
6. Kent State
1. Western Michigan
2. Central Michigan
3. Ball State
4. Northern Illinois
6. Eastern Michigan
Every SEC athletic director's favorite mid-major conference has seen six teams win at least a share of the conference crown in the last five years, including 5-6 Louisiana-Monroe in 2005. Does Troy's 41-17 waxing of Rice mean the conference is on the rise? Who knows? Schedulers in the SEC obviously don't think so -- the Sun Belt has a dozen games slated against the likes of Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and even Kentucky. (Oklahoma State could almost join the conference, while Oklahoma, Louisville, Virginia, Clemson, Texas A&M, Penn State, Maryland, Miami and Kansas will also feast on at least some Sun Belt puffery in 2007.)
Mmmmm, Sun Bel..I mean, cupcakes.
2. Middle Tennessee State
5. Arkansas State
6. Florida Atlantic
7. North Texas
8. Florida International