We've gotten used to BCS busters having an impact on the college game over the past couple of seasons, and this year there are again a few legit threats to make it to a BCS bowl. We'll spotlight these and other long-shot hopefuls in this week's Top 10 list.
(It's also worth mentioning, however, that one of the more talented non-AQ conference teams that could've been considered for this list, Tulsa, seems like too much of a long shot because of its schedule. The Golden Hurricane have a road game at the Oklahoma Sooners, a home contest against Oklahoma State and a road trip to Boise State, all in the first month.)
The Broncos have stars in some key places, with Kellen Moore at QB, Doug Martin at running back and one of the best defensive lines in the country, anchored by Billy Winn and Shea McClellin. There is a belief and excitement that rangy Geraldo Boldewijn will emerge as a playmaking wide receiver to fill part of the void left by the departures of Austin Pettis and Titus Young.
By moving to the MWC, the Broncos will have a tougher road, but the experience is there. They open in Atlanta against Georgia and then have three tricky games after that: at Fresno State on Oct. 7, and consecutive games in November against TCU and at San Diego State. Anything less than 11-1 would be a surprise.
This is the sleeper team in the state of Texas. QB Case Keenum is back and the sixth-year senior will put up gaudy numbers. Keenum has uncanny pocket presence and a dangerous group of skill guys ready to light up the scoreboard. Keenum, though, isn't the only UH playmaker making a comeback. Dynamic RB Charles Sims, the 2009 C-USA freshman of the year, was ruled ineligible last season by the NCAA but is returning this year.
The Cougars get an improved UCLA at home in the opener and should be favored the rest of the way, with tests against ECU and SMU at home and a road game at Tulsa.
Whichever quarterback takes over for the Frogs, Casey Pachall or Matt Brown, will be good. But the guile and savvy of former TCU standout QB Andy Dalton will be missed, at least early on, which could be a problem since TCU opens with consecutive road games at Baylor and Air Force.
Count on TCU still fielding a nasty defense under coach Gary Patterson, however, led by a couple of excellent linebackers. Later in the season, TCU will face stiff tests at Boise State and at San Diego State.
4. UCF Knights
Coach George O'Leary's team won 11 last year and it wasn't a fluke. Sophomore QB Jeff Godfrey will continue to give defenses headaches, and he's surrounded by plenty of speed, including playmaking WR/KR Quincy McDuffie.
The schedule isn't brutal, either, but the Knights host Boston College and have to play at BYU on a Friday night, and then at Southern Miss and at ECU late in the season.
5. BYU Cougars
The Cougars are no longer in the MWC, but they have a chance to make some noise early with four tough games out of the gate: at Ole Miss, at Texas, home against Utah and home against UCF. Later in the season, BYU has to go to Oregon State and TCU. Expecting to win even four of those six games seems very optimistic.
However, second-year QB Jake Heaps should be poised for a big sophomore season with a very underrated offensive unit around him.
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesLooking for a sleeper in the Mountain West? Ryan Lindley and the Aztecs get both TCU and Boise at home.
Like several others on this list, the Aztecs are far from one-dimensional. Their tandem of QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Hillman matches up well with anyone. New head coach Rocky Long has always been a handful for offensive coaches to prepare for, and he gets three of his top four tacklers back from last year's 9-4 squad.
The Aztecs host an improved Washington State team before traveling to play their old coach Brady Hoke's new team at Michigan the next week. After that, they host TCU and then go to Air Force. If they can make it through that stretch and be 5-1 for the first half of the season, and then knock off Boise when the Broncos come to San Diego in mid-November, this bunch could leap into the top 15.
New coach Dave Doeren inherited a very good team. NIU went 11-3 last year and is led by gifted dual-threat QB Chandler Harnish. Former North Carolina Tar Heels RB Jamal Womble, a 245-pound junior college transfer, will add more punch to the ground attack.
NIU does have to replace nine starters on defense, but there is talent, especially at cornerback. Young speed-rushing defensive end Joe Windsor is also a name to remember. The Huskies will be a long shot to knock off Doeren's old team, Wisconsin, at Soldier Field, but they certainly would turn some heads if they did. Outside of that game, the Huskies' next toughest test will come at Toledo.
8. SMU Mustangs
After winning 15 games over the past two seasons, coach June Jones has a prolific QB (Kyle Padron) and RB (Zach Line) returning along with the entire offensive line from last year. Three of the top four tacklers are also back.
The bad news is that the Mustangs have a hefty road schedule. They open at Texas A&M to start the month and then head to TCU to finish September. Later, they have games at Southern Miss, at Tulsa and at Houston. They also face two very good teams at home in Navy and UCF. This could be a much-improved team and still struggle to do better than last year's seven wins.
The Falcons host TCU in Week 2, but we'll find out just how good these guys are in the month of October. They visit Navy Oct. 1 and then go to South Bend the following week, before facing San Diego State five days later. After that, they go to Boise State.
Coach Mario Cristobal's team finished off the 2010 season with a frenetic rally in a bowl game, signifying a major leap for a previously dismal afterthought of a program. FIU has some momentum, and Cristobal has worked very hard to continue to upgrade the talent. Wide receiver/kick returner T.Y. Hilton is a legit difference-maker, and this team has upgraded its talent on both lines.
In previous seasons, FIU's schedule featured some top-20 opponents. Not this time, as the Panthers should match up well with every team they face. They do have to go to Louisville and then host UCF, but FIU should be competitive in both games. Later, an improved Duke team visits. Beyond that, they host Troy and visit a potent Arkansas State team.