Mountain West: San Diego State
Now, dont' take this as if it's some kind of endorsement that they're going to hang with Utah, BYU, TCU, or even Air Force. But over the past two years, we've had two teams come out at random to vie for the 5th Mountain West bowl slot: Colorado State in 2008 and Wyoming in 2009. These teams had little to nothing that they could hang their hat on, they beat all the teams they were supposed to, and they lost to all the teams they were supposed to. Each managed to be 6-6 with a New Mexico Bowl win. Now why should it be San Diego State's turn? Well, I have faith in Brady Hoke and in QB Ryan Lindley. Lindley is a terrific athlete at QB who is mobile enough to do some damage on the ground and can hurt some teams through the air. The Aztecs were mostly competitive against some of the mid-tier conference teams and even while only winning two Mountain West games seem to have the foundation in place for Hoke's second season. They should get UNLV, Colorado State, and Air Force all at home as all of those game should be huge for their bowl aspirations. Also, the non-conference slate has Nicholls, Utah State, and New Mexico State. Don't expect much more than 6-6, but they'll surprise people to be in the postseason for 2010.
The Huskies made some serious strides in Sarkisian's first attempt as a head coach, but has the novelty worn off? The Huskies got a huge boost from Jake Locker who affirmed awhile back that he'll return for his senior year. I still don't see what pro scouts see in Locker as he looks like a Drew Stanton clone with a little more toughness, but he's a great college QB and should at least be able to get U-Dub to 6-6. Washington finished 5-7 last year thanks to a rough stretch that included a 7-point loss at Arizona State and a 1-point loss at UCLA. They get USC and Oregon on the road, and since they likely wouldn't win those games at home, that's probably a good way to use up those road dates. But with a mature receiving corps and a back like Chris Polk to work with, I don't see how this offense won't be tremendous next year. I think 8, maybe even 9, wins are pretty possible with this group. And Lord knows the state of Washington has gone awhile without a winner.
SEC: South Carolina
It's now or never for Spurrier. The Gamecocks ended 2009 with a serious thud against Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl and you could easily tell they weren't serious about being there. But, new year and new attitude hopefully for a team that comes back relatively loaded. Compared to Arkansas, they won't be that sexy of a pick for a sleeper and they certainly won't find themselves in the title hunt like Arkansas may, but USC East returns 9 starters on offense and 8 on defense. Even though Spurrier hasn't been able to get the offense clicking, the defense has been the rock and stabilizing foundation for this school. Last season, South Carolina was 15th in total defense and will return a couple all-SEC defenders like DE Cliff Matthews. In a year where Spurrier will go under the radar and without a lot of expectations, I think a January bowl game and 8 wins or so is in order for a team that has actually been kind of successful with Spurrier at the helm, just not as successful as some Gamecock fans had hoped.
Sun Belt: UL Lafayette
The Sun Belt, as usual, will have two teams duking it out for top honors as the class of the conference, and the field will try to emerge with another candidate. We've seen this fairly often in the conference's history as in the early days it seemed like it was Middle Tennessee and North Texas expected to battle. Then it was Arkansas State and Troy. Shortly after that it was Florida Atlantic and Troy. Now it's Troy and Middle Tennessee. The Sun Belt wants to increase its exposure and getting a third conference team in the bowl mix will be a boost to their national reputation. So who has the ability to win 7 games and get that coveted at-large spot? I honestly have no clue. Florida Atlantic looks good. You never know when Florida International will come around (I put my eggs in their basket last season). UL Monroe is going to be dangerous. But I think I'll go with the Ragin' Cajuns. Ricky Bustle has been rocksteady for that program, putting them on the map and seeing that they can be competitive in games where they don't have to be. This is a team that will retain a very experienced defensive backfield which will help against MTSU, Troy, and some other conference opponents who may want to throw against them. Maturity at QB will be a big deal, but they do need somebody to emerge as a legitimate threat at RB. After Undre Sails went down last year, Yobes Walker showed some flashes. ULL has an opportunity to win 7 this year, at least as good as anybody else outside of MTSU and Troy.
WAC: Louisiana Tech
Get ready for a change, Ruston. Formerly, Jack Bicknell and Derek Dooley tried to establish the run. Now in comes head man Sonny Dykes, a disciple of Mike Leach, to try to revamp the offense and give them an identity. Dooley was a good coach and all and the move to replace Kiffin at Tennessee was a last-ditch effort but not a mistake by any means. However, I think that the Bulldogs will ultimately be better off for having Dykes. Without Daniel Porter at RB, there aren't a lot of offensive weapons, so I expect for this to take some time. Not only that, but there are some looming issues at WR with nobody really stepping up last season, unless Phillip Livas comes into his own as a home-run threat at wideout. And let's not forget, Ross Jenkins isn't Peyton Manning. So there will be some adjustment. There will be some problems up front on the defensive line without anchors like D'Anthony Smith, but I think the defense will have enough experience to save face, mostly at LB. Again, I'm thinking along the lines of a team that will finish 6-6 and go to a bowl game, not one that will challenge Boise State. The close calls against Utah State, Idaho, and Fresno could easily go the other way now that they have to come to Joe Alliet Stadium.
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Mountain West: San Diego State