Best of the Rest: Non-AQ Conferences Preview
While next weekend's college football openers will focus on the BCS elite schools, there are many smaller conferences that will be playing for a league championship and hopefully a trip to a decent bowl game.
ConferenceUSA is always competitive, and this year will be no different.
East Carolina and Tulsa are favorites to win the East and West, respectively, and meet in the conference title game in what would be their last game as conference members; they both leave for the AAC next year. The Pirates return quarterback Shane Carden and play Tulsa at home during the regular season. The Golden Hurricane, defending champions and Liberty Bowl victors, have a tough non-conference schedule but should rebound to play for another title. They'll be led by running back Trey Watts.
The Broncos return Joe Southwick at quarterback and hope to win the Mountain Division to put them in the league's first championship game in December. Utah State may have something to say about that, with new coach Matt Wells and star quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The Aggies play Utah, USC, and BYU out of conference, and that will help when Boise comes to town on 12 October. Fresno State is favored to win the Western Division but will be challenged by San Diego State and San José State. Fresno also has a star quarterback in Derek Carr but must travel to both San Diego State and San José State.
The Mid-American Conference is a competitive league that springs upsets against bigger schools every year.
Northern Illinois is the defending champion and is favored in the West this season. New coach Rod Carey and quarterback Jordan Lynch hope to build on last season's Orange Bowl appearance but must hold off Ball State and their star quarterback, Keith Wenning, if they want to get back to the MAC title game. Ohio is the clear favorite in the East. The Bobcats hope to start the season with an upset of Louisville, just like they did last season when they went to Happy Valley and upset Penn State.
That test should help them as they try to overtake defending champion Arkansas State in conference play. Last season, losses to the Red Wolves and rival Louisiana-Lafayette cost the Warhawks a chance for the title. This time around, quarterback Kolton Browning hopes to get over the hump and bring home a championship. Arkansas State will be good again and has bowl experience after winning the GoDaddy.com Bowl. The Ragin' Cajuns also won a bowl game last year, while the sleeper team may be Western Kentucky and new coach Bobby Petrino. After sitting out a year because of bad decisions, the offensive mastermind is back in college football and looking to use the Hilltoppers as a stepping stone to big and better programs as soon as one of them is ready to take the heat for hiring him.
One of them will.
So, starting next week, you'll see some of these teams on television. It might not be appointment viewing, but the entertainment level will still make watching worthwhile. ESPN 2 has some of the smaller conferences as does Fox, NBC Sports and CBS Sports. The games are competitive and even though there are not 100,000 people in the stands, the games are just as important to these players and coaches as they are to the big schools.