Theoretically, it's easier now for the Bottom 56.
That's the unofficial name for the unofficial super conference trying to claw its way up to a BCS bowl. Officially.
Starting this year, the door is open wide(r) for the Bottom 56 from the Sun Belt, WAC, MAC, Mountain West, Conference USA and three indies -- Navy, Army, Temple.
|George O'Leary and UCF might have a ticket to the BCS with a victory over Steve Spurrier's old school. (Getty Images)|
One of the Bottom 56 now needs only to finish in the top 12 (expanded from top six previously) of the final BCS standings for an automatic BCS berth. Or finish in the top 16 if one of the champions of the automatic qualifiers (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-10) finishes No. 17 or below.
Under these new standards, TCU (10-1 in the regular season) would have gotten in last year at No. 14. ACC champion Florida State (8-4) finished No. 22.
This year, a Bottom 56 qualifier most likely would play in the Fiesta Bowl. That should be distinguished from the still unnamed Fox presents The BCS National Championship Game a week later in the same city.
Top 12 is still a tough standard. Only six teams have ever gotten that high in the final BCS standings: Tulane in 1998, Marshall in 1999, Miami (Ohio) in 2003 and Utah, Louisville and Boise State in 2004.
In the public's best interest, we present a step-by-step primer to the Bottom 56's race for the top -- or at least the top 12, unless a BCS conference champion finishes No. 17 or lower ... ah, the heck with it.
Win your conference: Duh. This isn't the NCAA Tournament, where mid-majors can get multiple bids. If there are multiple top 12s, only the highest-rated team gets in. Eliminated: No one at this point.
Start the season ranked or close to it: Double duh. It helps if people -- loosely translated as the coaches and Harrisites in the polls -- know who you are. Simple math tells you it's better to fight through 24 teams rather than 124. Candidates: TCU, Boise State, Navy, Fresno State and Utah. All or some of them will be in or near a preseason poll near you.
Schedule BCS foes: There are no excuses for cupcake schedules now with four non-conference games available to everyone in a 12-game schedule.
Utah got the public's attention in 2004 by kicking off the season with victories over Texas A&M and Arizona by a combined 37 points.
Overdoing it: In 2006, Southern Miss, Central Florida and Northern Illinois have done the best job of setting themselves up for a run.
Or getting half the team injured.
Southern Miss (7-5 last year) is not the defensive juggernaut it has been in the past, which makes games against the Gators and Hokies more paychecks than potential upsets.
Central Florida goes to Florida and has Pittsburgh at home. Northern Illinois travels to Ohio State and Iowa. The odds against even one upset in that group might be bigger than Ralph Friedgen, we know, but you've got to play those teams to have a chance.
Start a buzz: Translated, that means beat at least one ranked opponent during the non-conference schedule. The combination of being ranked and beating somebody early kicks off a magic season.
Other schools with projected ranked opponents on the schedule: TCU (Texas Tech), Houston (Miami), Utah (UCLA), Nevada (Arizona State), BYU (Boston College), Fresno State (Oregon), UTEP (Texas Tech), Hawaii (Alabama), Akron (Penn State), Wyoming (Virginia, Boise State).
This year's 'club'
Taking everything into account, these seven teams have the best chance of finishing in the top 12.
Boise State: Losing Dan Hawkins won't be as dramatic as it seems. Offensive coordinator Chris Petersen slipped into the captain's chair and has nine of 11 starters back. At some point, though, the Broncos have to start playing serviceable defense to get to the next level.
BYU: Not likely to show up on any preseason top 25, but playing in the nation's best non-BCS league (Mountain West) will help. Defense-minded Bronco Mendenhall gets a load of offensive talent back. In this case, name value helps. So would wins at Arizona and Boston College.
Fresno State: The Bulldogs tanked down the stretch after cashing every emotional chip against Southern California. This year, the season-maker (breaker?) comes early at home against Oregon. Pat Hill lost a lot of talent, but the fact that he stuck after flirting with the NFL means Fresno will have a chance to win 10.
Houston: Quarterback Kevin Kolb enters his third season and should pop up on some preseason Heisman lists. The Cougars have just about everything in place to win Conference USA. But will that be enough?
TCU: A top 15 team going in, the Frogs have back the starting quarterback, top two rushers and all the starting linebackers. They have won 10 games three out of the past four years (there are only eight 10-win seasons in school history). Gary Patterson enters his sixth season as the favorite to crack the exclusive BCS club. Look out for Sept. 16, when Texas Tech comes to town, a make-or-break game for BCS bowl hopes.
Toledo: The Rockets were 9-3 last year and have 55 victories since 2000. Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is gone, but enough momentum could be built at the beginning of the season with games at Iowa State, at Pittsburgh and at home against Kansas. The MAC's best defense loses only four players.
Utah: The Utes have done it before, so that's something. We'll know early. They kick off the season Sept. 2 at UCLA. A win in L.A. would kick start the season much the same way the Texas A&M win did in '04. It was huge that Kyle Whittingham got the Utes to a bowl in the first season after Urban Meyer. Coming off that 28-point victory over Georgia Tech without him, quarterback Brian Johnson (Alex Smith's backup in '04) returns from an injury.