Time to unveil my preseason picks for the non-AQ conferences:
C-USA East: UCF
C-USA West: Houston
C-USA champ: Houston
Why: What happens with UCF largely hinges on what happens with the quarterback. If Rob Calabrese and Jeff Godfrey are able to manage the offense, the defense will more than make up for any shortcomings. If they falter, Southern Miss could win the East. As for Houston, the Cougars should have a vastly improved defense to go with their high-powered offense and that should lead them to the conference title.
MAC East: Temple
MAC West: Northern Illinois
MAC champ: Temple
Why: Temple had one of the most surprising seasons in 2009, and should continue that momentum behind Bernard Pierce. Northern Illinois, with 15 starters returning, has a terrific running back of its own in Chad Spann. The Huskies get the edge here because of their overall talent.
Mountain West: TCU
Why: TCU returns a majority of its starters, including Andy Dalton and Tank Carder, and win another Mountain West championship. But the Horned Frogs to travel to play Utah on Nov. 6 with huge conference title implications sure to be on the line.
Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee
Why: The Blue Raiders are banking on Dwight Dasher to return in time for conference play. If he is reinstated by the NCAA, Dasher could conceivably miss the first four games of the year but return in time for Game 5 against Troy. If Dasher is out for the season, then Troy would be my pick to win the Sun Belt.
WAC: Boise State
Why: The Broncos are one of the best teams in the country, let alone the WAC, and have superior talent. One key conference game to watch comes Nov. 26 at Nevada, which is expected to be better this season.
Superlatives from all non-AQ conferences:
Offensive MVP: Boise State QB Kellen Moore. He should be up for Heisman consideration, especially if the Broncos go undefeated again.
Defensive MVP: TCU linebacker Tank Carder. High impact player, one of the best defenders in the game.
Team most likely to disappoint: BYU. The Cougars have to replace six starters on offense, and their quarterback situation is up in the air, with both Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson slated to take snaps in the opener. They also lost their top rusher and receiver. The schedule is brutal, with games against Washington, at Air Force, at Florida State, and Nevada to open the year, and conference road games at TCU and Utah. Coach Bronco Mendenhall always has a solid team, but the schedule is brutal and there are many question marks going into the year.
Newcomer of the year: Alex Carder, Western Michigan. It’s never easy to replace a history maker. In this case, it’s Tim Hiller. But Carder has the ability, and should benefit with the team’s top five receivers returning, plus four starters on the offensive line.
Freshman of the year: San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman. Reports out of San Diego have already started gushing about Hillman, a 5-foot-10, 175 pound back who should give the rushing game a much-needed boost. Last season, the Aztecs averaged 2.9 yards per carry, ranking 116th in the country.
Coach of the year: Chris Petersen, Boise State. The Broncos should be the best of the non-AQs once again.
Can’t miss game: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 6. This one could go a long way toward determining whether a non-AQ team has a shot at playing for a national championship this season.