NCF Nation: 2009 state of the conference

The state of Notre Dame

August, 10, 2009
8/10/09
11:12
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Charlie Weis has declared this season is about deeds, not words for Notre Dame.

Weis instructed his players not to talk about expectations and just prove themselves on the field.

"The attitude of this team is just, 'Look, let's be a nasty football team but go about it in a quiet manner,'" linebacker Brian Smith said. "Every week we want to go play hard and win and then move on and not say too much about it."

That's all well and good, but in reality it doesn't matter if the Irish flap their gums or sew their lips shut. For two reasons.

One, because nothing the lightning-rod program does is ever quiet. And two, if the understandably soaring expectations aren't met, then someone than other than Charlie Weis will likely be coaching this program next season.

After reaching BCS games in his first two years in South Bend -- and getting thumped in both of them, by the way -- Weis has gone just 10-15 since. Even if you believe that he was winning with Tyrone Willingham's players early on and that he dealt with Willingham's recruiting misses and youth the past two years, then you must concede that this year presents a full-fledged referendum on his tenure.

His players are now in place in Year 5, and with 18 returning starters and a two-deep stuffed with upperclassmen, there aren't many excuses left. Weis believes this is the deepest and most experienced team he's had yet, and it gave a glimpse of its potential in a glittering performance against an admittedly mediocre Hawaii team in December's bowl win.

A schedule that features five teams that had losing records last season and just one opponent ranked in the preseason coaches' Top 25 further fuels the optimism. Mere competency from this team should net a bowl berth, though that's never the standard at Notre Dame.

"We're not trying to be good this year," quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "We're trying to be great."

The future direction of Notre Dame's program depends on how close they get to that goal this year.

State of the Big East

August, 10, 2009
8/10/09
9:55
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Funny how one game and one decision can change the perception of an entire league.

Had Cincinnati been able to beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, the Bearcats would have finished the season in the top 10 and would likely be ranked in the Top 25 to start the 2009 season despite their personnel losses on defense. The Big East could brag about four consecutive BCS bowl wins.

Had star running back LeSean McCoy returned to Pittsburgh, the Panthers would probably be ranked in the top 15 this preseason. The Big East would have a team at least on the fringes of the national discussion.

Instead, Cincinnati lost that game, 20-7, and Pitt lost McCoy to the NFL. The league as a whole ended up a loser in both transactions. Big Least jokes are back in style.

In the first coaches' poll, not a single conference team cracked the Top 25. Many believe that the Mountain West is the sixth-best conference, and the Big East is no better than seventh. It's the lowest point, from a perception standpoint, since the start of the 2005 season when Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida joined the league after the ACC raid.

The Big East wouldn't mind another finish like 2005, when West Virginia went on to topple SEC champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for a No. 5 final ranking, and Louisville ended up No. 19.

What the Big East doesn't want or need is another season like 2004, when every team had at least three losses and 8-4 Pittsburgh got trampled by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.

At the start of 2009, though, it looks more like 2004 than 2005, at least on paper. There appear to be many solid teams but no great ones.

The reason for that is because so much veteran talent -- players like McCoy, Pat White, Donald Brown, Scott McKillop, Kenny Britt, Connor Barwin, Darius Butler, etc. -- is now playing for paychecks. The Big East had more players drafted per team than any other conference this April.

"I think it's pretty clear that we lost some great players from this league to the NFL," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said.

It was just three years ago that the conference had three teams in the top 10 as late as November. But Louisville has backslid since Bobby Petrino left and isn't close to being back to its former level. West Virginia took a small step backward last year without Rich Rodriguez and now moves into an uncertain post-White era. Rutgers and South Florida have yet to fulfill their vast potential.

The hope is that this is merely a transitional period for the league. A young talent infusion is on the way, as several schools -- including Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia -- boasted what they claimed as their best recruiting classes in history on signing day in February.

As for 2009, at least five teams must be considered strong contenders for the league's BCS bid. What the Big East needs is for one or more of those teams to emerge as relevant on the national scene, whether that's Rutgers, South Florida, Pitt or somebody else. The nonconference schedule provides prove-it moments against such opponents as Florida State, Miami, Oregon State, Auburn, North Carolina, Penn State and Notre Dame.

"It won't take long if we take care of business as a conference," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We'll be recognized."

Until then, the Big East once again has a perception problem on its hands.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Once again, the ACC is facing exciting possibilities in a preseason top 10 team, and once again, it has nothing to do with Florida State or Miami.

Last year, it was Clemson's job to represent the ACC at the national level. The Tigers had a No. 9 preseason ranking heading into their season opener against Alabama. In the first 2009 poll to be released -- the USA Today Coaches' Poll -- Virginia Tech was ranked No. 7 heading into its season opener against Alabama. Talk of a national title has made its way through the locker room and into your living rooms.

And that's where the rest of the conference is collectively hoping the similarities end.

So far, the Hokies have held up their end of the bargain, and it started last year when they beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, improving the ACC's BCS bowl record to 2-9 and snapping an eight-game postseason losing streak. The conference is still seeking respect on the national level, though, and there are only two ways to get it -- win the tough nonconference games and produce a legitimate national title contender.

Both of those seem to be realistic possibilities for the ACC in 2009.

"I think we're a step closer to affecting the national level," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said of the entire ACC. "Last year I didn't think we had a great team in the ACC. I think we had a lot of good teams. We're all stepping it up a notch and so I think we're getting closer to affecting the national stage, whichever one comes out of the ACC."

There will be ample opportunities for the ACC to do that, with nonconference games against Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama, just to name a few.

One glaring reason for optimism will be in the offenses -- you'll notice them. For the first time in the league's 56-year history, the ACC returns three running backs who each achieved 1,000 yards rushing the previous season. Georgia Tech junior Jonathan Dwyer, Maryland junior Da'Rel Scott and Virginia Tech sophomore Darren Evans each rushed for at least 1,100 yards in 2008. And nine quarterbacks return with starting experience, not including Virginia's 2007 starter, Jameel Sewell, and Miami's Jacory Harris, who split time at the position last year.

No conference was deeper or more balanced last year than the ACC, and that's expected to continue this fall. Last year, the average margin of victory in 48 ACC games was 10.77 points. Half of the games were decided by seven points or fewer. And right up until the final week of the season, 11 teams still had a chance to become bowl eligible. It's not unfathomable to think 10 teams could reach the postseason again.

While Virginia Tech and Florida State were picked by the media in July to win their respective divisions, six different teams received first-place votes. Despite the hype surrounding the Hokies, they've not only got to get through the only schedule in the ACC that doesn't feature an FCS school, but they've also got to get past Coastal Division contenders Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami.

With David Cutcliffe starting to win games at Duke, the ACC has literally gotten a boost from the ground up. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and UNC coach Butch Davis have both already made a difference at their programs in as little as two years. Johnson won nine games in his first season, including a road win over rival Georgia and a home win over Florida State. Davis doubled his win total from four to eight and is looking to take the next step. O'Brien has the athletes to win the Atlantic Division, he just needs to keep them healthy.

Almost every team in the conference has made coaching changes or recruited players that signify an upgrade, but there was so much transition this offseason it could be a bumpy beginning for a few programs. Five schools -- Boston College, Clemson, Miami, Virginia and Maryland - brought in new coordinators. Two -- BC and Clemson -- have first-year head coaches. The coaches facing the most pressure are Virginia's Al Groh, Miami's Randy Shannon and Clemson's Dabo Swinney.

Nobody, though, is carrying the weight of the conference like Frank Beamer.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The conference that pushed the pregame flyover taunt into vogue last season -- along with some pretty neat aerial numbers once the games began -- is back for much more this season.

The Big 12's controversial South Division title race grabbed the attention of college football last season with an unprecedented three-way tie that eventually pushed Oklahoma into the Big 12 title game over Texas and Texas Tech on the fifth tiebreaker.

Understandably, that tempest prompted angst among rival fans that left them with frayed feelings as the excruciatingly tight battle between the three blood rivals played out.

That controversy almost overshadowed a memorable Big 12 season that featured a Heisman Trophy winner, a Heisman runner-up, two teams in BCS bowls, another participant in the BCS national championship game, four schools with 10 wins and more offensive records than any in the league's 13-season history.

Defensive struggles in bowl games were a different matter. But who needs to worry about defense, particularly when the league's national profile skyrocketed along with the South Division's wild race?

Seemingly every week became bigger as points and passing yardage mushroomed to record levels. The NCAA's conference-by-conference statistics indicated the Big 12 led the rest of the nation in total yards (439.6 per team), total points (35.6 per team), yards per play (6.19) and total plays (71 per game per team).

The conference had five of the nation's top eight passing offenses last season, seven of the nation's top 17 teams in pass efficiency, five of the nation's top nine scoring offenses and six of the top 12 teams in total offense.

And the scary thing is, those pinball numbers might just be a warm-up for this season.

With Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy of Texas back for another season, the conference has two of the nation's top quarterbacks back to lead their teams in a national championship charge.

And with quarterbacks like Zac Robinson of Oklahoma State, Robert Griffin of Baylor, Todd Reesing of Kansas across the conference, no conference can boast the depth of top passing offenses as the Big 12. In another year when Bradford and McCoy weren't playing, any of those quarterbacks would have a legitimate claim for all-conference honors. In all, eight starting quarterbacks are back.

"I don't know of a league that can boast having better quarterbacks," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "You don't even have to be prejudiced to make that statement."

Texas coach Mack Brown raised eyebrows last season when he said the league had never been balanced. It didn't exactly play out that way as the South Division claimed another Big 12 title -- the division's fifth straight -- among a 16-3 edge that ranked as tied for the most one-sided between the two divisions in league history.

But Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy points out that consistent improvement across the league should make it more balanced this season.

"I don't see much SEC football, Pac-10 or anybody else," Gundy said. "But one thing that people don't talk about much is the 'lower half,' whoever that may be depending on the preseason polls. And in this conference, you better be careful playing those teams because they have guys who all can make plays."

The three power teams from the South Division -- Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State -- seem to be at another level from the rest of the conference. But the North Division looks legitimately balanced with any of three or four teams capable of challenging for the title, depending on who gets hot.

Missouri will be rebuilding as its tries for its third straight North title game appearance. Nebraska looks primed for a charge at the divisional title under second-year coach Bo Pelini. Kansas appears to have the best talent, but also faces the toughest schedule. And Colorado is the mystery team, even as coach Dan Hawkins claimed after last season that his team will win 10 games in 2009.

All of the Big 12 teams are chasing the Sooners, who made history last season by becoming the Big 12's first school to win three consecutive conference championships. It marked Stoops' sixth Big 12 title in the past nine seasons. No other Big 12 coach has won more than one.

Some of the national luster of that dynastic performance was dimmed by Oklahoma's 24-14 loss to Florida in the BCS title game. It was the Sooners' fifth straight BCS loss and third since 2004 in the national title game.

To get back there again, the Sooners will have to navigate the Big 12 South Division that is arguably the toughest in college football.

Whether the rest of the conference ranks with that stature is debatable. But Big 12 games still will be a lot of fun to watch as that argument plays out.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Is this the season?

Is this the season when, after all the huffing and puffing and upsets and injuries and brilliant performances, that the Pac-10 crown is placed upon the head of a team other than USC?

This question has been asked before. Like every preseason since 2003.

State of the conference? What did we write last year?

[The Pac-10], from Tucson to Seattle to Eugene to Berkeley to Westwood, looks up and sees USC's Men of Troy standing above, smirking in their Cardinal & Gold Armani armor, which sports six gaudy, sequential badges of Pac-10 supremacy.

Only now it's seven.

And the overwhelming consensus that it will be eight.

And yet.

The whispers of Trojan vulnerability are louder this year. USC is rebuilding its defense with just three starters back. The two leading candidates to start at quarterback, sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley, are greener than most of their predecessors under coach Pete Carroll, though it is true that Matt Leinart won the first of two consecutive national championship in 2003 as a sophomore.

But what's more interesting is not so much talk of Trojan questions, but Pac-10 answers.

Sure, USC was tapped No. 4 in the preseason coaches' poll. But California, ranked 12th, and Oregon, at No. 14, are two legitimate challengers, while Oregon State finally earned the respect that 28 wins over the three previous seasons merit and was 25th.

Last fall, Arizona State, ranked 15th in the preseason, was touted as the Trojans' top challenger, at least in terms of national polls. But the scuttlebutt within the conference was highly skeptical. The Sun Devils had huge issues on the offensive line and had benefited from a highly favorable schedule while winning 10 games in 2007.

There's little skepticism with Cal, in large part because the defense likely will rank among the nation's best. Oh, and this fellow by the name of Jahvid Best is OK, too.

Oregon, which is rebuilding both lines, has more questions, but quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's dramatic improvement down the stretch last season is obscuring those concerns.

Oregon State, meanwhile, has earned the benefit of the doubt after successfully completing what appeared to be substantial rebuilding projects in advance of the previous three seasons. And two experienced quarterbacks and 2008 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Jacquizz Rodgers is a good place to start.

Then there's the middle and lower-third of the conference. From the vantage point of pure preseason speculation, only Washington State appears unlikely to improve from 2008, though even the Cougars have some hope with an easier nonconference schedule and an expectation that injuries can't possibly be as epidemic as they were last fall.

Some seem skeptical about Arizona improving on 2008's eight-win total that was capped by a Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU, but that perspective seems ignorant of the talent and experience the Wildcats have on both sides of the ball as well as a curious focus on Mike Stoops as a coach in 2004 and 2005 rather than his present, more seasoned incarnation.

UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State all appear capable of breaking even -- or better -- and becoming bowl eligible. Washington has 18 starters back, and that doesn't include linebacker E.J. Savannah, a potential All-Pac-10 pick.

Moreover, the return of quarterback Jake Locker and the arrival of a new coaching staff led by Steve Sarkisian suggests that the Huskies won't even remotely resemble the uninspired, 0-12 disaster they were last year under Tyrone Willingham.

In sum, it seems entirely possible that the momentum of a 5-0 bowl season, which reasserted the Pac-10's elite status among BCS conferences -- not to mention reignited debate among the knowledgeable that USC was, again, the nation's best team -- will carry over in 2009.

A caveat for Pac-10 fans: The nonconference schedule is even more brutal in 2009. It includes five road games against teams ranked in the preseason coaches' poll (Ohio State, Georgia, Iowa, Boise State and Notre Dame). And that doesn't include games at Tennessee, Minnesota and Wake Forest.

In other words, it's possible that a repeat of last fall's poor-to-middling performance in early-season nonconference games could cause the rest of the nation to -- fair or unfair -- write off the Pac-10.

So the Pac-10 best adopt a road warrior mentality.

Which, by the way, USC will need in spades to retain its Pac-10 crown and elite national ranking -- see a schedule that includes visits to Ohio State, California, Notre Dame and Oregon.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It seems like I was writing this same piece a year ago at this time.

Something about the SEC being the best conference with the best players, the best coaches, the best facilities, the best fans (OK, the most rabid fans) and the best collection of hardware.

Florida added to the trophy case last season. That's four BCS national championships in the last six years and five since the inception of the BCS in 1998.

The Gators are working on their own little mini-dynasty. If they can repeat this season -- and they've already been picked No. 1 by a wide margin in the preseason coaches' poll -- that would make three national titles in the last four years for them.

The last team to have that kind of run was Nebraska, which won outright national titles in 1994 and 1995 and then shared the title with Michigan in 1997.

The last team to win three outright national titles in four years, according to sources recognized by the NCAA, was Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949.

So clearly, Florida is chasing history, and everybody else in the SEC is chasing Florida.

"The target's on our back, and we know that. We like that," said Florida senior linebacker Brandon Spikes, who's back along with every other starter from the Gators' defense last season.

"When you've got two national championships already, it's easy to get satisfied. We've got All-Americans, All-SEC honors. It's easy, man, to say, 'What else can I do?' But nothing beats winning a championship and getting out there with the guys and doing what it takes day in and day out to get back there."

It won't be easy. Nothing ever is in the SEC. There's a reason that it's been 11 years since a team has won back-to-back SEC titles.

And as Alabama coach Nick Saban says, if you're the least bit off your game mentally, physically or emotionally in this league, then any number of teams can beat you.

"I think that's what makes our league great," Saban said. "There's tremendous parity and there's a lot of competition. If you're gonna win it all, you really have to have great competitive character and do it on a consistent basis, cause you have to line up and play every week and you cannot be up and down ... or you're not gonna sustain it in our league."

One thing that has changed in the league is that the balance of power has sort of shifted. There was a time when the Eastern Division had all the heavyweights with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee slugging it out every year.

Now, it's the Western Division.

Florida's still the class of the SEC, but Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss will all start the season ranked in the top 10 in the coaches' poll. Alabama is No. 5, LSU No. 9 and Ole Miss No. 10, and the most-improved team may end up being Arkansas.

Who wins the West this year is anybody's guess, whereas it would be a huge upset if anybody other than the Gators wins the East. The only three teams to represent the East in the SEC championship game since its debut in 1992 are Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

The only team that hasn't played in it from the West is ... Ole Miss.

Stay tuned to see if that changes this season.

The talent in the SEC will be as deep as it's ever been. When you start thinking about the players in this league who could be legitimate NFL first- or second-round prospects next year (counting juniors), the list is stunning.

Just at Florida alone, you've got Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, Major Wright, Lawrence Marsh and Aaron Hernandez.

Then there's Ciron Black, Brandon LaFell, Charles Scott and Chad Jones at LSU, Jevan Snead, Greg Hardy and John Jerry at Ole Miss, Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas at Alabama, Micah Johnson and Trevard Lindley at Kentucky, Eric Berry and Rico McCoy at Tennessee, Geno Atkins and Rennie Curran at Georgia, Eric Norwood at South Carolina, Myron Lewis at Vanderbilt and Antonio Coleman at Auburn.

That's not even counting Alabama's Julio Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green, who are two of the best receivers in the country -- but only sophomores.

So sit back and enjoy.

If we've learned anything over the past decade or so about college football, it is that the team talented enough, resilient enough and lucky enough to survive the SEC gauntlet is usually the team that's holding up the BCS national championship crystal trophy come January.

It's indeed an SEC world, and everybody else is playing for second place.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The state of the Big Ten entering the 2009 season hasn't changed much, and that's not a good thing.

Last August, Big Ten bashing was all the rage after Ohio State's poor performances in consecutive BCS title games. Head coaches around the league countered the criticism with pledges to do better. It didn't happen, as Ohio State got crushed by USC in September and Penn State suffered the same fate at the Rose Bowl.

The league did absolutely nothing to improve its national perception, and arguably made things worse in late December and early January.

Heading into 2009, the numbers are irrefutable -- six straight BCS bowl losses, six straight Rose Bowl losses, a 1-6 bowl record last year -- and Big Ten coaches know the time for talk is over.

"Until we go win the bowl games and obviously win the games out of conference, there's not really a whole lot we can say," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said.

Fortunately for the Big Ten, a new season brings new opportunities to improve the state of the conference. Ohio State gets another shot at USC, this time on Midwest soil, while teams like Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue can make statements against Cal, Missouri and Oregon.

There's also evidence that things could be on the upswing.

The league returns its top six rated quarterbacks from 2008 and should make a sizable upgrade at the most important position on the field. Seven teams bring back 14 or more starters, and the two squads with the fewest returnees, Ohio State and Penn State, both enter the season ranked in the Top 10.

Michigan comes off the worst season in team history, but head coach Rich Rodriguez has a track record of facilitating major improvement in Year 2 of his program.

"I go back to 2002, coming into this meeting, and the sky was clearly falling," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten media days last month. "That's was the tenor of the meeting. At the end of the season, we had four teams in the top 13 with Ohio State winning the national championship."

If the Big Ten takes a big step toward national respectability this fall, Ohio State likely will lead the way. The Buckeyes have won or shared each of the last four league titles and enter the fall as preseason favorites.

The league's flagship program steps onto the national stage against USC and aims to snap a three-game BCS bowl losing streak after winning four straight bowls from 2002-05.

"A lot of people look to us as the flag bearer," Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman said. "There's a great expectations for Ohio State to succeed. ... There is a little more weight carried our way, and we expect that."

Penn State also has BCS hopes after winning two Big Ten titles in the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions boast more national award candidates than any Big Ten team -- Daryll Clark, Evan Royster, Navorro Bowman, Jared Odrick, Sean Lee -- but their ability to reload at several spots will be tested.

Much like the league itself, Penn State will have to wait a while to make a major national statement. The Lions' soft schedule will hurt them unless they run the table.

Most consider the Big Ten a two-team race, but the league's midsection could be improved. Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern all return strong defenses from teams that won nine games in 2008, and Illinois boasts arguably the league's most electric offense, led by quarterback Juice Williams and wideout Arrelious Benn.

Short of a BCS bowl breakthrough, getting Michigan back on track is the biggest issue for the league this fall. While Penn State might be on the brink of becoming the league's third power, most still link the Big Ten to Michigan, and last year's 3-9 disaster really stung.

The Big Ten has become the national piñata the last two years, with everyone lined up to take a whack. But the struggles have bonded players and coaches around the league, and they expect to hit back this fall.

"Once we get a few big wins," Rodriguez said, "whether it's regular season, nonconference or BCS bowl games, that perception will change."

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

When asked about the state of the conference during the WAC media preview in July, several coaches had the same goal -- emulate Boise State.

Boise State has been a model of consistency since joining the WAC in 2002. During those seven seasons, Boise State had five undefeated conference seasons. The other two seasons it had just one conference loss.

It's no surprise that the rest of the teams in the WAC would want similar success, but as of yet, few have found it.

Hawaii completed an undefeated season in 2007, and prior to that Fresno State found itself on the national map with wins against Kansas State and Washington back in 2004 and a near win over USC in 2005.

Other than those small uprisings, Boise State has ruled the roost. Last season, behind a freshman quarterback, the Broncos defeated their conference opponents by an average of 31.13 points per game.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having a dominant team, but there is a need to have additional teams in the top half or ranked in the Top 25," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "What the Mountain West did a year ago with BYU, Utah and TCU, that type of strength at the top is the ideal distribution of teams."

But it's not like the other teams aren't trying. Each of the past two seasons Nevada has been within a touchdown or less of Boise State. Louisiana Tech finished second in the conference and went to its first bowl game since 2001 and won its first bowl game since 1977. Teams such as Utah State and New Mexico State hired new coaches in an effort to dig those teams out of the WAC cellar. And Idaho is finally working its way back from NCAA-mandated APR penalties.

Benson said the WAC wouldn't truly have a place on the national map until it can get teams out of the national basement.

"You still always want to guard against having any teams in the 100-120," Benson said. "That's just as important. If you can eliminate the 100-120, and I think last year we had maybe three in New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State. Those teams bring you down."

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Sun Belt Conference learned a tough lesson last year -- win or stay home.

Last July, the Sun Belt Conference inked a secondary bowl agreement with the Independence, Papajohns.com and St. Petersburg bowls. But there was some confusion in the language. Commissioner Wright Waters said his intent was that if the secondary bowls couldn't fill their guarantee slots, then they'd pick the next eligible Sun Belt team at 7-5, and if they were no 7-5 teams, they'd pick a 6-6 team.

But the bowls read the agreement differently. If there were no 7-5 teams, the three bowls could choose a team from the nationwide pool of bowl-eligible teams. And that's what happened since only league champion Troy had a record better than 6-6.

"The problem we had last year was some terrible language that I am responsible for in the letter of agreement," Waters said.

While Florida Atlantic managed to lobby for an at-large spot, the conference received a major wake-up call about the perception of the league and the level of football it needed to play to earn respect from the bowls.

"The Sun Belt, and I hope our teams, have learned that they need to aspire to be winning teams," Waters said during the Sun Belt media days video conference call. "If you have winning teams and those bowl opportunities are available, there would have been opportunity."

Waters hopes to work out more bowl deals for his conference when the new contracts are negotiated for next season, but he knows his conference is going to have to show that it's better than managing just the bare minimum to get into a bowl game.

Teams such as Troy and Florida Atlantic are starting to receive consistent respect from leagues outside the Sun Belt, and some of the major guarantees Sun Belt schools are receiving are allowing Sun Belt teams to schedule more home games, increase attendance and generate more fan support.

All of which, Waters said, shows growth within his young conference.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

During the six months between the end of the Sugar Bowl and the start of media days, the Mountain West Conference has been the most visible conference in the country.

It's not just because the conference boasted the nation's only undefeated team in Utah and had three teams finish the season ranked in the Top 25, including two in the top 10. It was because it challenged the current BCS system, proposed and lobbied for change, and was ultimately turned away by the 10 other FBS conferences and Notre Dame.

The Mountain West had the momentum to challenge the BCS system during the offseason. Now, after begrudgingly signing a four-year contract that will keep the system the same, the Mountain West is going to have to put its money where its mouth is with another stellar campaign.

The conference is already off to a good start with three teams ranked in the recently released coaches' poll, a first for the Mountain West. And many believe TCU might have the strongest team and schedule for a trip to a BCS bowl.

But beyond the top three teams, the rest of the conference faces scrutiny. While teams such as UNLV and Wyoming pulled off major nonconference wins a year ago, none of the Mountain West teams have been able to consistently have success like the Utah, BYU and TCU.

Since TCU joined the conference in 2005, at least two of the big three have finished in the top three in the conference and twice the three have finished first through third. Since 2005, no team other than TCU, BYU or Utah has won the conference and each of those teams has done so with a perfect conference record. In fact, Utah won the two conference titles prior to TCU joining the league.

So while the nation is keeping a keen eye on the Mountain West Conference, the conference needs to show it's not a three-hit wonder. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Mid-American Conference went through more coaching turmoil than any conference in the country this offseason.

The conference replaced five coaches, four of whom were fired, and its commissioner. The conference is hoping the change will mean more wins and notoriety for the conference. Four of the five coaches came from major programs and Ball State coach Stan Parrish was the offensive coordinator for last year's 12-2 Cardinals team.

Perhaps the changing of the guard will mean a change in the MAC's place on the nonautomatic qualifying conference totem pole.

Currently, the MAC is fourth among the five conferences, just above the Sun Belt. Since the MAC's peak in 2003, a season where Miami (Ohio) nearly went undefeated and finished ranked 10th in the country and Bowling Green and Northern Illinois also had stellar seasons, the conference has had just two teams finish with double-digit wins -- Central Michigan (10-2) in 2006 and Ball State last season.

The last time the MAC posted a winning record over an automatic qualifying conference was in 2002 when Bowling Green beat Kansas State and Missouri and Ball State lost to Mizzou.

But there have been signs that the conference is starting to come into its own. Last season, the MAC notched four wins against the Big Ten (4-9), the most nonconference wins the MAC has ever earned in one season against an automatic qualifying conference. Quarterbacks Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan) and Tim Hiller (Western Michigan) are on the Davey O'Brien Award watch list and Central Michigan is receiving votes in the recently released preseason coaches' poll. A MAC team has not been mentioned in the preseason coaches' poll since Northern Illinois received two votes in 2006.

But the MAC still has a long way to go to keep up with the Mountain West, WAC and the re-emergence of Conference USA. But it's on the way toward finding that 2003 swagger that put the non-AQs on the map.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Last year, coach Ken Niumatalolo exceeded expectations in his first season with the Naval Academy. This year, fellow military academy coach Rich Ellerson hopes he can have similar success at Army.

Ellerson inherits a team that hasn't had a winning season since 1996 and hasn't boasted more than four wins in any season during that span.

Niumatalolo didn't inherit such a dire situation, but he did inherit a heap of expectations levied by Navy fans and alumni who had become used to winning the Commander In Chief Trophy every year and playing in a bowl game.

But the bar has been raised this year . The Midshipmen's schedule includes a season opener against Ohio State and games at Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. But Niumatalolo said during Navy's preseason media day that the focus will always be on winning the Commander In Chief Trophy, a feat the Naval Academy has accomplished each of the past six seasons.

"Our goal is always to win the Commander In Chief's Trophy. That goal will never change," Niumatalolo said. "The rest of the schedule is exciting. These kids came here wanting a chance to play against the best and to challenge their skills against teams from the Big Ten, ACC, Big East or wherever. The bar is always raised high here and it will never be lowered. Our number one goal is to win the Commander In Chief's Trophy."

Ellerson might preach the same goals to his players, but getting there is going to be a challenge. Not only is Ellerson inheriting a team with little winning experience, he's also in the midst of converting the offense to the triple option.

But while the present might seem a little grim for Army, the future appears bright. Quarterback Trent Steelman is one of several highly touted players coming over from the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, hoping to better Army's future.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Since 2004, Conference USA has watched the Mountain West and the WAC send teams to BCS bowls and reap the financial and national attention benefits. Now the third-best nonautomatic qualifying conference wants to get in on the action.

East Carolina proved last season that it could play with anyone in the country by pulling upsets of No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia. While the Pirates weren't able to turn their early success into an undefeated season, their play might have been a sign of things to come.

"We've talked about the way we want to build this program is inside-out instead of outside-in," head coach Skip Holtz told ESPN.com last August. "We're not looking to schedule a bunch of wins to say, 'Look at us, we won nine games last year.' We're not just going to build wins with scheduling. We've got to get to the point where we're good enough on the field to line up and compete with these top-10 and top-20 programs."

Holtz's mentality is one that the entire conference has seemingly adopted. Conference USA's nonconference scheduling is arguably the strongest its ever been with 25 teams from the automatic qualifying conferences, including 19 that played in bowl games last season.

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said during his annual state of the conference media address that while each of his 12 teams has a different scheduling philosophy depending on talent and experience, he believes that this might be his conference's best chance to get into the BCS conversation.

"I believe we have the toughest nonconference schedule of all teams not [in a BCS league]," Banowsky said. "The biggest prize for us right now is for us to be able to put a team in a BCS game. That's how we get the positive notoriety we need and part of that is scheduling."

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