NCF Nation: Houstin Cougars

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

These are my preseason rankings for the non-BCS/Independent teams. Like all preseason rankings, they will change drastically throughout the year and look completely different by the end of the season.

But this just my best guess.

1. BYU -- The Cougars return nine players from an offense that led the MWC in scoring (30.1), passing (298 yards per game) and total offense (442 ypg). BYU comes into this season having won 10 straight games, including a win over UCLA the Las Vegas Bowl. Statistically, quarterback Max Hall, statistically, was the best sophomore quarterback in MWC history, throwing for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns. Combined with running back Harvey Unga (1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns on 244 carries), the Cougars have one of the best backfields in the nation.

2. Utah -- The Utes started last season slowly after three starters suffered major injuries, and running back Matt Asiata and receiver Brent Casteel were lost for the season. Utah rallied to win eight of its final nine games, but fell to rival BYU, 17-10, to lose the MWC title. It was the third consecutive loss to the Cougars. Utah opens at Michigan, its one major test before closing out the regular season, likely for the MWC title, against BYU.

3. Tulsa -- The nation's best offense lost its quarterback to graduation, but returns nine starters, including running back Tarrion Adams who rushed for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 30 passes and three touchdowns. Despite being one of the nation's top passing teams, the Golden Hurricanes actually had one more rushing play than passing play. The schedule is probably the most favorable in the non-BCS for an undefeated season.

4. Notre Dame -- A favorable schedule and changes to the play-calling should help this team improve on last year's 3-9 campaign, its worst season since 1963 (2-7). After that 1963 season, the Irish rebounded with a 9-1 record the following year, losing to USC, the team at the end of this year's schedule. That USC game is the only hiccup in a weak slate that has the possibility for an 11-0 start. The Irish return 16 starters. Offensive coordinator Michael Haywood will call the plays instead of head coach Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will add his blitzing style to South Bend.

5. Fresno State -- The Bulldogs have one of the tougher non-conference schedules of all the non-BCS teams with bouts against Rutgers, Wisconsin and UCLA. Quarterback Tom Brandstater had a stronger finish to the season than he started and should carry that momentum to an offense that returns 10 starters. The schedule will either make or break Fresno State before it hits WAC play. If it can cruise through with a 2-1 record, it will be in the top 25 come conference play.

6. Boise State -- The Broncos will employ a faster-paced offense this season, including some no huddle, to keep defenses honest. There's even been mention of some spread schemes inserted into the playbook. The Broncos lost starting quarterback Taylor Tharp, but senior Bush Hamdan and freshman Kellen Moore are suitable replacements. The Broncos also return star running back Ian Johnson.

7. Central Michigan -- Quarterback Dan LeFevour became the second quarterback in Division I FBS history to rush for 1,000 yards and throw for 3,000 in the same season. He's been the MAC Freshman of the Year and the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, but he's failed to beat a BCS team. In two years starting, LeFevour is 0-5 against BCS teams.

8. Houston -- New coach Kevin Sumlin inherited an eight-win team that returns the bulk of its talent. The additions of former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and former Central Florida defensive coordinator John Skladany could make the Cougars the sleeper in the non-BCS. Quarterback Case Keenum returns, but he lost his top two receivers.

9. East Carolina -- Do you know which is the largest volume of the Pirate encyclopedia? "Rrrrrr." You know, like what a Pirate says? OK. Moving on. The defense returns nine starters, but most of those players have been stopgaps in positions with injuries to the true starters. The Pirates have arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country with Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Virginia and NC State.

10. TCU -- For years, TCU would have been at the top of this list, but last year, despite winning eight games, the Horned Frogs had a down season by TCU standards. The Horned Frogs have a favorable schedule with just Oklahoma standing in the path of them and an undefeated season. The team returns 15 starters, including the bulk of a defense that ranked in the top 15 nationally in five categories.

Others to watch: Nevada, Southern Miss, Ball State, Florida Atlantic, and Troy.

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