Expectations high for non-AQs

Every year it seems like the pressure is ratcheted up on the top teams from the nonautomatic qualifying conferences, but the stakes have never been as high as they are going into the 2010 season.

This past season, for the first time, two nonautomatic qualifying schools played in a BCS bowl -- albeit against each other -- laying the foundation for what could be the most pivotal season in the leveling of the playing field between the haves and have-nots.

Boise State, which has finished the past two regular seasons undefeated and is 26-1 overall in that span, likely will start the season ranked in the top three nationally, placing the Broncos higher in the national standings than any non-AQ has ever started. Should the Broncos continue their trend of undefeated campaigns, they could be the first non-AQ team to play for a BCS national championship.

But we're getting way ahead of ourselves.

As we've seen in the past, non-AQ teams often sneak into the BCS standings to make things interesting. TCU, which returns most of its Fiesta Bowl team, will start the year in the top 10, and BYU, Utah and Houston all have the schedules and players to keep the race close.

While the landscape of college football is changing, so is the profile of the nonautomatic qualifying team. This spring showed us the depth the top teams in the nonautomatic qualifying conferences truly have. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore struggled this spring, but freshman backup Joe Southwick showed he could be just as capable in the pocket.

Utah was looking for a go-to receiver this spring and found an unlikely candidate in walk-on Griffin McNabb.

BYU's quarterbacking competition took center stage this spring, but it's the running back quandary that will be the focus in the fall. Freshman Joshua Quezada gave Cougars fans encouragement that losing Harvey Unga might not be such a tough hit.

And the defenses of teams such as Nevada and Houston, which have taken much of the criticism for the teams' failures in the past, spent the last few months showing the country that they're not going to be what's holding their teams back.

Boise State, TCU, BYU and Utah might get the bulk of the national attention, but there are several teams across the nonautomatic qualifying conferences that deserve to be noticed. I've profiled 12 of those teams here, and each will either win or be in the race for its conference title. Some rely on their offense, others their defense, but the one common trait among all 12 is that they've consistently gone out and shown they can compete with any team on any stage. And with several high-profile games on this year's docket, the non-AQs will once again make the college football season very interesting.