The big storyline going into 2010: Could this be the year for a team from a non-automatic qualifying conference to make history and land in the BCS national championship game?
History was definitely made, but in a slightly different way.
No. 3 TCU carried the torch for the non-AQs everywhere, going undefeated for the second straight regular season and landing a spot in the prestigious Rose Bowl -- the fifth team to play in the game from outside the Big Ten or Pac-10 in the BCS era. The Horned Frogs will face Wisconsin in what is shaping up to be a must-win, for the sake of credibility.
Of course, the Horned Frogs are the first non-AQ team to play in that game, and have now become the first non-AQ team to land back-to-back BCS berths after playing in the Fiesta Bowl last season.
And to think just three short weeks ago, all eyes were on Boise State. The Broncos were also undefeated and ranked right behind TCU in the BCS standings. But many people figured if they won out, they would leap the Horned Frogs as the top non-AQ school.
The two had spent the entire season jockeying for position. Both started out ranked in the AP preseason poll -- Boise State at No. 3 and TCU at No. 6. Both returned most of their starters, including veteran quarterbacks. Both seemed poised to make that push for history, since no other non-AQ team had ever started the season ranked so high.
But then Nov. 26 happened.
Boise State walked into Reno to play Nevada needing two more wins, with a potential BCS berth on the line. The Broncos jumped out to a 24-7 halftime lead, but that all vanished. Kyle Brotzman missed a 26-yard field goal that would have won it in regulation, then a 29-yarder on the first possession of overtime. Nevada kicker Anthony Martinez nailed his field goal, and Nevada won 34-31, breaking Boise State hearts everywhere.
TCU got the BCS spot. Boise State ended up in Las Vegas, perhaps a perfect place to forget their sorrows.
But what happened to No. 10 Boise State was no fluke -- and neither was the WAC. Nevada posted the best season in school history at 12-1 and finished No. 15 in the BCS standings. No. 24 Hawaii also won 10 games, and the three shared the league championship. They also ended the season ranked in the Top 25 -- the first time the WAC has had three ranked teams since 1997. The Mountain West, usually the standard-bearer for the non-AQs only had two teams ranked.
As for history being made, there was plenty of that in the other non-AQ conferences. UCF earned the first ranking in school history this year en route to the Conference USA championship. FIU won its first Sun Belt championship and got the first bowl bid in school history. And Miami (Ohio) had the best turnaround in college football this season, turning a 1-11 season into a 9-4 season with a conference title.
In addition to all that, Air Force, Army and Navy are all in bowl games for the first time in the same season.
Offensive MVP: Kellen Moore, Boise State and Colin Kaepernick, Nevada. If the WAC can vote them Co-Offensive Players of the Year, then so can I. Both were outstanding for their respective teams. Moore is the first Heisman finalist in school history after throwing for 3,506 yards, 33 touchdowns and five interceptions. Kaepernick put his team on his back, and joined Cam Newton and Tim Tebow as the only players to run for 20 touchdowns and pass for 20 touchdowns in one season.
Defensive MVP: Tank Carder, TCU. You have to give the nod to the leader on the best defensive unit in the country. TCU ranks No. 1 in total defense for an incredible third straight season. His stats don’t jump off the page -- 54 tackles, 2.5 sacks -- but they don’t have to when you do so many other things to help your team win.
Newcomer of the year: Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State. Well, I got one of my preseason predictions right. Hillman had a year to remember for the Aztecs, set the Mountain West freshman rushing record with 1,304 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to league Freshman of the Year honors. Don’t be surprised if his name pops up in Heisman talk in the next few years.
Coach of the year: Chris Ault, Nevada. This was a tough one with so many worthy candidates. TCU coach Gary Patterson, Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood and San Diego State coach Brady Hoke all deserve consideration. But Ault took his team to the best season in school history, and his Pistol offense is all the rage.
Biggest surprise: Miami (Ohio). As I mentioned above, going from 1-11 to 9-4 is quite an accomplishment for the RedHawks and Haywood. This is a team that was predicted to finish fifth out of seven teams in the MAC East. Now they have rings.
Biggest disappointment: BYU. I got this preseason prediction right as well. The Cougars had won 10 or more games in four straight seasons, but they could not get anything going offensively in 2010 after struggling at quarterback and failing to find any consistent playmakers.
Game of the year: Nevada 34, Boise State 31 (OT). The game was an instant classic. It changed the course of the non-AQ season, and also gave Nevada its first ever win over a Top 5 opponent.