Now that bowl season is over, what did we learn about the non-AQs?
1. The Mountain West still rules. The conference finished 4-1 in bowl play and won the Bowl Challenge Cup for the second straight season and fourth time in the past seven. The only loss: Utah to Boise State. Two of the four wins came against teams from automatic qualifying conferences: Air Force over Georgia Tech and TCU over Wisconsin. TCU finished No. 2 after going 13-0, its best finish since winning the national championship in 1938. Boise State joins the conference for 2011 before TCU leaves in 2012. Despite the great record, there still appears to be a long road ahead for the league to become an automatic qualifying conference.
2. BYU looking good. The Cougars’ struggles this season were well documented, but after an impressive 52-24 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, there are definite signs that 2011 could be another 10-win season. Jake Heaps threw for 264 yards and four touchdowns, Cody Hoffman had 137 yards receiving and three touchdowns, and Josh Quezada added 101 yards and a score on the ground. All three return, along with all important left tackle Matt Reynolds. BYU got a much-needed boost with the promotion of Brandon Doman as offensive coordinator. The defense also has some young talent returning, and coach Bronco Mendenhall got the unit to play much better after he became coordinator. So everything appears to be in place as BYU heads into its first season as an independent.
3. Nevada for real. The Wolf Pack turned in the best season in school history, and the most unexpected season of the non-AQs. They had won one game over a team from an automatic qualifying conference before this season. But in 2010, they won two, capping it with a 20-13 win over Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It’s just too bad more voters were not aware of their accomplishments this season. There is no reason this team should be ranked outside the Top 10.
4. Tough showing for C-USA. Tulsa scored more points than anybody during the bowl season in its 62-35 win over Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, and UCF posted its first bowl win with a victory over Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. But otherwise, there was not much to praise about the C-USA bowl performance. UTEP and East Carolina looked as if they did not belong in a bowl game. Southern Miss blew a 21-7 lead to a 6-6 Louisville team in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, and SMU looked totally lackluster in its loss to Army in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. The bright side, of course, is that UCF and Tulsa ended the season ranked.
5. Sun Belt did well. This was the first season the Sun Belt had three bowl tie-ins, and the league did well for itself, going 2-1. All three games were against MAC competition -- FIU and Troy won their games, while Middle Tennessee lost to Miami (Ohio). FIU showed off the potential future of the league with its thrilling win over Toledo with no time left in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. The Panthers won a share of their first league title, and this could be the season that vaults them to the top of the league for years to come.