Thank goodness for Boise State and Garrett Wolfe.
Aside from the BCS bowl contender and the Heisman Trophy hopeful, the non-BCS season has left much to be desired. From the struggles of promising teams (TCU, Akron, Nevada) to the failings of entire leagues (the WAC, minus Boise State, and the MAC), a talented middleweight division is spending most of its Saturdays lying flat on the canvas.
Boise State is too established to be labeled "Rocky," but none of the big names want to match up against Ian Johnson, Korey Hall and the undefeated Broncos in January. Wolfe, the Northern Illinois senior running back, was slowed down to 163 rushing yards at Miami (Ohio), but he continues to lead the nation in both rushing (223.8 ypg) and scoring (14.3 ppg) as he chases Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record.
There's no shortage of confounding teams, with Notre Dame topping the list. Notre Dame's national championship hopes likely were squashed by Michigan, but the Irish rescued their season the next week in the rain at Michigan State. Brady Quinn is regaining his Heisman form against feeble competition, but the final judgment on Notre Dame will be reserved until it visits USC on Nov. 25. Other teams in the wait-and-see category include BYU (4-2), Tulsa (4-1), Navy (5-1), Kent State (4-2) and San Jose State (3-1).
Some conference title races have yet to begin -- surprising San Jose State plays its first WAC game Saturday -- while others are shaping up quite nicely.
TCU's back-to-back losses opened up the Mountain West, where surging BYU and quarterback John Beck (13 touchdown passes) will have to hold off Colorado State and its sixth-ranked defense (236.6 ypg). Conference USA's West Division title could go to Tulsa, UTEP or suddenly slumping Houston. UAB has an early jump in the East and a favorable schedule to boot. As usual, the Sun Belt is too close to call. Both Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee are 2-0, but always-dangerous North Texas isn't far behind.
No Division I-A team has taken more abuse than winless Temple, which was outscored 245-41 in its six games. But others have arguably been more disappointing, namely 1-4 Fresno State, 0-6 Miami (Ohio) and 0-5 San Diego State.
With the rest of the MAC sputtering, Kent State is vying for its first league title since 1972. After a 1-10 finish last season and an 0-2 start to this campaign, the Golden Flashes have won four consecutive games for just the second time since 1974. Saturday's win at Temple marked Kent State's first nonconference road victory since 1987, a dry stretch of 36 consecutive games. Sophomore quarterback Julian Edelman leads the MAC in total offense (248 ypg), and the once-brittle Golden Flashes defense has allowed 17 points or fewer in each of the last five games. Idaho, Central Michigan and San Jose State also deserve a mention here.
It would be easy to pick on Temple, Eastern Michigan or Florida International, but those teams were supposed to be bad. This esteemed dishonor goes to both Fresno State and Miami (Ohio), two programs that have dominated their conferences in recent years. Despite a four-game slide to end 2005, Fresno State, which returned eight starters on both sides of the ball, was picked second in the WAC and received nine first-place votes. But the once-feared Bulldogs have imploded since a 31-24 loss to Oregon. They hit rock bottom last week, becoming the first team to lose to Utah State this season. Miami (Ohio) also was picked second in its league, but it never got on track. The perennial MAC title contender is 0-6 for the first time since 1976. The RedHawks rank 114th in rushing and 107th in rushing defense -- a lethal combination.
It's been three years since Wolfe arrived on the scene, and still nobody can stop the pint-sized NIU running back. Wolfe entered the year with decent hype for a mid-major player, but his on-field performances have vaulted him into Heisman contention. He has eclipsed 100 rushing yards and scored a touchdown in each of his last 11 games. Coming off shoulder surgery, Wolfe has averaged 223.8 yards per game, 62.6 yards more than anyone else in the country. Also deserving mentions are Boise State running back Johnson (134.3 ypg), New Mexico State quarterback Chase Holbrook (2,053 passing yards), Notre Dame wide receiver Rhema McKnight (6.2 rpg), Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan (18 TD passes) and Utah safety Eric Weddle (six INTs, two TD returns).
Midseason Coach of the Year
The ingredients for greatness were there for Boise State, but it had to overcome a coaching change and several unknowns, particularly at running back. Chris Petersen is not only maintaining momentum, but he's spurring the Broncos toward a BCS bowl game. Think Dan Hawkins wouldn't mind having his old job back? Boise State ranks 13th nationally in defense, up from 51st last year, and Johnson ranks sixth nationally in rushing. Other standout coaches include Kent State's Doug Martin, San Jose State's Dick Tomey, Tulsa's Steve Kragthorpe, Idaho's Dennis Erickson, Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill and Navy's Paul Johnson.
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.