Over the past 10 years, three non-automatic qualifying schools have had more success than any of the others, more success than almost every school from a big-time conference, too.
Boise State, TCU and Utah have established themselves as national players. Each has gone to a BCS game. Each has gone undefeated in the regular season. Each has reached an all-time high in the rankings.
Their combined success has given non-AQ schools more credibility, more respect and more calls for a playoff, setting off congressional inquiries into the legality of the Bowl Championship Series. Had any of these programs been a one-hit wonder, the clamor for changes to the postseason might not be as enthusiastic.
Simply put, there are few schools with the staying power these three have had in the past decade. Staying power like this is rare, but it is even rarer among the non-AQ conferences, where resources are limited and budgets are tight.
So what is their secret?
"The secret is that there is no secret," Boise State coach Chris Petersen says. "When you're having success, being able to explain it is just as hard as when someone's not having success to put your finger on it. If you could, everybody would fix it. It's the whole process."
If you looked at the process at all three schools, you would see many similarities: consistency in coaching, consistency in message, consistency in recruiting, consistency in culture.
Consistency in coaching does not necessarily mean keeping your coaching staff intact. Petersen took over from a highly successful Dan Hawkins in 2006 and was able to keep winning -- guiding Boise State to its two undefeated seasons and two BCS victories.
Petersen had served as offensive coordinator on Hawkins' staff, and realized the importance of keeping the message and philosophy the same. "We wanted to build off each other and evolve so it's nothing that's shocking and new for the kids," Petersen said. "The culture has grown and changed with the times, but when a new guy took over, it wasn't like you were starting over at all."
Perfect example: the recruitment of linebacker Derrell Acrey. He had committed to Boise State shortly before Hawkins left for Colorado. Acrey and his mother wondered whether he should go there, considering the coaching change. "And then Coach [Petersen] came to my house like the next day," Acrey says. "I felt this was it. I couldn't have made a better decision."
Kyle Whittingham took over at Utah after Urban Meyer guided the Utes to their undefeated season in 2004. Whittingham also had been a longtime assistant at Utah and worked under Meyer as defensive coordinator. He kept the spread offense and continued to have success, guiding the Utes to their best season in 2008 -- a 13-0 record, capped with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll.
TCU's Gary Patterson is the only coach of the three who has been at the school longer than six years. Patterson has been head coach since 2000 and served as defensive coordinator at TCU before that. During his tenure, TCU has gone 95-29, including a 12-1 record and BCS appearance last season.
"My expectations were higher than the university's when we got here 13 years ago, and they're still very high," Patterson said. "To be very good at something, you can't be an outside source that forces you to be good. You have to have that within yourself. As a university and a staff, we have that here."
From 2000 through 2009, Boise State led the nation in winning percentage with a 112-17 record (.868). TCU ranks seventh (.766), and Utah ranks 12th (.705).
What also sets these schools apart is their ability to make the most of the players they sign. None of these schools is reeling in five-star recruits year after year. TCU is able to delve into talent-rich Texas and find players like quarterback Andy Dalton, who was largely overlooked during the recruiting process.
Boise State goes into California and gets players overlooked by Pac-10 schools. The Broncos have a great history with walk-on players as well. First-team All-WAC defensive end Ryan Winterswyk is the most recent example. Utah goes into Texas and California as well as its home state to recruit its players.
For the skeptics out there who say it is easy to go undefeated at a non-AQ school, there is a standard response: Winning is never easy, no matter where you are. If winning were easy, there would be more than just a fistful of non-AQ programs winning year after year.
"If I could look at it from the outside, both Gary and Chris Petersen have had time to establish what they want in the programs," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose team plays Boise State and TCU this season. "They're very good evaluators of people and players, and they're very, very good coaches. That's a lethal combination there. That's what both programs have done. It's not very complicated."
None of the three programs has had much coaching turnover among its assistants. At Boise State, six members of the coaching staff played at the school, including the offensive and defensive coordinators. Utah has four assistants who played there. TCU has six assistants who have been at the school for 10 or more seasons.
"I think it's the coaching staff. What they teach us and what they preach to us is it's not about being a good team -- it's about being a good program," Dalton says. "That's been the driving point they've instilled in us. We have had some good seasons, but we don't want it to be a one-year thing. We want it to keep getting back to where we've been. We don't want to drop off at all."
Still, for many it has been hard to envision the success, especially in two far-flung locales. "I've got a buddy I remember playing with, and he was like, 'We're going to win the national championship,'" says Boise State tight ends coach Scott Huff, who played for the Broncos. "I was as optimistic as anybody, but I remember thinking, 'He's out of it.'
"Now, here we are."
Boise State has its highest preseason ranking at No. 3 in the AP poll. TCU has its highest preseason ranking at No. 6 in the AP poll. Utah is ranked No. 24 in the coaches' poll. No other non-AQ team is ranked.
Expectations are high for Boise State and TCU going into the season, and they start with difficult openers -- the Broncos against Virginia Tech, TCU against Oregon State.
But whether they play for a national championship or not, you can bet neither program is going anywhere.
Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.