Cougars, Bulldogs top spring power rankings

BYU beat up on its Mountain West brethren over the last two seasons, but the Cougars ended up watching another non-BCS team (first Boise State, then Hawaii) reach the BCS bowls. The Cougars don't want to be left out this season and enter the spring as the favorite to bust the BCS.

Boise State will try to recharge after dropping its final two games in 2007, and Fresno State could become a contender again after a bounce-back season.

Conference USA will produce several solid squads in 2008, and Central Michigan has established itself as a MAC power. Notre Dame found itself at the bottom of every ranking last season, but the Irish could recover with greater experience and a manageable schedule.

Here's a look at the independents and non-BCS spring power rankings:

1. BYU Cougars

What we know: Quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga, the reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year, lead an explosive offense.
What we don't know: Who steps in at linebacker after the losses of leading tacklers Kelly Poppinga and Bryan Kehl.
How the Cougars can reach a BCS bowl game: Nonconference wins against Washington and/or UCLA would be a good start.

2. Fresno State Bulldogs

What we know: The Bulldogs have depth at running back, and stability at quarterback with Tom Brandstater.
What we don't know: How the offense adjusts to new coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
How the Bulldogs can reach a BCS bowl game: Survive the predictably brutal nonconference slate featuring UCLA (road), Kansas State (road) and Wisconsin (home).

3. Boise State Broncos

What we know: Minus safety Marty Tadman, the defensive back seven returns. So does running back and non-BCS posterboy Ian Johnson.
What we don't know: The starting quarterback and several first-team offensive linemen.
How the Broncos can reach a BCS bowl game: Win nonconference road games at Oregon and Southern Miss before the favorable WAC schedule (home against Fresno State and Hawaii).

4. Utah Utes

What we know: Quarterback Brian Johnson and running back Darrell Mack are back after leading the Utes to wins in eight of their final nine games last season.
What we don't know: Who steps in for leading tackler Steve Tate and top pass rusher Martail Burnett.
How the Utes can win the Mountain West: Take advantage of a conference schedule that includes home games against both TCU and BYU.

5. UCF Knights

What we know: Nine starters return on defense, and a sturdy offensive line loses only tackle Josh Sitton.
What we don't know: How the Knights replace national rushing leader Kevin Smith, who ran for 2,567 yards in 2007.
How the Knights can win the C-USA: Find an answer at running back and win the close ones like they did in 2005.

6. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

What we know: The nation's top offense returns many of its weapons, including running back Tarrion Adams and wide receiver Trae Johnson.
What we don't know: Who replaces 5,000-yard passer Paul Smith and who fills several holes on a suspect defense.
How the Golden Hurricane can win the C-USA: David Johnson, Clark Harrell or juco transfer Jacob Bower steps in for Smith at quarterback and the team avoids October stumbles.

7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

What we know: The linebackers and secondary look decent, and the defensive coaching staff adds veteran Jon Tenuta.
What we don't know: How the offense changes with Michael Haywood as the playcaller and whether the line and backs can bounce back from a miserable season.
How the Fighting Irish can reach a decent bowl game: Establish the run game early and capitalize on a more favorable schedule.

8. Central Michigan Chippewas

What we know: The offense returns five All-MAC players, including the league's offensive player of the year (quarterback Dan LeFevour) and freshman of the year (wide receiver Antonio Brown).
What we don't know: Who fills holes at linebacker after the losses of Red Keith and Ike Brown.

How the Chippewas can win the MAC: Upgrade a pass defense that finished 118th nationally in 2007 and draw from nonconference road experiences at Georgia, Purdue, Indiana.

9. Florida Atlantic Owls

What we know: The defending league champions return 17 starters, including 10 on offense. Quarterback Rusty Smith has all his weapons back.
What we don't know: Who steps in for star linebacker Cergile Sincere. The Owls also need to restock at safety.
How the Owls can win the Sun Belt: Continue to be clutch in close games and capitalize on facing Troy at home.

10. Hawaii Warriors

What we know: Quarterback Tyler Graunke has some starting experience and a veteran offensive line to work behind.
What we don't know: How Hawaii rebounds from the losses of coach June Jones, quarterback Colt Brennan and wide receivers Davone Bess, Jason Rivers and Ryan Grice-Mullen.
How the Warriors can win the WAC: Continue to improve on defense, stabilize the passing game and steal road wins at Boise State and Fresno State.

10. TCU Horned Frogs

What we know: The Frogs finished strong and return depth at running back and in the secondary.

What we don't know: Who replaces pass rusher Chase Ortiz on the nation's 10th-ranked scoring defense.

How the Horned Frogs can win the Mountain West: Finish off close games. The Frogs fell to Air Force, Utah and BYU by seven points or fewer in 2007.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.