The non-Big Six conferences were headliners for most of the season and not just because Conference USA and the Mountain West lost members to the Big East.
Houston, SMU and UCF are leaving C-USA to join the Big East as all-sport members starting in 2013-14. The Mountain West's Boise State and San Diego State will be joining the Big East at the same time but as just football-only members. And it was announced this week that Navy is giving up its football independence beginning in 2015 to play in the Big East.
But there was plenty of on-field intrigue, too. Boise State opened the season with a dominating win over Georgia in Atlanta, and the Broncos were at least on the periphery of the national title discussion until they fell to TCU on Nov. 12. For the second season in a row, Boise's shot at playing for the national title ended when its kicker missed a short field goal.
While Houston didn't get much attention early in the season, Boise's loss put the spotlight on the Cougars, who were one win away from a BCS bid when they were upset by Southern Miss in the C-USA title game on Dec. 3. As it was, Cougars QB Case Keenum graduated with numerous key NCAA career records, including total offense, passing yards, completions and passing TDs.
[Related: 12 for '12: Will backslide begin at Boise?]
First-year coaches in the MAC (Northern Illinois' Dave Doeren) and Sun Belt (Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze) led their schools to league titles, with NIU beating Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. There also were surprisingly good seasons from Louisiana Tech in the WAC and Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt. And BYU's first season as an independent went well, with the Cougars finishing 10-3.
This also has been an exceptionally busy offseason, with 14 non-Big Six schools changing coaches.
Here's a closer look at the leagues outside the Big Six.
Best postseason performance: Louisiana-Lafayette. There were a lot of candidates, including Boise State's destruction of Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl in a sort of going-away party for a number of key Broncos and Houston's domination of Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. But we went with the Ragin' Cajuns for the fortitude they showed in edging San Diego State 32-30 in the New Orleans Bowl. It was ULL's first bowl appearance and the Ragin' Cajuns won it on a 50-yard field goal on the final play of the game.
Worst postseason performance: Notre Dame. Truthfully, the Irish's defensive performance wasn't that bad, as Notre Dame held Florida State to 290 total yards in an 18-14 loss to the Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl. But the offense was stymied, and three interceptions, including two in the red zone, led to the loss.
Underclassmen turning pro early: Wyoming RB Alvester Alexander, Nevada RB Mike Ball, San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman, Tulsa WR Damaris Johnson, Troy DE Jonathan Massaquoi, Toledo WR Eric Page, Temple RB Bernard Pierce, Memphis DT Dontari Poe, UCF CB Josh Robinson, Utah State RB Robert Turbin, New Mexico State RB/WR Kenny Turner.
Team most hurt by early departures: San Diego State. The Aztecs have built up some momentum in the past two seasons, enough momentum that they will be a football-only member of the Big East starting in 2013; in addition, Brady Hoke parlayed the Aztecs' turnaround into the Michigan job. But SDSU may be stymied in its attempts to gather more momentum. Hillman's departure is huge. He played only two seasons with the Aztecs (he was a third-year sophomore this season), rushing for a combined 3,243 yards and 26 TDs and helping them to two bowls. SDSU also is losing senior QB Ryan Lindley and thus will have a dramatically remade backfield this fall.
Coaching changes: Terry Bowden (Akron), replacing Rob Ianello; Bowden had been coach at Division II North Alabama. Matt Campbell (Toledo), replacing Tim Beckman; Campbell was promoted from offensive coordinator. Norm Chow (Hawaii), replacing Greg McMackin; Chow had been offensive coordinator at Utah. Bob Davie (New Mexico), replacing Mike Locksley; Davie had been an ESPN analyst. Tin DeRuyter (Fresno State), replacing Pat Hill; DeRuyter had been defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Justin Fuente (Memphis), replacing Larry Porter; Fuente had been co-offensive coordinator at TCU. Curtis Johnson (Tulane), replacing Bob Toledo; Johnson had been receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints. Ellis Johnson (Southern Miss), replacing Larry Fedora; Johnson had been defensive coordinator at South Carolina. Tony Levine (Houston), replacing Kevin Sumlin; Levine was promoted from receivers coach. Gus Malzahn (Arkansas State), replacing Hugh Freeze; Malzahn had been offensive coordinator at Auburn. Jim McElwain (Colorado State), replacing Steve Fairchild; McElwain had been offensive coordinator at Alabama. Garrick McGee (UAB), replacing Neil Callaway; McGee had been offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Charlie Molnar (Massachusetts), replacing Kevin Morris; Molnar had been offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Carl Pelini (Florida Atlantic), replacing Howard Schnellenberger; Pelini had been defensive coordinator at Nebraska.
Key coordinator hire: Colorado State offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin. McElwain, who has two national title rings for his work at Alabama, has put together an interesting offensive staff. Baldwin has vast experience as a coordinator and oversaw an explosive offense at Utah State last season. While McElwain coordinated rather staid offenses at Alabama, expect a lot more diverse sets with the Rams. Among the other new offensive coaches: former Clemson coordinator Billy Napier and former Fresno State running back coach Tim Skipper.
Coach on the hottest seat in the fall: Idaho's Robb Akey. Akey is 19-43 in five seasons with the Vandals, and eight of the wins came in 2009, when they won the Humanitarian Bowl. That win, which came in the school's second bowl appearance, garnered some good will, but Idaho was 2-10 this season and improvement is needed in the fall.
Recruiting storyline to watch: How good is Notre Dame's class? Stud QB Gunner Kiel already has enrolled and will go through spring ball, and he's a big reason the Irish should finish with a top-15 class. Can they climb into the top 10? It's also worth keeping an eye on how Akron, Arkansas State, Houston and Tulane are under new coaches. Houston has a lot of momentum after a 12-win season, but will it carry over in recruiting?
Biggest spring practice question: How quickly can Boise State adjust to a new staff and a radically revamped starting lineup? The Broncos started 16 seniors in their Las Vegas Bowl rout of Arizona State, including QB Kellen Moore, TB Doug Martin, OT Nate Potter, TE Kyle Efaw, S George Iloka and the entire front six on defense. In addition, Boise State lost three assistants, including offensive coordinator Brent Pease. The player turnover is massive, but with TCU gone to the Big 12, there still doesn't appear to be anyone in the Mountain West that will be able to legitimately challenge the Broncos. Another national top-10 finish, though, is a different matter. This is the most important spring practice yet for coach Chris Petersen.
Projected 2012 conference champs: SMU in Conference USA, Ohio in MAC, Boise State in Mountain West, Florida International in Sun Belt and Louisiana Tech in WAC.
2012 national title contenders: None. With TCU now in the Big 12 and Boise State having to rebuild, the Mountain West will be without a national title contender for the first time in a while.
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