Earlier this week I was contacted by Adam at Pitch Right about ranking 2006's best non-BCS teams. I thought this was a fantastic idea, especially since many of these teams are often overlooked. So along with Pitch Right -- a great Navy football blog by the way -- and Dawg Sports, I have joined in on the fun.
1. Boise State (13-0): The Broncos pulled a Utah, going undefeated and crashing the BCS. I'll admit though, they did it in far better style than the Utes did in 2004. After rolling through their 2006 schedule, even blowing out the Utes in Salt Lake City, Boise State was invited to the Arizona desert for a game against the storied Oklahoma Sooners. What looked like a blowout in Boise State's favor early on turned into one of the greatest football games in modern history. It would be an injustice to try and describe that January night, so I won't. But what transpired on that football field was genuinely magic and the Broncos proved, like Utah did in 2004, that they belonged.
2. BYU (11-2): John Beck finally proved he could lead a team to the conference championship. After a mediocre career that saw zero winning seasons, including 2005's 6-6 campaign, the Cougars dominated their way to the school's first conference championship in 5 years. It was a near perfect season for BYU, whose two losses came by a combined 10 points. For that, the Cougars were rewarded with a top-25 finish and the hopes that maybe Bronco Mendenhall is returning BYU to their former glory.
3. TCU (11-2): The Horned Frogs are proving to be the Mountain West Conference's best team. In the two years they've been members, they have gone 22-3. And while the Frogs struggled against the two Utah schools (losing to both BYU and the Utes), they turned it around and walked through the rest of their schedule. The Frogs capped off a great season with a solid win over Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. TCU might not have won the conference like many predicted, but they're quickly distancing themselves from the rest of the pack in the Mountain West.
4. Hawaii (11-3): You've really got to feel for Hawaii football. If it weren't for Boise State's unbelievable run last season, they would have won the school's first conference championship in 7 years. But even with Boise State stealing the show in the WAC, Hawaii quietly put together their best season under 8th year head coach June Joans. The 11 wins were the most in school history and their losses weren't entirely bad either. They lost the opening game to Alabama, nearly defeated Boise State on the road and dropped a close one against a solid Oregon State team at the end of the year. An emphatic victory over Arizona State in the Hawaii Bowl was enough to convince voters to add Hawaii to the top-25 for the first time in 14 years.
5. Houston (10-4) Art Briles has quickly turned Houston into a non-BCS power. In 4 years he's had 3 winning seasons and finally gave the school its first outright conference championship since 1978, when they belonged to the Southwest Conference. That championship was won this year, when the Cougars went 10-4. Though they couldn't end the season with a victory over South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, they put up a valiant effort.
6. Navy (9-4) The Midshipmen put together a respectable season in 2006. Though agonizingly close losses to Tulsa and Boston College definitely held them back a bit. What separates Navy from the top-5 is the fact they owned no substantial victories last season. They could have made a lot of noise with a win over Rutgers or Notre Dame, but they came well short of beating either. Still, Paul Johnson has built a great team in Annapolis and one that should continue to dominate Air Force and Army, the Academy's biggest rivals.
7. Central Michigan (10-4): Brian Kelly stepped into a program that hadn't won a conference championship since 1994. Yet in his third season with the Chippewas, he did just that. Central Michigan won the MAC, won its first bowl game ever (though that was under interim head coach Jeff Quinn) and had the school's first 10-win season in 27 years. A tough opening season loss to Boston College, a game Central Michigan could have won, really kept this from being a great season. With Brian Kelly now moving on to Cincinnati, it'll be interesting to see if they can sustain the success created last season.
8. Utah (8-5): It wasn't the season Utah fans expected, but it could have been a lot worse. Opening the season with a blowout loss to UCLA, then following it up with blowout losses to Boise State and Wyoming definitely left a bad taste in the mouth of Utah fans. Many questioned whether Kyle Whittingham was capable of leading this team and even more questioned whether the Utes were even going to finish with a winning record. After blowing a large first half lead against New Mexico, the Utes dropped to 4-4 on the season and it was looking bleak. But things turned around and Utah ended the season winning 4 of their last 5. It would have been a perfect finish, if it weren't for a miracle last second play by John Beck that gave the Cougars their first win over Utah in 5 years. Utah ended the year with a methodical beat down of Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. That victory gave Utah their 6th consecutive bowl win, the 2nd longest streak in the nation.
9. San Jose State (9-4): Dick Tomey built Arizona into a pretty solid football program and now it appears he's doing the same with San Jose State. Inheriting one of the worst programs in the west, in just two short years Tomey had the Spartans playing in their first bowl game in 16 years. There they beat the New Mexico Lobos, finishing with the highest win total since San Jose State won 9 games in 1990. The prized victory for San Jose State though was against long-time rival Stanford, a win that ended a 4-game losing streak to the Cardinal.
10. Southern Mississippi (9-5): Under the leadership of Jeff Bower, Southern Mississippi has become one of the strongest non-BCS programs. And though they haven't won a conference championship since 2003, they've still fielding tough teams. Last season the Golden Eagles returned to 9-wins (a mark they had reached 3 times prior under Bower) and played for the conference championship against eventual champ Houston. It wasn't the best season for the Golden Eagles, but they did just enough to make the school's fifth straight bowl game, which turned out to be a dominate win over Ohio.
Others that barely missed the list: Nevada, Ohio, Western Michigan, Troy and Tulsa.