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The College Football Report: Mormonism, The HAL 9000 And Endless Strains Of Rocky Top

In the first part of our season preview, we shared the concept of The Other 25. If you care to understand the Other 25 and why we created it, refer back to Tuesday's column. If not, here is a summary: the national media regards the teams making up the Other 25 as marginally important. We do not share that perspective.

Below, you will find the previews for Other 25 teams "ranked" between #45 and #40. We will dive right in on some of the previews and save our commentary about the Mountain West Conference realignment for a bit further down in the column. Don't worry, you will understand when you get there.

45. The Northern Illinois Huskies (11-3, 8-0 in MAC, W vs. Fresno State: Humanitarian Bowl)

Comment: The Huskies were one win away from the 2010 MAC championship but stumbled in the conference title match against Miami of Ohio. Northern Illinois entered the game heavily favored by the oddsmakers (-17) but a fluke play followed by a last-second touchdown gave Miami the win. We expect NIU to fare well on offense, especially because all but one of the offensive linemen are seniors. Defense might be another story.

Upset potential: The Huskies should return to a bowl game this season, but only have an outside shot at the conference title game and the resulting Little Caesars Pizza Bowl invite. (Speaking of pizza bowls, remember "pizza in a bucket" during the Atkins craze? Maybe the worst idea in recent memory for the restaurant industry. But we digress.) Outside of conference play, the Huskies will play in one of the best early-season games on September 17th. NIU will face #10 Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago. Given that the game will take place in a pro stadium, we believe the teams can opt to allow beer sales. Here's hoping they do - even if the game is over by the third quarter, drunken Wisconsin fans should keep things lively.

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44. The North Carolina State Wolfpack (9-4, 5-3 in ACC, W vs. West Virginia: Champs Sports Bowl)

Comment: The departure of star QB Russell Wilson dominated the offseason for NC State. Wilson posted serious numbers (8,545 yards, 76 TDs, 26 INTs) over his three-year career in Raleigh but Coach Tom O'Brien questioned his dedication. When Wilson opted to play pro baseball (in the Colorado Rockies farm system) rather than participate in spring practice, O'Brien named backup Mike Glennon the starter prompting Wilson to quit the team. O'Brien has since granted Wilson's release from his scholarship and the deposed QB landed (thanks to some arcane NCAA rules) in Madison to play for Wisconsin.

Upset potential: Glennon is no slouch - coming out of high school, he was ranked by ESPN as the third-best prospect at his position and #32 overall. If Glennon lives up to his billing, NC State could put together a good - possibly very good - season. The schedule is challenging but not impossible with only an away game against #5 Florida State as the only guaranteed "L". A few Other 25 teams - Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest - could also prove troublesome.

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43. The BYU Cougars (7-6, 5-3 in MWC, W vs. UTEP: New Mexico Bowl)

Comment: Brigham Young departed the Mountain West Conference to play as an independent team (along with Notre Dame, Navy and Army) in 2011. This marks the third time the school has changed allegiances since 1962. The Cougars, along with charter schools Arizona, Arizona State, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming formed the Western Athletic conference in '62. Arizona and Arizona State then withdrew in '78 to form the PAC-10. The WAC remained in flux for the next thirty-odd years, reaching a peak of 16 teams in 1996. The creation of the Mountain West Conference in 1999 saw eight teams defect from the WAC, including BYU. Despite MWC championships in 2006 and 2007, BYU elected to play as an independent beginning this season.

By withdrawing from the conference, BYU may have hurt the MWC's campaign to join the Big Six as an automatic qualifier for the BCS. With the 2009 agreement between the MWC and the BCS expiring soon, the conference had ambitious plans to force the BCS to grant Automatic Qualifying (AQ) status. But here's the rub: The MWC might fall short in one of the three criteria for AQ conferences. Follow the link for an explanation of all the esoteric rules, but the critical third criteria is determined by the BCS HAL 9000. Namely, that the average rank of all conference teams (as determined by the six computer polls in the BCS HAL 9000) must fall within the top six of all conferences. At the moment, the MWC trails all the other conferences to rank at #7. By clearing all three criteria, the MWC champion would (as the name implies) automatically qualify for the BCS - at least until 2013, when the current BCS contract elapses. The conference might stand better chance if the Cougars were included as a member school.

The MWC will still force the issue by petitioning the BCS for an exemption granting the conference access until after 2013 at which time the BCS HAL 9000 would compute the numbers again. The oversight committee will likely grant the exemption, temporarily including the MWC among the AQ. When the numbers are crunched again in '13, the MWC hopes that new members (as of 2012) Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii will have helped raise the overall average of the conference to at least sixth place. Falling short spells a return to the current status quo. Here at the CFR, we revel at the prospect of the MWC bumping out one of the Big Six or possibly forcing the BCS to change the rules (again!) for 2014 and beyond.

As far as BYU is concerned, all this talk about conference affiliation (indeed, gridiron action in general) takes a backseat to the school's top priority: using football as a proselytizing tool for the Mormon faith. Through a variety of media properties the school - owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - reaches millions worldwide, which is great for BYU football but even better for Mormonism. Brigham Young will broadcast most football games, and many other sports, on BYUtv. Dish Network, DirecTV and 500+ cable systems will beam BYUtv to over 60 million homes in the US.

Further, Sirius XM Radio now carries BYU Broadcasting, which will reach more than 20 million satellite radio subscribers.

Finally, anyone with web access can watch both live games and video-on-demand coverage of Cougar football via BYUtv.org. There's even an app for the iPhone and iPad. The combination of these various outlets will allow BYU to reach many Cougar fans, granted, but the chief purpose will be to increase (in the words of BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall) "exposure for the LDS church."

For a little icing on the cake, BYU signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to show a minimum of three home games per year, with the school reportedly receiving $800,000-$1.2 million per game.

Between the ESPN payouts and the BYUtv revenues, you could argue that there is a significant financial incentive behind BYU's move to independence . . . we won't, because we aren't keen to rile up the millions of people who practice Mormonism in the United States, but the argument could be made. You know, hypothetically.

Upset potential: The Cougars will get a number of chances to upset national (#24 Texas) and regional (#15 TCU, #28 Utah, #33 UCF) powers but some authorities might not consider BYU an underdog in most of those games. For example, Rivals.com puts the Cougars at #25 and Phil Steele places BYU at #27 in his preseason power rankings.

But BYU might not play such quality opponents in the future. By moving to an independent, BYU must schedule 12 games each season rather than the three or four as the remainder would be played in-conference. Next year presents a serious challenge, as many schools schedule two or even three years in advance. As of now, the program still needs to find three more opponents for the 2012 season.

While independence offers flexibility, the school must vie with Directional Creampuffs for spots on the schedule for every other team belonging to a conference. With nearly every team in Division I scheduling an automatic W against a Creampuff, BYU must find a game in one of the two or three (!) remaining slots.

On the plus side, the increase in national exposure (on ESPN especially) may extend BYU's reach in recruiting, particularly among non-LDS players. But if those games are against the likes of Idaho . . . will any star recruits care?

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42. The Southern Miss Golden Eagles (8-5, 5-3 in Conference USA, L vs. Louisville: Beef 'O' Brady Bowl)

Comment: For a team that hadn't won more than seven games since 2006, last season was a big step forward. Apart from the opener against South Carolina, Southern Miss lost another three games by a total of only eight points including a one point loss in an overtime thriller against UAB. Then again, last year represented the program's 17th consecutive winning season so the Golden Eagles aren't exactly strangers to "Ws". With senior quarterback Austin Davis at the helm for his final go-around this year, and with a forgiving (ranging from #67 to #117 in strength from various sources) schedule, Southern Miss could fly under the radar all year and shock a big-name program in a post-season bowl.

Upset potential: Davis owns a few notable records at Southern Miss, such as: 23 TDs in his redshirt freshman season (eclipsing the previous record held by a certain B. Favre), completing a record 278 passes in 2010 - and he needs only two touchdowns to set the all-time school record - and 231 passing yards to seize that all-time mark as well. With only one Other 25 team (#33 UCF) representing the toughest match-up on the docket, Southern Miss might not have a shot at an upset until the postseason.

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41. The Tennessee Volunteers (6-7, 3-5 in SEC, L vs. North Carolina: Music City Bowl)

Comment: A note about the bowl games cited for each Other 25 team: we will not, if it can be avoided, list the full name of the bowl game. We would rather honor the traditional name of each bowl game than list the full name including the sponsor. In this case, we much prefer listing "Music City Bowl" rather than "Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl."

The Volunteers posted meager numbers last season, the first for new head coach Derek Dooley. Tennessee finished the season in the 58th and 56th position in all of Division I in Points Scored and Points Against, respectively. Worse yet, the ground game disappeared, averaging 109.2 yards per game - good for 105th out of 120 D-I teams. While UT qualified for a bowl game, fans expect a January 1 game at worst - an accomplishment that may be a few years off. We can excuse many of Tennessee's faults last season as the team played a very tough schedule - five of seven losses came against ranked teams including three against teams ranked in the Top 10. But Dooley must improve this year. Then again, if his team bombs again we will be spared endless strains of Rocky Top.

Upset potential: "Once I had a girl on Rocky Top, half bear the other half cat . . . wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop, I still dream about that."

Yes, indeed. Ladies and gentlemen: Tennessee fans. These are the Volunteers, with the checkered end zone, "Smokey" the mascot and a school band called the Pride of the Southland. If you have never watched a Volunteers football game, imagine 102,455 fans wearing this color. Caution: Image may cause irresistible urges for corn-cob pipes, moonshine and your cousins. A true upset would be if no one showed up for home games in hunter orange overalls.

On that note, we will wrap up the first week of our preseason coverage. Tune back in next week for more on The Other 25.

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Comments welcome.

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