Commentary

Air Force's success, Notre Dame's struggles among midseason surprises

Updated: October 10, 2007, 3:35 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | Special to ESPN.com

Here's a team-by-team breakdown of the first half of the 2007 non-BCS season:

In a season of upsets, it would be fitting if an overlooked team or two broke down the BCS door, just like Boise State did at the Fiesta Bowl last year.

But the non-BCS landscape is practically barren as bowl-bustin' hopefuls have either stumbled early (Boise State, BYU) or completely fallen apart (TCU). College football's underclass certainly has played a part in this madcap season, with teams like Utah, Air Force, Wyoming and Troy pulling off major-to-moderate upsets and Ball State nearly stunning Nebraska. But a clear-cut Cinderella squad has yet to be found.

You have to expand your scope beyond the contiguous 48 to find this year's haka dancing hope.

Hawaii is the only remaining unbeaten non-BCS team, inching up the polls as the big boys stumble. The Warriors have performed as advertised, leading the nation in scoring offense (53.8 ppg). Quarterback Colt Brennan remains on the Heisman radar, ranking third nationally in passing yards average (370 ypg) and sixth in passing efficiency (168.2 rating).

What hurts the Warriors is a weak schedule that could keep them out of a BCS bowl even if they go undefeated. Hawaii, which tried to beef up its schedule but got no takers, has yet to play a team with a winning record. Its four Football Bowl Subdivision opponents have a combined record of 4-19, and it also has faced a winless Football Championship Subdivision squad (0-6 Northern Colorado). WAC commissioner Karl Benson is convinced Hawaii can get there. "The system will reward a 12-0 team regardless of their strength of schedule," he said.

But with only two résumé boosters left (Boise State and Washington), the Warriors need the sport's upper crust to continue to crumble.

The non-BCS bloc has reflected the general chaos around college football. Utah has wins against UCLA and Louisville but lingers in last place in the Mountain West with a 0-2 record. Central Michigan lost three nonconference games (including one to North Dakota State) by a combined score of 141-43, but it sits atop the MAC with a 3-0 mark.

Several conference title races should last well into November as familiar favorites (BYU, Boise State, Fresno State, Troy) try to ward off new challengers (Wyoming, Air Force, UTEP, Florida Atlantic). The Sun Belt broke through with three big victories in Week 3, but the league, much like the MAC, continues to be dragged down by its weaker programs.

Most expected a drop off at Notre Dame but few foresaw an 0-5 start, the worst in team history. Yes, Charlie Weis, you are rebuilding. The Irish avoided a record-tying eighth consecutive loss by beating up on walk-on quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson and UCLA, but a return to glory has been put on hold. Weis' sweeping admission of preparation failure after a 38-0 loss to Michigan sent the Irish back to training camp, a plan that has produced positive results thus far.

Midseason Mayhem
Six weeks into the season, we've learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of college football's top teams. But major questions still loom. ESPN.com reviews the first half of the season.

ACC
Milian: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big 12
Griffin: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big East
Starkey: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big Ten
Hooley: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

ND, non-BCS
Rittenberg: Midseason report

Pac-10
Miller: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

SEC
Higgins: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Biggest Surprise

Air Force has adjusted to a new coach (Troy Calhoun) and a new philosophy by displaying the gritty play that characterized the team during its glory years. The Falcons opened Mountain West play by beating Utah on the road before stunning league favorite TCU in overtime. Their three conferences victories equal the total from last season. Air Force's ground attack remains strong behind quarterback Shaun Carney and running back Jim Ollis, and the defense has allowed 17 points or fewer in four games. Other unforeseen successes include Wyoming (4-1), East Carolina (3-3, 2-1 league), Miami University (3-3), Bowling Green (3-2) and Florida Atlantic (3-3, 2-0 league).

Biggest Disappointment

Notre Dame certainly makes a strong case, especially the way Weis mishandled the start of the season. The offensive statistics are horrifying, but few expected a strong season from the rebuilding Fighting Irish. TCU, on the other hand, can't play the no-expectations card. Not only were the Horned Frogs picked to win the Mountain West, they were considered the Boise State of 2007. Looks like neither label applies. TCU ranks 98th nationally in scoring offense (20.5 ppg) and its celebrated defense has been good but not great. You have to wonder how much the unfortunate situation involving star defensive end Tommy Blake has affected the Frogs. Other substandard squads include Colorado State (0-5), Ohio (2-4), Northern Illinois (1-4), Western Michigan (2-4), Marshall (0-5) and Sun Belt bottom feeders Florida International (0-6) and North Texas (0-5), which have lost games by an average of 32.2 and 33.3 points, respectively.

Midseason MVP

For the second straight year, a non-BCS player leads the nation in rushing as Central Florida's Kevin Smith tops the chart at 172.0 yards a game. Smith might not reach Garrett Wolfe's total from last year, but he has UCF in position for a title push in wide-open Conference USA. The 6 foot, 1-inch, 211-pound Smith opened the season with an 80-yard touchdown -- the longest play in team history -- and racked up 217 yards in a win against NC State. He added 149 yards and two touchdowns in a near upset of then-No. 6 Texas. Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan continues to back up the hype with 370 passing yards per game. Other notables include Tulane running back Matt Forte, Kent State running back Eugene Jarvis, Southern Miss linebacker Gerald McRath, Florida Atlantic freshman cornerback Tavious Polo and Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith.

Midseason Coach of the Year

No one expected much out of Air Force, which was picked seventh in the Mountain West before the season. Troy Calhoun is quickly changing the outlook at the Academy, as his team already has matched its conference wins total from 2006. He shares this distinction with Florida Atlantic's Howard Schnellenberger, whose Owls are 2-0 in Sun Belt play with a non-league victory against Minnesota. Other deserving coaches include East Carolina's Skip Holtz, Army's Stan Brock, Wyoming's Joe Glenn, Troy's Larry Blakeney and Fresno State's Pat Hill.

Here's a quick look at the best and worst at the season's halfway point from C-USA, the Football Bowl Subdivision Independents, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt and WAC:

Conference USA

The injury report has superseded the depth chart in Conference USA, as several teams limp toward November. Southern Miss, picked second in the East Division before the season, has seen injuries erode its quarterback position. Stephen Reaves played through an oblique injury last week and committed six turnovers in a loss to a slightly less banged-up Rice team. East Carolina is also ailing on defense, forcing an alignment change, but the Pirates have seen young players step up in wins against Houston and Central Florida. Skip Holtz's team amazingly sits atop the East division, while UTEP has surged into the West division lead after scoring 148 points in its last three games. Tulsa remains a factor in the West despite a flimsy defense, and UCF might have the league's most complete team. Houston also could make a run after several close losses.

Biggest Surprise
East Carolina leads the East division despite a packed sick bay and a gloomy preseason forecast (last). With so many defenders out, the Pirates switched from the 4-3 to the 3-4 against Houston but still pulled out a 37-35 win. Last week, coach Skip Holtz used 11 freshmen in a critical victory against Central Florida. How have the Pirates survived? They play disciplined football, ranking fifth nationally in turnover margin (plus-1.83 per game). The defense ranks 16th nationally in tackles for loss (eight per game).

Biggest Disappointment
Marshall continues to slip into irrelevance after dropping its first five games. What happened to the program that regularly produced NFL-caliber defenders? Marshall ranks 115th nationally in rushing defense, 113th in pass efficiency defense and 118th in tackles for loss. The Thundering Herd have yet to post a winning record since moving to Conference USA and barring a rebound, their slide will continue. Southern Miss would fit in here if not for its incredibly bad luck at quarterback. The Golden Eagles still have the defense to turn things around, but they need to do it before UCF visits Hattiesburg on Oct. 28.

Midseason MVP
Kevin Smith leads the nation in rushing, and the UCF junior shows no signs of relinquishing the top spot. He had149 yards and two touchdowns against a Texas defense that ranks 24th nationally against the run. He has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in each game and scored multiple touchdowns in all but one. Tulane running back Matt Forte ranks fourth nationally in rushing behind Smith, Michigan's Mike Hart and Arkansas' Darren McFadden. Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith, Houston wide receiver Donnie Avery and Southern Miss linebacker Gerald McRath also get some love.

Midseason Coach of the Year
Skip Holtz has worked magic with a banged-up East Carolina squad picked to finish last in the East Division. Forced to change alignments and play younger players, Holtz hasn't missed a step, and his teams already have big wins against Houston and UCF. UTEP's Mike Price has a high-powered offense cranking again.

Bowl Bound
UCF remains a good bet to win the league championship, and Tulsa should reach the postseason behind veteran quarterback Paul Smith. East Carolina needs a few more wins and should get them down the stretch. Houston is very capable of making a push, and Southern Miss could sneak in as well.

Independents

It has been a humbling season for Notre Dame and third-year coach Charlie Weis, who hoped to avoid the rebuilding process but instead finds himself on the ground floor. The spread-offense experiment failed miserably in the season opener against Georgia Tech, and Weis effectively expunged the first three games after a 38-0 loss to Michigan. Notre Dame finally broke through against UCLA, thanks to an opportunistic defense that battered walk-on quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson (four interceptions, one fumble). An upset of Boston College or USC would be a major boost for Notre Dame, which has a negotiable closing stretch but still boasts the nation's worst offense (185.7 ypg). Navy's offense has cranked up behind Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, making a historic win Nov. 3 against Notre Dame a real possibility. Army already has matched last year's win total behind new coach Stan Brock. Western Kentucky is 3-2, though only one win came against a Division-I foe.

Biggest Surprise
Army stunned Tulane with a fourth-quarter rally and won in overtime to even its record at 3-3, matching last season's victories total. First-year coach Stan Brock has started to change the mentality at Army, which hasn't had a winning season since 1996. The Black Knights are dominant on special teams, ranking fourth nationally in punt returns and ninth in kickoff returns.

Biggest disappointment
Winning at Notre Dame is no longer guaranteed, especially following a major personnel purge like the one that occurred this winter. But being competitive should never be the problem in South Bend, Ind.. The Fighting Irish weren't competitive in their first three games and endured the first 0-5 start in program history. Charlie Weis' offense still ranks last nationally in total yards and second to last in scoring (11 ppg). Freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen has shown flashes and the Irish boast several exciting young wide receivers, but the growing pains aren't going away.

Midseason MVP
Junior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada quietly has put Navy in position to win another Commander-in-Chief's trophy and reach another bowl. Kaheaku-Enhada had two fourth-quarter touchdown runs in Navy's win against Air Force. He has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in three games. Also meriting mention are Notre Dame defensive end Trevor Laws, the nation's leading tackler among defensive linemen (7.7 tpg), and Fighting Irish linebacker Maurice Crum, who earned national Defensive Player of the Week honors after forcing four turnovers against UCLA. Other notables include Army wide receiver Jeremy Trimble and Navy cornerback Ketric Buffin.

Midseason Coach of the Year
It might take a little longer, but Brock has Army headed in the right direction. The Black Knights rank 32nd nationally in scoring defense (20.8 ppg), up from 96th last season. A dramatic comeback last week against Tulane should boost their confidence heading into a grueling second half. Army is 3-3 for the second straight year, but last year's team lost its final six games. Navy's Paul Johnson continues to push ahead, and Western Kentucky coach David Elson has his team at 3-2.

Bowl bound
Navy is in line for its school-record fifth consecutive bowl appearance. Notre Dame needs a major upset against Boston College or USC and a sweep of the final four games to earn postseason consideration.

MAC

You know it's a typical MAC season when nothing goes according to plan. The league is no longer a force in the non-BCS, and only one team (Bowling Green) has a winning record. But the MAC title race is reliably entertaining, as several squads scrap until December. Defending champ Central Michigan looked awful in the nonconference but dominant in MAC play, winning three games to claim an early division lead. Akron, which beat Western Michigan in stunning fashion last Saturday, shares the MAC East lead at 2-0 with Miami (Ohio). Kent State is also in the mix. Both preseason division favorites, Western Michigan and Ohio, have struggled so far, and Ball State already has dropped two conference home games. Buffalo (yes, Buffalo) could be a sleeper team after starting 2-1.

Biggest Surprise
It's always amazing when Buffalo claims two of its first three MAC games, but the way the Bulls have won is more noteworthy. Beating Temple 42-7 is nice, but almost everyone feasts on the Owls. A 31-10 dismantling of preseason MAC East favorite Ohio indicates that Buffalo could be for real. Miami's 2-0 start is less surprising, but the RedHawks won only two games all of last season. Picked fifth in the MAC East before the season, Bowling Green has showcased a dynamic offense behind quarterback Tyler Sheehan that could pay off in November. Eastern Michigan might surprise some teams after being picked last in the MAC West.

Biggest Disappointment
The preseason division favorites share this unwanted tag. Ohio was a strong bet to defend its MAC East title, but it has reached a crossroads halfway through the season. After close losses to Wyoming and Kent State, the Bobcats collapsed against Buffalo and slipped into the division basement. Western Michigan hasn't fared much better, inexplicably blowing a 38-31 lead with 15 seconds left against Akron last week. The Broncos' defense has declined substantially, from 11th in yards allowed last season to 103rd this year. Toledo and Northern Illinois remain winless in the MAC West. NIU's streak of seven consecutive winning seasons is at risk in what might be coach Joe Novak's final season.

Midseason MVP
Bowling Green quarterback Tyler Sheehan was the clear choice until he threw five interceptions last Saturday against Boston College. Sheehan, who ranks 10th nationally in total offense and third in completion average, still deserves some props after fueling the Falcons' offense in his first year as the starter. He shares the award with another super sophomore, Kent State running back Eugene Jarvis, who ranks fifth nationally in rushing (141.8 ypg). Other MAC daddies include Ball State quarterback Nate Davis (15 TDs, 2 INTs), Akron wide receiver Jabari Arthur, Western Michigan wideout Jamarko Simmons, Ball State wideout/returner Dante Love and Eastern Michigan defensive end Jason Jones.

Midseason Coach of the Year
Bowling Green's Gregg Brandon deserves credit for going with youth (Tyler Sheehan) over experience (Anthony Turner) at quarterback. He shares this distinction with Miami (Ohio) coach Shane Montgomery, whose team has rebounded from a 10-loss season to pick up two key road wins in league play. Eastern Michigan's Jeff Genyk could make a push before the season ends, and first-year Central Michigan coach Butch Jones is off to a splendid start in league play. Ball State's Brady Hoke nearly pulled off a colossal win at Nebraska.

Bowl bound
Bowling Green and Ball State have the standout quarterbacks (Tyler Sheehan and Nate Davis) that teams need to reach the postseason. Central Michigan continues to be infallible in MAC play and could make a repeat trip to a bowl. Miami (Ohio) can win league games on the road and might sneak into the postseason, and both Kent State and Akron remain factors in the MAC East.

Mountain West

Anyone who thought San Diego State would have as many league wins as TCU at this point should hop the next flight to Las Vegas. Save room for the guy who pegged Utah to beat UCLA and Louisville but drop its first two conference games. The Mountain West has turned into a crapshoot, with no clear-cut favorite and several surprise teams. TCU was pegged to run away with the league title and seek greater goals like a BCS bowl berth, but losses to Texas, Air Force and Wyoming have stunned Gary Patterson's squad. Wyoming has built upon last season's late momentum to win four of its first five games, surging behind the nation's eighth-ranked defense. Defending league champ BYU is back on top at 2-0 and plays a favorable closing schedule with three of its last four in Provo. Air Force finds itself in the middle of the title chase, and New Mexico, UNLV and Utah soon could make a push.

Biggest Surprise
Picked seventh in the league's preseason poll, Air Force appeared headed for a transition season under Calhoun. But the Falcons stunned Utah on the road and rallied to beat TCU in overtime, vaulting into title contention. Air Force's only remaining league road games come at winless Colorado State and at New Mexico, fueling hope for a postseason run. UNLV isn't a surprise yet, but it certainly could be by season's end. The Rebels, picked last in the league, shut out Utah and had Wisconsin on the ropes.

Biggest Disappointment
TCU had the chance to do special things this season, especially with nine starters back from a defense that ranked second nationally in 2006. But the trouble signs began in August, as star defensive end Tommy Blake missed several practices because of personal reasons. Blake, a unanimous preseason All-American, has missed three games after being overwhelmed with stress. His absence and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it aren't helping TCU, which lacks the defensive stinginess it had last season. The Frogs also have struggled to score, averaging just 20.5 points a game. The result is a 3-3 record with a road game left against BYU. Colorado State also has crumbled, dropping its first five games to extend the losing streak to 12.

Midseason MVP
The league race is undecided, and so is the MVP. BYU quarterback Max Hall has been terrific in his first season as the starter, ranking sixth nationally in total offense and fifth in passing average. Hall has the swagger and the strong arm to match his predecessor John Beck, who guided BYU to a conference title. Wyoming running back Devin Moore has been equally as valuable to his team, averaging 114 yards a game and 6.6 yards per carry. Moore ran for 135 yards against TCU's tough defensive front. Other notables include New Mexico running back Rodney Ferguson, San Diego State cornerback Vonnie Holmes, UNLV linebacker Beau Bell and Wyoming cornerback Julius Stinson.

Midseason Coach of the Year
Calhoun has changed the outlook at Air Force, which already has matched its league victories total from last season (3). For all the talk of changes on offense, the Falcons' defense has led the charge, allowing only 18 points a game. A home win against Wyoming would make Calhoun a lock for Coach of the Year and put Air Force in position for its first bowl since 2002. Calhoun is the first Falcons coach to start his career 3-0 since Buck Shaw in 1956. Other mentions go to Wyoming's Joe Glenn and BYU's Bronco Mendenhall.

Bowl bound
BYU will be back in a bowl and Wyoming has the defense to get there, too. It's hard not to put Air Force in the discussion with four quick wins, including three in league play. TCU has struggled in the first half, but there's too much talent on defense to think the Horned Frogs won't go bowling again.

Sun Belt

Has the Sun Belt finally taken the next step as a league? One weekend in September would suggest it has. The Belt recorded two wins against BCS conference teams (Oklahoma State and Minnesota) and another against a squad from a big-brother conference (SMU). Defending champ Troy looks ready to repeat, starting 3-0 in league play with its only losses coming on the road against Arkansas and Florida. Florida Atlantic is suddenly a factor as well, beating Minnesota and winning its first two league games. But a glance at the bottom of the standings -- or ESPN.com's Bottom 10, for that matter -- puts the brakes on the league's progress. The Sun Belt is the only conference with two winless teams (Florida International and North Texas), and three others have only one win. Until the weaker programs improve, the league's growth will be stunted.

Biggest Surprise
Picked sixth in the Sun Belt preseason poll, Florida Atlantic has vaulted to the top of the standings. After a 4-3 conference finish last season, the Owls are 2-0 this year behind a defense that ranks second nationally in takeaways (22). Quarterback Rusty Smith and the offense have done enough to win, putting the team in position for a league title push. If the Owls can beat the Louisiana schools and Arkansas State, the championship could come down to a Dec. 1 game at Troy.

Biggest Disappointment
Middle Tennessee saved face last week by nearly knocking off Virginia, but the Blue Raiders, picked second in the league, are a disappointing 1-5. Injuries have been a major problem for Rick Stockstill's team, which finishes with four of six games on the road. Arkansas State started strong before slipping up on the road against Louisiana-Monroe. The Indians, who received one first-place vote in the preseason poll, must get better play from both of their lines after tying for 115th nationally in sacks obtained and 101st in sacks allowed.

Midseason MVP
Quarterback Omar Haugabook has Troy on track for another Sun Belt title. Haugabook leads the league in both passing average (273 ypg) and total offense (320.2 ypg). He shares this tag with Florida Atlantic freshman cornerback Tavious Polo, who leads the nation in interceptions (seven), and Louisiana-Monroe running back Calvin Dawson, who ranks sixth nationally in rushing (134 ypg). Other notables include North Texas wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald (second nationally in receiving yards), Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith and Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Michael Desormeaux.

Midseason Coach of the Year
Howard Schnellenberger quickly has molded Florida Atlantic into a respectable FBS program. The Owls notched a BCS win against Minnesota and scored a bigger victory Sept. 18 when the school's board of trustees approved the construction of a new 30,000-seat on-campus stadium, to open in 2010. Schnellenberger has capitalized on Florida's vast recruiting pool to both enhance his roster and attract big-name teams to the Sunshine State. His team plays disciplined football, leading the nation in average turnover margin (plus-2.5)

Bowl bound
After pounding Rice in last year's New Orleans Bowl, Troy likely will return to the Superdome in December. Trojans quarterback Haugabook certainly knows how to get there. But don't count out Florida Atlantic, which visits Troy on Dec. 1 in a game that could decide the league title.

WAC

This is the one non-BCS league that appears to be shaping up the way many thought it would. Hawaii, despite a watered-down schedule, has met lofty expectations on offense, leading the nation in scoring and surviving its lone scare against Louisiana Tech. The Warriors must win Friday at San Jose State, where Boise State's perfect season nearly ended in 2006, before playing four of their final five on the rock. Boise State certainly would be in the BCS conversation if not for a loss at Washington. The Broncos defense continues to build on last year's momentum, ranking seventh nationally in yards and eighth in scoring. Fresno State is back at the top of the WAC standings and would be 4-1 without a triple-overtime loss at Texas A&M. San Jose State has responded since coach Dick Tomey's tirade, winning three straight.

Biggest Surprise
Very few surprises so far, though Fresno State has bounced back nicely from its first losing season since 1998. The Bulldogs have shown the ability to win in several ways, outlasting Louisiana Tech 17-6 in a defensive struggle and out-slugging Nevada 49-41 last week. San Jose State was picked fifth by both the coaches and the media before the season but has won its first two conference games.

Biggest Disappointment
There are no major letdowns, but New Mexico State probably expected a little more, especially with quarterback Chase Holbrook back under center. The Aggies are only 1-3 against Football Bowl Subdivision foes. They were blanked 58-0 by Boise State, marking their first shutout since Sept. 10, 2005, against Colorado. Nevada was picked third by the coaches in the preseason poll, but injuries and inconsistent defense have led to a 2-3 start.

Midseason MVP
Got to go with Colt Brennan here. Critics can point to the system he plays in or the competition he faces, but Brennan continues to put up ridiculous numbers. He ranks fourth nationally in both passing yards (1,850) and completions per game (30.4 cpg) and sixth in passing efficiency (168.2 rating). It's a shame more BCS teams weren't willing to line up against the Warriors quarterback this season. Other notables include Boise State running back Ian Johnson, Idaho running back Deonte Jackson, New Mexico State wide receiver Chris Williams, Hawaii linebacker Solomon Elimimian and Louisiana Tech cornerbacks Tony Moss and Weldon Brown (4 interceptions each).

Midseason Coach of the Year
Chris Petersen continues to have Boise State playing near top form despite losing 22 seniors, including 11 starters, from the Fiesta Bowl team. The Broncos are once again ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass defense. Road games at Fresno State and Hawaii should test Boise State, but Petersen will have the team prepared. Kudos also go to Fresno State's Pat Hill, whose team is back in the league title race after a one-year hiatus.

Bowl bound
Hawaii and Boise State are locks, with the Warriors most likely staying home for the Hawaii Bowl. Fresno State is a good bet to earn the league's third bowl spot, and don't count out San Jose State.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.