After Northern Illinois’ improbable run to the Orange Bowl last season, a loss is no longer a death sentence for BCS Buster hopefuls in this final season of the standings. Just like the race for the BCS championship game, a loss hurts far less when it occurs early, so teams that fell this weekend could still potentially become a final Buster before the College Football Playoff turns the question from “If?” to “Who?” after this year. With the American Athletic Conference still enjoying an automatic-qualifying bid before it tumbles to the mid-major ranks in 2014, all it will take is a Louisville loss and we might even see the top-16 clause invoked.
There was a time when Louisville ranked among the BCS Buster candidates rather than a nouveau riche powerhouse. Back in 2004 the Cardinals were just a Conference USA champion left behind, relegated to playing fellow BCS snub Boise State in the Liberty Bowl as Utah snatched the first-ever BCS berth by a mid-major. Those Cardinals (Big East, on their way to the ACC in 2014), along with the Utes (Pac-12) and the TCU Horned Frogs (Big XII), parlayed their successes into an invitation to a major league.
The Broncos would take up the mantle as the dominant mid-major to fear, the post previously occupied by the two Beehive State programs and a the metro university in a city better known for its horse track and its baseball bats, as they went to two BCS bowls in the latter half of the 2000s and missed out on at least two more deserved berths thanks to poll biases and kicker gaffes. TCU would play in the first Buster-versus-Buster bowl in 2009 against the Broncos before beating Wisconsin as the first BCS Buster to play in the Rose Bowl a year later before joining their old Southwest Conference rivals in the Big XII. Even Hawaii would get in on the action, playing Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl after an undefeated WAC campaign.
In large part all of these achievements and near-misses were arrived at thanks to the teams that came before — the Alliance-ignored top-six BYU team of 1996 a dozen years after its ; the undefeated Rich Rodriguez-designed Tulane offense turned away in 1998; the perfect Marshall team that missed out the following year, just three years removed from a I-AA national championship. Then there was the LaDainian Tomlinson-led TCU team of 2000, a loss not entirely eliminating them from the discussion 12 years before that threshold would be surmounted by the Huskies’ march to Miami.
Thanks to all these successes and heartaches, the snubs and the vindicating performances alike, we are at a point where this column will evolve into a true power ranking. Over its 16 years of existence, the BCS has done everything possible to consolidate the money and prestige of the marquee bowl games in its purview for the powerhouse schools of the sport. But with each subsequent BCS Buster tenaciously building upon the story, we have reached a tipping point where mid-majors have finally earned at least one guaranteed piece of the pie. But before we reach the first iteration of what is sure to be an ever-expanding playoff, we must first make it through this final season and then deal with minimal access at first.
After all, when Division I split into two subdivisions in 1978, the I-AA playoff started with a four-team bracket. Within four years, the tournament had expanded to eight teams; by 1982 there were 12 teams competing for the national title; and starting this season, yet another expansion to the bracket will afford 24 FCS teams a shot at the crown. And as that bracket expands, mid-major conferences will also inevitably gain more access points into the tournament.
Those future Cinderella contenders will have those predecessors to thank for the accessibility. As we look at the first week of this final season of BCS Buster Power Rankings, perhaps one of these teams will offer another example to strive toward for future hopefuls. A full five days of action has helped to set the pecking order after a preseason of speculation, so let’s dive in and see where everyone stands.
1. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: win at Iowa 30-27
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 14 at Idaho
Last year, Northern Illinois fell by a point to the Hawkeyes when the two teams met in the season opener. The Huskies would rattle off 12 straight wins after that, taking the MAC championship and earning the right to play the Seminoles at the Orange Bowl. This time they started their campaign for a repeat performance by pulling off a victory against Iowa, getting a late turnover and kicking a last-second field goal to steal the win at Kinnick Stadium. With a bye week to work the kinks out, they’ve at least ushered in Rod Carey’s first full season as the new head coach with a W… and they’ve got the Vandals and a tricky game against FCS Eastern Illinois (which knocked San Diego State cleanly out of the BCS Buster race with a 40-19 win in California on Saturday) before getting a second Big Ten test at Purdue to bolster this year’s credentials.
2. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: win vs. Rutgers 52-51 (OT)
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 vs. FCS Norfolk State
Fresno State pulled out an overtime thriller over the Scarlet Knights at home as Bulldog quarterback Derek Carr went 52-of-73 passing, piled up 480 total yards of offense, and tossed five touchdowns in the victory. While not the most prestigious of BCS-league opponents, Rutgers does nevertheless strengthen the Bulldogs’ schedule — something that also benefits from Mountain West competition and another BCS opponent, Pac-12 neophyte Colorado on September 14. In just the first game of his second season at Fresno, head coach Tim DeRuyter already has his 10th win at the school — moving him into a tie for 10th all-time in coaching wins in program history. Were the Bulldogs to romp their way to a 13-0 Mountain West championship, he’d be 8th on the list and headed to Glendale or New Orleans or Miami in January.
3. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (Sun Belt/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 21st
- LAST WEEK: win vs. Kentucky 35-26
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 at Tennessee
Bobby Petrino’s first game back on the sidelines after his ignominious departure from Arkansas resulted in five touchdowns and a second straight victory over the flagship state rival from Lexington. This time, unlike last year’s tight victory, the HIlltoppers looked comfortable as they stomped the Wildcats for an SEC victory to their credit. Next week they travel to Neyland Stadium hunting for another SEC win when they face a Tennessee team possibly looking ahead to its September 14 trip to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks. If Petrino can go 2-0 in his first season at WKU, the biggest hurdles in the HIlltoppers’ path will have already been surmounted and all that will be left is to navigate the Sun Belt schedule.
4. San Jose State Spartans (MWC/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 7th
- LAST WEEK: win vs. FCS Sacramento State 24-0
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 at Stanford
San Jose State is in this position more due to the showdown scheduled next on the calendar than the one it just dismissed. FCS Sacramento State wilted in Spartan Stadium, dismantled and kept off the scoreboard as SJSU easily won 24-0. The win is more impressive than it initially appears, as it was Sacramento State that dealt Colorado a 30-28 defeat at Folsom Field last season. Now David Fales and the Spartan offense will have a higher caliber of challenge in Week 2. If they can hang close with or, even better, knock off Stanford on Saturday, it would be the best win by a BCS Buster candidate so far this season and would mark San Jose State as the team to beat in the mid-major race this season.
5. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 23rd
- LAST WEEK: win vs. Miami (Ohio) 52-14
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 vs. FCS Gardner-Webb
Last season Marshall ranked first in the nation in offensive plays per game, getting off a ridiculous 90 snaps each contest. With a veteran roster returning to a team that narrowly missed out on bowl eligibility in 2012, the Thundering Herd started strong with a non-conference tilt against former MAC rival Miami of Ohio. The biggest test awaiting Marshall is its September 21 trip to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech. Besides the Hokies, Rakeem Cato and crew have only their Conference USA schedule to serve as potential stumbling points, meaning that should the Thundering Herd escape the month of September unscathed it has as strong a chance as anyone to duplicate its undefeated seasons of 1996 and 1999.
6. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 12th
- LAST WEEK: win vs. Tulsa 34-7
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 at Kent State
Bowling Green kicked off its season by knocking off the team ranked four spots ahead of it in my preseason rankings, not merely surviving the trip to Tulsa but demolishing the Golden Hurricane by four scores.The Falcons defense shut out the hosts for 54 minutes, only allowing a garbage-time touchdown once the result was no longer in doubt. Bowling Green faces Kent State next; in their showdown last season, the Golden Flashes survived 31-24 in a game that determined the MAC East champion. The Falcons would love nothing more than to return the favor on Kent’s home field this year; with games against BCS-conference opponents Indiana and Mississippi State still to play, they could position themselves as more than just a divisional favorite if they survive the Flashes.
7. UT-San Antonio Roadrunners (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: win at New Mexico 21-13
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 vs. Oklahoma State
It took a come-from-behind performance in Albuquerque, but UTSA shut out the Lobos in the second half to prevail 21-13 in the season opener for both squads. The Roadrunner offense had trouble at times against New Mexico, with quarterback Eric Soza leading the team with 48 rushing yards and 237 passing yards. In UT-San Antonio’s favor, though, is the fact that its defense held the hosts under 100 passing yards and 300 total yards as it clamped down hard in the third and fourth quarters. The Roadrunners return to San Antonio this weekend, where they will host Oklahoma State in the Alamodome. If they can hang with a Cowboy team that demolished Mississippi State to start the season 1-0, Larry Coker’s team will have another chance to follow it up against Arizona on the 14th. Win both, and UTSA is the sudden frontrunner in its first C-USA season.
8. East Carolina Pirates (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 15th
- LAST WEEK: win vs. FCS Old Dominion 52-38
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 5 vs. Florida Atlantic
Is this the year that East Carolina finally puts it all together and realizes its potential as a sleeper in a talent-rich region? The Pirates took care of business against Old Dominion, pulling away in the fourth quarter to win by two touchdowns against a team that is in the midst of its transfer period before fully moving to the FBS level next season. With BCS-level tests to come against Virginia Tech, North Carolina and NC State, ECU has the resume to impress pollsters — even if they should drop one of the three. The regular-season finale at Marshall could have serious ramification for which team plays in the C-USA championship game and potentially serve as a BCS Buster elimination game.
9. Arkansas State Red Wolves (Sun Belt/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 9th
- LAST WEEK: win vs. FCS Arkansas-Pine Bluff 62-11
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 at Auburn
If I pegged one team right in the preseason, it’s Arkansas State. The Red Wolves remain right where they sat in the previous ranking, their destruction of FCS Arkansas-Pine Bluff doing little to force a trend upward. Should they do the same thing in next week’s game, though, they would raise far more eyebrows. Auburn survived its trip to the Paloose, winning by a touchdown over Mike Leach’s Cougars. Now the Tigers must take on their new head coach’s former team — a game Gus Malzahn had pushed for last year against the school where he had won the national championship as offensive coordinator in 2010. Now that tenacity could come back to bite him if Arkansas State is indeed as potent as their 62-point outburst might indicate.
10. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 19th
- LAST WEEK: win vs. FCS Western Carolina 45-24
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 7 at North Carolina
Like their former Sun Belt rivals, Middle Tennessee’s win over FCS Western Carolina wasn’t exactly an eye-opener; the main reason the Blue Raiders move up these rankings is attrition above them rather than any outlandishly impressive thing they did this weekend. But North Carolina looms large on their schedule next week, and MTSU must also take on BYU in Provo on the last Friday of September. The other question is how the Blue Raiders will adjust to its transition into Conference USA. Before November, we’ll know if Middle Tennessee can actually hang with East Carolina (Oct. 5) and Marshall (Oct. 24) or if they will succumb to the growing pains of a new league.