Since knocking off Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and capturing the hearts of a Cinderella-loving nation, Boise State has been the standard by which all BCS Buster hopefuls gauge their progress. Even before their present run of excellence, the Broncos had been a powerhouse at the I-AA level before bumping up to I-A status. After a three-year adjustment period in the now-defunct Big West Conference, Boise State rattled off 13 seasons with 10 or more victories and 11 conference championships.
Since the BCS was enacted in 1998, Boise State has been a mainstay in the discussion for that ever-elusive automatic-qualifying berth for mid-majors. An early loss at Arkansas doomed the Broncos in 2002; Oregon State did the honors early in the 2003 season. In 2004, Boise went 11-0 as the WAC champion — but, like C-USA champion Louisville, was thwarted by the higher ranking of Mountain West champion Utah.
2005 was the last time Boise State won less than 10 games in a season. That year they went 9-4, still won the WAC, and had a chance at double digits on their home turf in the MPC Computers Bowl against Boston College.
Of course, they would grab the nation’s attention the next season as the follow-up act to Utah. And, in a lot of ways, Boise State’s victory over Oklahoma had a much larger impact due to the nationwide recognition of the Sooners — unlike Pittsburgh, Utah’s fodder two years earlier, Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma teams had appeared in five BCS bowls and was two years removed from back-to-back BCS championship appearances (albeit losses to LSU and USC). Chris Petersen has kept the Broncos in contention every year since, winning another BCS appearance over fellow BCS Buster TCU in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2009 season.
Since their second Fiesta Bowl win, the Broncos have been thwarted from making repeat appearances in a BCS bowl thanks largely to field-goal kicking and the concurrent rise of the Horned Frogs that would lead to their ascension to BCS-conference status via realignment into the Big 12 last year.
And thus Boise State has always been the dragon at the table. Even last year, when the Broncos lost two games against Michigan State and San Diego State, they were still in the discussion as a potential landmark two-loss BCS Buster until NIU swooped in at the end to take the prize.
So Fresno had their opportunity to slay the dragon — for the first time since that nine-win Boise season in 2005, the Bulldogs serving as the third of the Broncos’ three regular-season losses (and only WAC loss) of that “rebuilding” conference championship.
And while the hosts nearly coughed away their chance to stay undefeated, the Bulldogs hung on to keep the dreams alive for one of the original BCS Buster candidates. Their performance earned them the top spot in this week’s rankings, but even with their loss Boise State still lurks. If the Broncos can right the ship and knock off several Mountain Division rivals ahead of them in this week’s rankings, we might just see a rematch of the Central Valley showdown in the inaugural MWC Championship Game.
One way or another, we’ve got angles galore that could produce a unique finish to the final BCS season. Let’s take a look at where everyone is positioned now that the first month of college football is in the books for the 2013 season as we dive into another edition of the BCS Buster Power Rankings…
1. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/3-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 2nd
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. Boise State 41-40
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 29 at Hawaii
The last time Fresno State went 3-0 to start the season, they fell on their face on the road against a Louisiana Tech team that would finish the year 6-6. That Bulldog team would end up in Boise at the MPC Computers Bowl, where they would earn their ninth win of the season against Virginia in a 37-34 thriller. It hasn’t been since the charmed 2001 season, when current quarterback Derek Carr’s older brother David was the general of the Bulldog offense, that the team has started a season 4-0. The opportunity presents itself again this next weekend in the latest game of the Saturday slate, a game under the lights in Hawaii. The Warriors are known to wreak havoc on the hopes of BCS Buster hopefuls; most recently, they dealt Nevada their only loss of the 2010 season. Tim DeRuyter will have to make sure his team is focused on the path forward after an emotional win over the Broncos; there is still a tough Mountain West slate to skirt through if Carr and the Bulldogs hope to force the BCS’s hand one last time.
2. Navy Midshipmen (IND/2-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 3rd
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 at Western Kentucky
Navy has had two breaks already, meaning that they have now have nine straight weeks of football ahead of them. Their next break comes on the weekend before the Army-Navy game on Dec. 14. Luckily for the Midshipmen, that schedule is looking increasingly manageable. Western Kentucky, their next opponent, isn’t who we thought they were after that opening-week victory over Kentucky. Air Force has been dismissed by both Boise State and Wyoming. Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, on either side of Halloween, look like the biggest hurdle between now and undefeated heading into that final test against their fellow servicemen. If Fresno State stumbles at some point in its MWC schedule, the Midshipmen look like the best-placed team to take advantage. The only thing that could possibly stand in their way is the fatigue of more than two straight months of competitive football without a break.
3. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/3-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 1st
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. FCS Eastern Illinois 43-39
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 at Purdue
Let’s face it… this NIU team looks awfully similar to last year’s squad that went 12-1 to bust the BCS. The 2012 season featured an eerily similar slate of close victories against bad teams — 41-40 over a 2-10 Army squad, 30-23 over 1-11 Kansas — yet those early blips were forgiven by December. They have a test against a mediocre-at-best Purdue team, and then the real measure of this Northern Illinois team’s worthiness as a candidate will be determined by MACtion. How they fare against Kent State, Akron, and Central Michigan will go a long way in showing us where Jordan Lynch and company truly rank among the contenders this year. (Of course, even if they lose now, they’re not erased from the equation after the rapid escalation we saw over the last month of 2012 to get them to the Orange Bowl.)
At least for now, though, I know when to admit defeat:
@KennyOcker Swallow all analysis with skepticism…
— Zach Bigalke (@zbigalke) September 21, 2013
4. Wyoming Cowboys (MWC/3-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 8th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Air Force 56-23
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 at Texas State
The fact that the leader in the MWC Mountain Division would be a legitimate BCS Buster contender at the turn of autumn is nothing surprising. The fact that the Mountain Division leader is Wyoming is only mildly shocking after the way they played in the road opener against Nebraska. If the Cornhuskers have truly surmounted their early troubles, they could contend for a Big Ten title — and boost Wyoming strength of schedule further. Brett Smith, who had over 500 yards passing and running against Air Force on Saturday, is increasingly making his case as the best quarterback in the Mountain West as he pilots the eighth-ranked offense nationally. And the defense, while it has bent to allow a lot of yardage, is ranked 33rd nationally in points conceded. Dave Christensen’s team has one last non-conference test against a Texas State team we’re still trying to figure out, and then the MWC schedule will truly put their BCS Buster case to the fire.
5. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/3-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 11th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. FCS Austin Peay 38-0
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 5 at Akron
The MAC proved last year that its champion has some case for BCS consideration. Ohio, after losing their season opener to Louisville, finds itself in a dilemma. The entire reason why NIU (or Kent State, had they defeated the Huskies in the MAC Championship Game) made the BCS is because of the failure of the Big East and Big Ten to produce highly-ranked champions. Obviously a loss to 4-8 Iowa didn’t hurt Northern Illinois last year, so losing to the Cardinals is a double-edged sword. A good Louisville team this year strengthens the Bobcats’ schedule, but it also means a strong AAC champion. Another case of BCS MACtion could depend on another conference (Big 12, we’re looking your direction) bottoming out in the standings, and few teams are positioned as well as Frank Solich’s crew in the conference to capitalize on any chaos that might ensue over the next two months.
6. Texas State Bobcats (Sun Belt/2-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 5th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: loss at Texas Tech 33-7
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 vs. Wyoming
Texas State no longer ranks among the last few undefeated mid-majors after their trip to Lubbock, falling in a mismatch against Texas Tech. The Bobcats fell at home 58-10 to the Red Raiders last year, so they improved their standing. But a loss is a loss, and any case Dennis Franchione’s team might make for BCS conclusion is completely dependent on dominating their Sun Belt schedule. They have a chance this weekend to make some waves when Wyoming comes to town; the Cowboys will test a defense that has allowed only 17 points a game to this point. This is a must-win situation; while we might be able to theorize possibilities for a two-loss MAC or MWC champion busting the BCS, the Sun Belt simply has not earned itself enough national credibility. Even one loss might be one too many, but a loss to Texas Tech could look far more honorable by the end of the season — the Bobcats essentially must root for Kliff Kingsbury’s crew to sweep their Big XII schedule and claim that conference’s BCS berth if Texas State is to have any shot at a berth of its own.
7. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/3-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 16th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. FCS Murray State 48-7
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 vs. Akron
Had they not fallen flat on their face against Indiana last weekend, we might be calling Bowling Green the best team in the MAC right now. While their defense looks far worse after laying an egg in Bloomington, the Falcons still rate as the third-best team in the country in red-zone defense. A win over Murray State should restore their confidence ahead of MAC play; their first conference test comes against an Akron team that looked horrible last season but gave Michigan plenty of fits. Two losses, especially against an Indiana team that is not expected to contend for the Big Ten, could bury Bowling Green’s BCS dreams before October.
8. East Carolina Pirates (C-USA/2-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 9th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 at North Carolina
The worst thing that could have happened to East Carolina over this idle weekend didn’t quite transpire, as Marshall failed to upset Virginia Tech in an overtime heart-stopper. (See more on that later.) But the way in which the Herd took the Hokies to three overtimes was nearly as bad. East Carolina had their chances but couldn’t even remain “undefeated in regulation” against a Tech team that is falling further and further behind in the ACC race despite continuing to win. The Pirates, though, benefited from the missteps of the teams ahead of them to remain in the top ten this week. ECU is susceptible to giving up plenty of aerial yardage, and their offense is serviceable though hardly prolific, and only a C-USA championship without a loss from here on out is likely to offer any shot at a BCS invitation.
9. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (C-USA/3-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: unranked
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Florida Atlantic 42-35 (OT)
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 27 at BYU
I made another mistake a few weeks ago, dropping Middle Tennessee completely from the rankings after their loss at North Carolina. The Blue Raiders have proven resilient, hanging in to eke out victories since then against AAC newcomer Memphis and conference foe Florida Atlantic. The Owls managed to force overtime, but Middle Tennessee is simply too good in its first C-USA season after moving from the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders, not ECU or Marshall, leads the East Division, and they could be a thorn in the Pirates’ and Herd’s sides all season long. First they have to survive a trip to Provo to take on a dangerous if inconsistent BYU squad. Make it out of Utah with their BCS hopes still alive, and MTSU could ostensibly challenge if they make it to December as a 12-1 C-USA champion.
10. Ball State Cardinals (MAC/3-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 14th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Eastern Michigan 51-20
- NEXT GAME: Sept. 28 vs. Toledo
The Cardinals earned their position in the bottom half of the power rankings last week, and they’ve earned their bump back into the top ten this week. They scored more points on Eastern Michigan than Penn State could manage, and they nearly doubled the margin of victory that Rutgers posted on the Eagles. Ball State next takes on Toledo, a team that has looked listless in 2013 yet could take charge of the MAC West with a win. The Cardinals have an opportunity in two weeks to do what BYU could not when they head to Charlottesville to take on Virginia; Pete Lembo and his coaching crew will have to make sure Ball State brings the necessary energy and enthusiasm against a Rockets team that is a win away from MAC contention.