Northern Illinois no longer has even semi-serious competition in the battle for a BCS call-up, as both East Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette lost as well over the long weekend to destroy any last-gasp hope of benefiting from chaos. Fresno State might still technically be alive, but having lost the love of all six computers there is truly no chance to leap back up into the top 16 and to leapfrog whichever team emerges as the AAC champion. And thus this year the title of BCS Buster is NIU’s to lose.
Last year there were plenty of arguments against Northern Illinois after their 12-1 regular season earned the Huskies an Orange Bowl invitation. Some might argue that they were validated by Florida State’s 31-10 victory over NIU in Miami; at the same time, it was a close game into the fourth quarter and was hardly the blowout that pundits retroactively want to label it. Whether you think NIU belonged last year, this year’s team will have an ironclad case for inclusion should they knock off Bowling Green for a third straight MAC championship:
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To reach the BCS in 2012, the Huskies had to sneak in at the last moment. They only reached the top 16 on the final week of rankings, their victory over Kent State in the MAC championship providing just enough impetus to take advantage of upsets in the Big East and Big Ten. In 2013, all they have to do is win. Where NIU was an anomaly last year, an outlier that took advantage of the system as it was set up, this year they are firmly entrenched among the top 16 teams in the country.
So how did NIU get to this point? Since they are the only team still standing with a week to go, let’s break down their BCS numbers in comparison to what got them to Miami last year in this penultimate edition of the BCS Buster Power Rankings…
It is the computers that have provided the greatest lift to the Huskies this year. Northern Illinois has been ranked in the top 25 by all six computers since the release of the first set of rankings on October 20. Last year, conversely, they didn’t receive points from the computers until the final few weeks of the season. Even then, they never received top-25 status from all six computers.
Because they are so firmly entrenched among the computers this season when compared to their 2012 run, NIU is in solid position to guarantee a BCS berth. With a week to go, they are the 10th-ranked team in the composite computer rankings; last year, they never came within .100 of their Week 10 computer score.
Now before we go any further, we must address the computers. Pundits have been quick to point out that systems like Jeff Sagarin’s rankings, where he offers both his BCS numbers (without margin of victory factored in the equation) as well as more comprehensive computer scoring, fluctuate wildly on NIU’s worthiness. Sagarin’s BCS ranking has the Huskies all the way up as the second-best team in the nation, sandwiched right between Florida State and Ohio State. His comprehensive score has them all the way down at 38th in the country.
The fact that the BCS took out margin of victory has skewed these numbers for years, as the number crunchers on the panel have been forced to wildly tweak their formulas. Thus you get one person ranking the same team three dozen spots higher or lower based solely on which factors he or she includes in the equation. But while Sagarin’s numbers might look like fuzzy math, they also are well corroborated by the other five computers in the ranking.
In 2012, the Huskies never received top-25 placement from all six computers. In 2013, all six computers have had NIU among the top 25 for the entire second half of the season. That boost alone is enough to ensure that the Huskies can and should go bowling. Yet they are ranked only one spot higher than they were last year despite the numbers. Why might that be?
Well, quite simply, the human voters have continued to hold the 2012 Orange Bowl against the 2013 NIU roster. They’ve been ranked in the top 25 of both human polls every week since the first BCS release, but until Fresno State’s loss last Friday they were consistently viewed as the second-best BCS Buster contender by the pollsters.
They only broke into the teens of the USA Today Coaches Poll last week. The Harris voters have had NIU no lower than 21 this season. Yet their vote share had languished behind the Bulldogs. With Fresno now out of the way, NIU is a top-15 team in the Harris Poll and gaining traction among the coaches (or whoever they assign to fill out the ballot by proxy):
What we do not see in the ballot that was readily apparent last year was the sudden spikes. Whereas the 2012 edition of NIU football gained an incredible amount of vote shares in the last polls before the MAC championship game was played, the 2013 team has made a more steady progression in both vote shares and positioning in the polls.
This consistency is what has Northern Illinois on the cusp of the BCS. But because they have been steady and not a sudden revelation, they will likely still need the American Athletic Conference champion (likely UCF, currently 16th in the BCS standings) to stay below their position. The Knights could still ostensibly leap over NIU, which in turn would force the Huskies to be in a top-12 position to invoke section 3 of the BCS selection protocol rather than just in the top 16.
Nothing is cut and dry yet. The Huskies could still lose to a defensively-stout Bowling Green squad at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday night and, like Fresno State last week, turn this week’s look at BCS Busters into an exercise in futility. NIU could also still be overtaken by UCF and the AAC, the last AQ conference still below their position in the BCS standings. Were that to happen, they could still fall short of the automatic threshold for busting into the BCS.
No matter how you look at it, though, this year’s Northern Illinois squad is not the 2012 version of the Huskies. While pollsters have apprehensively kept the Orange Bowl against Florida State in the back of their brains while filling out ballots, the computers have no such compunctions about their merits. And even the humans have been more consistently on NIU’s side this season than they ever were last year.
We are now down to just one mid-major challenger to the BCS in the system’s final season. But that challenger looks better than anybody that has been in the running over the past few years, including the team that made it last season.