For the sixteen years of BCS rule over the top tier of college football, the organization has been fond of saying “Every Game Counts”. While these words have rang hollow many a time since 1998, the adage does hold weight with one group: those schools that had the misfortune to sit in the cold outside the money-padded halls of BCS membership. Just like so many teams before them, Northern Illinois and Fresno State have learned the hard way in 2013 that every game does count when it comes to trying to bust the BCS.
Yes, NIU gained entry into the Orange Bowl last season despite losing its season opener against Iowa. But even then, the game mattered in two ways. First, it gave the Huskies a power-conference opponent to help boost its computer rankings just enough to place in the top 25 on five of the six algorithms on the final release of 2012. Second, the one-point defeat at Soldier Field — in a game where Iowa was favored by 9.5 points — opened sportswriters’ eyes across the country, keeping the Huskies’ brand fresh later in the year and offering a narrative that ultimately led enough pollsters to want to see what they could do against Florida State.
Further than that, though, Northern Illinois’ story in 2012 demonstrated another fact — for mid-major teams hoping to bust into the BCS, not only their own games but other teams’ games matter in the equation. Without Louisville’s weak showing in the standings as the Big East champion and five-loss Wisconsin’s surprise Big Ten championship (courtesy of 12-0 Ohio State’s postseason ban), the Huskies never would have managed to reach the minimum qualifications to play in Miami against the Seminoles. They benefitted from the system, sure, but two rungs of the establishment folded their cards simultaneously when they were needed most to close ranks.
Ultimately 2012 will go down as the fluke year in the BCS system, the one year where a one-loss BCS Buster was able to squeak past the bouncer and under the velvet rope to claim a spot at the party. The 2013 edition of NIU football will end the year with at least as good a record as the team that came before them, pending the result of its bowl game. But the Huskies won’t be playing anywhere near Miami, in terms of prestige, for this year’s bowl game.
Like Fresno State against San Jose State on Black Friday, the Huskies tripped on one of the last hurdles standing between them and a repeat as a BCS Buster. All they had to do was knock off a Bowling Green team that entered the MAC Championship Game in Detroit with three losses already on its record. One came on the road in Bloomington, 42-10, to a Hoosiers team whose 5-7 finish will keep them home during this bowl season. Another came by a point in Starkville to a Mississippi State team that finished the year at .500 thanks largely to their 21-20 win over the Falcons. And the last came at home, to 7-5 Toledo, by a field goal on the last weekend of October.
All NIU had to do was beat a team that had lost to three opponents with an aggregate 18-18 record. Instead the Falcons mercilessly dismissed NIU’s dream of back-to-back BCS Buster appearances with a 47-27 evisceration of the defending champs. Now the Huskies are probably headed to the opposite side of the country from Miami to play a Mountain West opponent in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. That opponent, however, will not be Fresno State, who is already locked into the Las Vegas Bowl thanks to their win in the MWC Championship Game over Utah State on Saturday night.
And every game sure counts for a guy like Jordan Lynch, might not end up earning a trip to the Heisman ceremony in Manhattan after a two-turnover performance against Bowling Green. A loss in the biggest game of his season will surely have voters thinking back to his numbers against Florida State last year; despite the award being for a given season, no perspective on a player exists in a vacuum. Last week he was the possible Detmer-like safe choice candidate had charges been filed on Jameis Winston. This week, he is just the guy we will remember for being unable to will his team back into the BCS.
What makes this double standard so appalling? Look no further than the automatic qualifier that would have ensured NIU’s entry into an at-large spot had they won.
UCF was a mid-major school until last year, having played most recently in Conference USA after transitioning from the I-AA level in 1996. The Knights will be a mid-major program again next year, when the American Athletic Conference to which they just transfered loses its top-tier AQ status in the new College Football Playoff system. But for one glorious year, they had the opportunity to take advantage of the defunct Big East’s automatic bid into one of the games. All they had to do was beat out the established powers that were stuck behind in the rebranded AAC.
And, in all fairness, UCF took care of business. While the actual process to get there was sketchy at times, the Knights went undefeated through their conference schedule to claim the AAC’s spot at the big-boy table. With their only loss coming to a 10-win South Carolina squad, Central Florida proved itself worthy of a spot in a BCS bowl by virtue of their 8-0 conference record and 11-1 overall mark.
Had this been 2012, though, that one blemish — coming by just three points against a top-ten squad — might have cost them an invitation to the BCS. In 2004, after all, Louisville lost just one game while still a member of Conference USA. That one loss? A three-point loss to third-ranked Miami in the Orange Bowl, a Hurricanes squad that would finish the year with two losses just like the Gamecocks this year.
The Knights are 15th in the final BCS standings, below all of the Power 5 champions (Florida State in the ACC, Auburn in the SEC, Michigan State in the Big Ten, Stanford in the Pac-12, and Baylor in the Big 12), three rungs below the 12th spot that would guarantee entry. Were this 2012, they’d be out of the party. A quirk in the system leaves UCF a spot at the table, their 11-1 record validated by the ghost of Big Easts past.
As it was, though, that 11th win wasn’t even necessary for the Knights. Because Louisville beat Cincinnati on Thursday night, UCF was already guaranteed their BCS spot regardless of how they finished on a frosty day in Dallas against SMU in the regular-season finale. That they won 17-13 merely validated their ascendancy in a conference that looks suspiciously like the one they just left but that enjoyed elite status for one more season upon the realignment.
For UCF, every game didn’t matter. As long as they went 8-0 (or even 7-1 with the tiebreaker) in the AAC, they were in. The loss to South Carolina didn’t matter in the end. The obligatory 12th game against the Mustangs was mere formality, unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. The Knights were damn near locked into the Fiesta Bowl when that bowl drew short straw against the pecking order in the final BCS campaign. So they’ll play Baylor, 11-1 champions when that would have been less than they needed to get in last year.
Maybe Northern Illinois and Fresno State didn’t deserve to be in the BCS this season, though the team that got in instead — Oklahoma — was pretty much picked thanks to one game, rendering the previous 11 results moot. The Sooners, who played only two teams that finished in the final top 25 of the BCS era, had pollsters ignore their 41-12 defeat at Baylor a month ago in favor of their Bedlam upset of Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Saturday to vault them into a Sugar Bowl showdown with Alabama. Moving six spots from 17 to 11 in the standings, they were suddenly in a top-14 position that made them eligible for an at-large berth.
We didn’t get Alabama-Oregon as a result of NIU’s defeat. Instead we got Bob Stoops and a patchwork Oklahoma squad against a Tide team that expected Pasadena and instead is headed to the Big Easy. It’s a hell of a consolation prize, but it ain’t the grand prize everyone expected in Tuscaloosa. It’s far better than the Ducks, who are likely looking at a last showdown at the Alamo(dome) against the guy who dealt Oklahoma its other embarrassing defeat of the season — Texas, which will likely be playing its last game under the guidance of Mack Brown.
As we are left to ponder what “Every Game Counts” really meant in the grand scheme of things, let’s look at the mid-major teams that claimed bowl bids this season and those that at least qualified for the chance to get squeezed out of the opportunity by a lack of vacancies. So while we still can, let’s get to business in this penultimate edition of the BCS Buster Power Rankings…
Sizing Up the Teams and Bowl Matchups
With nobody landing a lucrative BCS bid, there was ultimately a lot of jockeying for bowl positions among the mid-major teams whose leagues often don’t have enough guaranteed bids as there are bowl-eligible teams. 21 ultimately landed spots out of 31 bowl-eligible teams. What follows is a ranking of all 31 teams that were good enough to at least finish .500 in 2013… these rankings
(all rankings given are the final BCS ranking as calculated at BCS Guru; all times given are Eastern)
1. Fresno State Bulldogs (11-1/MWC champion)
- FINAL BCS RANKING: 20th (0.1675)
- LAST GAME: won 24-17 vs. Utah State (MWC Championship Game in Fresno)
- BOWL GAME: Dec. 21 vs. #25 USC (Las Vegas Bowl, ESPN, 3:30 pm)
The Bulldogs took a dagger to their BCS dreams with that loss at San Jose State, but they rebounded to survive Utah State at home in the inaugural Mountain West Championship Game. For their effort, Fresno State earned the league champion’s automatic bid to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they will play a USC team playing under its third head coach of the season. After Lane Kiffin’s midseason termination on the tarmac of LAX, the Trojans rebounded strong under Ed Orgeron to win six of its last eight games after looking listless at the start of the season. The successful turnaround wasn’t enough for Orgeron to earn the full-time gig, though, which went instead to Steve Sarkisian. But while Sarkisian has departed already from Washington, it will be assistant coach Clay Helton who serves as the interim coach for the interim coach in Vegas. What does that mean for Fresno State? Well, Derek Carr and the rest of the seniors are getting to play a name-brand team that is in the top 25 of the final BCS breakdown for their final game. But they’re also playing a team that might or might not be entirely motivated for the football part of the trip to Sin City. They’ve tied the best win total in school history after winning the MWC championship, matching 11-win seasons in 1982, 1985, 1989 and 2001. The cancellation of the Colorado game due to flooding in Boulder in September (and the loss to the Spartans) prevented Fresno from breaking the record with a 12th win, but they can do that by taking down a Trojans team in transition in the first week of bowl season…
2. Bowling Green Falcons (10-3/MAC champion)
- FINAL BCS RANKING: 31st (0.0121)
- LAST GAME: won 47-27 vs. Northern Illinois (MAC Championship Game in Detroit)
- BOWL GAME: Dec. 26 vs. Pittsburgh (Little Caesars Bowl, ESPN, 6:00 pm)
Ultimately Bowling Green ranks above Northern Illinois not just because they knocked off the Huskies for the MAC championship (and cost their conference and themselves a not-astronomical-but-not-insignificant amount of BCS money in the process), but because they also landed a more respectable bowl opponent in the process. At the end of the day, the Falcons are playing a 6-6 ACC team, while NIU gets an 8-5 Mountain West opponent (more on that later). Neither is an especially impressive matchup, but Bowling Green has the chance to prove itself against an AQ-conference opponent at least. After falling from BCS contention, NIU can’t say as much. Ultimately, though, Bowling Green should enjoy this position while it lasts, because they’ll have to play this bowl game without head coach Dave Clawson, who just signed on to become the next head coach at Wake Forest. Instead it will be interim coach Adam Scheier, who was previously the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach for the squad under Clawson, who leads the team back to Detroit and Ford Field — the site of their MAC championship win three weeks earlier. At least they’ll know their surroundings well…
3. Northern Illinois Huskies (12-1/MAC runner-up)
- FINAL BCS RANKING: 23rd (0.1572)
- LAST GAME: lost 47-27 vs. Bowling Green (MAC Championship Game in Detroit)
- BOWL GAME: Dec. 26 vs. Utah State (Poinsettia Bowl, ESPN, 9:30 pm)
Oh, Huskies, if only you could have closed the deal at Ford Field. One opponent stood between NIU and a second straight BCS appearance. That opponent had other ideas, as Bowling Green treated Northern Illinois’ offense like a rag doll. Now the Huskies are headed to San Diego instead of Phoenix — not a bad consolation prize, but a consolation prize nonetheless. There they will take on a Utah State team that just held its ground against Fresno State for most of the MWC Championship Game before succumbing to the Bulldogs. It will be a matchup that should prove more challenging than it looks on paper, given that Utah State fields a defense nearly as strong as the Falcons brought to Detroit to ruin NIU’s dreams. Jordan Lynch will have to be at his senior best in San Diego if the Huskies hope to pull out a Poinsettia Bowl victory over the Aggies.
4. Rice Owls (10-3/C-USA champion)
- FINAL BCS RANKING: 33rd (0.0085)
- LAST GAME: won 41-24 vs. Marshall (C-USA Championship Game in Houston)
- BOWL GAME: Dec. 31 vs. Mississippi State (Liberty Bowl, ESPN, 4:00 pm)
For the first time since 1957, the Rice Owls are a conference champion after securing a 41-24 victory over Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game last weekend. What remains suspicious is why the game was played in Houston in the first place; while Marshall actually ranked in the extended BCS standings, the conference eschewed its stated tiebreaker to get Jerry Palm of CBS Sports to engineer a convoluted formula that weighed far more heavily toward the computers than the humans. But it was played in Houston nevertheless, and C-USA’s blunder shouldn’t dampen the accomplishment. As reward for their win over the Thundering Herd, the Owls are headed to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl. It isn’t exactly Alabama or South Carolina they’ll be facing, but Rice still gets an opportunity to beat an SEC squad when they take on Mississippi State on New Year’s Eve.
5. BYU Cougars (8-4/independent)
- FINAL BCS RANKING: not ranked
- LAST GAME: won 28-23 at Nevada (Nov. 30)
- BOWL GAME: Dec. 27 vs. #28 Washington (Fight Hunger Bowl, ESPN, 9:30 pm)
Even though there are teams below them in the final BCS Buster Power Rankings that have more wins and/or fewer losses than the Cougars, no non-AQ team has played a tougher schedule this season than Bronco Mendenhall’s independent crew in Provo. In 2013 the Cougars played seven different AQ-conference opponents (including fellow independent Notre Dame, which has had its own personal qualifying stipulations over the life of the BCS system), going 3-4 in a slew of close contests. Now they’ll take on Washington two days after Christmas on the baseball diamond in San Francisco, a matchup that looked far better before Washington’s head coach bolted for the USC job but still a showdown that should serve as another measuring stick for BYU. Win and they have a .500 season against BCS competition; fall to the Huskies and they finish with a losing record in season-defining contests.