At this point two teams are positioned to challenge for a spot in one of the elite bowls. It is no coincidence that they are also the last two remaining undefeated mid-major schools. While the Bulldogs are in no way guaranteed a trip to Glendale despite Palm’s past prescience, they definitely have the inside track.
What is interesting, though, is the fact that last year’s BCS Buster was hardly on the radar at this point of the season. Northern Illinois was ranked 41st when the first BCS standings came out on October 14, 2012. They would jump up four spots each of the next two weekends, but by the time the first standings of November were released NIU was still outside the top 25 of the BCS.
Only after beating Eastern Michigan to improve to finish their regular season at 11-1, booking a spot in the MAC Championship Game in the process, would the Huskies move up to 21st in the BCS standings. Their win over Kent State to claim the league title would be enough to push them up to 15th after football’s equivalent of Armageddon transpired on the first Saturday of December. The marginal rankings of Big Ten champ Wisconsin and Big East champ Louisville would be enough to put NIU into the Orange Bowl.
Could another back-door BCS bust occur this season? The problem for a team like NIU or Fresno State, not to mention a team that already carries a blemish on its record, is the fact that none of the BCS conferences currently looks like it is going to produce a dud of a champion.
The AAC, successor to the Big East’s automatic qualifying berth, is up from where it stood last season. In addition to undefeated Louisville, three other teams — Houston, UCF, and Rutgers — are lurking in the top 35. Natural shifting in conference play should cause one of that group to emerge as a top-15 team.
Likewise the Big Ten is on an upswing. Ohio State is now eligible for postseason play, and the Buckeyes are on a collision course for another 12-0 regular season. The ACC is looking better than it has in years, with Clemson and Florida State in the top ten and teams like Miami and Virginia Tech lurking as spoilers as well.
Where could a mid-major turn for assistance? The best bet of invoking the top-16 stipulation might be the Big 12. Oklahoma and Baylor currently look like world-beaters, but an off day by either or both could render all those dreams moot.
Of course, if either Fresno State or Northern Illinois goes 13-0 (or 12-0 in Fresno’s case, thanks to the lost Colorado game we’ll talk about more soon), they won’t need to worry about the top 16. Either or both should reach the top 12 if they finish undefeated. But it is instructive to think that we might still have a one-loss BCS Buster in this final season of this system. Thus we look beyond just the Bulldogs and Huskies to evaluate everyone who might have an outside shot at glory in this week’s BCS Buster Power Rankings…
1. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/5-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 1st
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Idaho 61-14
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 19 vs. UNLV
After allowing Hawaii to dream of an upset in the fourth quarter of their trip to the islands, the Bulldogs made sure not to repeat the mistake against Idaho. By halftime, Fresno State had built a 47-0 lead and Derek Carr had hurled five touchdown passes. Not only did the offense do its job, but Fresno’s defense held the Vandals under 300 total yards of offense — despite running 83 plays. The big question for the Bulldogs now becomes the schedule. There is no longer a chance to reschedule the Colorado game now that the Buffaloes have scheduled a replacement game against FCS Charleston Southern. Given how Colorado has played, that might be a blessing in disguise for Fresno’s schedule strength. They will be favored in every game going forward, but the Mountain West still offers potential tap games against UNLV, San Diego State, Nevada, and Wyoming. The biggest thing working against Fresno? The next team in the rankings might just havea harder conference schedule this year…
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/5-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 2nd
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Kent State 38-24
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 12 vs. Akron
Northern Illinois opened up their MAC campaign in a rematch of last year’s championship game, dispatching a depleted Kent State team on the road 38-24. Last year it was the Golden Flashes that looked like the best bet to bust the BCS heading into championship weekend, but losses to the Huskies have bookended a 2-6 run for Kent State. But that doesn’t mean NIU is in the clear, because the MAC has seen several other teams rise up to contender status. The November 13 matchup against Ball State will likely decide which team represents the West Division in the league championship game, and if the Huskies prevail they will face either Bowling Green or the next team in the rankings. Either way, they’ll get a similar boost to what they enjoyed by beating Kent State last year. The way the Mountain West has cannibalized itself, Northern Illinois could conceivably vault above Fresno State by the end of the season — especially since they’d have an extra victory in the bag thanks to that cancelled game the Bulldogs lost against Colorado.
3. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/4-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 4th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Akron 43-3
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 12 vs. Central Michigan
Last year, at this time, Ohio looked like the surest bet to bust the BCS. They were 6-0 and preparing for a game against Akron that they would end up winning 34-28. But after seven straight wins, the Bobcats went 1-4 the rest of the way to fall off the map. A year older, players like Beau Blankenship and Tyler Tettleton look better prepared to contend for more than just a MAC championship. Though they’ve lost to Louisville, Ohio has the benefit of losing in the season opener. (As we learned last year with NIU, time fades the tarnish of a loss.) The best possible thing that could happen for Ohio is reaching the MAC championship with an 11-1 record to play an undefeated Huskies squad. If Frank Solich’s crew were to emerge victorious from that showdown, they would have a legitimate case for a BCS berth. However, they would likely need to hope for both Louisville’s continued dominance of the AAC and the fall of one of the other BCS leagues to get there as a non-AQ school.
4. East Carolina Pirates (C-USA/4-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 6th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Middle Tennessee 24-17
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 12 at Tulane
The Pirates might very well be the best bet to bust the BCS this season, if only they had managed to score just six more points against Virginia Tech when the Hokies visited Greenville on September 14. That 15-10 loss isn’t a deal-breaker, especially if Beamer’s charges can yield an upset in the ACC this season and return to conference dominance. A win over North Carolina boosted East Carolina’s BCS chances, and beating Middle Tennessee postured them as the team to beat in the East Division of Conference USA. This weekend’s showdown in New Orleans against Tulane should be the Pirates’ toughest test until late November. Then they will travel to their last BCS test of the season at NC State before turning around and playing Marshall on a Friday night in their season finale. If they can reach the C-USA Championship Game at 11-1 — and play a 10-2 Rice squad or a rematch against a 9-3 Tulane team — they would have a case with a 12th win.
5. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/4-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 5th
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. Massachusetts 28-7
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 12 at Mississippi State
Bowling Green is walking into a hornet’s nest when they head to Starkville this weekend. They’ll be playing a Mississippi State team that is reeling, already three losses down in the West Division and hungry for any win to right its listing season. Thus the Falcons will come out looking golden if they can win by any spread this weekend; no matter what, a win over an SEC team is a win over an SEC team, and that will always benefit a BCS Buster hopeful. If they get past the Bulldogs, Bowling Green’s November 12 home game against Ohio will likely settle which team stays alive as a one-loss contender in the MAC East. They will want to hope for Indiana to continue their spoiler status in the Big Ten; every Hoosiers win bolsters the Falcons’ case for BCS inclusion if they can continue winning.