Were the season to end today, Fresno State would already be in. After surviving an overtime thriller against San Diego State, the Bulldogs are currently ranked 16th in the BCS standings. With Louisville the AAC’s top-ranked team at just 19th, and UCF four spots behind in 23rd, Section 3(b) of the BCS selection procedures would force one of the four bowls to take Fresno. At this point, only a drastic reshuffling of the human polls or a Bulldog loss can derail their spot in the series.
Breathing right down their neck is Northern Illinois, who is in a far more favorable position at this point than they were during their come-from-nowhere Cinderella 2012 season. Currently 17th in the BCS standings, the Huskies are right there ready to capitalize on any slip-ups above them. If Fresno State loses at any point in the final month of the season, NIU will be right there to snatch away pole position.
But perhaps NIU doesn’t need to have Fresno State lose. Perhaps, if there is enough chaos ahead of them, the Huskies and the Bulldogs will both earn an invite. Fresno just needs to leap four more spots in the final month to make their own destiny, while NIU needs to climb just five more to get into AQ position without the crapshoot of 3(b).
Both teams would have to be positioned far higher than they currently are to leave the BCS no choice but to take two mid-majors; when the Broncos and Horned Frogs stole the show in Arizona, they were ranked sixth and fourth respectively prior to the bowl season.
But that is getting far ahead of ourselves. There is still a lot of football to play in November, and there are merely ten teams remaining in the non-AQ ranks that have the smallest of chances to factor into the picture. Losses narrowed the field at the mid-major ranks, so we can dive a little deeper into the numbers this week.
This week we’re going to use the Sagarin rankings (not the BCS version, but the full-on version that includes strength of schedule and margin of victory and all the goodies). Because they include the full list of I-AA teams, they provide a strong correlation to look at why teams have been placed where they are this week. With that rating system in mind, let’s look at which squads are in the hunt and which conferences are best-postured for a BCS breakthrough in this week’s BCS Buster Power Rankings…
1. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/7-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 1st
- BCS RANKING: 16th (.3669)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at San Diego State 35-28 (OT)
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 2 vs. Nevada
Fresno State was a blocked field goal away from frittering away their chance at immortality. But Marcel Jensen got to Seamus McMorrow’s 37-yard attempt to force overtime. Marteze Waller pounded in the rock from a yard out to force San Diego State to try for the touchdown on their overtime possession, and Derron Smith knocked down the fourth-down desperation pass from Aztec quarterback Quinn Kaehler to preserve the seven-point win.
The team wasn’t overly spectacular in victory, but they survived a test on the road and still reached this point of the season by playing opponents that are an average of 15 spots higher in the Sagarin ratings. Their remaining opponents are also an average of nine spots higher in the ratings at this point, meaning that it will be extraordinarily hard for the Huskies to surpass the Bulldogs in the computers if they both keep winning. And since Fresno is already up to 18th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and the Harris Interactive Poll, two spots ahead of NIU in each of them, it will be nigh impossible for the Huskies to leapfrog the pride of the Central Valley.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/8-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 2nd
- BCS RANKING: 17th (.3335)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. Eastern Michigan 59-20
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 2 at Massachusetts
Of course, Northern Illinois knows how to play against high odds. Last year they were ranked 33rd in the final BCS standings of October, barely a factor in the race, before vaulting up into the picture despite their season-opening defeat to Iowa. This year they have been nearly an afterthought again thanks to Fresno’s rise, but after their easy rout of Eastern Michigan on Saturday they are in a far better situation overall to repeat as a BCS Buster this season.
Already 17th in the BCS standings and ahead of top-positioned AAC team Louisville, the Huskies are in a position to benefit from the same subsection of the BCS selection procedures that got them into the show last year. Of course, losing late has always had more impact than losing early in the BCS standings for AQ and non-AQ teams alike, so NIU must keep winning at this point. If the Bulldogs don’t slide, it will be that much harder for the Huskies to vault ahead of them. But history says that somebody will slide at some point, and enough chaos could potentially leave both barking to be let into the VIP section of the bowl calendar.
3. Ball State Cardinals (MAC/8-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 3rd
- BCS RANKING: 38th (.0018)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Akron 42-24
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 6 vs. Central Michigan
Ball State, the other contender from the MAC West, has played a paper schedule on its way to an 8-1 record through the first three quarters of its season. Interestingly, though, their loss to North Texas is actually not the drag on their schedule that one might expect. According to Sagarin, the Mean Green are the 68th-best team in the country; if the current numbers hold to the end of the season, that trip to Denton will have been Ball State’s third-toughest test of its season.
They must get past the same Central Michigan team that seriously stifled Ohio’s BCS Buster dreams, but the Cardinals have a bye weekend ahead of that Wednesday-night test at home. Survive the visit from the Chippewas and Ball State can take the driver’s seat in the MAC West by beating Northern Illinois in DeKalb the following Wednesday. Having earned votes in both human polls, the Cardinals can vault quickly into the public consciousness with a prime-time win over Jordan Lynch and crew.
4. BYU Cougars (IND/6-2)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 4th
- BCS RANKING: 28th (.0570)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. Boise State 37-20
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 9 at Wisconsin
No BCS Buster contender has had to play a tougher schedule on its path to trying to bust the system than BYU. The Cougars have already played six top-50 teams in the Sagarin rankings, going 5-1 in those contests. They have two more teams against top-30 teams, with a trip to Camp Randall Stadium to play Wisconsin in a fortnight followed by a visit to South Bend two weeks later.
To put BYU’s current record in perspective, they’ve played a harder schedule to date than Notre Dame according to the Sagarin rankings. The Cougars’ average opponent rates 51st according to the computer; the Golden Domers are playing opponents with an average ranking of 63rd. (Of course, the last four games for each skew in Notre Dame’s favor, 30th to 86th in difficulty, but they also play one another in South Bend on November 23 in what will be the penultimate game for both. There the title of best independent religious institution will be settled for 2013.) Overall, Sagarin rates BYU’s schedule the 21st-hardest in the country. Notre Dame’s schedule is rated the 27th-hardest.
They’ve got significantly more points than Ball State in both human polls.
5. Tulane Green Wave (C-USA/6-2)
- PRESEASON POWER RANKING: 8th
- BCS RANKING: not ranked
- LAST WEEK: win vs. Tulsa 14-7
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 2 at Florida Atlantic
With just four games left on their schedule, the Green Wave are bowl eligible and able to set their sights on bigger prizes. With just one more month to go, Tulane is still very much alive for its first Conference USA championship since the perfect season of 1998.
Of course, it will be tough to bust the BCS considering that they enter November without any points in the standings. But after a decade of ignominy, merely reaching a bowl makes this a successful season in New Orleans. They should be favored in their final three games before the regular-season finale against fellow C-USA West leader Rice that will likely decide which surprise squad for the conference crown the following weekend.