The West Division of Conference USA proved that all too well, as it has so many times in the past. Both Tulane and Rice, which stood undefeated in conference play more than halfway through the season, are now three losses deep and completely out of the race. With Rice falling to North Texas on Thursday and Tulane getting doubled up by, of all teams, FAU on Saturday, the West side of the C-USA standings has no chance of factoring into the system this season.
When you break it down, only four divisions, one conference without divisions, and one independent are really still alive in this race. Fresno State has buttressed the MWC West Division, while the Mountain Division has been bursting into flames as first Utah State and then Boise State and finally Wyoming all succumbed to conference play. The MAC West is far stronger than the MAC East, with NIU and Ball State on course for an elimination game and Buffalo and Ohio only hoping to play spoilers. And then there’s Conference USA, where East Carolina keeps on trucking while the Green Wave and the Owls took a tumble from the precipice ten weeks in.
Then there is the duo of BYU and Louisiana-Lafayette. One is an independent mid-major religious school that is inching closer by the season to a Notre Dame-like schedule. The other is a state school in the bayou that lovingly refers to its athletic squads as the Ragin’ Cajuns, complete with the apostrophe in the place of a superfluous G, and currently dominating the Sun Belt Conference.
The field continues to winnow itself down, yet we are still on pace to see a storybook ending for the non-AQ dreamers in the final season of the Bowl Championship Series. With November in front of us, let’s look at which squads are in the hunt and which conferences are best positioned for a BCS breakthrough in this week’s BCS Buster Power Rankings…
1. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/8-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 1st
- BCS RANKING: 16th (.3675)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. Nevada 41-23
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 9 at Wyoming
Fresno State took care of business against a team that has given a past BCS Buster fits over the years — dispatching a Nevada team that has prevented previous Boise State dreams from coming to fruition — by 18 points on Saturday. The Bulldogs survived last week’s scare against San Diego State with a flourish, with QB Derek Carr throwing for three touchdowns and 487 yards without a turnover to take care of business against the Wolf Pack. They even gained a few ticks in the BCS standings this week, consolidating a top-16 spot that would have them in a BCS bowl were the regular season to end today. Next week’s trip to Laramie to face a Jekyll-and-Hyde Wyoming squad is the likeliest chance for Fresno to sustain a loss ere the MWC Championship Game; now it merely remains to be seen if Brett Smith and crew can render heartbreak to the visitors. Beyond that are merely New Mexico and San Jose State, two teams by which the Bulldogs should be favored by double digits. Covering the spread — and perhaps doubling it — will have to be Fresno’s modus operandi, for they have the next team on the list breathing hot on their trail…
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/9-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 2nd
- BCS RANKING: 18th (.3169)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Massachusetts 63-19
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 13 vs. Ball State
… and yet, despite their dominance this week, Northern Illinois not only remains behind the Bulldogs in the BCS standings but actually fell a spot behind Michigan State. The Huskies are the reigning BCS Busters, but they have little hope of sustaining that position unless the MAC suddenly gains a better perception than the MWC. That switched middle letter is really the difference at this point, the league west of the Mississippi proving more formidable in the estimation of both humans and computers. At this point, last year’s Orange Bowl participant has continued to fly under the radar after losing to Florida State in Miami. Yet, unlike a team like Hawaii in 2007, the Huskies have been built to last even though they lost their coach. For starters, QB Jordan Lynch is back and continuing his understated dominance of prior campaigns. But they are also a team whose defense’s stats are shaky yet show them to be a turnover-generating machine. They have a bye this week, leaving Fresno to open the gap yet wider, but the next test for NIU will be their most formidable — and will likely decide whether the Huskies will even get to play in the MAC Championship game this season. Without a spot in that title game, NIU has absolutely no chance to bust the BCS; no non-conference champion from a non-AQ league has ever busted the BCS, and it will almost definitely NOT happen in the final season of this incarnation of a nationwide championship system.
3. Ball State Cardinals (MAC/8-1)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 3rd
- BCS RANKING: 35th (.0020)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 6 vs. Central Michigan
Ball State still has plenty of life left in their BCS Buster dreams as well. As Northern Illinois proved last season, a loss no longer is the death knell for a mid-major aspiring to greatness. But a second loss makes it all that much tougher to break into the party, and in the Cardinals’ case a loss to NIU would eliminate them from the discussion completely — for the other maxim for any BCS Buster is that they must win their conference championship. This week Ball State climbed two spots in the BCS standings despite sitting idly on the sideline, and they have one more test against Central Michigan tomorrow night before the showdown with the Huskies in prime-time a week later. As long as the Cardinals don’t pull an Ohio against the Chippewas, they’ll be in position to turn that Wednesday the 13th #MACtion into a true divisional elimination game.
4. BYU Cougars (IND/6-2)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 4th
- BCS RANKING: 27th (.0734)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 9 at Wisconsin
Sitting on the cusp of the BCS top 25 is Brigham Young University. It appears as though the Cougars’ calculated move to leave the Mountain West for football independence has paid off for the Mormon school. They’re only four spots behind that other religious campus in South Bend, and they’ve got a strength of schedule that puts not just other mid-major teams to shame but also humbles most AQ schools as well. (Sagarin currently rates BYU’s schedule as the 24th-toughest in the country; not a single one of the top five teams in the country comes within 20 spots of the Cougars in that category.) Like Ball State they climbed this week without playing a game; now Bronco Mendenhall’s crew will take on the toughest stretch of its season, one that could still vault BYU into the top 14 of the BCS standings and make them available for an at-large berth. With road trips to Madison and South Bend, the Cougars can either make or break their 2013 season against a pair of opponents currently ranked among the top 25 in the BCS. Knock both off, and BYU will have a serious case for an at-large spot.