More unsettling for Fresno State (and NIU), though, is the fact that they each dropped a spot in the rankings. Both are still above the top-16 threshold and both have the advantage of ranking ahead of AAC leader Central Florida, meaning that one or the other would still gain entry to the BCS were the season to end today. But while the two front-runners to play Buster this season have steadily vaulted up the rankings with each win, this sudden stagnation is potentially damning for their long-term survival in the race.
What is the main cause for this stall? Both teams gained votes in the Harris Poll over the past week, and NIU actually increased their computer ranking by 0.070 after the win over the Cardinals on Wednesday. For both the Bulldogs and Huskies, the main culprit has been declining vote shares in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
Fresno’s standing in the poll decreased by 24 points; NIU dropped 27 points on the coaches’ ballots this week. And while both teams picked up points in the Harris Poll, the Huskies gained 39 points while the Bulldogs grabbed only two more. Combined with Fresno State dropping 0.040 in the computer rankings, the two human polls have deigned to decrease the gulf between these two teams.
If there is going to be a BCS Buster this season — and the way things are going, there is no guarantee of that fact even if both leaders keep winning — the selection will hinge on which team impresses coaches and Harris voters more over the next three weeks. Teams keep falling by the wayside, but it has done nothing to allow Fresno or NIU to consolidate position. With only four teams alive at this point after the attrition of Week 12, let’s see how perception will affect the quartet still standing in this week’s BCS Buster Power Rankings…
1. Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/9-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 1st
- BCS RANKING: 15th (.4134)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 23 vs. New Mexico
Technically, the Bulldogs could still conceivably miss out on the inaugural Mountain West Championship Game if they lose both of their last two regular-season games. Rationally, there is little hope for either New Mexico or San Jose State to defeat Tim DeRuyter’s crew, much less both. The problem for Fresno State at this point is that they need to do more than merely beat these teams; they need to pummel them if they want to stay ahead of Northern Illinois.
While style points are null and void in the calculations of the six BCS computers, they mean oh so much in the eyes of humans. Margin of victory may not be an official factor, but it can’t escape the mind when judging two teams directly against one another.
The one thing that might work in Fresno’s favor is the sole direct comparable between the two teams. The Bulldogs and the Huskies have both played road games against Idaho; NIU beat the Vandals 45-35 in Moscow on September 14, while Fresno won in the Kibbie Dome 63-14 three weeks later. The Bulldogs also have the benefit of playing in the Mountain West, which not only benefits from its past glories but is also rated ahead of the MAC by all six computers this season.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/10-0)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 2nd
- BCS RANKING: 16th (.3729)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. Ball State 48-27
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 20 at Toledo
Of course, perception doesn’t matter one whit if the Huskies continue to pull closer to Fresno with each passing week. In the end, it might come down to perception of their opponents down the stretch rather than anything else. And tomorrow night, NIU will play the best remaining opponent either faces in the regular season.
After Toledo started the season 2-3, with losses to SEC East teams Florida and Missouri as well as a conference defeat to Ball State, the Rockets were largely written off. SInce then, they’ve rattled off five straight victories — and have knocked Navy, Bowling Green, and last weekend Buffalo out of the BCS Buster race.
Northern Illinois has won the past three in this series, with three of the past four settled by a touchdown or less. The Huskies, though, cannot let up. A victory over Toledo would give NIU another strong boost in the computer rankings, which already have the Huskies holding a significant 0.110 lead over Fresno, and it would be another nationally-televised Wednesday night showcase to show off for the human voters. A loss might not actually eliminate them completely, given that they still would hold the tiebreaker over Ball State and would play in the MAC Championship. It would, though, cede the race to Fresno State barring a Bulldog loss as well.
3. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (SUN/8-2)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 4th
- BCS RANKING: 33rd (0.0014)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win at Georgia State 35-21
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 30 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Look, I’m not about to say that Louisiana-Lafayette is going to bust the BCS this season… even if both Fresno State and NIU bottom out in their final two contests. The team had two chances to prove itself against BCS-conference competition at the start of the season, and they bombed in both. Losses at Arkansas and Kansas State put ULL in a 0-2 hole that, as a Sun Belt school, is entirely insurmountable when talking about earning a BCS berth.
But what Mark Hudspeth has managed to do with this team in 2013 has been nothing short of impressive. With eight straight victories, the Ragin’ Cajuns have put themselves in position for both their first outright Sun Belt championship and their first 10-win season as a I-A/FBS program. ULL is already pretty much guaranteed a bowl berth, which will be the program’s third straight. All they have to do now is knock off rival Louisiana-Monroe on the last day of November and South Alabama on December 7 to claim that tenth win and the conference crown.
4. East Carolina Pirates (C-USA/8-2)
- LAST WEEK’S RANKING: 5th
- BCS RANKING: 36th (0.0006)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: win vs. UAB 63-14
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 23 at NC State
The Pirates split their first two games against BCS-league competition this season, losing a 15-10 heartbreaker at home to Virginia Tech on September 14 before routing North Carolina 55-31 in Chapel Hill two weeks later. Their third chance against an ACC opponent comes this Saturday, when they head to Raleigh to face 3-7 NC State. A win would keep them in outside contention and probably leapfrog them ahead of ULL in the BCS standings.
But, once again, an actual shot at a BCS bowl is outside the reach of East Carolina. A loss to the Hokies could have been forgiven; NIU got to the Orange Bowl last year after losing to a 4-8 Iowa team on the opening weekend of the 2012 season, after all. Unfortunately, though, they also suffered a Conference USA loss in overtime to Tulane on October 12, and any goodwill from the UNC smackdown was erased. A C-USA championship is in sight, though, and the Pirates could potentially register the first 12-win season in school history if they win out through their bowl game.
Out of the Race
Ball State Cardinals (MAC/9-2)
- BCS RANKING: 34th (.0010)
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: loss at Northern Illinois 48-27
At halftime of Wednesday’s showdown with the Huskies, Ball State was ahead 24-20. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Cardinals were level with Northern Illinois and looked like they might vault themselves into the BCS top 25 with an upset in DeKalb. Then Jordan Lynch took over, leading a seven-play, 94-yard drive that ended with Lynch finding Da’Ron Brown for the go-ahead 36-yard touchdown pass.
After that, Ball State seemed to implode. They failed to convert a 4th and 1 from the NIU 44, and four plays later Lynch doubled the home team’s lead with a 16-yard carry for his second rushing touchdown of the night. The deficit was stretched further when Keith Wenning through his only interception of the night on the ensuing drive and Joe Windsor returned the pick 49 yards to set the final score at 48-27.
While Ball State might still be rated in the BCS standings (and rated ahead of East Carolina at that), they no longer control their destiny. They will not play for the MAC title unless the Huskies inexplicably lose both of their final two regular-season games. Even then, time has effectively run out for this Cinderella.
Buffalo Bulls (MAC/7-3)
- BCS RANKING: not ranked
- THIS WEEK’S RESULT: loss at Toledo 51-41
Buffalo can’t be too upset after falling victim to the Glass Dome curse against Toledo last weekend. After all, this is a team that has been to one bowl game in its history, its improbable 2008 MAC title season when they upset none other than an undefeated Ball State team in the championship game. The fact that they’re already guaranteed a winning record this season is impressive on its own.
They’ve already won as many games in 2013 as they did their past two seasons combined, and a chance to spoil NIU’s season is still alive as well. If they win tonight’s game against the 0-10 Miami RedHawks, it will set up a day-after-Thanksgiving showdown with Bowling Green to decide which team faces the Huskies in the MAC Championship Game. So while their already-longshot BCS dream was shattered by the Rockets, Buffalo still has the chance to play a spoiler role in the league for the second time in six seasons.