By Kevin McGuire
Every January, the powers in college football get together for a round of big bowl bashes, pitting some of top conference’s biggest names in big time bowl match-ups sponsored by big-time corporations. They call it the Bowl Championship Series, but they may as well just call it the Big Boys Club. Every so often, however, there is one program that manages to sneak in to the party. This year there are two programs hoping to obtain entrance to the final ball for the BCS.
Northern Illinois looks to become the second back-to-back BCS Buster in the history of the BCS, joining TCU. The Horned Frogs, no longer eligible for BCS Buster status as a member of the Big 12, reached the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2009 season and reached the Rose Bowl the following year. The Huskies from Northern Illinois were not so cordially invited to Miami to face ACC champion Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Fresno State, currently the top team in the BCS-busting Mountain West Conference, is looking to reach their first BCS bowl game. While many will hope these teams take a loss before the end of the year to eliminate them from the conversation, these two could very well be vying for BCS spots until the end of the season. Could we be in for a repeat of 2010 when TCU and Boise State each crashed the BCS party?
One of these teams could have a very realistic chance to clinch at least one automatic bid to the BCS. There are two ways it could happen. If either team finishes in the top 12 of the BCS standings and is their conference’s respective champion, they are guaranteed a BCS bowl bid. The other way a guaranteed spot can be clinched is if they win their conference championship, finish in the BCS Top 16 and are ranked ahead of a conference champion from a conference with an automatic bid. In this case, look at The American. Central Florida currently is the highest ranked team from the AAC, and they are ranked below both Fresno State and Northern Illinois. However, only one conference champion from a non-AQ conference with the highest BCS ranking will be guaranteed a spot under these rules, although the other would be considered for an at-large berth.
So, who has the best shot?
The Case for Fresno State
Fresno State has the inside track as it stands right now. The Bulldogs are No. 16 in the latest BCS standings and currently satisfy the BCS selection requirements (projected conference champion, ranked ahead of Central Florida, ranked in top 16). Fresno State has the computers currently in their favor, with an average computer ranking of 15th in the nation. Fresno State has the nation’s seventh best pass offense with Derek Carr putting up mazing numbers on a regular basis.
In terms of strength of schedule, Fresno State lacks a power punch. Although they opened the season with a wild overtime win over Rutgers and their game against Colorado was postponed due to flooding issues, Fresno State has yet to record what may be considered a signature win outside of Boise State, and this is not the same Boise State team it once was.
It is fair to criticize the strength of schedule for Fresno State, but if they manage to run the table to go 12-0 with a victory in the Mountain West Championship Game (which would be projected to be played at home), Fresno State will absolutely be going to a BCS bowl game if they can hold off Northern Illinois in the standings.
The Case for Northern Illinois
Although Northern Illinois is currently one spot behind Fresno State in the BCS standings, the Huskies have the computers in their favor. Northern Illinois is ranked 13th in the computer average and 17th in the BCS standings. There is not much ground to make up for Northern Illinois to jump over Fresno State and the schedule could actually work in their favor. Because Fresno State will only play a maximum of 12 games this season (no make-up for lost Colorado game), the Huskies will have one extra game to showcase their team. Two of those games coming up will help determine the MAC West division, with Northern Illinois hosting 8-1 Ball State on November 13.
Northern Illinois may be experiencing some backlash for its role in the BCS last season, but with Jordan Lynch continuing to demonstrate his versatility and the Huskies owning two wins against Big Ten teams on the road, it may be time to realize they are once again on track for another BCS bid and could be the leading candidate for a BCS at-large.
The Case for… BYU?
BYU’s victory this past weekend against Boise State earned the Cougars a spot in the Fight Hunger Bowl as part of their previously arranged bowl line-up as an independent. BYU has accepted that spot, but is there a chance BYU can make a case for a BCS spot for the first time in program history?
Because BYU plays as an independent, they do not fall under the same BCS qualification as requirements Fresno State and Northern Illinois. Also, because the Cougars are not currently ranked in the BCS Top 25, time is running out for BYU to make a case for a BCS at-large spot. Under the current rules, BYU can only qualify as an at-large candidate by cracking the top 14 in the BCS standings. Can BYU climb from unranked to the top 14 before the end of the season? Probably not, but it is not exactly impossible.
It goes without saying BYU needs some teams ahead in the polls to start losing, including Fresno State and Northern Illinois. BYU also needs to win the remainder of their games, starting with a road win at Wisconsin in two weeks and a road game at Notre Dame later in November. If they do that, then BYU would have a record of 10-2 with wins on the road against Wisconsin and Notre Dame as well as a surprising Houston team and a blowout of Texas back in Week 2. It would help BYU’s cause if Texas could manage to win the Big 12, Houston could win the American and if Boise State could win the Mountain West.
Sure, it is extremely far-fetched at this point, but if you had to make the call between a 10-2 BYU team with that list of wins and Fresno State or Northern Illinois, which way would you go?
Game of the Week: No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 7 Miami
This is a pretty down week for college football’s schedule. That should give Florida State another chance to prove just how good they can be. Heisman favorite Jameis Winston and the Seminoles were passed in the BCS standings by Oregon this weekend and will look to climb back up a spot with a win against undefeated Miami. The Hurricanes have struggled the past two weeks but have managed to ride their running game to victory each time, first with Dallas Crawford against North Carolina and then with Duke Johnson against Wake Forest. This could be a preview of the ACC Championship Game the way things are playing out in the ACC, and Florida State could make a case for that second spot in the BCS standings if they can dismantle the Hurricanes the way they have Maryland, Clemson and North Carolina State in ACC play.
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Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.