The race for spots in BCS bowl games has three weeks to go, and teams like Wisconsin and Clemson, that are out of conference championship races, but very much alive in the race for an at-large bid are watching the situation in the midmajors with anxiety. The loser of this coming Saturday’s Baylor-Oklahoma State game will feel the same way. As things stand right now, both Fresno State and Northern Illinois are alive to be a BCS-buster and get a guaranteed slot in one of the major bowls.
Let’s take a look at each team’s chances of doing so, and begin by laying the groundwork. There are two ways that a team from the midmajors can be a BCS-buster. The first is to be ranked in the top 12. The second is to be ranked in the top 16, but ahead of at least one automatic-qualifying conference champion.
Fresno is #15, with Northern Illinois one spot behind at #16, but Central Florida–currently slated to get the automatic spot out of the American Athletic Conference is at #18 and doesn’t have any notable games left. With Fresno and NIU each having some good opponents ahead, that makes it almost certain that if either team wins out, they’ll be in position to secure automatic qualification.
Another important note about the rules is that only one midmajor team is guaranteed entry. It’s possible that both could be chosen, but the major bowls would have to voluntarily take the second team. This is about as unlikely as Hillary Clinton choosing Ted Cruz as her running mate in 2016, and that works decisively against Northern Illinois.
The rankings might tell you that Fresno is only one spot ahead of NIU, but a closer look shows the Bulldogs lead the Huskies by a huge margin, one that won’t be overcome by style points. Northern Illinois needs Fresno to lose outright, and contenders from the power conferences need them both to lose outright. Here then, is a look at what each team has ahead of them…
Fresno State: The Bulldogs should be able to win a home game with New Mexico this coming week, but a more difficult test looms on Black Friday when they travel to San Jose State. The Spartans have one of the country’s best pure dropback passers in David Fales, and though they are only 5-5, two of the losses came at Stanford and Minnesota.
What’s working in Fresno’s favor is that San Jose is starting to struggle in league play for the first time, losing the last two games, including a bad 22-point loss to a Nevada team without its starting quarterback. Keep an eye on San Jose’s fortunes this Friday at home against Navy. If the Spartans get things turned back around, they’ll be a real threat to spoil Fresno’s dream season.
Fresno still has a conference championship game ahead of them, with the Mountain West now split into two divisions. The good news for the Bulldogs is that this game will be on their homefield rather than a neutral site. Boise State is the likely opponent, and while the Broncos haven’t enjoyed a vintage season at 7-3, they only lost at Fresno by a point in September.
Northern Illinois: This past Wednesday, the Huskies beat Ball State to gain control of the MAC’s Western Division, but another tough test looms this Wednesday against Toledo (8 PM ET, ESPN2). Toledo has given both Florida and Missouri tough runs in non-conference play, and beaten Navy. Unlike last week’s game, NIU has to go on the road.
The regular season finale at home against Western Michigan should be an easy one, but the same can’t be said for the conference championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. The opponent will be the winner of the Bowling Green-Buffalo game on Black Friday. Bowling Green is clearly the superior team, having just smoked a pretty good Ohio team 49-0.
A Northern Illinois-Bowling Green championship clash would probably be a lot like last year’s title game, when the Huskies went into overtime to beat Kent State. Buffalo isn’t quite as strong, but they do get the Bowling Green game at home. It would be a break for the Huskies if Buffalo ends up as their title game foe.
The difficulties both Fresno and Northern Illinois face over the next three weeks, with significant road challenges, are why I have resisted the assumption that we’ll have a BCS-buster. TheSportsNotebook’s current BCS bowl projections have all of the four at-large spots going to the power leagues.
I hope that at least one of them makes it though, because the structure of the bowl system means the stakes for each BCS-buster hopeful are huge. If Fresno doesn’t gain automatic entry, they instead go to the Las Vegas Bowl to play a midlevel Pac-12 team (probably Washington or Arizona). For Northern Illinois, it’s even worse–they would end up in the GoDaddy Bowl against the Sun Belt runner-up (probably Arkansas State).
These matchups give college football fans no real way of measuring how good either Fresno or NIU really is. By contrast, if Wisconsin comes up short, they can go to a bowl like the Capital One and play an opponent along the lines of South Carolina. If Clemson comes up short, they go to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and play an SEC team like LSU (since that matchup happened last year it probably wouldn’t work out exactly that way, but you get the general drift). If the Big 12 runner-up comes up short, the reward is the Cotton Bowl and possible shootout with Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.
In all of these cases, the power conference runner-ups still get an opportunity to play a good team that offers a chance to validate their season. Fresno State and Northern Illinois don’t get that.
That’s why, until we reform the bowl structure to offer these schools reasonable access to second-level bowl games, this Wisconsin fan is pulling for the BCS-busters to make it. And I hope Northern Illinois is the one that does it.