The postseason picture is clearing up by the week now as we get deeper into the year. The power schools are continuing to jockey for position atop the polls, but there's another extremely valuable spot up for grabs: this season's potential "BCS buster."
As we know, the current BCS system only has six automatic qualifiers (AAC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC), plus four at-large bids (limit: two total berths per conference). The other four at-large bids are filled out by the bowl committees, selecting from the top 14 teams in the season's final BCS standings. There are two caveats here that provide an entry point for a Mountain West team or any other non-AQ school: Finishing in the top 12 or finishing in the top 16 AND ahead of one of the AQ champs.
The total list of teams who can feasibly "bust" the BCS is minimal due to the amount of losses suffered among non-AQ ranks. But for the teams at the top of the list, they keep moving up as other teams near the middle of the polls continue to lose. In both the regular polls and the latest BCS rankings, Fresno State is still tops among the non-AQs, with Northern Illinois ranked just behind. Fresno currently sits at 16th (barely behind No. 15 Texas Tech), while NIU is 17th. Other non-AQ squads included this week are BYU (No. 28) and Ball State (No. 38).
Keep in mind that of the eight teams that have been selected for a BCS game since 2004, last year's Northern Illinois team is the only one to have a loss on their resume. So if you're nominating schools, being undefeated is likely to be the first criteria, along with noted past success. With those factors (and others) in mind, here are our BCS buster nominees, in order of likelihood:
1. Fresno St. Bulldogs, MWC (7-0) (4-0) (Last: 1): Is San Diego State vastly improved, or is Fresno a bit vulnerable? It was a fair question coming out of last Saturday's game, and one we'll struggle to find an answer for over the rest of the season. While the Bulldogs are ahead now, the rest of the schedule presents little opportunity to move up in the eyes of the computers and the MWC title game is likely to be against a two- or three-loss team as well. If they keep winning though, perhaps the human voters reward them enough for that not to matter.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies, MAC (8-0) (4-0) (Last: 2): NIU isn't too far behind Fresno State, and they still have a challenging game left on the schedule (Ball State). There's also a real possibility that they could see a 10-2 team like Buffalo (who could also be ranked -- albeit around the 40s -- in the BCS) in the MAC Championship Game, making their schedule look a bit more daunting than the Bulldogs'. Until the Ball State game, Northern Illinois will only be able to move up in lock-step with Fresno State as other teams lose. But a win over the Cardinals could be what vaults them over.
3. Ball St. Cardinals, MAC (8-1) (5-0) (Last: 3): Just like the Huskies benefit from the Cardinals, the Cardinals also benefit from the Huskies. Should Ball State win the mid-November matchup, it'll be a huge boost to their BCS credentials and put them in the driver's seat for a MAC title. But will it be enough to get them into the top 16? That's unfortunately doubtful. NIU represents Ball State's only real chance to jump and it's tough to see them going form 38th to 16th on the strength of one win (which will lose impact with NIU's loss). They'll need some help at the bottom of the polls -- both from AQ teams losing and Fresno State also suffering a defeat.
4. BYU Cougars, Independent (6-2) (Last: 4): It's unlikely BYU grabs a BCS bid, sure, but hear me out. At least they're a school that can position themselves best for at-large consideration. But unlike the other schools here, they have to finish in the top 14 (not 16) and even then, are not guaranteed anything. That makes things sound bad, but it's the system we're playing in right now. Perhaps if they hadn't suffered that loss to Virginia (or Utah), we'd be having a different conversation. Instead, they're very likely just participants in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
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