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 at this point, 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 the top non-AQ, with Northern Illinois ranked just behind them. Fresno sits at 16th for the second straight week, while NIU dropped down one spot to 18th. Other non-AQ squads included this week are BYU (No. 27), Ball State (No. 35) and UL-Lafayette (No. 37).
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) considered, here are our BCS buster nominees, in order of likelihood:
1. Fresno St. Bulldogs, MWC (8-0) (5-0) (Last: 1): The Bulldogs dispatched with yet another opponent last week, and now it appears the only thing standing between them and a shot at a Mountain West championship is the matchup with San Jose State right after Thanksgiving. Should neither team lose before then, that game will decide who wins the Mountain Division. As we've mentioned before, there's zero margin for error for Fresno, so that game is a must, just like every other. The only way this team finishes top 16 and ahead of the AAC champ is by going 13-0.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies, MAC (9-0) (5-0) (Last: 2): Because of the nonsensical way the BCS works, NIU's resounding win over UMass earned them a one-spot drop in this week's rankings. Still, they're not far out of contention at all. Unlike Fresno State, the Huskies have at least one more game against a well-regarded team (Ball State) and if they stay unbeaten, it could/should be enough to vault them up and over by year's end. Brand recognition with the program and its quarterback (Jordan Lynch) also helps out Northern Illinois quite a bit, especially in terms of the human polls. I'd argue this team is the best positioned of the top three to grab this bid.
3. Ball St. Cardinals, MAC (9-1) (6-0) (Last: 3): The MAC could not be in better shape right now, with two highly-ranked squads on a crash course for what could be the league's second straight upset BCS bid. Ball State's success puts them in similar position to NIU, and while it might seem far-fetched right now, the Cardinals could also manage to jump up and over Fresno State by season's end. If they beat the Huskies convincingly, and then take home a win in the MAC title game, a 12-1 Ball State would look mighty appealing for both the computers and human voters. But will that be enough? Fans would likely be holding their collective breath until the final rankings were released.