We're seven weeks into the college football season, and the course of the postseason is already taking shape. The power schools will continue 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 at this point is minimal. 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 simulated BCS rankings, Fresno State has managed to sit atop the non-AQ pile, with Northern Illinois closely behind. According to projections, Fresno sits at 19th right now (directly behind Virginia Tech), while NIU is 22nd (right behind Florida). Other non-AQ squads included this week are Ball State (No. 37), Boise State (No. 38) and BYU (No. 41).
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 (5-0) (2-0) (Last: 1): Fresno just has to continue winning and they should find themselves slotted into a BCS bowl; simple as that. Their schedule's such that one loss could completely derail them, but they also have a value commodity in nationally-recognizable QB Derek Carr. In a system this subjective, that could sway voters in the Harris or Coach's poll enough to bump them up a spot or two. Getting a possible second crack at Boise State in the MWC title game would also be a huge boost.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies, MAC (6-0) (2-0) (Last: 2): At one point, NIU had the best shot of getting in despite a loss once again -- provided they fell to the right team of course. With two Big Ten wins already on the resume, the Huskies look as if they could grab a late surge in the rankings. Their remaining MAC slate is a joke though, and they won't be expected to drop a game a prior to the mid-November matchup with Ball State. Lose that one and they're toast, since it'll likely cost them the East Division, too.
3. Ball St. Cardinals, MAC (6-1) (4-0) (Last: 4): Ball State's come on pretty strong in the first half of the season, and if not for a disappointing loss to North Texas, they might even occupy the top spot on this list. The Cardinals also have an opportunity that neither of the top two teams do: another nearly-guaranteed matchup with a ranked team. If Ball State can beat a ranked NIU squad in November, it'll set them up for a division title and what should be a meaningful MAC Championship Game against Bowling Green. Win that too, and suddenly, a one-loss Ball State likely finds itself among the top 15-20 teams in the country.
4. Boise St. Broncos, MWC (4-2) (2-1) (Last: NR): Boise State gets some love on here because not only are they ranked in the larger BCS standings despite two losses, but there's a brand recognition there that none of the other schools can compete with. Again, that's a big deal to several voters, who'll likely recognize the Broncos from previous success. No, it won't matter to the computers, but that's what winning is for. If they win out, they'll take home the Mountain title and get another matchup with Fresno. Will it be enough to get them in, even if they win that as well? A lot depends on how teams around them fare, but it's certainly possible.