We're five weeks into the college football season, but 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 list of teams who can feasibly "bust" the BCS at this point has shrunk -- rather quickly, unfortunately. But for the teams at the top of the list, things are still well within reach. Northern Illinois has managed to jump clear over Fresno State for the time being and now lead all non-AQ schools in the latest simulated BCS rankings, sitting at No. 21 overall. The Bulldogs move up to No. 24 (from 25 last week) and also find themselves in striking distance. Those two schools are trailed much further back by East Carolina (No. 37) as well.
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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 early BCS buster nominees, in order of likelihood:
1. Fresno State Bulldogs, MWC (4-0) (2-0) (Last: 1): Fresno got quite the scare from Hawaii over on Oahu, but they managed to hold on for a victory, which keeps their BCS hopes very much alive. Yes, they may be second among non-AQs in the current rankings, but they're the only one with a real chance to move up going forward, too. Wins over Boise State and Rutgers only stand to help them gain more ground as the weeks wear on. Obviously, the goal is just to keep on winning.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies, MAC (4-0) (0-0) (Last: 2): NIU absolutely pummeled Purdue last week, but then again, the Boilermakers aren't all that good. With the middle-to-bottom of the MAC in less-than-stellar form right now, the Huskies have to hope that the other top teams in the conference and season-opening opponent Iowa keep winning. Yes, they're the clubhouse leader right now, but as the schedule gets weighed down by some of the dregs of the MAC, they might find themselves at 12-0 without much in terms of quality victories come season's end.
3. East Carolina Pirates, C-USA (3-1) (1-0) (Last: 4): East Carolina has steadily moved up the list here (and in the simulated BCS rankings), and others are just starting to take notice. The Pirates ran right through North Carolina this past week, and with two ACC games already in the books, plus another one against NC State later on in the season, their strength of schedule is their biggest asset. They lost a close one to Virginia Tech in week three, obviously, which keeps them down here at No. 3. But otherwise, they'd be the top team on this list. Still, ECU's very much a contender so long as they win out.
4. Ball State Cardinals, MAC (4-1) (2-0) (Last: NR): Outside of a close loss to North Texas (not ideal for any resume), the Cardinals have looked great this season, and have a chance to look even better when they matchup against Virginia this weekend. They're still a long shot at the moment, but if the teams in front of them lose, there's certainly a chance they can slip in. The keys will be similar to NIU's: hope a Big Ten team (in this case, Indiana) keeps winning and cross your fingers that the top of the MAC's good fortune also continues. The mid-November clash with Northern Illinois could end up being huge.