Sometimes it isn’t always going to be impressive. But it has to at least be a victory when all is said and done, or there is absolutely no chance for a non-AQ school to vault up to the next level and claim a BCS berth. Strong results in defeat count for naught when it comes to mid-majors breaking into the VIP suites. Since the advent of the BCS in 1998, there have been just 31 undefeated regular seasons posted by all teams in the Bowl Subdivision (I-A).
A full dozen of those seasons have been posted by non-AQ conferences, but not even then does an unblemished record guarantee an invitation. All 19 teams from AQ conferences to post undefeated seasons easily claimed BCS berths. Of the 12 who were not blessed with the proper conference affiliation, only seven have been validated with a ticket to the big time.
Teams like Marshall and Tulane were simply doomed in the early days before the rules governing automatic berths for top-ranked non-AQ squads were relaxed. But even when Utah was able to take advantage of the new top-12 threshold instead of the original top-6 baseline and claim the inaugural BCS Buster appearance in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, another undefeated team got lost in the shuffle. While everyone was debating whether the title game should be USC-Oklahoma or USC-Auburn or Oklahoma-Auburn at the end of 2004, Boise State’s nascent rumblings of greatness were virtually ignored as their undefeated season in the WAC was deemed less worthy than the Utes’ run through the Mountain West.
Two years later they would get their opportunity once more, seizing it with a 43-42 overtime thriller in their own Fiesta shot heard ‘round the world. Ever since that momentous upset for the ages over the Sooners, we have seen a non-AQ school claim a berth in every season since.
The next landmark for the little guys will be claiming a spot without having to go undefeated. Had the current non-AQ qualification routes been in place since the inception of the BCS in 1998, we would have already witnessed three once-beaten BCS Busters claiming automatic top-12 qualification — TCU in 2000 and 2005 and Miami University (Ohio) in 2003. Had the system been different from the beginning, all this hogwash about needing to go undefeated would never have developed from prudent advice to stone-tablet restriction.
Alas, that’s where we are at right now. In a weekend of heavy attrition, complete with two separate elimination matchups between BCS Buster candidates, the list of a dozen remaining contenders was whittled down by half after the quarter-pole of the long season’s slog. Only six teams have managed to make this week’s list, but among that half-dozen are represented four of the five non-AQ conferences.
Some got there easily. Others needed to survive nailbiters. But the one unifying factor between them all is the goose-egg in the loss column. With three weekends behind us, it’s time to assess where the six survivors fall in relation to one another and their shot at becoming the 13th undefeated non-AQ school of the BCS era…
THE SIX SURVIVORS
1. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (MWC/2-0 — LAST WEEK: 1st)
- LAST GAME: won 40-15 @ Toledo
- NEXT GAME: v. Tulsa (9/24)
Say what you will about these “Little Sisters of the Poor”, but Boise State sure looked a hell of a lot more impressive in Toledo’s home stadium than Ohio State looked against the Rockets in the Horseshoe. The first ranked opponent to come to Toledo’s Glass Bowl and win of the last five to attempt it, the Broncos took a while to settle into the game but cruised to a 25-point victory. A little shine was taken off the showdown when Toledo lost to Ohio State last weekend, but smart observers know that this was no gimme contest for Boise.
The Broncos, though, still have some work to do if they are going to emerge on the other side of the regular season unscathed. The biggest stumbling block has been offensive balance. While QB Kellen Moore looks once again like a Heisman contender (32-of-42, 455 yards with 5 TDs and 1 INT), the ground game has been unable to keep defenses honest so far. After compiling just 129 rushing yards against Georgia in the opener, the team as a whole managed just 16 more on the road in the Glass Bowl. Chris Petersen will need to find ways to create room for Doug Martin and the rest of Boise’s running backs, and find them fast.
Their next game shouldn’t present much of a challenge, especially since Tulsa’s QB G.J. Kinne was knocked out of the wild late-nighter against Oklahoma State. But fail to get Martin rolling by the MWC season, and the Broncos might be forced to depend on Moore’s passing even more than they already do — and that could spell disaster given the plethora of tough teams waiting to prove that Boise State truly did take a leap up in conference when they came over from the WAC during the summer…
2. SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS (MWC/3-0 — LAST WEEK: 4th)
- LAST GAME: won 42-24 v. Washington State
- NEXT GAME: @ Michigan (9/24)
The first of those teams was always expected to be TCU, but after their loss to Baylor in the season opener a new sheriff has emerged on the radar. The Aztecs were expected to show some dropoff when a new coaching staff took over in San Diego, but a skilled crew of veterans has kept the team humming on all cylinders and skipping not a beat at this juncture of 2011.
But for a while there on Saturday it looked like San Diego State might be playing its way out of the BCS chase. The first three quarters of their showdown at home against formerly-woebegone Washington State proved to be a dogfight of epic proportions. The Cougars led 17-14 at halftime, extending their lead another touchdown on the first drive of the second half.
After that score, Washington State would get nothing more out of their trip south. The Aztec defense stiffened and Ronnie Hillman started chewing up clock, and once that happened it was inevitable that San Diego State would run away with things. Carrying the ball 32 times for 191 yards and a quartet of touchdowns, Hillman singlehandedly outpaced the Cougar run offense and scored as many points himself as WSU managed all day. It was a tougher-than-expected victory, but in the final 15 San Diego State made it all look easy.
Their next challenge against BCS competition comes next week with a reunion of sorts. The Aztecs travel to Michigan Stadium hoping to ruin the fun for their former head coach Brady Hoke, a battle of undefeated teams serving as the best litmus test yet for the Mountain West hopeful. If they win this game and then can defeat their conference competition, there would be fewer questions about schedule strength for the Aztecs than there are for most candidates…
3. HOUSTON COUGARS (C-USA/3-0 – LAST WEEK: 2nd)
- LAST GAME: won 35-34 @ Louisiana Tech
- NEXT GAME: v. FCS Georgia State (9/17)
The Cougars did everything they possibly could to drop out of the Buster race, but once again Case Keenum bailed out a suspect defense to keep Houston in the hunt. But was it really the defense that was suspect? Keenum has shown flashes of his old brilliant self — witness his final touchdown throw of the day, rolling right out of the pocket and staring down the rush to lob a perfect throw to Patrick Edwards toeing the line in the back of the endzone. But he also threw two interceptions, got sacked twice and consistently bogged down.
His stats by drive and quarter (see sidebar) show a quarterback still out of rhythm from his record-setting self, one minute Jekyll and the next Hyde. So Keenum wasn’t exactly four-quarters, call-me-Mr.-Heisman worthy. But after staking Louisiana Tech a 20-point lead going into the fourth quarter, Keenum’s shakiness was hardly the only problem plaguing the Cougars on a tense night in Ruston.
An early muffed punt by Edwards allowed the Bulldogs to drive down for the opening score, extending a drive that had gone three and out for another minute and setting Houston back early. The defense withered on the field during three long scoring drives that ate more than ten minutes off the clock in the second quarter. The third quarter saw Louisiana Tech extend their lead and hold the ball nearly ten minutes more.
In short nothing was working. The offense kept bogging down into punting situations. They put up 449 yards of offense in the end, but 177 of those were came the 4th quarter alone. The defense held the Bulldogs to just five fewer yards of offense, with Lennon Creer and the running game bulldozing the Cougar defense for 233 yards on the ground — 135 more than Bryce Beall and the rest of Houston’s tailbacks could muster.
If not for Keenum’s arm Houston would have had no offense to speak about… and would be staring at the end of their BCS dreams. At times it looked like he was trying to force things too much, but at times he has to force them — like on that final touchdown toss — to win the game. Next week he will be able to settle down against Georgia State, but if Keenum cannot find the rhythm that has him on the cusp of breaking several NCAA passing records the Cougars will hardly be able to handle even the Conference USA schedule ahead of them…
4. FIU GOLDEN PANTHERS (SUN BELT/3-0 — LAST WEEK: 5th)
- LAST GAME: won 17-10 v. UCF
- NEXT GAME: v. Louisiana-Lafayette (9/24)
Mario Cristobal continues to boggle the minds of much of the public. At the end of last season UCF was everyone’s Cinderella of Florida mid-major football, the team everyone expected would soon be vaulting up to a higher bowl status. But in the showdown of Conference USA’s media darling versus the upstart defending Sun Belt champion, it was the Golden Panthers instead of the Knights who prevailed in the first of two BCS Buster Elimination Showdowns that took place this weekend.
The game started as a field-position battle, and FIU’s special teams were clearly winning the battle between the two teams’ units. Golden Panthers punter Josh Brisk pinned the Knights back on their own 1-yard line after the opening drive stalled just across midfield. Then QB Wesley Carroll got in on the game, lobbing a drop kick that was muffed by Kemal Ishmael and forced UCF to start on their own 6.
The Knights managed to drive the length of the field on that drive, taking 18 plays and more than ten minutes to cover 94 yards for the go-ahead score on a 1-yard plunge by QB Jeff Godfrey. (The drive before, UCF lucked out by recovering their own fumble on the 2.) It would be the only time they would sniff the lead all day.
It almost looked through the second quarter, though, that UCF would extend their lead and run away with the game. After FIU missed a 52-yard field goal attempt and the teams traded punts, the Knights drove down to the Panthers 28 as time ticked away before halftime. Executing their two-minute offense to seeming perfection, the home side surely looked to go into the locker room down at least 10-0. But then Godfrey was sacked by Winston Fraser on first down. And following a timeout with 19 ticks left on the clock, he was sacked again. This time Tevin Blanchard broke through, and while he took the quarterback to the ground he also stripped the football. Isame Faciane recovered, running the ball back 51 yards for the tying touchdown.
Ten 3rd-quarter points were the difference, as FIU’s offense benefited from another fumble recovery, this time on a muffed punt by UCF, to punch the ball in from 4 yards out to take a lead they would not relinquish. It was an ugly victory, but for FIU it was another defining victory on the heels of their first-ever upset of a BCS team last weekend at Louisville. And in a fortnight, they get another imminently winnable game against a second BCS-level foe when Duke comes to south Florida. It isn’t an SEC schedule, mind you, but Cristobal’s crew is working some magic nonetheless…
5. OHIO BOBCATS (MAC/3-0 — LAST WEEK: 6th)
- LAST GAME: won 44-7 v. Marshall
- NEXT GAME: @ Rutgers (9/24)
There was no way the Bobcats were going to be caught looking ahead to next week’s trip to New Jersey, where they will square off against Rutgers in their only BCS-conference test of the season. The game started slowly, with the two teams trading touchdowns and turnovers and Matt Weller’s 20-yard field goal proving the difference as the first fifteen minutes ended 10-7 in favor of Ohio.
The second quarter separated the two teams, Ohio opening the floodgates with a touchdown to finish the drive that started at the end of the first quarter courtesy of a Marshall interception. The Bobcats would force three more turnovers in the half, scoring 27 unanswered first-half points to go up 34-7 at halftime.
The second half would slow down, as the result was now all but sealed. Ohio would prevent Marshall from putting up another point, and all that was left was wearing down the clock to make official a comfortable victory. With just that one top-tier test on their schedule, the Bobcats will have to make sure to seal the deal on their odyssey to Piscataway. If they win that game, they have a legitimate shot at running the MAC table (especially since both Temple and Miami come to Athens) and entering the MAC Championship Game 12-0…
6. WYOMING COWBOYS (MWC/3-0 — LAST WEEK: 12th)
- LAST GAME: won 28-27 @ Bowling Green
- NEXT GAME: v. Nebraska (9/24)
The Mountain West is home to many a program that are on the national radar. Between Boise State and TCU and now San Diego State, the conference receives more than its fair share of the accolades among the non-AQ conferences. But until they squeaked out a victory over fellow BCS Buster hopeful Bowling Green on the road this weekend, few people had Wyoming pegged as a real challenger to the higher-profile programs.
But after holding on to win against the Falcons, blocking what would have been the tying extra point with two seconds remaining, the Cowboys are 3-0 for the first time since Joe Tiller’s final season in Laramie. For a program that has been to just two bowl games in the past decade, it is lofty territory indeed. But things must be kept in perspective as Dave Christensen’s team enters the meat of its season.
The first two victories came against I-AA competition, as Weber State and Texas State both came up to the unfriendly elevation of War Memorial Stadium and left vanquished. The trip to Oho proved the toughest test so far this season for what is a young team. But we’ll know soon enough just how good the Pokes can truly be in 2011, for their biggest BCS test of the season arrives on Saturday in the form of the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers.
A win, and Laramie will be the scene of wild celebration the likes of which might never have befallen the windswept high-plains town. And a victory would position them as a team to be taken as seriously as any of the other Mountain West programs on pollsters’ radars. It would be the best win by a BCS Buster contender to date.
But a loss will not mean that all will be lost for Wyoming… they survived undefeated further into the season than all but five other non-AQ schools. I’m sure any of the following schools would be more than happy to be preparing for a showdown against Bo Pelini’s squad with undefeated status on the line for both sides…
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
UCF KNIGHTS (C-USA/2-1 — LAST WEEK: 3rd)
As previously mentioned when discussing the team that took them out of contention, Saturday was the moment when the offense bogged and the field lengthened and nothing could go right for the turnover-prone Knights. They cannot get too far down, because there’s still plenty to play for this season. After all, the defending C-USA champions still have to prepare for a trip to Provo next weekend to face a BYU team just as dejected after a loss. Another conference championship game appearance is well within reach, as long as George O’Leary manages to keep spirits from dropping too far after the loss of the BCS dream…
TEMPLE OWLS (MAC/2-1 — LAST WEEK: 7th)
So Al Golden ran off for warmer pastures in Coral Gables and was busy getting his Hurricanes ready to knock off Ohio State on Saturday? No problem! For the second straight season, Temple was oh-so-close to pulling off the eye-opening upset of Penn State. But just like last year, the Nittany Lions were able to pull back the lead late and stave off the humiliation of losing to their in-state foe. Things won’t get any easier for the Owls, as they now have to prepare to turn right around and face another BCS opponent. Next week they travel to Maryland (knowing that, while the scouting film might be able to divulge secrets about their offense and defense, it will offer nothing about the next Terps uniform combo) with another shot at making a statement a week too late…
BOWLING GREEN FALCONS (MAC/2-1 — LAST WEEK: 8th)
It might just be the most heartbreaking way possible to lose a football game. At halftime the Falcons were up 14-7. After conceding three second-half touchdowns, Bowling Green suddenly found itself down 28-14 at home midway through the fourth quarter. Staring at defeat, the offense went about its business trying to snatch victory away from the visiting Cowboys. The defense forced two punts and another turnover on downs. With just a few seconds left, Matt Schilz found Ray Hutson for the touchdown that brought things within a point. Kyle Burkhardt’s extra point would be blocked, a last-ditch onside kick attempt would fail and Wyoming would live to survive in the hunt another week instead of the Falcons…
NAVY MIDSHIPMEN (IND/2-1 — LAST WEEK: 9th)
If not for letting Marcus Lattimore run their defense ragged in the end, the Midshipmen very well might have emerged from Columbia with the biggest upset of the year by a non-AQ school. Running an offense — literally running their offense, as the Gamecocks knew basically every play would be kept on the ground — that is retro in appearance yet entirely modern in the scheme of results, Navy kept South Carolina’s defense off balance and the ball out of Lattimore’s hands as much as possible. Every year the Middies manage to make some serious waves, and their chances haven’t yet eroded. But their BCS dreams died on the vine in SEC country before we could ever get out of September…
COLORADO STATE RAMS (MWC/2-1 — LAST WEEK: 10th)
After fifteen minutes, the Rams started to gain the confidence that maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to knock off their state rival for the first time in three years right on schedule. After thirty minutes, the lead had flipped and then doubled the opposite direction, leaving Colorado State to catch its breath at Mile High Stadium and wonder what it must do to join the ranks of BCS contenders within its own conference. Another year, another opportunity lost for Steve Fairchild’s team as the team’s last bowl appearance is now three years in the past…
EASTERN MICHIGAN EAGLES (MAC/2-1 — LAST WEEK: 11th)
After Notre Dame failed to come into Michigan Stadium and knock off some of that newfound Wolverines swagger, it was highly unlikely that the Eagles were going to have any serious way to counteract the otherworldly skills of Denard Robinson. Eastern Michigan would actually get on the board first, as Kody Fulkerson kicked through the uprights from 21 yards out to give the visitors a 3-0 lead. Before halftime that 3-0 lead would be a 14-3 reversal, and the second half got even uglier for the Eagles. In the end, the team that like Wyoming was 2-0 thanks to I-AA baked goods was simply not too good to lose against a resurgent Michigan squad…