The Northern Illinois Huskies and the Fresno State Bulldogs are not the Boise State Broncos, TCU Horned Frogs or Utah Utes of earlier in the BCS era. Neither team is of an elite pedigree, or more importantly, caliber, yet one seems poised to fill a hole in the BCS picture this season.
And in the final season of the Bowl Championship Series, it is quite apropos that these non-BCS teams are not of the Top 10 ilk yet will claim their rightful spot in the postseason.
Although the loudest quibble with the current system will come from the likes of Florida State or Ohio State being shut out of the title game, there will also be folks griping about the inclusion of the Huskies or the Bulldogs. Last season, it was Oklahoma that could not grab a BCS berth due to the Huskies' Orange Bowl bid, and this season Clemson and Oklahoma will likely suffer the same fate.
While the Tigers and Sooners faithful wring hands over missing a BCS Bowl, and the media chides the non-automatic qualifier as undeserving, others will be applauding the participation. If all things hold to form through the current BCS Standings, it will be Louisville that dropped the ball, opening the door through which NIU or Fresno State will stroll. Per the BCS Selection Procedures at BCSFootball.org:
3. The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, or the Sun Belt Conference (hereinafter "non-AQ group") will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:
A. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or
B. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
Scenario B is the backdoor through which one of these two teams is going to sneak, unlike the Top 10 Boise State, TCU and Utah teams in recent memory. But, that works because the Bulldogs and the Huskies will be sticking it to the system for the teams before them that never got the opportunity.
This is not about the Broncos or the Utes, or even the more recent TCU teams. Rather, this is for the 2005 and 2000 TCU squads that both finished No. 14 ahead of automatic qualifiers No. 22 Florida State and No. 17 Purdue, respectively.
This is for the No. 12 Marshall team from 1999 that ended up in the Motor City Bowl, despite finishing ahead of Pac-12 Champion Stanford. And this is for No. 10 Tulane from 1998, the inaugural BCS season, that was sent to the Liberty Bowl although it was five spots higher than No. 15 Syracuse.
All of those teams were forced into lesser bowl games due to the lack of spots, or protection, from the BCS system. Then, with the advent of the BCS National Championship Game, spots were opened up to help accommodate the non-BCS teams. 2006 was too late for the aforementioned teams, but for Northern Illinois in 2012, and the Huskies and Bulldogs this season, the loophole gives the teams big aspirations.
The BCS Championship Game was created to generate more spots in addition to more revenue, and part of the move was a push to give the "have nots" of the college football world a place to go, should they qualify. Thanks to American Athletic Conference, a non-BCS team is going to qualify, and that means cash money into its conference coffers and a chance to run with the big boys.
That chance is simply an opportunity to play on the major stage. It's not a title shot. It's an exhibition postseason game against one of the haves in an effort to prove they belong. Likely, Fresno State or NIU end up much like the Huskies of a season ago, battered and bruised, over-matched against an upper-echelon BCS team.
But, for those schools, a chance to dance in the spotlight is well worth it.
Next year, the landscape changes as the College Football Playoff gets kicked off. The pool for the non-automatic qualifiers shrinks, with the AAC joining the ranks fighting for just one bid to the prestigious postseason bowl games. In 2014, Louisville or UCF would merely be missing out on a premier bowl game, this season the teams are opening the gate for a Top Ten team to be kept out in the cold.
Thus, it's a year for whoever gets the coveted non-AQ spot to relish it. No, these teams are not elite. No, they will not evoke memories of Kellen Moore or the ghost of Andy Dalton. Yet, that spot will be there for an eligible team, and with several deserving teams sitting at home during the early days of the BCS era, it is only fitting that they claim it proudly.