Though the BCS era generated tons of negative press, it did launch a few underdog programs onto the national radar.
These teams played the role of the BCS buster, the classic “little guy” that got screwed over by “the man.” Their existence at the top of the rankings split the nation into two camps: The people who thought they deserved a legitimate shot and those who contended that they had no business competing with the big boys.
Think about it, were the BCS busters getting shafted by the system, or did it land them at a level which they couldn’t have achieved without it?
And what happened after they got to the Promised Land, the place where half the world moaned they deserved to be… in a BCS conference?
Only three non-AQ programs have been extended multiple BCS bids in the 16-year history of the scheme: Utah (2004 and 2008), Boise State (2006 and 2009) and TCU (2009 and 2010).
Utah and TCU leveraged their BCS buster status to earn places in AQ conferences. Though Boise State made a step up from the WAC to the Mountain West in 2011, it has never earned BCS affiliation.
Here’s a look at the overall results since Utah scored the first-ever BCS bust in 2004.
College Football Data Warehouse
The trend is clear: After the second bust, the program sticks around in a non-AQ league for one or two more years, moves up to a BCS league, and is never heard from again.
In Boise State’s case, it moved to the Mountain West and continued to win but hasn’t been able to produce another undefeated campaign.
Utah’s 14 losses from 2012-13 marks its worst two-season results since going 6-16 from 1976-77. TCU’s 4-8 finish in 2013 is its poorest performance since going 1-10 in 1997 and marks its first bowl-less season since 2004.
Even Boise State has begun to fade, and it’s worth noting that the Broncos have not busted into the BCS since joining the Mountain West. Could it be that its days as the glorified underdog were numbered as soon as it left the WAC?
All three of the original busters put up all-world stats during the apex of their surges.
The next table illustrates the rise, and then the statistical fall associated with a post-bust conference move.
Where Utah has lost a touchdown per game since moving to the Pac-12, TCU has dropped two touchdowns in scoring since joining the Big 12.
The numbers make a strong argument that a BCS buster’s statistical resume—earned in a smaller conference—won’t hold up in an AQ league.
In other words, it answers the question many people asked when the teams found their way into the Top 5 in the first place: Could they do it in a tougher conference?
History answers with an emphatic “No, they could not.”
Even though Boise State has had better luck maintaining its output, it hasn’t averaged more than 40 points per game since its first season in the MWC in 2011.
As the next table illustrates, the trend established in results and offense extends to scoring defense.
After maintaining its defensive prowess in its first season in the Pac-12, Utah has slipped to where it now gives up eight additional points per game.
TCU, the No. 1 scoring defense in the FBS during its Rose Bowl season, has doubled its amount of points allowed in only two seasons in the Big 12.
Again, while Boise State’s results aren’t as extreme, it is giving up more points than it did during its heyday in the WAC.
One of the big selling points for conference realignment—to improve a particular program’s standing on the national stage—is improved recruiting.
Here’s a look at the team recruiting rankings for the original busters:
The numbers paint a clear picture: Moving up to a tougher conference does improve recruiting numbers.
Utah hit a high note with its No. 28-ranked class of 2008, Boise State had relative success with its No. 53-ranked class of 2011, and TCU hit the mark in this year’s class of 2013.
In every case but that of the Broncos in 2010, recruiting numbers also jumped after the BCS buster season.
What’s intriguing moving forward is that Utah and Boise State’s numbers have slipped with the 2013 class. In both cases it indicates that despite the conference move, a reduction in success (or wins and losses) will eventually result in a dip in recruiting.
Could it be that, after a 4-8 campaign, TCU is next in line to take a hit in recruiting, regardless of its full eligibility for the upcoming College Football Playoff?
Well, Rivals has the Horned Frogs’ 2014 class ranked at No. 73. If that number holds, it will be TCU’s lowest-ranked class since 2008.
The other interesting angle is that while each program enjoyed a recruiting renaissance, they won fewer games. The only logical explanation for this is that the increased competition was so great that even recruiting gains couldn’t deter it.
This doesn’t mean that TCU and Utah won’t ever settle into their new conferences and win big again. It also doesn’t spell the end for Boise State. Instead, it means that the jump up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Instead of the “Promised Land,” it’s more a case of “be careful what you wish for.”
Not only do the results make you reconsider the future of the most recent BCS buster Northern Illinois, and hopefuls such as Fresno State, they speak to the broader issue of realignment.
In other words, what do these trends say about Rutgers and Maryland’s move to the Big Ten in 2014? And, what about Louisville’s move to the ACC?
Though these shifts aren’t from a non-AQ to an AQ conference, will they experience a similar drop-off, like TCU and Utah, in the win column?
And finally, what impact do the results have on the argument that the FBS—formerly referred to as Division I-A—should be split into two divisions?
If the top teams in one level can’t compete at the next, should they be in the same broad division in the first place?
And in case you think a split is some kind of far-fetched fantasy, check out what the Associated Press reported in September, regarding a NCAA meeting of Division I faculty representatives:
A packet distributed at the session called ‘Principles and Model for New Governance Structure’ suggests that FBS institutions and conferences that are more closely aligned in issues and athletics resources form a new division.