Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For all the flack the BCS has received over the years, it has still, for the most part, given a fair shot to the little guys.
In six of the past seven seasons, a team outside the power-six conferences (officially known, in BCS lingo, as "non-AQ") has qualified for a BCS bowl game, and in 2013, both the Fresno State Bulldogs and Northern Illinois Huskies are giving the big dogs a run for their money.
Per BCS rules, there are two ways for a non-AQ program to earn an automatic berth to BCS bowl game. If the team finishes the regular season ranked in the top-12 of the BCS Standings, then it would be deemed an automatic non-AQ, earning its spot regardless of what happens with other conference champions. If a squad finishes outside the top-12, but within the top-16, it would qualify if its ranking was higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
As it stands right now, both the Bulldogs and Huskies are in position for a BCS berth, as they rank 14th and 15th in the latest BCS Standings, respectively, with the top American Athletic Conference team, the UCF Knights, coming in at No. 17. But with only one automatic non-AQ selection allowed per season, and the other team unlikely to be selected for an at-large bid, which squad is more deserving?
NIU is no stranger to this conversation. Last season, it finished 12-1 and as the champions in the Mid-American Conference, and while its efforts earned it a No. 15 ranking in the last BCS Standings, it wasn't able to prove its naysayers wrong in the Orange Bowl, as it was easily dismissed by ACC champ Florida State, 31-10.
The Huskies are back in the discussion in 2013 with arguably an even better team. They are 10-0 for the first time as an FBS program (since 1969), and their 23-game win streak against MAC foes is the longest conference winning streak in the nation. The MAC may not carry the prestige of the SEC, Pac-12 or any one of the other power-six conferences, but it's still a very good league in its own right, with six teams (NIU, Ball State, Toledo, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Ohio University) in line for bowl bids this year.
NIU's campaign reached new heights on Wednesday night in a home clash with Ball State, which was 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the conference into the game. The Huskies earned a 48-27 victory in that contest to claim sole possession of first place in the MAC West Division.
Jordan Lynch, once an under-the-radar Heisman candidate, is no longer sneaking up on anybody. After racking up 468 total yards and four touchdowns in the win over Ball State, Lynch is sitting with eye-popping numbers on the season, both passing (.655 completions, 2,216 yards, 21 TDs, five TDs) and rushing (1,273 yards, 14 TDs).
"I feel like I'm improving every week, in my passing game, my running game, some of the checks I'm making," Lynch said. "I still think the best is yet to come for me and this team."
The Huskies finish off the season with matchups against Toledo and Western Michigan before the MAC Championship Game on Dec. 6 against either Bowling Green or Buffalo, and if they can close out at 13-0, they will be hard for the BCS to ignore.
Unless of course, Fresno State has something to say about it. The Bulldogs have been nothing short of dominant this season, going 9-0 (6-0 in the Mountain West Conference). They have scored 35 points or more in every game, and four of their last five wins have come by a margin of 18 points or greater, including a 48-10 drubbing of Wyoming last Saturday.
Fresno State has its own star quarterback to thank for much of its success. Even though Derek Carr may not be generating Heisman buzz, he is still in the midst of an outstanding campaign with 3,421 yards (on nearly 70 percent completions), with 32 touchdowns against only four picks. Of course, having a world class receiving trio in Davante Adams (91 receptions, 967 yards, 15 TDs), Josh Harper (68 receptions, 823 yards, nine TDs) and Isaiah Burse (61 receptions, 652 yards, three TDs) certainly helps.
Although the Bulldogs are currently one spot ahead of NIU in the BCS Standings, they have a few things working against them. For one, they have a bye this week, and after NIU pulled off a strong win, it appears poised to make a leap in the polls, but coach Tim DeRuyter doesn't see the bye week as a detriment, considering it's just another opportunity for teams ahead of the Bulldogs in the BCS Standings -- like Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and UCLA -- to lose and fall back.
"I'm looking forward to the bye this week," DeRuyter said. "The last time we had a bye I think we moved up three spots. I'm looking forward to next Sunday to see where we're going to be."
Also, the MWC simply isn't as strong as the MAC this season. Fresno State's best wins have come against Boise State (6-3) and San Diego State (5-4), while the rest of its victories have come against teams at or below .500. The Bulldogs will have their chance to beat San Jose State (5-4) on Nov. 29, and either Boise State or Utah State (6-4) in the inaugural MWC Championship Game. But even if they run the table, will their 12-0 mark be able to able to outshine NIU's potential 13-0 ledger?
Anything can happen down the home stretch, and if either team slips up before the final standings are released, then their respective BCS dreams will be squashed, no questions asked. Maybe that's why NIU head coach Rod Cary doesn't bother with them at this stage of the season, instead simply focusing on the next task at hand.
"I haven't looked at (the BCS Standings) once," Carey said. "I know it because people have told me."
When the BCS shifts to a playoff format starting next season that involves the top four teams, it likely still won't affect these dominant mid-major squads that are out to prove themselves as elite, and the prospects of an eventual eight- or 16-team playoff in the future gets more unlikely with each passing season. But at least the BCS has a system in place to reward these teams, even if their perfect seasons won't end with a chance at the national championship.
Both NIU and Fresno State have given the college football community plenty to talk about, and the two undefeated squads hope to keep the conversation going as the season draws to a close.