The past two weekends have been big for those schools hoping to break into the lucrative Bowl Championship Series at the end of the season. Some schools have made big statements. BYU beat defending Big 12 champion #2 Oklahoma, Houston upset #5 Oklahoma State, and Boise State smothered Oregon. Southern Miss and TCU both beat Virginia, but everyone is doing that this year. TCU posted a tough win at Clemson, and Houston won a thriller over Texas Tech.
Utah carried the banner for the BCS busters last year, when they went undefeated and won the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. This year did not begin as well, as Utah lost in week 3 to Oregon.
Just as easily as teams ascend to the top, they can fall back again. BYU was the country’s darling after upsetting OU. That lasted for all of two weeks before they were depantsed at home by Florida State, 54-28. Southern Miss lost a close game to Kansas, which ended their undefeated dreams.
There is a yearly struggle for teams from the non-BCS conferences of the WAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC and the Sun Belt, although in recent years only teams from the Mountain West (Utah) and the WAC (Boise State) have been able to earn an appearance in a BCS bowl.
It’s very difficult to know just how good these teams are. These teams play in weaker conferences (although recently the Big East has been looking anything but powerful) and because of their conference affiliations, they play weak teams for most of the year. There are only a few chances for a BCS buster to schedule a big name school.
A lot of programs don’t want to play teams like Utah or Boise St, for obvious reasons. If Texas plays TCU and Texas wins, then no one is surprised, and Texas gains little in the way of prestige. If TCU wins, it catapults their season, and Texas is embarrassed (Oklahoma did lose to TCU a few years back, and then did it again this year with BYU- apparently they didn’t get the memo about scheduling dangerous teams from non-BCS conferences).
The big school has nothing to gain and everything to lose. That’s why many of the early challenges are against good but not great teams from major conferences: Boise St and Utah against Oregon, TCU against Clemson, Houston against OSU and Texas Tech, Southern Miss against Kansas.
Here’s another problem: anybody can get fired up for one game. Most of the non-BCS schools circle that one big game against the major conference opponent. They come out and play with emotion, and often win the game. Then they go back to feasting on weaker conference opponents.
Almost any team can pull an upset on a given Saturday (just ask Washington and USC) but one game doesn’t make an entire season. If a BCS buster were to play in a major conference, would they still make the BCS? If a solid team from a major conference played in the WAC or the Mountain West, would they suddenly become a BCS contender?
Obviously we can’t play these scenarios out. Even NCAA 2010 doesn’t let you do it (as far as I know-although that would be a cool feature). All we can do is make projections.
For this little thought experiment, I took Kansas, the #20 team, picked to finish between 3rd and 5th in the Big 12 and a team I follow closely, and Boise State, ranked #8 and picked to finish first in the WAC.
Here are their schedules:
9-5 Northern Colorado
9-12 @ UTEP
9-26 Southern Miss
10-10 Iowa State
10-17 @ Colorado
10-31 @Texas Tech
11-7 @Kansas State
11-21 @ Texas
11-28 vs. Missouri in Kansas City
9-12 Miami (OH)
9-18 @ Fresno State
9-26 @ Bowling Green
10-3 UC Davis
10-14 @ Tulsa
10-25 @ Hawaii
10-31 San Jose St
11-6 @ La Tech
11-20 @ Utah State
12-5 New Mexico State
It looks like Kansas will probably lose to #10 Oklahoma, #2 Texas, probably Texas Tech on the road, and maybe #25 Nebraska at home or Missouri in Kansas City. That leaves them at 8-4 with a solid bowl bid.
Boise State, having beaten Oregon, looks to run the table, and, barring an upset, they will be 13-0 and vying for a possible BCS bid. The main danger is that another school like TCU or Houston would run the table as well and jump ahead of them in the final BCS rankings.
What if they switched?
Kansas, playing at home in a loud environment, could probably get past Oregon. If they do, they too would be heavily favored to run the table and finish 13-0 and win the WAC.
Boise State has a strong team, but I don’t think they would be favored against Oklahoma, even on the blue turf, or on the road against Texas. It’s hard to tell, but between at Texas Tech, home against Nebraska, and a neutral site game against Missouri (would they still be a deeply hated rival?) they would probably lose at least one, and maybe as many as 3 games. With losses to OU, Texas, Texas Tech and maybe Nebraska or Missouri, Boise State would finish 8-4 with a solid bowl bid.
You could play this scenario out with a variety of different teams. Switch TCU and North Carolina and see what happens. Trade Houston and Nebraska. Flop Utah and Oregon State.
In most of the examples, the solid team from the major conference is going to have a very good chance of finishing with an equal or better record than the BCS buster. In a big conference, the BCS buster is likely to lose several games.
Or would they?
This is the central problem with the BCS busters. If you go 12-0, know one really knows how good you are. At 11-1, you can clearly say that you are worse than one other team. But 12-0 presents a special set of problems. Maybe the BCS buster is just a solid football team with a weak schedule.
Or, maybe they really are an elite team and deserve to compete at the highest levels. After all, Utah is 2-0 in the BCS, and Boise St is 1-0. A loss by Hawaii brings the non-BCS conference schools to a 3-1 record, showing that they can compete with the elite teams.
The point is you can’t tell how good a team is unless you play the games. Non-BCS teams don’t have a legitimate shot to play for the national championship, mostly because it’s difficult for them to prove how good they are (proving how bad they are is easy- just lose to Idaho or UC Davis, and we’ll know you suck).
[James Joyner has an interesting take on a related college football problem playoff (12 teams is the correct number). Let Utah and Boise State and Houston step onto the field and see how many games they can win. If they can beat 3 or 4 good teams at the end of the season, then they can have a national championship and stop whining about it. If they can’t then, there’s no shame in that. Most schools couldn’t beat 3 or 4 good teams in a row either.
That way, we won’t have to rely on silly thought experiments in online articles to find out who really deserves a shot.