I think it’s safe to say that if there’s such a thing as BCS comedy, we have it now. In the 15-year history of the Bowl Championship Series, we’ve had some upstarts, but we’ve never had a team from the Mid-American Conference. Now we have it, in Northern Illinois.
I don’t see this as cuddly underdog having its day against the power schools. It’s not George Mason sneaking into the NCAA basketball tournament, because when that happens, George Mason has acquitted itself well against some major teams, and the big schools jilted have, by definition of being in a power conference, had chances, time and time again, to declare themselves.
Here’s Northern Illinois’ non-league schedule: Iowa (its only loss), Tennessee-Martin, Army and Kansas. Iowa, Army and Kansas have combined to go 7-28.
This isn’t to rip on Northern Illinois, which went 12-1 and was merely playing by the rules. It’s just to explore the factors that led to NIU’s selection Sunday.
Of course, there was the pressure a few years ago by the non-automatic qualifying conferences, Congressional saber-rattling and threats of lawsuits that provided an entree for such teams.
So it’s right there in the BCS rules: A team from a non-AQ conference makes it automatically if it’s ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and its ranking “is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.”
NIU was No. 15. Wisconsin was unranked out of the Big Ten, and Louisville is No. 21 out of the Big East.
Teams such as NIU are usually difficult reads for voters. The pattern is often that’s there’s initial skepticism, but when they keep winning, acknowledgment that they exist without belief that they’re elite, so they usually end up in the lower reaches of the top 25. Right or wrong.
What’s hard to understand is how the computers waved Northern Illinois through, simply because there’s such precious little interaction with the level of team with which they’re being compared. How do you assign merit for their non-league schedule? Other than that, it’s the insular world of MAC games. (A reader points out that the computers had Northern Illinois No. 19. I get that. I don’t understand how they put NIU that high.)
For years now, the Big East has been dragging down the quality of the BCS matchups, and this time, they’re really gone and done it (or at least, with Wisconsin and the Big Ten, been complicit). I wondered in print several years ago whether the BCS rules were too indulgent of the Big Six conferences, allowing automatic qualification too easily at the expense of worthy at-large candidates. BCS detractors would say: That’s the essence of the power-grabbing Big Six commissioners.
Consider the albatross that has recently been the Big East:
— Two years ago, it sent an unranked Connecticut team that got smoked in the Fiesta Bowl by Oklahoma, 48-20.
— In 2009, a No. 3-ranked Cincinnati team lost 51-24 to Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
— Last year’s West Virginia-Clemson game drew a 4.56 TV rating, lowest in the history of BCS games. Part of that was due to the fact West Virginia was ranked No. 23 (granted, the Mountaineers, now in the Big 12, were a shining light for the Big East, burying Clemson in that game, 70-33, for their third BCS win since 2006).
This year, Louisville was undefeated until Nov. 10, when it got thumped by three touchdowns at Syracuse, and then came home to a three-overtime loss to Connecticut. The Cardinals have one of the nation’s most exciting players in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but . . . out of the top 20? For the Big East, that’s pretty much par for the course.
So now the Big East has had a hand in what appear to be two raunchy BCS matchups — Florida State against Northern Illinois and Louisville against Florida.
Either or both could turn out to be quality games.
A lot of people will never turn on to find out.