Mid-Majors in the BCS? Who is the most likely to go?
Starting this year, the BCS has changed its rules once again, adding a fifth BCS bowl as an unnamed title game, which will rotate through the four big boys of the BCS every year (Fiesta, Orange, Rose, and Sugar), so once every years, one bowl will host two games. This year, the lucky bowl is the Fiesta, so the Phoenix area gets to be home not to two (Insight and Fiesta), but three bowls this year.
More importantly, the two additional at-large bids come with some new rules, favoring the inclusion of mid-majors. These rules allow for a non-BCS conference team with a rating of 16th or higher in the BCS poll to gain an at-large bid if it is ranked higher than any of the BCS conference champions. Under these rules, last year, TCU, winner of the Mountain West, would have received a BCS bid, as it was ranked higher than 16th and higher ranked than Florida State, the lowest ranked BCS conference champion. I'm sure the powers that be at the BCS hope this change to give the have-nots some table scraps will help them maintain their stranglehold on the national championship, and keep Congress and the mid-majors from talking about unfair competition. What it certainly does is keep the prospects of any form of a playoff very dim indeed.
However, the changes are a bright spot for the following mid-major teams, who could, just possibly, slip into a BCS bowl and big bucks this season. One thing to keep in mind - to make it, a non-BCS team will almost certainly have to win its conference, and probably can't survive more than one loss to a BCS conference opponent. Any loss in conference or to a non-BCS conference opponent likely kills any chance to slip into the BCS. The possible Cinderellas for this year, in order of likelihood, are as follows:
1.) TCU - If the Horned Frogs should've gone last year, they certainly should this year. While their loss last year to SMU still leaves people scratching their heads, and the win over Oklahoma was over a very different team than the Oklahoma at the end of the season, TCU made a bang in its first season in the Mountain West. Expect the trend to continue, although it may face some in-conference opposition from Utah. It's non-conference schedule so far includes at Baylor, at Army, and a visit from Texas Tech. If the Horned Frogs can beat the Red Raiders, or even keep it close, and win out, expect them to have a BCS bid at the end of the season.
2.) Utah - Utah finds itself in a similar situation to TCU, as its non-conference schedule includes at UCLA, Northern Arizona, at Utah State, and Boise State. Of these, only UCLA and Boise State provide any challenge, and Boise State have to come to Salt Lake City. With a win over UCLA, or a close loss, and winning every other game, Utah will bump out TCU and take its BCS hopes away.
3.) Boise State (notice a trend here?) - Boise State is poised to win the WAC again, if it can manage to win out. Boise State lost its chance at perfection by losing to Fresno State last year, but at least this year, its non-conference schedule isn't as brutal. It gets Oregon State at home, replaces Georgia with at Utah, and has at Wyoming and I-AA Sacramento State to fill out its non-conference schedule. In this case, Boise State has to win out altogether to make it to the BCS, as the WAC schedule is not going to be quite as demanding as the MWC slate Utah and TCU face. A win in Salt Lake City, and a repeat of 2004's win over Oregon State on the Smurf Turf, ought to send the Broncos to the BCS, assuming they manage to overcome both Fresno State and a quickly improving Nevada in-conference.
4.) UTEP - Mike Price has shown his ability to coach (and stay away from one-night stands with strippers) in El Paso, and the Miners have a real chance to win the C-USA crown and go undefeated. With a non-conference slate that includes getting Texas Tech at home, and playing New Mexico, New Mexico State, and San Diego State, UTEP has a real shot at making it into conference play undefeated. Once in conference, the biggest hurdle is a game at Marshall, and the C-USA conference championship game, likely against UCF from the East. Like Boise State, UTEP will have to win out, due to the pollsters having far more respect for the Mountain West competition than the C-USA competition. It'll help if Texas Tech, in losing to the Miners, also manages to beat the Horned Frogs. Otherwise, even an undefeated season may not be enough to lift the Miners to one of the big bowls.
Outside of these four, all the other mid-major teams are a real longshot to make it to the BCS. TCU, Utah, Boise State, and UTEP stand out by having winnable contests with BCS conference opponents, and a chance to win every game in-conference. Marshall and UCF face much bigger non-conference opponents (West Virginia and Florida, respectively), and even in the unlikely event a MAC or Sun Belt team manages to win out, the quality of conference competition and the likely awful season for whatever BCS conference opponent can somehow lose to a member of one of these two conferences puts it out of reach. So, if one of our 4 Cinderellas can win out, or in the case of TCU or Utah, manage a very close loss to their BCS conference opponents, we'll see a mid-major in a BCS bowl again this year.
Way to go, BCS - you made it possible for one of four additional teams to make it. Way to open it up to the little guys.