How automatic qualifiers limit best bowl matchups

by Zach Bigalke

The BCS and both its predecessors and successors limited college football bowl matchups by design. How did automatic qualifiers inhibit the best showdowns?

One of the biggest quirks of FBS college football is its postseason. Plenty of keystrokes have been tapped out, on everything from typewriters to laptops, railing against the system of bowl games. A series of arcane conference affiliations both longstanding and recent serve to determine who goes where as much as how well a team did over the course of the regular season.

This is not going to be one of those columns. At least I did not intend for it to be that type of column when I first approached the subject for this week’s edition of the Sunday Morning Quarterback. After detailing the periodization of the Bowl Championship Series era for the column last month, I decided to ask two different and interrelated questions:

  • In what years did a non-AQ team with a legitimate claim for a BCS berth get passed by for automatic qualifiers? And…
  • Does that previously detailed periodization of the way non-AQ teams related to the BCS era hold up when confronting the answer to the previous question?

That requires a few steps. We will get to the dataset itself soon, but first let’s lay out the terms of this week’s investigation.


What constitutes a “legitimate claim” for a BCS berth for non-AQ teams?

That question constitutes the most important variable, as it determines where we draw the line between what constitutes success and failure in the race for a BCS spot. The effective threshold for determining whether a non-AQ team had any claim to a BCS berth shifted over time, with the minimum qualifications liberalizing over time.

Because of these disparities over the 16-year run of the BCS, we are going to use the rules as they existed at the end of the series. Restricting rules across the board to fit less inclusive allowances at the beginning of BCS history made far less sense than looking at those earlier years through the lens of the last set of rules around non-AQ participation.

So what constitutes a “legitimate” claim for inclusion? A team must win their conference championship and either:

  • A) finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings, or
  • B) finish in the top 16 and ahead of a conference champion from the automatic qualifiers

Under those stipulations, we can then evaluate which automatic qualifiers were less justified in earning their spot in a BCS bowl than a non-AQ team ranked more highly in the final rankings.


Revisiting the non-AQ eras of the BCS

If you did not get the chance to read the previous post about periodizing the BCS era into six distinct phases of inclusion and exclusion for non-AQ teams, let’s quickly revisit those periods:

  • Phase 1: Perfection and greatness on the outside looking in (1998-2000)
  • Phase 2: BCS off the hook as contenders fail to emerge (2001-2003)
  • Phase 3: The rise of the Mountain West (2004-2005)
  • Phase 4: The WAC meets the challenge (2006-2007)
  • Phase 5: Western leagues battle for supremacy (2008-2010)
  • Phase 6: Expanding opportunity outside the west (2011-2013)

Over the 16 years that the BCS existed, these six periods defined the situation for non-AQ programs across the country. The first three years were a time when everything was still new and teams were still learning how to navigate within the new structure at the top level of college football. The next three years were marked by an inability to challenge for a BCS berth, until Utah’s breakthrough campaign in 2004 opened the floodgates to the third phase of the BCS era.

From there, the WAC joined in the challenge with Boise State and Hawaii. Between 2008 and 2010, the WAC dueled with the Mountain West before ultimately collapsing out of existence. In the last three years of the BCS, Northern Illinois tested the second of the two qualifying routes as more teams in the other non-AQ leagues made their own runs at a lucrative postseason opportunity.


Is this six-phase periodization accurate from the point of view of automatic qualifiers?

To answer this question, we must identify those years where teams earning automatic qualifiers as champions from a BCS-affiliated conference ranked worse than non-AQ teams with legitimate claims for inclusion. From there, we will test whether these periods correspond to points where teams might very well have reached a major bowl game ahead of automatic qualifiers if the final set of qualifying rules existed over the entirety of the series.

Let’s jump in and see what we can find…


(Photo by Harry How/Allsport/via Getty Images)

Phase 1: Perfection and greatness on the outside looking in (1998-2000)

The BCS is interesting in that it straddled the 20th and 21st centuries. A third attempt at reforming the postseason to provide a definitive national championship game each year, the BCS rode on the heels of the Bowl Coalition (1992-1994) and the Bowl Alliance (1995-1997) as it rectified one key flaw in what amounted to a consolidation of power. By bringing in the Big Ten and the Pac-10 along with the Rose Bowl, the BCS further reduced — but did not completely eliminate — the possibility of a split national championship.

More importantly, it ensured a seat at the table for six conferences whose champions became automatic qualifiers into one of the major bowl games. With four games in the system (and a fifth standalone national championship game added in 2006), there were only two to four spots even available to high-performing programs that fell short of automatic qualification.

The end of the decade was marked by a series of those automatic qualifiers meekly creeping into a BCS game in what counted as the first three years of the series. That stunted the opportunity for three teams who would have made a big game under the qualifying rules a decade and a half later.


1998

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 15 Syracuse (8-3 Big East champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Orange Bowl vs. No. 8 Florida (9-2 at-large selection)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 10 Tulane (11-0 C-USA champion)

In 1998, a small private school in New Orleans took the nation by storm as they put together a perfect season. Even as his brother was resigning midway through the season at Auburn, Tommy Bowden kept the Tulane Green Wave on a winning path throughout the year. Shaun King played injured at quarterback for most of the season but continued to drive the Green Wave to victories. The result was a Liberty Bowl performance against BYU rather than a date with one of the automatic qualifiers into the BCS.

The team who would have opened the door for the Green Wave most likely would have been Syracuse, without automatic qualifiers in place. Syracuse won the Big East with three losses, finishing at No. 15 in the final BCS standings. They took on Florida (an at-large selection with two losses) in the Orange Bowl, but Tulane was more deserving of either the Orange spot against the Gators or (with a shuffle of Ohio State or Texas A&M to Miami) a hometown battle against either the Buckeyes or the Aggies in the Sugar Bowl.


1999

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 22 Stanford (8-3 Pac-10 champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Rose Bowl vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (9-2 Big Ten champion)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 12 Marshall (12-0 MAC champion)

Part of the reason the BCS even came to fruition was the fact that the Big Ten and Pac-10 were now in the fold and the Rose Bowl was less likely to split the national championship. The two leagues retained the automatic qualifiers for their respective champions in years where the Granddaddy of them all wasn’t designated as the national championship game. That proved costly at the end of the decade as Pasadena saw a less-than-optimal matchup due to its traditions.

Like Tulane, Marshall ran the table in one of the non-AQ conferences. The MAC champions were 12-0, but went to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl for the third straight year after No. 22 Stanford booked its ticket to the Rose Bowl to play No. 7 Wisconsin. The Cardinal, ranked 10 spots lower than the Thundering Herd, were locked in as the Pac-10 champion. (It is key to remember, though, that had the BCS not existed at all Stanford still would have headed to Pasadena as the western representative against their Midwestern counterparts.)


2000

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 17 Purdue (8-3 Big Ten co-champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Rose Bowl vs. No. 4 Washington (10-1 Pac-10 champion)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 14 TCU (10-1 WAC champion)

For the second straight year, the game in Pasadena matched one quality team against a team with a non-AQ improvement waiting in vain in the wings. Washington headed south from Seattle ranked No. 4 in the BCS, finishing the regular season as a one-loss champion of the Pac-10 in a year where both Oregon schools also ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings. The Huskies took on a Purdue team that stumbled westward with three losses and barely won a three-way tie for the Big Ten title. Drew Brees and the Boilermakers took their school to the Rose Bowl for the first time since winning the Big Ten in 1966, a great novelty of a story. But was Purdue the best available choice?

TCU emerged as the 10-1 champions of the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC was depleted the year before by the defection of eight teams to form the Mountain West, but with a schedule that included a win over Big Ten co-champion Northwestern the Horned Frogs vaulted up as high as No. 9 in the BCS standings. An early November loss at San Jose State prevented TCU from climbing into a top-six position, but they would have qualified as a top-16 team ranked higher than a conference champion under the last set of qualifying rules for non-AQ programs.


(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Phase 2: BCS let off the hook as contenders fail to emerge (2001-2003)

There was certainly a fair amount of scandal in this phase of the BCS era. The 2001 season concluded with a matchup of top-ranked Miami against a Nebraska team that failed to win its division, much less its conference. 2003 finished with a split national championship, as the AP crowned Rose Bowl champion USC and the Coaches Poll tabbed BCS title game winner LSU as the recipient of the crystal pigskin.

What did not transpire, as it had in the previous three years, was a legitimate threat to challenge the hegemony of automatic qualifiers and at-large selections from the BCS-affiliated conferences. No team followed in the footsteps of Tulane or Marshall, or even TCU, in this stretch of BCS history.

BYU was on track in 2001 until a 72-45 loss at Hawaii in the regular-season finale derailed their hopes of a BCS berth. SEC champion LSU, three losses and all, was the lowest-ranked of the eight teams selected to play in BCS bowl games that season.

In 2002, losses doomed every non-AQ champion. TCU finished 9-2 as the C-USA winner. Marshall finished atop the MAC at 10-2. The Mountain West was won by 10-3 Colorado State. North Texas was the Sun Belt champ at 7-5, leaving 11-1 Boise State with the most to complain about after winning the WAC. At this point of college football history, however, even one loss was too much to prevent a team from breaking through as a BCS Buster.

2003 saw several teams fall flat in their quest. TCU suffered a late loss at Southern Miss that handed the Golden Eagles the C-USA title and bounced the Horned Frogs from the BCS rankings. A two-point loss at Oregon State in September was all that separated WAC champion Boise State from a shot at the BCS. Mountain West champion Utah lost twice in the regular season to end any hopes.

At the same time that none of the non-AQ hopefuls could put together an unbeaten run to really threaten the system, the automatic qualifiers fell well within the top 16 teams in the country. The lowest ranked of the bunch, 2002 ACC champion Florida State, entered the postseason at No. 14 in 2002. None of the teams outside the affiliated conferences could eclipse that mark at any point during this period of BCS history.


(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Phase 3: The rise of the Mountain West (2004-2005)

Eventually some team was going to break through from the non-AQ leagues and claim a spot in a BCS game. Utah finally broke the barrier down in 2004, as Urban Meyer led the Utes to an undefeated Mountain West season and guided them to the Fiesta Bowl.

This marked the start of the high-water mark for the Mountain West, which emerged as the preeminent non-AQ conference during the BCS era. But they were hardly the only league outside the BCS structure with a legitimate claim at landing in a major bowl.


2004

Utah made it in to the BCS this season, but were the Utes the only team that really deserved a spot in a big game? Let’s see what it would look like if there were no automatic qualifiers — or even just a stipulation that all non-AQ teams ranked in the top 12 get an invitation.

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 13 Michigan (9-2 Big Ten champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Rose Bowl vs. No. 4 Texas (10-1 automatic [3-4] selection)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 6 Utah (11-0 MWC champion)

Utah played Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl (we’ll talk more about that soon), but that was almost a disservice to the Mountain West champions. Michigan finished as a two-loss Big Ten champion, claiming a spot in the Rose Bowl against No. 4 Texas (a selection that booted Cal from a trip to Pasadena and caused its own controversy). The automatic bid for the Wolverines, though, deprived Utah of their best possible matchup. A showdown against the Longhorns would have truly tested Utah in a way Pitt just could not.

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 21 Pittsburgh (8-3 Big East champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Fiesta Bowl vs. No. 6 Utah (11-0 MWC champion)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 9 Boise State (11-0 WAC champion) vs. No. 10 Louisville (10-1 C-USA champion)

Speaking of that Pitt team, the Panthers were the lowest-ranked BCS qualifier in 2004 as the Big East champion. With three losses before the Fiesta Bowl, Pitt was rated more than 10 spots lower than both WAC champion Boise State and C-USA champ Louisville. If there had been real justice baked into the BCS system, there would have been a mechanism for overriding automatic qualifiers when a better matchup would be possible. In this case, a Fiesta Bowl unaffiliated with any league would have the opportunity to create a BCS Buster Bowl five years before the game hosted Boise State and TCU.


2005

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 22 Florida State (8-4 ACC champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Orange Bowl vs. No. 3 Penn State (10-1 Big Ten champion)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 14 TCU (10-1 MWC champion)

The game provided great storylines with Joe Paterno against Bobby Bowden, and it turned out to be a classic Orange Bowl battle between Penn State and the Seminoles. But was Florida State really the most deserving team that could have played the Nittany Lions in Miami at the end of the 2005 season? The ACC champions finished the regular season with four losses, including three in conference play. Only a weak Atlantic Division and a head-to-head win over Boston College allowed the Seminoles to spring a surprise win over Virginia Tech in the conference title game.

TCU ranked eight spots higher in the BCS standings, falling short in the last season where the top-six threshold was the mark to meet for BCS Buster hopefuls. The Horned Frogs won the Mountain West in their first season as a member of the conference. Gary Patterson’s team took advantage of a year of parity within the league to go 10-1, their only loss coming in the Battle for the Iron Skillet against non-conference rival SMU. That relegated the Horned Frogs to a spot in the Houston Bowl rather than a trip to Florida, and a date with Iowa State instead of Penn State.


(Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Phase 4: The WAC meets the challenge (2006-2007)

After boasting one legitimate claim previously in the year where Utah broke into the BCS, Boise State finally earned its turn in 2006. The Broncos took on Oklahoma in one of the most epic bowl games in college football history, downing the Sooners after forcing overtime on a last-gasp hook-and-ladder play and going for two and the win in OT instead of playing for an extra period.

They benefitted from a change in the rules before the 2006 season that said any non-AQ team finishing in the top 12 would earn a spot among the automatic qualifiers. When the Broncos reached No. 8 in the final BCS rankings for the year, they triggered that clause and booked their tickets for Arizona. They also benefitted from an expansion to five games, with each BCS bowl site rotating as host for a standalone national championship game.

The Broncos ranked ahead of two automatic qualifiers from affiliated conferences, ACC champion Wake Forest (No. 14) and the No. 10 Oklahoma team that won the Big 12 before falling to the Broncos in Glendale. No other non-AQ team really had a shot that season, as Mountain West champion BYU dropped early-season contests at Arizona and Boston College to fall out of contention before October. The Cougars finished No. 20 in the final BCS standings, far below the Demon Deacons that got into the Orange Bowl as automatic qualifiers.

A year later, Hawaii followed in Boise State’s footsteps as the second straight WAC champion to qualify for the BCS. The Rainbow Warriors ran the table against one of the weakest schedules in the country, their non-conference schedule including two FCS opponents in Northern Colorado and Charleston Southern. Hawaii only reached the top-12 benchmark the week before their regular-season finale against Washington, and a win over the hapless Huskies pushed the Rainbow Warriors to No. 10 in the final rankings.

Only Illinois was rated lower among BCS teams heading into the postseason, and no other non-AQ teams occupied the gap between the Rainbow Warriors and the Illini. June Jones took Hawaii to New Orleans, where they collapsed against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Even with the defeat, though, there was no other team that could claim a legitimate stake in one of the BCS games than the Rainbow Warriors.


(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Phase 5: Western leagues battle for supremacy (2008-2010)

After the Mountain West and the WAC both broke the barrier for entry into the BCS, the two leagues emerged into the golden age of BCS Busters. The two western conferences dueled for recognition, each hoping to position their champion highest in the BCS rankings and force their way into one of the big bowl games. Automatic qualifiers remained an insurmountable hurdle, but the wiggle room for at-large hopefuls expanded from two to four with the advent of the additional BCS national championship game.

The stretch from 2008 to 2010 marks the period when BCS Busters emerged year after year. Even then, there is one team that can legitimately claim that it was slighted in only reaching one BCS game over the span.


2008

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 19 Virginia Tech (9-4 ACC champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Orange Bowl vs. No. 12 Cincinnati (11-2 Big East champion)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 9 Boise State (12-1 WAC champion)

Utah triggered the top-12 clause as the Mountain West champion, heading to New Orleans to take down Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It nearly became the first year where two non-AQ teams earned BCS spots, but the bowl selectors decided to put No. 10 Ohio State opposite No. 3 Texas in the Fiesta Bowl instead of the No. 9 Broncos. The 10-2 Buckeyes were a defensible choice from a business standpoint, but it left Chris Petersen’s team in the dark

The BCS also had its hand forced by automatic qualifiers. Two-loss Cincinnati emerged as the Big East champion and four-loss Virginia Tech toppled Boston College in an unremarkable ACC championship game. They were paired against one another in the Orange Bowl, but without automatic bids either one could easily have been jettisoned to open up space for Boise State. Given the Hokies had twice as many losses as the Bearcats, they would be the most logical choice to bounce.


2009

What could easily have transpired between Boise State and Louisville five years earlier finally took place in 2009. Two teams from the non-AQ conferences finished too high to be ignored by the selectors. Boise State and TCU both qualified as champions of the WAC and Mountain West respectively. Rather than splitting the pair, though, the matchmakers opted to pair the two in the Fiesta Bowl in a rematch of their duel in the Poinsettia Bowl the previous postseason.

TCU ranked No. 4 in the country; had the College Football Playoff existed five years earlier, TCU would have played Alabama in the semifinals instead of Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. (At the same time, there was a clear formula instead of a selection committee operating behind closed doors.) Right behind the Horned Frogs was Boise State, finishing No. 6 in the BCS rankings after a perfect run in WAC play for the second straight season.

After losing to TCU the previous year in San Diego, Boise State walked away with a 17-10 victory against their intersectional nemesis. Once again the Broncos broke out the bag of tricks in Glendale to finish perfect in BCS games, a fake punt keeping the drive alive that concluded with the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Other than the Broncos and Horned Frogs, there was no third team threatening to reach the BCS from the non-AQ leagues. BYU finished No. 14 in the rankings, but the Cougars failed to win the Mountain West and the lowest-ranked team in the BCS bowls that year was No. 10 Iowa, leaving little to complain about in Provo.


2010

There was plenty of room to complain in 2010, as Kellen Moore missed his chance to really test the resolve of the BCS system. The Broncos quarterback went 50-3 as a starter over the course of his four years in Idaho, but only played in one BCS bowl game — against a fellow BCS Buster, to add insult to the injury of missing his real chance at making a statement in the mold of Boise State’s 2006 run.

TCU earned the BCS Buster designation in 2010, ending the regular season ranked No. 3 in the country just behind Auburn and Oregon. The Horned Frogs earned the right to become the first BCS Buster to play in the Rose Bowl. Gary Patterson’s crew made the most of the opportunity, downing Big Ten champion Wisconsin to end the year perfect.

The WAC was just as deserving of at least one bid, if not two. Both co-champions of the league qualified under the terms of our study, finishing ahead of at least one of the automatic qualifiers from BCS-affiliated leagues.

  • WHO GOT IN?: No. 13 Virginia Tech (11-2 ACC champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Orange Bowl vs. No. 4 Stanford (11-1 automatic [3-4] selection)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 10 Boise State (11-1 WAC co-champion)

For most of the year, both Boise State and TCU bounced back and forth between No. 3 and No. 4 in the BCS rankings. Then Boise State traveled to Reno, where they encountered Colin Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack. Kyle Brotzman, the hero of the Fiesta Bowl the previous season, missed two field goals from inside 30 yards — one at the end of regulation that would have kept Boise State undefeated, and the other in overtime that allowed Nevada to secure victory on a kick.

That defeat was hardly worth ostracizing the Broncos. Virginia Tech was one of the automatic qualifiers as the ACC champion, despite ranking three spots behind a Boise State team that defeated the Hokies head-to-head in the season opener. Without those locked-in berths, No. 4 Stanford could have taken on one of the best teams in the country on a 37-2 run over the previous three seasons instead of an 11-2 Hokies team that won the ACC in a down year for the league.

  • WHO GOT IN?: unranked UConn (8-4 Big East champion)
  • WHAT BOWL GAME?: Fiesta Bowl vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (11-2 Big 12 champion)
  • WHO SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE?: No. 15 Nevada (12-1 WAC co-champion)

Virginia Tech’s claim on a spot was at least somewhat legitimate, given the Hokies won 11 games in the regular season. Unranked UConn sneaked into the BCS thanks only to the automatic qualifying spot that remained with the Big East even after teams like Miami and Virginia Tech bolted the conference. The Huskies lost four games in the regular season, and took the Big East’s BCS berth thanks to head-to-head wins over both West Virginia and Pittsburgh that broke a three-way tie in the league standings.

As the WAC champion thanks to their head-to-head win over Boise State, Nevada would have first rights to a BCS slot. They finished No. 15 in the final BCS standings, inside the top-16 threshold thanks to UConn’s unranked status. Kaepernick and crew deserved a chance to take down Oklahoma like Boise State did four years earlier rather than facing down Boston College on a Sunday evening at a ballpark in San Francisco.


(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Phase 6: Expanding opportunity outside the west (2011-2013)

This is a good point to ask whether opportunity truly did expand outside the west to any appreciable extent in the BCS era. There was one non-AQ team situated east of the Mississippi that managed to snatch a BCS berth in this final phase of the era, but in large part the balance of power remained out west in terms of who was most likely to be considered.


2011

We saw that play out in 2011, when Boise State and TCU were now pitted against one another in the same conference after the Broncos realigned with the Mountain West to fill a void after the departure of Utah and BYU. TCU went to Boise and won head-to-head on the Smurf Turf to claim the Mountain West title.

The Horned Frogs, however, ranked outside the top 16 in the BCS standings in a year where No. 23 West Virginia represented the Big East as their champion and opened the opportunity to test that loophole. Boise State finished No. 7 in the BCS standings, but there was no obligation to pick the Broncos since they lost the Mountain West crown to TCU.

That same season, Houston ran the table through the regular season and sat at No. 6 in the BCS standings heading into the C-USA championship game against Southern Miss.

As a result, the BCS matched No. 15 Clemson against No. 23 West Virginia in a battle of automatic qualifiers at the Orange Bowl while Boise State was penalized for an overtime defeat on the road. Likewise, TCU was undone by their non-conference rivalry losses at Baylor and SMU. Those two losses were too much to hurdle relative to three losses each for the Tigers and Mountaineers in what were perceived to be harder conferences to win.


2012

A year later, MAC champion Northern Illinois became the first BCS Buster to earn a berth in one of the four major bowl games with a loss on its regular-season record. The Huskies went to Orange Bowl in a year where they lost to Iowa 18-17 at Soldier Field in the season opener before rattling off 12 straight wins and getting a lot of help from Big East champion Louisville and five-loss Big Ten champion Wisconsin.

Northern Illinois also benefitted from a down year for the two western leagues. Boise State dropped multiple games in their Mountain West run and finished in a three-way tie with Fresno State and San Diego State. Utah State finished atop the WAC thanks to a head-to-head win over San Jose State that eliminated the conference from BCS contention in its final season of football sponsorship.

That opened the door for the MAC championship to become a winner-take-all battle between Kent State and Northern Illinois, a double-overtime battle that highlighted the strength of both teams and eventually settled in favor of the Huskies. Jordan Lynch and the Huskies went to Miami, where they held their own for a period against Florida State before the Seminoles ran away with victory at the Orange Bowl.


2013

In the final year of the series, Northern Illinois challenged for the distinction of becoming the first BCS Buster to pull off the feat two years in a row. The Huskies ran the table heading into the MAC championship game, taking down Iowa in the season opener this time at Kinnick Stadium and earning a second Big Ten win over Purdue by 31 points in West Lafayette. But a shock defeat to Bowling Green in the MAC championship game ruined the chance of a repeat for Jordan Lynch and crew

Conference USA champion Rice lost two games before the end of September and three overall in the regular season. Arkansas State emerged as the Sun Belt champion despite five regular-season losses. Fresno State dropped a wild 62-52 shootout at San Jose State to fall from contention despite winning the Mountain West. And the WAC was no more, its teams dispersed around the various leagues after a half-century of sponsoring football.

The closest thing to a BCS Buster proved to be UCF, the lowest-ranked of the six automatic qualifiers. The Knights ranked No. 15 in the final BCS standings, earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl as the American Athletic Conference’s champion in that league’s first year after rebranding from the Big East. It would prove the final season with an automatic bid for the AAC, which dropped to Group of Five status in the College Football Playoff era.

What made UCF’s run to Arizona feel like a BCS Buster bid was that the Knights had just moved from Conference USA to the Big East. It was at once a bittersweet transition, trading one non-AQ conference for what ultimately proved to be another, but UCF proved itself worthy of a BCS bid in the final season after taking down Baylor in a high-scoring 52-42 duel in the desert.


(Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)

Does the periodization hold up after this examination?

What was most interesting in thinking about who might have been holding back more BCS Busters during the period was the extent to which automatic qualifiers impacted the way these periods align. Most notable in looking at it through this framework was its ability to map effectively the cyclical nature of increased and decreased instances of non-AQ contention for BCS positions.

The first phase between 1998 and 2000 was marked by a team in each of the three years that would have qualified for the BCS under later rules. The advent of the 21st century, on the other hand, did not fare well for non-AQ teams that could not reach even more liberalized qualifying lines.

In some ways one could look at the seasons between 2004 and 2010 as a back-and-forth duel between the Mountain West and the WAC. The Mountain West finished 3-1 overall in BCS bowls, with Utah winning two BCS bowls and TCU going 1-1 in two appearances. The WAC was 2-1 in these games, with Boise State claiming both victories and Hawaii falling in their lone appearance.

Boise State was the winner in their head-to-head matchup against TCU at the Fiesta Bowl. At the same time, the Mountain West claimed wins at the Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and Rose Bowl for the most diverse range of wins. Had Boise State qualified at least one other time in the multiple occasions where their name pops up throughout this study, that could look very different.

The last period of the six phases of non-AQ engagement with the BCS, listed out at the beginning of this article and in the previous edition of the SMQ column, is the one raising the biggest question. How diverse did the BCS really become during this last period?

Houston was the team best positioned to break into a big bowl game in 2011 until they were taken down on their home turf by Southern Miss, leaving the jaded hopes of Boise State and TCU as the best hope of getting into the series. Northern Illinois did break through in 2012 to open the door for the MAC to be considered on the same plane as the Mountain West and the WAC. 2013 is where the Huskies had pretensions of breaking into the BCS for a second straight year before the MAC championship game dished out another of its characteristic upsets.

Next: Unrest at USC? [PODCAST]

In general, however, the periodization works both in terms of non-AQ successes but also in terms of how automatic qualifiers shape the discourse in a given year. Sometimes the BCS got it all right, but more often the restrictions inherent in aligning with specific conferences meant that the system was incapable of matching up the best possible showdowns.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.