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Inside College Football | Chris Dufresne / ON COLLEGE

Mid-American Battle Is Part of Game Within the Game

October 23, 2003|Chris Dufresne

Never in a million years did I think "Northern Illinois at Bowling Green" could bat lead-off sentence in my college football column.

You can bet the guy driving the "ESPN GameDay" truck into Ohio this week is thinking the same thing.

"I'm eating at IHOP at 4 in the morning on my way to Northern Illinois at Bowling Green?"

Yet, this Mid-American Conference game has evolved into a midseason mini-drama.

No. 12 Northern Illinois (7-0) at No. 23 Bowling Green (6-1) on Saturday is more than a matchup of teams not affiliated with the bowl championship series.

It is a game with larger ramifications.

Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat this is not, but it is politically charged.

Northern Illinois debuted at No. 10 in this week's first BCS standings and could be the test-case team non-BCS presidents can hold up to prove the BCS is a monopoly.

The BCS comprises the six major conferences, plus Notre Dame, and it essentially runs college football. The non-BCS cause is represented by five major college conferences not in the mix.

The timing could not be more interesting as the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for hearings Wednesday in Washington on anti-trust issues in college football.

The non-BCS presidents aligned in this debate are hoping Northern Illinois beats a good Bowling Green team on its way to an undefeated season.

This has nothing to do with Northern Illinois, per se, as it does with the larger fight.

The BCS maintains all 117 schools have access to its multimillion-dollar bowl system. A non-BCS team can earn an automatic berth in one of the four major bowls -- Rose, Fiesta, Orange, Sugar -- by finishing No. 6 or better in the final BCS standings.

But what, really, are the chances?

"I would say it would be impossible to finish in the top six," Tulane President Scott Cowen, the leading voice for the non-BCS, said in a telephone interview this week.

With a top-12 BCS finish, Northern Illinois could be considered for an at-large berth.

"But we think that's very unlikely," Cowen said.

Since the BCS was formed in 1998, no school from a non-BCS conference has qualified for a major bowl or been selected as an at-large competitor. Winning your way into a big-money game is important because the BCS shares $115 million annually with its members, while non-BCS schools get only a pittance of that amount.

Let's just say the non-BCS folks have been looking for a team like Northern Illinois to come along.

Others have tried, gamely, to take up the cause.

"We've had those laboratory tests already," Cowen maintained.

Well, not really.

In 1998, Tulane, Cowen's school, finished undefeated but ended up No. 10 in the BCS standings. A year later, Marshall was also undefeated but finished No. 12.

The BCS had a great retort for cries of exclusion in those cases, mainly that Tulane and Marshall played marshmallow schedules.

The case for Northern Illinois is more compelling.

The Huskies have, thus far, done everything a non-BCS school could do to compete with the BCS.

Northern Illinois scheduled three nonconference games against BCS schools -- Maryland, Alabama, Iowa State -- and won them all.

"In a way this may be the best example, because now you have a school like Northern Illinois that really did play a lot of BCS schools and beat them," Cowen said.

It was not Northern Illinois' fault those BCS schools have stumbled to a cumulative 10-12 record. Northern Illinois also plays in a conference, the Mid-American, that has scored other significant upsets against BCS schools this year, namely Bowling Green over Purdue and Toledo over Pittsburgh.

Yet, oddly, Northern Illinois is feeling a serious drag in the first BCS standings. The Huskies opened with a schedule rank of 100, while two computers have the team ranked No. 19 and No. 27.

The sense is Northern Illinois, even if it keeps winning, cannot improve its position much unless several schools ranked ahead of the Huskies suffer defeats.

Cowen thinks the unfolding saga of Northern Illinois proves the non-BCS case as negotiations for a new BCS contract move forward.

"Whether intentional or not, and I don't want to attribute motive here, I think the BCS rankings, because of the strength of schedule component, is skewed toward BCS schools," he said.

Of course, the BCS standings were created by BCS schools.

In the legal battle against the big boys, Northern Illinois could be Norma Rae.

When Ted Kennedy stares down Cowen at Senate hearings next week, it would be helpful for Cowen to have the Northern Illinois wallet schedule in his hip pocket.

Of the four remaining Division I-A schools without a loss, two are from non-BCS conferences: Northern Illinois and Texas Christian, a Conference USA team that debuted at No. 15 in the first BCS standings.

Cowen knows a Northern Illinois defeat this weekend would hurt his case.

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