There have been several posters, yours truly included, on the cbssportsline message boards assailing the schedules of the Mid-Major teams across America. There have been many stereotypes used and fingers pointed toward the Mid-Majors that have been unfair and clearly "BCS homer" in nature but there is one that sticks, and needs to be greatly improved if the Mids truly want to earn more respect. That point is their non-conference schedules!
Ball State and Boise State have enjoyed huge success this season, winning all of the regular season games. Only a MAC championship game remains for the Cardinals to win and move to 13-0 while the Broncos closed out their regular season at 12-0 with their thumping of Fresno State. Both will be left out of the BCS picture this season. The reason? A weak non-conference schedule. While I completely agree with the mid-major critics that non-conference schedules matter, I don't subscribe that the conference they play in makes them virtually ineligible for a BCS game. In other words, if your non-conference schedule is tough and you prevail most of the time and then win all of your conference games, your conference games should not negatively impact your ability to get a BCS bowl. The key in my view is the non-conference portion.
The first thing that needs to happen is to eliminate all games with Division 1AA teams. You can't dip into the lower ranks of college football and then expect to successfully argue the merits of your BCS worthiness. Play the majors if you want to compete with them in the post season. Ball State went fishing for a win when they scheduled Northeastern and severely damaged their non-conference argument in doing so. I understand a previous agreement with West Virginia fell through but still, they could have done better than Northeastern. Similarly Boise State opened the season by pasting idaho State. These games barely qualify as scrimages and have no business on a Division 1A football teams' resume. It should be noted it isn't just mid-majors who are playing these teams. ACC teams played 14 games against 1AA teams, the Big 12 played 10 while the Big 10 and SEC played 9 1AA teams. If a 1A team insists on playing a 1AA team, that win should be excluded from their won/loss record (unless they lose) and have no bearing on making a team bowl eligible.
By now this year's non-conference schedule for Ball State is emblazoned in the minds of their critics so no need to dwell on that. But let's take a look into the future to see how their non-conference schedules are shaping up for upcoming seasons. These seasons may not be fully complete yet but at least we can see if they're taking steps in the right direction. Home games are in caps.
2009: NORTH TEXAS; Army; Auburn
2010: MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE; Clemson; Purdue
2011: South Florida; Middle Tennessee State; ARMY
2012: SOUTH FLORIDA; Army
2013: ARMY; North Texas
In 2009, some improvement over this years' schedule is visible. Going to Auburn would have to be viewed as a quality opponent, one that would help their strength of schedule argument. One more non-conference game remains to be scheduled and it needs to be against a BCS team.
2010 looks considerably better with scheduled road games against BCS teams Clemson and Purdue. Obviously we don't know how strong these teams will be in 2010 but it can't be held against Ball State if Clemson or Purdue turn out to be weak BCS teams that year. Again, one more game needs to be scheduled and it should be against a strong mid-major if not another BCS team.
In my opinion, the remaining non-conference schedules beyond 2010 are too weak and in need of BCS presence. Those teams as we know them today are not going to open people's eyes if Ball State comes away with a victory.
Boise State has elevated itself to the top of the mid-major levels. They have done so by winning all or most of their games but they usually manage to throw in one carefully selected, strong BCS team. This method has proven to be successful. Their lone BCS appearance resulted in a win - also huge for their program. Ball State has an opportunity to build on this season's success and become a mid-major power but to do so is going to have to increase its committment, as a university, to the football program, continue to bring in top mid-major talent, pay their coaches at or near the top of the conference salary range and schedule - and win - games against decent BCS programs. If they do that, they will have a strong case for a BCS bowl, something they do not have this season.
Finally, and this is directed at the BCS system itself. When mid-major teams like a Boise State or Ball State take steps to increase their strength of schedule and continue to win their games, you need to find ways to include them instead of searching for reasons to keep them out. Over the past 4 seasons, mid-major programs have increased their winning percentage over BCS teams. In 2008, mid-majors defeated majors 22% of the time, up from the low to mid teens in the previous 3 seasons. The BCS system needs to be modified with additional ways to allow mid-major teams with unblemished records and decent strength of schedules into the championship series. Establish a minimal SOS number that needs to be met (by ALL teams) to meet BCS Bowl or Playoff criteria.
"Cinderella stories" are good for sports. Boise State's win over Oklahoma - admittedly not great for Sooner football - was a huge boost for college football in general. That Fiesta Bowl game, from the fans perspective, was one of the greatest games ever played. Boise State proved it belonged and there are other programs on the rise that will prove they belong too if given a chance. The mid-majors need to do their part though and a strong non-conference schedule is the ticket required for entry. And, when they present that ticket, the BCS needs to honor it and let them in.