NIU again on edge of busting BCS

Jon Steinbrecher was not a part of any of those old BCS conversations, to be sure. But the Mid-American Conference commissioner cannot imagine that leagues like his were given a whole lot of thought when college football's power brokers decided how teams would make it to the sport's highest postseason platform.

Yet, the next and final mountain for this year's BCS buster could be climbed Friday night, if No. 14 Northern Illinois tops Bowling Green in the MAC title game. A win for the 12-0 Huskies would all but assure them of a second straight berth in a BCS bowl. As the MAC champion, the Huskies would need to either finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings to gain an at-large berth or finish in the top 16 and be higher than the champion of a BCS automatic qualifier.

"I've got to believe that people thought no one would ever hit those marks," Steinbrecher said. "We're finding that these non-AQ teams can hit those marks, and it just speaks to the fact, when given the opportunity, teams will step up to the challenge, whether it was teams in our league or the Mountain West or the WAC or any of the others -- Conference USA had a chance a couple years ago. There are very, very good teams in our conferences, and I think the beauty of the BCS is it's kind of elevated all."

It would be an unprecedented feat for NIU and the MAC. And with the BCS gone after this year, the potential sight of a school from a non-automatic qualifying conference squaring off with a major conference opponent in January would be a fond farewell to a system that, directly or indirectly, has benefited the Cinderellas much more than initially anticipated.

Five schools from non-AQ conferences have combined for eight BCS berths in the system's 15 years, winning five of those games.

"I think everybody always roots for them, you know?" SMU coach June Jones said of the smaller-conference schools. "I think the classic underdog, a percentage of people are all for them. I think it means a huge financial gain for both the school and the conference, and from that standpoint it's pretty incredible really, for all that."

Jones was in Northern Illinois' position six years ago, when coaching Hawaii. His Warriors ran the regular-season table in 2007, going 12-0 before losing to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Like the Huskies this year and last, Jones' Hawaii team took some heat for its schedule. (Then-No. 17 Boise State was the only ranked team Hawaii faced, while Northern Illinois has beaten two Big Ten opponents, Iowa and Purdue, this year.)

And like these last two Huskies teams, which have been led by Jordan Lynch, Jones' Hawaii team was led by a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, in Colt Brennan.

Jones expressed fears that next year's College Football Playoff -- which features six "host" bowls, with the highest-ranked school from the "Group of Five" non-power conferences earning a berth -- will mitigate the potential impact a school from an off-the-radar conference could make nationally, the way a Hawaii, Boise State or Northern Illinois has in football or Gonzaga or Butler has in basketball.

But Akron coach Terry Bowden sees further openings down the road.

"There will still be the bowl games that are the elite bowl games to get into after the playoff, and there will be more matchups for TV and mostly from marquee conferences, and so it'll be a different phase, but I do think it's just a phase," Bowden said. "And I think four teams will eventually lead to eight, and it'll be a little bit different down the road, and at some point it's going to be, 'Can a MAC school or a Conference USA school become one of those eight?'"

Bowden, whose Zips lost to Northern Illinois this season, does not necessarily view Friday night as a potential defining moment for the little guys.

To illustrate his point, the former broadcaster recalled a conversation he had with a prominent athletics director several years ago about a potential playoff.

"His statement was, 'There's no way we should have a four-team playoff, because if we do it the fans will just want more,'" Bowden said. "And I'm thinking, 'Well isn't that what we want? To want them to want more?'"

Northern Illinois probably will not have a cakewalk against a Bowling Green team that leads the MAC in every single major defensive category. And Huskies coach Rod Carey could not draw comparisons to last year's situation, when his team was an underdog preparing to play Kent State in the title game, because it was the Golden Flashes who were looking like they could bust the BCS.

The big-picture talk from him will have to wait another week this time around, too.

"There's absolutely a seize-the-moment attitude around here, and it's evolved around one thing and one thing only, and that's our MAC championship," Carey said. "We don't set goals specific to things that are talked about in the media today, we set goals on things that are tangible for us at the beginning of the season, and that's the MAC championship. We have way higher expectations for ourselves than anybody else outside, so it's not that hard to block it out when you have expectations that exceed everybody else's for you."

And if "everybody else" happens to include a few more intrigued viewers -- particularly from bigger conferences hoping for more seats at the BCS table -- the MAC will not be complaining.

"I can assure you there will be a lot of people watching [Friday's] game, because it has a direct impact on how some of these bowls will play out," Steinbrecher said. "It goes that way the whole season."