For the past few years, seeing a team from a nonautomatic qualifying conference in the BCS had been commonplace, even expected.
But it didn’t always used to be that way.
At the beginning of the decade, non-AQ teams were playing just as well as they are now, but they were largely ignored by the powers that be. But those teams blazed a trail for teams such as Utah, Boise State and TCU to play on the same stage as the perceived powerhouses and even take some of them down.
The shift in power really began in 2000 with Toledo. Sure, there had been uprisings before, most notably BYU’s national championship in 1984, but never had teams with little resources and inferior talent made noise on such a consistent basis.
But at the turn of the decade, Toledo changed that by finishing the season 10-1. However, it was totally ignored by both the national polls and the bowl system. Despite the record and a win over Penn State, the Rockets didn’t even play in the postseason.
That same year, Colorado State and TCU both finished with two losses and were still ranked behind teams with three and even four losses.
The next year was more of the same. The Rockets were 10-2 and defeated Minnesota. They finished 23rd in the Associated Press poll behind six 8-4 teams and two 9-3 teams. At least this time they were invited to a bowl game.
But in 2003, the uproar over the need for a fairer system started to grow louder. That year, Miami (Ohio) went 13-1 with its only loss to Iowa at the beginning of the season. There was only one other 13-1 team, LSU, which had lost to Florida, and it finished second in the polls. Southern Cal finished first with a 12-1 record. Miami (Ohio) finished 10th with four three-loss teams and three two-loss teams in between the RedHawks and one of the nation’s top two spots.
While the focus was on the MAC, Boise State, which had joined the FBS in 2001, was steadily putting together double-digit win seasons and dominating its WAC competition. But despite stellar performances and conference championships, the Broncos were sitting in the middle of the polls and no one looked twice at them for a potential national title.
The 2003 season sparked much controversy over the way USC was chosen as national champion that the BCS formula was completely rewritten, this time to include those schools from the nonautomatic qualifying conferences that were constantly finishing with top records.
And in 2004, Utah became the first non-AQ team to play in a BCS bowl game and crack the inner circle that had kept the have-nots out for so long.
The Utes defeated Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 4 in the AP poll, the highest ranking of a nonautomatic team under the BCS system. Utah’s quarterback, Alex Smith, went on to be the No. 1 overall draft pick and coach Urban Meyer went on to become one of the most successful college coaches of all time.
Since that game, at least one team from the non-BCS has played in a BCS bowl in all but one season, and this year both Boise State and TCU played in the BCS, becoming the first two non-AQ teams to bust the BCS in the same season.
While the non-AQ conferences continue to press for equality, where they are now is a far cry from where Toledo was sitting at home during the postseason. The past decade has proven that despite the name on the jersey, the resources or the past accolades, the playing field is slowly being leveled.
Just looking at how far the non-AQs have come in the past 10 years should provide hope that the next 10 years might finally put the have-nots on equal footing.