Inside the BCS: The Computers Power NIU's Play for the BCS

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

How the Huskies overtook Fresno State and how likely it is to last. Plus: the race for No. 4 and the computer margin that's help Florida State stay comfortably ahead of the Buckeyes

Northern Illinois overtakes Fresno State. This is probably the biggest story of the week, such as it is, when it comes to the real impact of the standings themselves. Fresno is ahead of the NIU in both the human polls -- in fact, they lead by seven in the coaches survey -- but a ten-spot difference in the computers is enough to put the Huskies in the lead right now. The Huskies are ranked seventh in the chips, which can't see margin of victory or much of anything else.

That might change relatively quickly. NIU's remaining regular-season game in against Western Michigan, which stands at No. 189 in Sagarin's overall ratings, while Fresno faces San Jose State, which clocks in at No. 95. (Even if the PURE_ELO numbers are self-contained and don't rely on the other rankings -- I'm not sure of how Sagarin's ratings are interconnected -- there's still a pretty sizable gap in SJSU's favor.)

Even if the other computers see it the same way, I'm not sure if that's enough to swing things in Fresno State's favor enough to produce a jump of .0496 points. However, both teams also have to play conference championship games. Again, the edge here goes to Fresno State, but it's a smaller advantage. The Bulldogs' most likely opponents in the Mountain West title game are Utah State (39) and Boise State (43). NIU will face either Bowling Green (51) and Buffalo (59) in the MAC Championship Game. However, the ELO numbers in this case are dramatically different, and might tip things back toward NIU.

All of which is to say it's way too early to predict which of the non-AQ teams will make it to the BCS. Barring a loss, this is a race that could come down to the wire.

The Battle for No. 4. Without a major shakeup that would bring one of the one-loss teams in the title game discussion, the most interesting fight might be for the No. 4 spot. Assuming Ohio State remains at No. 3, getting to No. 4 clinches some team a place in the BCS. (If the Buckeyes lose, getting to No. 3 will probably become the new standard.)

Right now, Auburn is at No. 4. But as you might have heard over the last couple of days, they have to play Alabama this weekend in the Iron Bowl. If the Tigers lose there and Missouri beats Texas A&M, the other other Tigers probably take over at No. 4. But they would then play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, where a loss would almost certainly dislodge Missouri from that spot.

The only team that would feel good about its chances to land at No. 4 with a loss would be Alabama

That's where the narrative gets a little harder to track. Clemson will have played South Carolina at this point -- if they win that game, the Upstate Tigers are probably going to waltz to No. 4 in that scenario. But let's look at a future where Auburn loses narrowly to Alabama, Clemson drops a game to South Carolina, and then Missouri loses by a slightly larger margin to the Tide. Could Auburn actually end up back at No. 4? It's possible.

At this point, though, about the only team that would have to feel good about its chances to land at No. 4 with a loss would be -- Alabama. If the Tide drop a close one to Auburn, in particular, it's not hard to see them settling in at No. 4 to begin with, or at least close enough to move back to No. 4 if Auburn then beats Missouri in Atlanta. But that's a lot of guesswork.

The computers love Florida State. This really doesn't matter that much in the grander scheme of themes, but it's an interesting factoid. The chips have the Seminoles ranked first pretty much across the board, with only Billingsley (naturally) and Massey dropping them down to No. 2. For the moment, that means that Alabama is actually entrenched at No. 2 in the computer rankings.

If the human vote were to inexplicably tighten, the upshot of all of that would be to pretty much keep Ohio State behind Florida State barring some sort of stampede. I don't see that happening without a loss, however, so the impact of this is probably going to be precisely nil.

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