Fresno State and Northern Illinois are squaring off in a BCS battle that gives a peek at what's to come in college football's new postseason.
When the College Football Playoff starts next year, the so-called Group of Five conferences will be vying for one guaranteed spot in the biggest postseason games.
"It's exactly the issue the committee will have to grapple with," Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said Monday.
The BCS non-automatic qualifying conferences this year are the MAC, home of Northern Illinois, the Mountain West, home of Fresno State, the Sun Belt and Conference USA. Next season the American Athletic Conference joins those four, and the selection committee will be charged with deciding which team from those leagues gets to play in the New Year's Day games.
The Huskies reached the BCS last year, a first for the MAC. Fresno State has never played in the BCS.
The Huskies enter their regular-season finale against Western Michigan on Tuesday night 14th in the BCS standings, two spots from the automatic qualifying line of 12. Fresno State is 16th. But this season could play out like last, and NIU or Fresno State might only need to finish in the top 16 of the BCS standings to earn an automatic bid because the American Athletic Conference's champion could be ranked behind the non-AQ league champs.
Northern Illinois finishes the season in the MAC title game against Bowling Green or Buffalo.
Fresno State plays at San Jose State on Friday, and then the Mountain West championship game against Utah State or Boise State.
Neither the Bulldogs nor the Huskies can afford a loss.
The Mountain West has traditionally been one of the strongest non-AQ leagues during the Bowl Championship Series era, sending Utah and TCU to the BCS. But MAC officials aren't conceding that the Mountain West is better this season.
"This is not your father's MAC," Steinbrecher said.
A look at how NIU and Fresno State stack up:
— Poll voters prefer the Bulldogs. They are 13th in both the Harris and USA Today coaches' polls, which are used by the BCS, and 16th in the AP Top 25. The Huskies are 17th in the Harris, 20th in the coaches' and 18th in the AP poll.
— Computers prefer Northern Illinois. The compilation of six computer ratings used by the BCS has the Huskies ranked seventh in the nation. Fresno State's computer ranking in the BCS is 17th.
But let's look deeper. The Sagarin ratings used by the BCS do not include margin of victory, something Jeff Sagarin himself says is a bad idea. Sagarin's ratings that do include margin of victory have Northern Illinois 37th in Division I with the 110th-toughest schedule. Fresno State is 53rd with the 125th-toughest schedule.
— Advance metrics, advantage Fresno State. FootballOutsiders.com has a metric called S&P+ that rates teams using play-by-play (S&P+) data, making adjustments for strength of competition. S&P+ has Fresno State ranked 42nd. Northern Illinois is 69th.
— Conference strength. Sagarin's conference ratings are done by division. The Mountain West's West Division, where Fresno State plays, is ranked the top non-AQ division, followed closely by the Mountain Division. The MAC West, where Northern Illinois plays, comes in 14th overall, behind Conference USA West. However, the ranking system used internally by the BCS to determine how non-AQ conferences share revenue has the MAC first among those leagues and the Mountain West third.
Highlights and talking points:
— Fresno State has five victories against FBS teams with a .500 or better record. NIU has four.
— One common opponent: Idaho. Fresno State won by 47. NIU won by 10.
— Northern Illinois is the only FBS team that is 7-0 on the road.
— Best nonconference victory: Fresno State beat Rutgers (106th in Sagarin) at home 52-51 in OT. Northern Illinois beat Iowa (35th in Sagarin) on the road 30-27.
— Best conference victories: Fresno State beat Boise State (43rd) at home 41-40 and San Diego State (85th) on the road 35-28 in overtime. Northern Illinois beat Ball State (64th) at home 48-27 and Toledo (65th) on the road 35-17.
— Heisman contenders. Lynch is fifth in the nation in total offense (350.2 ypg). He has run for 1,434 yards, passed for 2,418 and accounted for 39 touchdowns. Carr leads the nation in total offense (405.2), passing for 3,948 yards and accounting for 41 touchdowns.
Those are the facts. So who you got?
— Wyoming coach Dave Christensen might need to guide the Cowboys (5-6) to a win at Utah State to keep his job. It's tough to win in Laramie, and Christensen is 27-34 overall and 16-22 in the Mountain West in five seasons there. The Cowboys went to bowls his first and third seasons.
— Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland was not among the five finalists for the Butkus Award. UCLA's Anthony Barr, Buffalo's Khalil Mack, Alabama's C.J. Mosley, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and Stanford's Shayne Skov were the picks. Hard to argue with those guys, but Borland could have taken the place of Skov, who is the second-best linebacker on his team behind Trent Murphy.
— Many fans believe next year's four-team playoff isn't big enough. Maybe, but it's safe to say that the FCS playoff has gotten too big at 24 teams for the first time this season. Seven teams playing in first-round playoff games Saturday have at least four losses, including Patriot League champion Lafayette, which finished 5-6.
Championship — Alabama vs. Florida State.
Orange Bowl — Clemson vs. Michigan State.
Sugar Bowl — Auburn vs. UCF.
Rose Bowl — Arizona State vs. Ohio State.
Fiesta Bowl — Fresno State or Northern Illinois vs. Oklahoma State.
UNDER THE RADAR GAME OF THE WEEK
Georgia at Georgia Tech. Both teams are 7-4, but they enter this game with very different perspectives. Georgia's season was in part wrecked by injuries and bad luck. The latest hit was quarterback Aaron Murray's season-ending knee injury. Hutson Mason, a junior, makes his first career start. The Bulldogs have dominated the rivalry for more than a decade, winning four straight and 11 of 12. But Georgia is so beat up, Yellow Jackets fans will have a hard time taking another loss.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP