Schools not expecting change

Western Athletic Conference Commissioner Karl Benson was the only commissioner from a non-automatic qualifying conference on Craig Thompson's conference call last Friday.

And he hung up early.

After Thompson, the Mountain West Conference commissioner, explained that his plight was only for his own conference and not the rest of the non-automatic qualifying schools, a computer voice came over the line that said Benson had left the conference.

It wasn't intentional. Benson left the teleconference early because he was on vacation with family and friends, but the tone his abrupt departure set was not unlike the feeling he and his counterparts felt when they heard of Thompson's visit to Capitol Hill.

"The Mountain West had an outstanding season, but it does require more than one good season and there are rules in place for a conference to qualify if they indeed perform," Benson said. "It's a four-year performance."

Currently, the 11 FBS conferences are in the midst of an evaluation period that began at the start of the 2008 season and concludes at the end of the 2011 regular season. That evaluation will determine which conferences earn or possibly lose their automatic BCS bids.

According to BCS rules, the four-year evaluation is based on the ranking of the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings each year, the final regular-season rankings of all conference teams in the computer rankings used by the BCS each year and the number of teams in the top 25 of the final BCS standings each year.

Benson's been down this road before. After Boise State defeated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in 2006 to claim an undefeated campaign, there was an outcry that the Broncos should have been given a shot at the national title.

A year later, when Hawaii completed an undefeated regular season, there were some rumblings that the conference should be looked at for an automatic bid. Those rumblings ceased after Georgia defeated Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. But Benson said, even if Hawaii had won that game, his conference still wouldn't have filled the criteria necessary during the 2004-07 evaluation period to gain automatic status.

"I've never been very optimistic that any of the five conferences would be able to achieve automatic status," Benson said. "It would take four years of extraordinary performance to get there. ... In the first four-year cycle, neither the WAC nor the Mountain West weren't even close [to gaining automatic status]. That was based on Utah's 2004 season, Boise State's 2004, Boise State's 2006 and Hawaii 2007. I think that the formula requires a conference to have strength not just from the top, but the middle and the bottom. Where the group of five conferences is disadvantaged is that we may have strength at the top, but we have teams in the bottom halves of the leagues that will bring down those conference averages."

Benson said the BCS system might always be a little unfair for the non-automatic qualifying schools, but it's also been more than generous. During the past three seasons, the non-automatic qualifying leagues have netted around $55 million thanks to the efforts of Utah, Boise State and Hawaii. Non-BCS conferences get $3 million for being part of the BCS, money that commissioners like Benson and Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters said goes toward funding other sports.

Ironically, that money and ultimately more access into the BCS have come because of the threat of government involvement. In 2004, Tulane president Scott Cowen threatened to ask for government intervention if the non-automatic qualifying schools were not given greater access into the BCS. But he represented all of the conferences, not just one as Thompson appears to be doing.

"We need to recognize that it's never going to be a totally fair system," Benson said. "I think that what we received in 2004 was fair, is fair. The group of five has certainly benefited from those changes.

"There have been models run, I'm sure by the Mountain West, by the WAC, to just do hypotheticals to see what it would take to land an automatic. To plug in hypothetical end-of-season rankings and I think that's been shown to be a very, very difficult threshold to achieve."

Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.