Created:Friday, August 8, 2014 11:41 p.m.CDT
Updated:Friday, August 8, 2014 11:46 p.m.CDT

Playoff ushers in new era for college football

Mid-American Conference commisioner Jon Steinbrecher speaks at MAC media day last month at Ford Field in Detroit. The MAC and the other four mid-major football conference are guaranteed a spot in this year's inaugural college football playoff. (Phil Burwell – Mid-American Co)

After the Bowl Championship Series began in 1998, it took six seasons for the first "BCS Buster" to come forward.

With a new playoff system starting this year, there will be a mid-major team in a major bowl with a shot at a national title every year.

The 2014 college football season brings forth a new era with the College Football Playoff. While much as been made about there finally being a playoff after years and years of debate, one aspect of the new system is what it means for mid-major programs like Northern Illinois.

In the past, it's been difficult for the small to crash the big school's party.

In 2004, Utah became the first when it went on to defeat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and finish the season No. 4 in the Associated Press Poll. In 2006, an extra BCS game was added, and qualifications were put in place which gave teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences better chances at a major bowl game.

Mid-major teams took advantage, starting with Boise State's thrilling upset over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2007. More BCS busters followed with Hawaii (2007), Utah (2008), TCU and Boise State (2009), TCU again in 2010, and the final BCS Buster, Northern Illinois in 2012.

Prior to the BCS, a mid-major team playing in a bowl game such as the Orange, Sugar or Rose wasn't really an option. When BYU won the national championship in 1984, the Cougars played in the Holiday Bowl.

Now, a mid-major program will take part in the College Football Playoff every season. The top-ranked conference champion (as chosen by a selection committee) from the Group of Five conferences – the American Athletic, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt, gets an automatic bid into one of the College Football Playoff bowl games.

This season, the Group of Five representative will go into either the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowl.

At MAC Media Day back in July, Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan said the bowl game and opponent for the Group of Five winner will depend on geography and matchups.

"I think when you're talking about the Group of Five, obviously there's some very competitive teams in those conferences," Stokan said. "You look at Northern Illinois, what they were able to do, you look at Boise State, you're going to get some teams that are obviously going to be having a great season if they're the top team in the Group of Five, No. 1. No. 2, if they're having a good season, that fanbase will be excited to come play in the College Football Playoff."

The automatic bid also means the representative doesn't necessarily have to be unbeaten. NIU in 2012 was the only mid-major to make a BCS bowl game without going undefeated. The Huskies went 12-1 before earning their Orange Bowl berth.

NIU head coach Rod Carey said the playoff is great for college football. He likes the fact that there's a playoff, while the bowl system is intact at the same time.

He also said the Group of Five's automatic bid is huge for a program like NIU. There won't be another scenario such as the one the Huskies faced heading into the 2012 MAC Championship – where NIU had to have a number of things happen with the major conference teams in order to earn the BCS bid.

"Now, instead of when we got into the Orange Bowl, we don't have to have this and this and this happen, we can control our own (destiny)," Carey said. "We just take care of business – anyone who takes care of business is the top rated Group of Five team."

While the BCS had its share of critics, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said the BCS was a positive thing for the MAC and all of college football. He added that the College Football Playoff is just another positive step for leagues like the MAC.

"It provides the most direct access that any of our conferences has ever had to a New Year's Day bowl game," Steinbrecher said, "and quite frankly, I expect that to be among the primary goals for any of [the MAC] teams, we expect to be in those games."

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?