Automatic Qualifying conference
An Automatic Qualifying conference (AQ conference) is an athletic conference in NCAA Division I FBS (highest level of collegiate athletics in the United States) whose champion receives an automatic berth in one of the five Bowl Championship Series bowl games. While the number of AQ conferences is variable and not permanently set, the BCS has always had six AQ conferences since its inception in 1998. AQ conferences are sometimes called BCS conferences but that usage is not technically correct according to the BCS. These conferences are often referred to as power conferences especially for sports other than football.
Most sports media and college football fans consider the term "BCS conference" to refer specifically to one of the six conferences whose champions receive an automatic berth in one of the five BCS bowl games. After the two top teams in the BCS rankings are matched up in the BCS National Championship Game, the other four bowls select other top teams. Each of the bowls has a historic link with one or more of the six BCS conferences with the exception of the Big East, and selects a team from each of these conferences if it is eligible for a BCS bowl and not playing in the national title game. The conferences included in this group, with their traditional bowl links, are:
- American Athletic Conference, formerly the Big East Conference (not tied to any specific BCS bowl)
- Atlantic Coast Conference (Orange Bowl)
- Big 12 Conference (Fiesta Bowl)
- Big Ten Conference (Rose Bowl)
- Pacific-12 Conference (Rose Bowl)
- Southeastern Conference (Sugar Bowl)
Notre Dame is an independent in football, but is a founding member of the BCS. Because of the "Notre Dame rule", it has guaranteed access to the BCS bowls when it meets certain defined performance criteria.
The BCS and non-BCS designators generally refer to college football programs, though they often are applied to all collegiate sports. A BCS conference may also be referred to as a "power conference", with others that compete in NCAA Division I called "mid-major" conferences. When the BCS adopts a playoff system as of the 2014-2015 season, the AAC (formerly the Big East) will no longer be a "power conference" according to the popular definition.
BCS officials consider all 124 members of Division I FBS to be a part of the BCS system, stating on its official website,
The media and others often mis-use this term. All 11 conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision are "BCS Conferences."
Of these teams, 118 are members of one of 10 conferences; the other six are "independent" schools that are not part of a conference.
The BCS system is broken up into two separate types of conferences: Automatic Qualifying (AQ) Conferences and Non-Automatic Qualifying (non-AQ) Conferences. The champions of the six AQ conferences receive automatic bids to BCS bowl games, regardless of their BCS ranking.
The other four conferences (listed below) are considered non-AQ conferences or "mid-major" conferences because they do not receive an annual automatic bid to a BCS bowl game. The highest ranked champion of any non-AQ conference will receive an AQ bid if they are ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS poll or ranked in the top 16 and higher than a champion of an AQ conference. 
The conferences in this group are:
The Western Athletic Conference was part of this group from 1998-2012, but due to membership changes during the current realignment cycle, the WAC will no longer have enough schools to sponsor football beginning in 2013. In 2014, the lone WAC school to have a football program in 2014, New Mexico State University, will become a football-only of the Sun Belt, as will departing WAC school the University of Idaho, who is returning its other sports to the Big Sky Conference.
Five "non-AQ" teams have appeared in the seven following BCS games:
- 2005 Fiesta Bowl: Utah (MWC) defeated Pittsburgh (Big East) 35–7
- 2007 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State (WAC) defeated Oklahoma (Big 12) 43–42 in overtime
- 2008 Sugar Bowl: Hawaiʻi (WAC) lost to Georgia (SEC) 41–10
- 2009 Sugar Bowl: Utah (MWC) defeated Alabama (SEC) 31–17
- 2010 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State (WAC) defeated TCU (MWC) 17–10
- 2011 Rose Bowl: TCU (MWC) defeated Wisconsin (Big Ten) 21–19
- 2013 Orange Bowl: Northern Illinois (MAC) lost to Florida State (ACC) 31-10
Of these appearances, all were via automatic qualifying bids, except the BSU participation in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl in which BSU was selected via at-large bid.
Note that Utah and Boise State have multiple appearances. Utah became a member of the Pac-12 Conference in 2011, and TCU joined the Big 12 at the start of the 2012 season, thus becoming part of several schools in the BCS era to move from a non-AQ conference to an AQ conference (others being University of Louisville, University of South Florida, and University of Cincinnati).
All FBS teams' results and rankings from the 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 regular seasons will be used to determine whether a seventh conference earns automatic qualification for the 2013–14 bowl games.
Critics of the BCS automatic-qualifier designation claim the system discriminates against non-AQ teams by depriving these teams of the large BCS bowl game monetary payouts. These payouts are distributed equally among all BCS conference member teams, regardless of whether they appear in a BCS bowl and regardless of their performance on the playing field. In this light, some critics have claimed the BCS system operates in violation of antitrust law, since it reserves the most lucrative bowl contracts in the nation for a select group of teams based on seemingly arbitrary and discriminatory criteria. U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), has been particularly outspoken against the current system and has even called for a federal investigation into the system's legality.
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- "Bowl Championship Series FAQ" Bowl Championship Series.
- "BCS Governance" Bowl Championship Series.
- Mandel, Stewart (2010-08-18). "Would BYU be Notre Dame as a football independent ... or Navy?". Sports Illustrated (Time Inc.). Retrieved March 31, 2011.
- Mandel, Stewart (2011-03-29). "Butler and VCU should create brand new conference of elite mid-majors". Sports Illustrated (Time Inc.). Retrieved March 31, 2011.
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- "AQ conferences could grow by 1 in 2012". Bowl Championship Series. April 22, 2010.