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Northern Illinois is about to go where no Mid-American Conference team has gone before.
A league tied into a postseason diet of pizza and potatoes, a mid-major conference with minor-league bowl affiliations, is about to breathe the rarest of air.
NIU’s Huskies busted the BCS and are heading to the Orange Bowl, to the land of multi-million-dollar opportunity, to play a big-time opponent in Florida State.
A year ago, Northern appeared in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala., which offered payouts of $750,000 per team. The Orange Bowl will pay more than $15 million per team, a windfall that NIU will share with its MAC brethren.
For this to have happened, the Huskies had to finish among the top 16 in the BCS standings, ahead of at least one champion from an automatic qualifying conference — in this case they out-ranked two such teams — and ahead of any other non-qualifier.
All of that happened.
And before it could, a lot of dominoes had to drop just right. NIU had to win the MAC championship game over Kent State, which was above it in the penultimate BCS standings; Nebraska had to lose to Wisconsin; UCLA had to lose to Stanford, and Texas had to lose to Kansas State.
Yes, a lot of check marks went on the Huskies’ wish list. Good for them. Good for the MAC, which will have a record seven teams playing this postseason. Good for little guys everywhere.
Most of the national commentators and columnists disagree, of course, that a one-loss team without a single signature win belongs among the BCS giants. Kirk Herbstreit, an ESPN analyst, said Sunday night that putting Northern Illinois in that slot “is an absolute joke … I can’t even believe we’re having this discussion.”
Well, believe it. The system is certainly flawed, which is why it is on its last leg, but the rules and formulas allow for this possibility just as they allow for an awful conference like the Big East to have an automatic seat at the table, just as they allow for a five-loss Big Ten champion, Wisconsin, to claim a BCS berth in the Rose Bowl.
So one of the big boys, one of the moneybag programs, will have to play elsewhere and subsist on less. Some high-profile coach already making $4 million-plus a year will have to settle for a smaller bonus check. Cry us a river.
In probably the biggest BCS upset ever, non-automatic qualifier Boise State shocked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2006 season.
Oklahoma was the big loser again Sunday. The Sooners would have been an at-large selection this time if NIU hadn’t bulled its way into the top 16.
Bob Stoops and some of his fellow Big 12 Conference coaches did their best to thwart the Huskies. In the final USA Today Coaches’ Poll, four of the five Big 12 coaches who vote either had the Sooners as high as No. 6 or NIU as low as No. 24. Stoops’ ballot reflected both of those things.
I understand what they were doing and why, but shame on them anyway. Fortunately it didn’t work. NIU still rose to 16th in the Coaches’ Poll, one of the three elements that determine the BCS rankings.
The MAC has six coaches who vote and most of them submitted reasonable ballots. Toledo’s Matt Campbell, for example, had Oklahoma 11th and NIU 14th, and five of the MAC voters were in that general ballpark. Ball State’s Pete Lembo, meanwhile, put the Sooners 10th and NIU 21st. Maybe he didn’t care about all that cash coming his program’s way. Go figure.
Campbell’s Rockets will be making a first-ever appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. UT will meet No. 18 Utah State on Dec. 15.
And Bowling Green’s players and fans will follow in rival Toledo’s footsteps to the Military Bowl. The Rockets won a thriller there last December, edging Air Force 42-41, and BG will face No. 24 San Jose at RFK Stadium on Dec. 27.
All of the MAC’s bowl eligible teams — including Kent, Ball State, Ohio, and Central Michigan — received postseason assignments. The league had never had more than five bowl teams in any single season.
This year, there were more opportunities than might normally exist, and the MAC was happy for so many doors to be cracked.
And no door was bigger than the one Northern Illinois pushed open and walked through, straight into the BCS.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.