Thursday, December 6, 2012

Northern Illinois’ Grand Opportunity

By Kevin Beane

I didn't watch ESPN's bowl selection show, so I found out that Northern Illinois was going to the Orange Bowl on Facebook. "What a joke!" was the comment. I thought he must be kidding, or mistaken. Nope.

Somehow, the rule escaped me: if the champion from a non-BCS conference is ranked in the top 16 and is ranked higher than a BCS champion, they automatically get a BCS berth.

Northern Illinois barely made the criteria, finishing with a rank of No. 15 and ahead of Louisville from the awful Big East and Wisconsin, who actually earned their spot in the Big Ten championship game by finishing third in the Big Ten Leaders division behind two teams on probation.

I've been a vocal proponent of the mid-majors for years, and even I have to say, that is way too generous. Top 10, maybe. Or finish ahead of three BCS champions. But there is no-way no-how that Northern Illinois is better or more deserving than Texas A&M, Georgia, or Oklahoma going by talent.

When teams like Boise State or TCU have crashed the BCS party, the consensus has been that they deserved it, and indeed non-BCS teams have done very well in BCS bowls. This is not the case with Northern Illinois. The only decent team they beat was Kent, and it took overtime. The only BCS foes they faced were Iowa and Kansas, who finished a collective 2-15 in their conferences. They lost to Iowa and defeated Kansas by a touchdown. Both games were played in Illinois.

The problem with NIU getting a bowl bid is not simply just that other teams are better or more deserving. That happens every year, and it when it does happen, I prefer the powers that be err on the side of the little guy.

No, the problem is that NIU just might be undeserving enough to get blown away by Florida State, and set the mid-major cause back a decade. Column after column has been written excoriating NIU's inclusion in the Orange Bowl. Pundits and pressman are not prepared to give NIU a chance. The popular opinion deck is stacked against them. If they lose 52-0, such pundits will all pat themselves on the back and say, "See?"

This is a problem, because public opinion sways the kingmakers, and there will be a college-basketball-like selection committee determining who gets into the national four-team playoffs starting next year. So hypothetically, when a 13-0 Western Michigan team who comfortably beat a decent Michigan State team actually deserves to be in the conversation, the committee will say, "Bah! Remember the Northern Illinois debacle? I don't need to see my name puked all over every blog," and give the final playoff spot to a 3-loss South Carolina team.

So this is the troublesome template NIU is working under, but now that I've buried them, let me also praise them. This might be a good game. Northern Illinois crushed the MAC this year in the regular season, finishing undefeated in conference play and allowing only one, Toledo, within single digits. They played the other undefeated-in-the-MAC team in the conference championship game, and won. Their lone loss to Iowa was by a single point, on a late touchdown, in their first game of the year. They are better now.

Further, I'm not seeing much beef with Louisville being in a BCS game, nor Wisconsin, who will play in a Rose Bowl featuring two teams with seven losses between them.

The rules got Wisconsin and Louisville in their bowls, and the rules got Northern Illinois in theirs. I think the complex BCS formula probably has it "correct" in having NIU ahead of Louisville and Wisconsin.

So here's the deal, Northern Illinois. You got this opportunity, and now, you have to make the very most of it. I know you all give it 110% in every game, but in this one it's gotta be 120%. Each of you players must play the game of your life. No turnovers, no stupid penalties, no stupid mistakes. Play smart and clear-eyed. Force Florida State into lots of turnovers, stupid penalties and stupid mistakes. Stranger things have happened, and Florida State is hardly invincible.

Sorry for the hyperbole, but so, so much is riding on this game. More than just for Northern Illinois University, or the MAC (and I have a vested interest here as an Akron fan), but for the entire college football landscape. As I've written before, with streamlined conditioning techniques and coaching prior to college, the gap of talent superiority between a major program and a mid-major gets thinner ever year. Perceptions, meanwhile, change much more slowly. And that is why, Northern Illinois, as Dumbledore told Harry Potter, you must not fail. You must not fail.

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