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NORTHERN ILLINOIS'S APPEARANCE IN THE ORANGE BOWL IS either a blessing or a curse, depending upon whom you ask. Fresh off a 12--1 season and MAC conference championship, the Huskies slid into the BCS picture at the 11th hour to snag a spot against Florida State. After beating Kent State in overtime of the MAC title game, Northern Illinois cracked the Top 16 in the BCS rankings by a mere 0.0404 of a point, becoming the first MAC school to ever earn a BCS berth.
But Northern Illinois's ascension into one of the sport's premier postseason venues inspired criticism in light of the fact that the Huskies lost to Big Ten cellar dweller Iowa in Week 1 and did not claim a significant nonconference win.
Deserving or not, Northern Illinois's spot in the Orange Bowl is a win for all of college football's would-be Cinderellas. "This is unprecedented for our conference and for our university," said NIU athletic director Jeff Compher. "...I am confident our fans and alumni will respond with a great presence in Miami."
Meanwhile the ACC-champion Seminoles have every reason to feel they deserve a spot in the BCS picture. Coach Jimbo Fisher's squad reached the Orange Bowl for the ninth time after getting past Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game. This is the Seminoles' first league title in Fisher's three seasons. "We've gotten over the hump," says Fisher. "Now our kids understand what it takes and how hard it is."
Both sidelines in this matchup will sport different looks than in the regular season. Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, who guided the Huskies to 21 wins in 22 games dating back to early October 2011, left to coach N.C. State after the MAC title game. Offensive coordinator Rod Carey was promoted only hours before the Huskies were selected for the Orange Bowl and will be the first head coach to make his debut in a BCS game. For Florida State, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops accepted the head-coaching job at Kentucky and so won't coach in the Orange Bowl.
If Northern Illinois—one of only three schools (Oregon and Stanford are the others) with three straight 11-win seasons—is to prove its BCS worth, it will be on the strength of a potent offensive attack. The Huskies finished the year ninth in the nation in scoring and 15th in total offense. Quarterback Jordan Lynch leads the nation in total yards (4,733) and ranks just behind Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Baylor passer Nick Florence in total offense per game. But a stifling Florida State defense, led by end Bjoern Werner and the rest of its sack-hungry defensive line, will stand in the way; the unit ranked second in the country in total defense and seventh in scoring defense.
It may be too much for the impish newcomers to topple the BCS giant Seminoles, but one thing is certainly clear: If Northern Illinois could pull off a win, that would be a victory for all nonautomatic qualifying powers in the BCS era.
The Final Score
FLORIDA STATE 35, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 24