What a weekend for Northern Illinois: Win a conference championship, lose a coach and bust the BCS.
The Huskies are headed to the Orange Bowl, set to make their Bowl Championship Series debut against Florida State. Northern Illinois won the Mid-American Conference title on Friday, lost coach Dave Doeren to North Carolina State on Saturday, and then spent Sunday anxiously waiting to see if it cracked the top 16 in the final BCS standings.
By 0.0404 points, the Huskies did just that and will play in Miami on Jan. 1 as their reward.
"We are sure excited," said Rod Carey, the former Northern Illinois offensive assistant who was promoted to head coach Sunday evening, just before learning the team made the Orange Bowl. "It's been a crazy weekend up here at Northern Illinois."
The MAC champions (12-1) were 15th in the final BCS standings. Finishing in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of a qualifying conference - they actually finished ahead of two, Big East winner Louisville and Big Ten titlist Wisconsin - meant the Huskies were automatically BCS-bound, earning them this date with the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Seminoles (11-2).
Northern Illinois is the first MAC school to reach the BCS. The Huskies were 21st in last week's BCS standings, meaning they not only needed to beat Kent State - which entered championship week as another BCS hopeful - in the MAC title game to have a shot, they also needed some help to reach the top 16. And enough help came, particularly with Nebraska losing badly in the Big Ten title game, along with UCLA and Texas both falling over the weekend.
So it's the Huskies and Seminoles, a matchup that surely very few people would have expected when the season began.
"There's nowhere that's more tradition-rich than the Orange Bowl," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
And while Northern Illinois will be a fun story line throughout bowl season, the Huskies earned their way into the conversation. Since last Oct. 2, Northern Illinois is 21-1, the best record in the country. For comparison's sake, that's two more wins than Alabama and four more than Notre Dame - the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish are this year's title-game qualifiers - over that stretch.
It will likely be cast as an offense vs. defense matchup. Florida State is second nationally in total defense and seventh in scoring defense, while Northern Illinois is ninth in scoring offense and 15th in total offense.
"We are very excited to host two conference champions," Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said.
Of course, the Huskies piled up much of their numbers against teams that aren't exactly prime-time, Saturday-night caliber. Northern Illinois beat Army by a point, had to rally late to beat one-win Kansas by a mere touchdown, plus struggled a bit with Toledo before winning by seven.
The Huskies do have what they consider to be some solid resume points - a 12-game winning streak, tying Ohio State and Notre Dame for the longest current run in the nation, and a quarterback who is widely considered to be a star even without being a household name. Jordan Lynch ranks third nationally in total offense at 364.1 yards per game, behind only Baylor's Nick Florence (387.7) and Texas A&M's Heisman-hopeful Johnny Manziel (383.3).
"We're 12-1," Lynch told ESPN. "We faced tons of adversity this year. We won tons of games. ... We definitely deserve to be in there."
In fact, all that separated Northern Illinois from being perfect this season was one measly point.
If it wasn't for an 18-17 loss against Iowa on Sept. 1, the Huskies might have been coming to Miami with an undefeated record. Northern Illinois led Iowa by eight points with 10 minutes to play, then gave up the game-deciding touchdown with 2:15 left.
Florida State earned its Orange Bowl trip by topping Georgia Tech 21-15 in the ACC title game on Saturday night.
For Florida State, it's the ninth trip to the Orange Bowl and the Seminoles' first since the end of the 2005 season - a triple-overtime defeat to Penn State, in a game that pitted Joe Paterno against Bobby Bowden.
The Seminoles have been in more Orange Bowls than Northern Illinois has been in bowls, period. This trip to Miami will be the eighth postseason game for the Huskies, who lost to South Florida in the International Bowl three seasons ago, then beat Fresno State (Humanitarian Bowl) and Arkansas State (GoDaddy.com Bowl) in the past two years.
The stakes are a tad higher this time around.
"This will go down as a seminal day in the history of our university and of our football program," Northern Illinois athletic director Jeff Compher said.
The Huskies' getting into the BCS mix came at Oklahoma's expense.
Oklahoma (10-2) won a share of the Big 12 title and lost only to Kansas State and Notre Dame. Kansas State earned the Big 12's automatic bid to the Fiesta Bowl, but the Sooners seemed like a lock to get an at-large bid - most likely to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to play Florida.
Instead, Louisville is going there to meet the Gators, and Oklahoma is on the outside looking in of the BCS picture despite finishing 11th in the final standings, ahead of four teams that will actually be playing in the biggest-money games.
The argument will rage for a while - does a team that lost to Iowa, a Hawkeyes team which finished the year on a six-game losing streak, actually belong in the BCS?
Northern Illinois gets a chance to prove why or why not in four weeks.
"You don't get in this game unless you're a great football team," Fisher said. "They're a great football team. They've earned the right to be here."
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