Amid the controversy surrounding its first BCS bowl selection, Northern Illinois is determined to prove it can be the next underdog to succeed on one of college football's biggest stages.
How much of a chance it has could depend on the motivation level of opponent Florida State.
Guided by a new coach and looking to become the sixth school from a non-automatic qualifying conference to win a BCS bowl, the No. 16 Huskies try for a 13th straight victory when they face the No. 13 Seminoles in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night.
Having won 21 of 22, riding a school-record winning streak and coming off a second straight Mid-American Conference championship, Northern Illinois (12-1) is the first MAC school to earn a BCS bowl berth. Schools from non-BCS conferences are 5-2 in such bowls and have won their last three appearances in games of this kind.
The Huskies jumped six spots to finish in the top 16 of the final BCS standings, ahead of champions from the automatic qualifying Big Ten and Big East. That qualified NIU for the BCS spot.
"What a thrill for us," said Rod Carey, the Huskies' offensive coordinator who was named head coach after Dave Doeren accepted the North Carolina State job Dec. 1, less than 24 hours after a 44-37 double-overtime victory over Kent State in the league title game.
As NIU celebrated its fifth straight bowl selection and perhaps the most significant moment in the program's history, some in the national media branded the Huskies unworthy of such a high-profile game because of their overall schedule and an 18-17 loss to a 4-8 Iowa team.
Though SEC runner-up Georgia, Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma and ACC power Clemson were left out by virtue of a seemingly flawed BCS system, the Huskies won't apologize for their accomplishment.
"We're 12-1,'' quarterback Jordan Lynch said. "We faced tons of adversity this year. We won tons of games. ... We definitely deserve to be in there.''
NIU might be a heavy underdog against Florida State (11-2), but Orange Bowl officials are excited about having the latest BCS buster trying to pull off an upset. TCU beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season, Boise State defeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl the previous season in a matchup of non-BCS teams and Utah knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after 2008.
"It's a great story,'' Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said. "I think we'll be just fine.''
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher will be trying make sure his team takes nothing for granted in the first meeting between the schools.
"To me I don't agree with (the negativity)," Fisher said. "It's disrespectful to Northern Illinois, and we definitely don't think that way. We know one thing, Northern Illinois is going to be ready to play when they get here and hopefully we'll be ready to play too."
NIU entered the bowl season ranked ninth in the FBS with 40.8 points and 250.2 rushing yards per contest. Lynch was a second-team All-American all-purpose selection who has 1,771 rushing yards and 11 straight games of at least 100 on the ground - both FBS single-season records for a quarterback. His 4,733 total yards are also most in the nation.
"You're going to have to (stop him) as a group," Fisher said. "We're going to have to have a great team effort. We're going to have to be very sound in everything we do and we'll have to mix things up, give him multiple looks and do different things."
With career highs of 71 receptions for 1,054 yards and 12 touchdowns, senior Martel Moore provides capable support for Lynch. Junior Akeem Daniels has rushed for 240 yards and five TDs on 29 carries in the last two games.
"Our team has earned this by going out and doing what they have to do on the field," Carey said. "It's going to be a challenge for us, we're going to have to do things right, and do what we do, and we feel like we'll have a good opportunity."
Led by All-American defensive end Bjoern Werner (13 sacks, 18 tackles for loss), Florida State ranks second in the FBS with 253.4 total yards allowed and seventh with 15.1 points given up. The Seminoles are making their seventh BCS bowl appearance and first since a 26-23 triple-overtime loss to Penn State in the Orange Bowl after 2005.
Florida State began the season ranked seventh and rose as high as third before losing 17-16 at N.C. State on Oct. 6. Its national title hopes ended with a 37-26 loss to Florida on Nov. 24.
In the ACC title game Dec. 1, the heavily favored Seminoles were shut out in the second half and needed an interception in the final minute of a 21-15 win over Georgia Tech.
They will also be playing this game without defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who was hired as coach at Kentucky late last month.
Stoops' departure and a hardly convincing ACC championship performance, combined with a potential bowl mismatch to conclude an underachieving season, raises the question of just how motivated Florida State will be. The Seminoles insist their complete focus will be on the Huskies.
"You either want to play for a national championship or a BCS bowl," senior quarterback E.J. Manuel said. "You want to go out there and play well. This is huge."
Manuel set career highs of 3,101 passing yards, 22 TDs and 284 rushing yards to lead an offense that averages 39.9 points. Sophomore James Wilder Jr. (583 yards, 11 TDs) is one of three Seminoles to rush for at least 550 yards and was the ACC title game MVP with 69 and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
NIU ranks 18th in the nation with 19.0 points allowed per game, but it's yielding 139.0 on the ground.
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