The life of a BCS bowl representative in late-November is normally pretty ostentatious. The nation’s best college football programs roll out the proverbial red carpet in hope of swooning the selection committee from “X” Bowl into choosing their school to participate in the Bowl Championship Series.
The money involved in said decision is astronomical, and a fat check from the BCS can help take an athletic department from deficit to surplus in the blink of an eye. And while the amount of leeway involved in selecting teams at-large to participate in the series is minimal, schools still lavish these reps as if they were visiting kings.
Yet, on a Tuesday night in late-November, Fiesta Bowl reps are sitting in a communal luxury box in DeKalb, IL. The amenities they’re used to in places like Oklahoma and Oregon are nowhere to be found.
There’s a small buffet and an even smaller bar in a single luxury box that connects by a half-flight of metal stairs to the press box. There’s one men’s room and one lady’s room for all occupants (in both boxes), and at half-time the line will extend the length of the box.
The NIU Huskies hosted the Western Michigan Broncos in a MAC game, and Fiesta Bowl officials were in attendance because the Huskies just may qualify for an automatic berth, and the Fiesta Bowl is their likely landing spot.
It’s not ideal for the Fiesta Bowl, but in the 16th and final season of the BCS, there’s no way around it. NIU currently meets all the criteria, and if the BCS were to select today, NIU would be booking New Year’s flights to Arizona.
It’s no secret that the Fiesta Bowl would prefer a team like Wisconsin that travels well and would undoubtedly fill their ticket allotment, but they’ll welcome the prodigal underdogs to Scottsdale nonetheless.
However, what’s ironic about the idea of the Fiesta Bowl begrudgingly extending an invitation to the NIU Huskies because they have no choice is the fact that NIU is positioned to crash the Big Bowl party on a pretty regular basis. They’ve dominated the MAC, given AQ conference schools on their schedule nightmares and they’ve racked up an astounding 45 wins in the last four seasons.
Last year they cracked the BCS, becoming the first MAC school in history to earn an invitation. This year, they’re undefeated and are poised to crash the BCS again.
If they do, they’d be just the second non-AQ school in history (TCU) to garner BCS bids in back-to-back seasons. That’d be a heck of an accomplishment for any non-BCS school, but it’s especially unprecedented for the MAC. Yet, NIU Heisman hopeful Jordan Lynch apparently envisioned it all when he signed with the program in 2009.
“I always set high expectation for myself. I believe in myself and I believe in this team,” Lynch said on Tuesday night. “I knew coming into Northern Illinois the program was on the rise. I saw what Coach Kill, Coach Doeren and Coach Carey were doing, and I did see visions of it all.”
NIU very clearly raised their profile, thanks in large part to a sustained period of success that built upon a foundation created by Joe Novak from 1996-2007. What Novak did in building NIU as a premier program in the MAC after rejoining the conference in 1998 was nothing short of remarkable considering he won three games in his first three seasons.
However, Novak was able to get players like Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe who put distinguishable stamps on the programs history. From 2002-2005, the NIU Huskies won the MAC West three times.
“What happened back in 2003 was that we sorta paved the way for a team like Boise State because we were 10-2 and we didn’t go to a bowl game,” Western Michigan head coach and former NIU wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck said after Tuesday’s game. “After that we saw what happened with Boise, but I felt like we kinda got people talking like, ‘What happens if this team makes it to the BCS?’ It was gonna be this big controversy because we were ranked 12th in the nation at one point.”
When Novak retired after a tough 2-10 season in 2007, the program rebounded again under Jerry Kill, then Dave Doeren and now Rod Carey.
They’ve been to five straight bowl games, and regardless of the outcome in next Friday’s MAC Championship Game, they’ll go bowling for a sixth consecutive year. However, a win may mean MUCH more for NIU.
It’d mean another conference title for the Huskies and one more crack at the BCS.
Obviously a chance to play a premier opponent on national TV is an opportunity to significantly raise the profile of your program, but the influx of money that the school and the conference will see regardless of the outcome will be welcome.
Also, a big performance in the MAC title game could assure that quarterback Jordan Lynch is invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. Suffice to say, that’d be another profile-raising endeavor for the NIU Huskies.
However, what may be the most critical aspect of NIU’s dominance is that it stands to elevate the level of play in the entire conference.
Last season, the MAC had two teams ranked in the Top 20 in the BCS heading into championship week, with the winner of the MAC Championship between NIU and the Kent State Golden Flashes essentially earning an automatic berth. This year, the MAC is the only non-AQ conference with two nine-win teams.
They’re also the only non-AQ conference with four eight-win teams and the first non-AQ conference in history with six bowl eligible teams by Nov. 5.
The conference as a whole is playing much better football, and as college football transitions into a playoff next season, the only chance for a school like NIU to earn their way into the Final Four will be if the selection committee views their conference as a strength.
“Northern Illinois has taken the (mid-major) thing to an absolute extreme. How cool is that?” Fleck said.
“A Mid-American conference team–two years in a row–(could) go to the BCS. Now our next thing to raise the bar is that (the MAC) has got to get into the four-team playoff. That’s a heck of a goal, and I’m sure Northern Illinois is going to set that goal for next year.”
And while the idea of a Mid-American Conference team playing in the inaugural college football playoff remains far-fetched, the fact of the matter is, that if any team is positioned to do it, it might be NIU. They’ll lose their all-everything in Jordan Lynch, but in terms of where they’re at as a program, they’re the “It” non-AQ.
Boise State is really the only other school with the kind of clout as NIU from a non-power conference, but the Broncos have been down the past couple seasons. Meanwhile, the other perennial non-AQ (for lack of a better term heading into the playoff era) teams like TCU and Utah have moved on to power conferences.
Next year the NIU Huskies play at Northwestern and Arkansas. In 2015, they’ll play in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes, and if they can begin to schedule better and win, and then you combine that with the rising tide of the Mid-American Conference, NIU could be that next dominant non-AQ school.
That being said, NIU head coach Rod Carey seems indifferent to any talk of a playoff when he’s still got a MAC championship to win. When I asked if he thought Coach Fleck’s suggestion that we could eventually see a MAC school in the playoff was a feasible option, he stated bluntly:
“I have no idea. I don’t know. Ask other coaches. Maybe we can talk about it in January, but I don’t even know what that looks like right now. There’s just too many rules and things.”
Perhaps NIU’s dominance is a brief blip in college football’s history. They’ve had a six-year string where they’ve started the two most prolific quarterbacks in school history and they’ve managed to catch a couple AQ teams who were struggling when they played them.
But, perhaps it’s something more. They’ve invested a lot of time and money into resurrecting their football program, and while the press box and luxury box are still lagging behind in opulence, you can see the money elsewhere. The stadium is one of the better facilities in the MAC and the indoor practice facility and weightroom is also the best in the conference.
NIU has seen four different head coaches in the past decade, yet they’ve been able to win under all of them. Now, they appear to be taking it to the next level, and while I don’t know if they can earn a spot in the new playoff, I expect they’ll be hosting a few more representatives of big-time bowl games in the near future.