By Chris Mahr
Bear with me while I overuse the Cinderella analogy to describe how Northern Illinois is heading to the Orange Bowl.
As I watched the No. 21 Huskies defeat No. 17 Kent State in a double-OT, MAC Championship Game last Friday that was just as exciting as its SEC counterpart the following day, I thought that the clock had struck midnight for the upstart conference.
The higher-ranked Golden Flashes had seemed like the surest, safest bet for the conference to unexpectedly send a team to the BCS. It seemed like there was no way that NIU could jump five whole spots to the BCS No. 16 ranking. When had the BCS ever rewarded a non-AQ team like that?
But sure enough, Prince Charming found NIU’s glass slipper as the Huskies were bestowed with a No. 15 BCS ranking and an invitation to the Orange Bowl. And in this drama, Kirk Herbstreit and his fellow wonks at ESPN dutifully played the part of the Ugly Stepsisters.
Herbstreit’s rant in particular was so unnecessarily harsh and merciless (not to mention baseless) that it became a bigger news item than the Huskies’ crashing of the BCS party itself.
But no matter how intent Herbstreit and ESPN were on preventing Northern Illinois from being fitted for its glass slipper, whine and criticize was all they could do. NIU is heading to the Orange Bowl whether people like it or not. Why more people aren’t the former is completely illogical.
The most incisive observation of how pundits started piling on both Northern Illinois and the BCS came courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel on Sunday night: “Is there any other sport in America where people DESPISE the underdog? Any sport in the world?”
It’s a sentiment that’s curiously true. The most beloved movie about the sport, Rudy, is the tale of a “five-foot-nothing, one-hundred-and-nothing” walk-on who busts his butt for two years on the Notre Dame scout team so he can see the field for two plays in his collegiate career. Yet while the sport loves underdog players, it seemingly has no room for underdog teams.
Which is ludicrous. Especially considering that the NCAA’s other big money sport, college basketball, regards underdogs as tantamount to life blood. They inject unforgettable drama into March Madness every year. They give hope to the idea (and ideal) that a combination of pluck and luck from an upstart can overcome material disadvantages on a sport’s biggest stage.
And that’s what Northern Illinois did this season. The Huskies have raced to a 12–1 record and fulfilled every requirement necessary to qualify for a BCS bowl. Anyone who has watched the team react to their earning an Orange Bowl berth and says they didn’t get chills needs to have their pulse checked.
Appreciating what Northern Illinois has done isn’t just a matter of having a greater appreciation for Cinderella ub college football. It’s also a matter of liking them more in comparison to more well-endowed but less impressive counterparts.
In this case, fellow BCS bowl teams Louisville (the Big East champion) and Wisconsin (Big Ten). The Cardinals are ranked six spots below NIU at No. 21, while Wisconsin isn’t even ranked. Louisville suffered consecutive losses late in the season to two teams that would finish a combined 12–12 in a weak Big East (Syracuse and Louisville), while Wisconsin was only the third best team in its division and only got to play for the Big Ten title on account of both Penn State and Ohio State being ineligible.
Yet somehow the chorus of critics who want to bash the BCS for selecting an unimpressive slate of bowl participants are fixated on Northern Illinois. Even though the Huskies have looked significantly better late in the season than either the Cardinals or the Badgers. Double standard, anyone?
The outcry we’ve seen since Sunday has happened before, in March Madness. ESPN’s Jay Bilas called the 2011 tournament selection of VCU “indefensible,” only to have the Rams embark on a Final Four run. Seven years before that, Billy Packer criticized the selection committee’s tabbing of St. Joseph’s as a No. 1 seed, only to see the Hawks live up to it with a run to the Elite Eight.
I’m not by any means predicting an NIU upset of Florida State, who will present by far the Huskies’ sternest test of 2012. I am saying that anyone who wants to tune in to the Orange Bowl — or, if you’re in the Miami and have $9 to spare, attend it — will watch a team that deserves to be on the same field as the Seminoles and just happens to be a Cinderella.
An army of Ugly Stepsisters be damned.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Andrew Weber/USA Today Sports