Over the past two decades, the self anointed Worldwide Leader in Sports has turned SportsCenter into an unwatchable mess, dumbed down its Sunday NFL pregame show into must miss TV, surrounded Karl Ravech with a blathering group of malcontents and misfits on Baseball Tonight, let Digger Phelps carry on his matching highlighter-tie combo to tedious lengths, foisted screaming, incoherent “columnists” Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless on the public for hours at a time each weekday, and generally removed any reason to ever watch anything on the network that isn’t a game that you can’t get anywhere else.
The lone exception had been anything involving Chris Fowler or Rece Davis doing college football.
That ended with a thud on Sunday night. A thud normally reserved for sacks of wet cement or fictional turkeys being released from a helicopter on Thanksgiving Eve in Cincinnati, Ohio.
ESPN was airing its annual (and unnecessary, since the matchups had leaked out hours earlier) BCS Selection Show. The big news was that Notre Dame and Alabama were going to play for the national championship. The next biggest news was that little Northern Illinois University had busted into the crummy snobatorium that is the soon to be defunct Bowl Championship Series*.
* Somebody needs to explain to them what a series is, because it isn’t five unrelated games.
When Rece Davis announced that NIU had moved into the top 15 in the BCS standings and had automatically qualified for the BCS, he seemed excited. Then he threw it to the Mensa membership meeting at the desk and David Pollock and Jesse Palmer both said NIU didn’t belong in the game. Not only was it an asinine, tone deaf stance to take, even if it had been correct it would have been irrelevant. Did I mention that NIU had automatically qualified for a BCS bowl? A few years ago, afraid that they would lose an anti-trust suit, the BCS cronies put in a laughably complicated, and completely unlikely scenario into place that gave the illusion that a non “automatic qualifier” conference could get a team into the BCS. It would take champions from AQ conference having lousy records, it would take a top 16 finish by that non AQ school and it would cap conference representation to the BCS at two teams per.
So when all of that unlikeliness happened, and Northern Illinois found itself in a spot where a bowl had to take them, why wasn’t that a great thing? Football is the only college sport where a team can’t play its way to a championship game. In any other sport if you win your conference tournament you get into the big tournament and if you keep winning, you get to keep going until somebody beats you. Not in college football, where teams from the MAJORITY of the conferences in the nation have no chance to win a championship. So when one of them forces its way into one of the glorified exhibition games that make up the non-championship games in the BCS, why isn’t it the coolest thing ever?
You expected Pollock, a walking head injury, to make no sense, and while Palmer is a pretty solid analyst, he’s still likely pumped up on super-hightest-grade Penicillin from his stint on The Bachelor, but when the golden boy, Kirk Herbstreit, chimed in from his childishly decorated home office to say that, “to put Northern Illinois in the BCS is a joke,” well, that was unexpectedly moronic. Kirk then said that it showed “the sad state of college football.”
So the team that has won 21 of its last 22 games, back to back MAC championships, three straight MAC west titles, that has the nation’s leading rusher, and that same player is second in the nation in total offense, they’re the ones demonstrating the “sad state of college football.”
Not the five loss mediocrity that’s going to the Rose Bowl because teams it finished behind in its own half of the Big Ten, are on probation for allowing a pederast to run amok on campus, and for trading football gear for tattoos. Not the team NIU replaced in the Orange Bowl, the mighty Cardinals of Louisville who have lost two of three, including a loss to Connecticut which is actually worse than NIU’s season opening, one point loss to Iowa, and hell, Louisville is still IN the BCS.
No, the “sad state” is exemplified by the Huskies, who play in a conference that cranked out more bowl eligible teams than the ACC and the Big East. Herbstreit said that unlike other non-AQ teams who have qualified for the BCS, NIU “wasn’t a story” until a couple of weeks ago. What does that even mean? The ones who make the “stories” are the stuffed shirts like Herbstreit himself. Your ignorance doesn’t denigrate NIU’s achievements.
The Mid-American Conference cranks out NFL players every year at an astonishing clip, they have been so prolific at knocking off teams in non-conference games that the big boys don’t want to schedule them any more. NIU had to burn a home game this year to get to play Iowa at Soldier(s) Field, and turn most of the gate over to the Hawkeyes. They got to play a Big 12 team at home…but it had to be Kansas. In years past, NIU has beaten Wisconsin in Madison, in 2003 they beat #14 Maryland, #21 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, beat Iowa State in Ames, finished 10-2 and didn’t get invited to any bowl game. NIU was the first non AQ team to ever crack the BCS rankings at all.
So excuse me if I choose not to give a shit what Kirk Herbstreit has to say about this.
Oklahoma didn’t qualify for the BCS, but they’ll be fine playing in the Cotton Bowl in the JerryDome. Georgia is stuck in the Captial One Bowl because there were two other SEC teams that made the BCS and they’ll survive. Clemson is going to…oh, who gives a shit about Clemson?
The fact is that on New Year’s Day, the mighty NIU Huskies are going to run onto the field at the Orange Bowl and play Florida State. No matter the result, they are a team for ages. They’ll always be THE Orange Bowl team at NIU. They are the Hickory Huskers walking onto the floor at Butler Fieldhouse, the Butler Bulldogs themselves playing in back to back national championship games, and every other underdog who ever laced them up in anything. The system is gamed against the little guy (if you can call a research university of 25,000 the little guy), but the little guy shoved his way in this time. They’ll be outmanned by FSU and the second ranked defense in the nation. But they’re used to it. Every MAC team is supposed to be outmanned when they play a team from a real conference. But you know what? They have a way of hanging around and winning their share.
Most bowl games suck. They’re played in half empty stadiums, too many of them involve teams with four or five or even six losses, and few are ever memorable. But this one’s going to be. For better or worse, Northern Illinois has wandered into the clubhouse at the country club, they’ve sat down and put their feet up on the table and they’re drinking cheap domestic beer out of a can.
And this alum, for one, couldn’t be prouder.