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Haugh: Ignore the haters: N. Illinois belongs in BCS

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 10:15 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Of all the insulting misconceptions spread since Northern Illinois qualified for the Orange Bowl, the most uninformed suggests the Huskies will use the unfair opinions of the Kirk Herbstreits of the college football world for motivation.

None needed. To NIU players, it was personal long before the usually level-headed Herbstreit did them a disservice Sunday on ESPN by calling their inclusion in the Bowl Championship Series an “absolute joke.”

In the Mid-American Conference, from day one, football players use lockers that reserve an invisible spot to put the chips on their shoulders. Programs in the MAC give scholarships to athletes big-time schools overlooked or ignored, unpolished gems like NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch. Scan the NIU roster and good luck finding a player Florida State, the Jan. 1 opponent, even recruited out of high school.

These guys arrived in DeKalb already intent on proving a point, driven daily by doubts in their ability to compete at the highest level irresponsibly reflected by Herbstreit and his army of football elitists. They came committed to earning everything they got every day of their careers, which is precisely what a berth in the Orange Bowl represents.

Northern Illinois belongs in the BCS. It deserves a place as much as non-automatic qualifiers Boise State and Texas Christian and Utah and Hawaii previously did, without the scathing criticism. Like NIU this season, those mid-major schools met the criteria for BCS bowl qualifiers as agreed upon by all the conference commissioners shaking their heads Sunday.

Sure, it might be college football’s version of the Electoral College, but everybody knows the rules every season. Demeaning the credentials of an NIU team that simply followed a loophole all the way to Miami badly misses the point and borders on professional negligence. Florida State-NIU will reveal a talent disparity obvious to the untrained eye. But that’s why they play. Television ratings indeed figure to lag compared with other BCS bowls, but nobody outside Bristol, Conn., will care.

Nothing about a 4-1 record for previous non-AQ teams in BCS bowls against automatic qualifiers says joke. Nothing about NIU’s No. 15 ranking in the BCS poll, higher than the Big Ten and Big East champions, or its 12-1 record screams travesty. Nothing about NIU’s resume from a league that beat a record 16 nonconference FBS opponents makes it less worthy than five-loss Wisconsin or Louisville, the champion of the Big Least.

Apologize for nothing, NIU.

Embrace the opportunity a bunch of overachievers created for the school, the conference and themselves. Enjoy spending five weeks as college football’s Cinderella. Contrary to what anybody on TV will say repeatedly over the next month, the bowl experience remains more about you than them. Savor every moment, win or lose.

When the Butlers and Valparaisos annually put the madness in March during college basketball’s NCAA tournament, we celebrate what that says about sports. When BCS-buster NIU puts itself in position to pull off an upset for the ages in a college football bowl game, we are supposed to believe it makes a mockery of the sport? What’s the difference? Has there been a more exciting BCS bowl game recently than Boise State beating Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl?

When Herbstreit said NIU qualifying for the BCS exposed the “sad state” of college football, in a sense he was right: the state of Ohio. If Ohio State could have stayed out of trouble and avoided NCAA sanctions, the 12-0 Buckeyes might have knocked NIU out of the top 16 and made this debate moot. Or Herbstreit also could have meant the state of Pennsylvania, where Penn State serves as a constant reminder of what happens when universities in BCS conferences allow football to kill their consciences. The presence of NIU in the BCS shows an upstart program can win consistently and do things the right way, a development that should be acknowledged, not attacked.

If anybody wants to rail about something ridiculous in the BCS, look no further than how voters with agendas in various polls tried to jerry-rig the process to keep NIU lower than 16th. Big 12 coaches Bob Stoops of Oklahoma and Dana Holgorsen of West Virginia, in the most glaring example, voted NIU No. 24 — with Stoops voting his 10-2 Sooners sixth. Former Connecticut athletic director Jack Toner, 89, inexplicably left NIU off his Top 25 ballot in the Harris Poll the BCS also uses. Former NIU coach Joe Novak, one of 115 Harris voters, put integrity first and objectively ranked NIU No. 15.

Flaws indeed exist in the BCS. If the system wasn’t broken, conference commissioners never would have finally adopted a four-team playoff beginning in 2014 to fix it. College football indeed has problems. But perhaps the proudest moment in its school’s history was the wrong time to try to make NIU one of them.

Northern Illinois earned everything that came its way over the weekend — but not that.

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