Florida State (11-2) vs. NIU (12-1)Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
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There's always plenty of action down on South Beach around New Year's. This January, there will also be plenty of MACtion: Northern Illinois became the first MAC team to reach a BCS game, crashing the Orange Bowl to take on heavily favored Florida State. But instead of toasting the visitors, everyone from television executives (under their breath) to TV commentators (out loud) has questioned NIU's inclusion in the game.
Consider The Herbstreit Referendum this game's ultimate storyline after ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit lambasted the Huskies on ESPN's bowl selection show. Was he stumping for his angry pal, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops? Or are the Huskies really feeble foils for the Seminoles? If there's one thing Florida State has done consistently this past decade, it's play down to its opponents and deliver unthinkable clunker losses. (This season's loss to NC State being the latest example.) Will quarterback Jordan Lynch and the Huskies deliver enough MACtion to get an equal or opposite reaction from Herbstreit and the other doubters?
Points of interest
1. Ending the drought: It's hard to believe, but Florida State hasn't won a BCS game since the 1999 season, when it beat Virginia Tech in the second BCS championship game. Before apathy and atrophy overtook the program at the end of Bobby Bowden's tenure, FSU was a regular in the top-tier bowl games, appearing in nine straight from 1992-2000. But the Seminoles haven't appeared in a game of this magnitude since 2005, an inexcusable drought for an allegedly elite program. A loss to Northern Illinois would be a giant step back for a program that can't seem to get out of its own way.
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Senior quarterback EJ Manuel, who has bridged the gap between the Bowden and Jimbo Fisher eras, said the Orange Bowl is an important step for the Seminoles. He isn't falling into the Herbstreit trap. "We're not taking these guys lightly," Manuel said of NIU.
2. Ground Jordan: Lynch, NIU's dual-threat quarterback, put up eye-popping numbers all season. He leads the nation in rushing (1,771) and total offense (4,733) and is tied for second in points responsible for (258). Lynch sounded offended when I asked him if he thought NIU could move the ball against FSU. He believes his ability to run will be important. "My legs are important in almost every game," Lynch said. "It keeps defenses honest in what they do."
Those who haven't seen Lynch shouldn't expect a frantic scrambler. He's a quarterback who doubles as a power back. "He's a tailback, he's a downhill runner," former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said of Lynch's bruising style.
3. Simple does it: Three different Huskies went out of their way to point out the simplicity of the FSU defense. But as the old cliché goes, the Jimmys and Joes are often more important than the Xs and Os. FSU has three top-tier draft prospects on its defensive line, including Bjoern Werner, who led the ACC with 13 sacks and 18 tackles for loss this season. Werner projects as a top 10 pick in April's draft.
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Northern Illinois doesn't expect anything too fancy from the schematically vanilla Seminoles. "They're physically gifted and they know it and will play you straight and say, 'We're better than you,'" said NIU offensive lineman Matt Krempel. On New Year's Day, we'll see if they are right.
Can Lynch play with the big boys? Lynch has only been a starter for a year. His body of work, including a 12-game winning streak and a bushel of broken records, can't be questioned. But the quality of the opponent is about to take a drastic up-tick. Lynch will have to make quicker decisions, as FSU's team speed will close running lanes quicker and put pressure on Lynch that he hasn't yet experienced. A strong performance here, though, and Lynch should enter next season as a top-five Heisman candidate.
NIU's aerial assault: The FSU game plan seems obvious: stack the box to slow down Lynch and make him beat the Seminoles over the top. Lynch knows this and likes it. "If they try taking me away and stacking the box we have Martel Moore and Tommylee (Lewis) on the outsides, and their speed can match up with Florida State's speed," Lynch said. "Keeping them one-on-one is a great matchup for us." Cubit's Western Michigan team played NIU this year, and the coach said Lynch's arm strength was what surprised him in live action. If Moore and Lewis can find space in man coverage, Lynch will need to get them the ball.
18: NIU ranks No. 18 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 19 points per game. That's an impressive number considering how frequently the Huskies score, a rate that gives their opponents numerous opportunities of their own. The Huskies play a four-man front and pride themselves on getting pressure without blitzing. That front will face a stiff challenge attempting to contain the mobile and dangerous Manuel.
Florida State has been so consistently inconsistent, especially under bright lights, that it's hard to be too optimistic about the 'Noles. But the reality is that they're exponentially more talented than the Huskies. Best not to overthink this one and simply watch superior athletes dominate, especially in the trenches.
Florida State 31, NIU 11