It’s the question on everybody’s mind after the final BCS rankings came out on Sunday night: How could a school that was completely off the radar two weeks ago now be among the top 15 teams in the nation? How did a one-loss MAC school earn its way into the BCS?
As the numbers came up on ESPN’s screens, and the revelation began to sink in that the Huskies would be headed to Miami to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. An ecstatic uproar arose in DeKalb, while Sooner teeth began to gnash in Norman as the reality sunk in — NIU’s rise was Oklahoma’s downfall.
So why, exactly, are the Huskies headed to Miami? How did the MAC champion capture enough votes and register on enough computers to vault six spots in the only BCS standing that truly matters in a season?
The truth is… Northern Illinois earned their spot, fair and square, battling the perpetual perception that a mid-major will only ever embarass itself if given a main-stage billing with a blue-blood powerhouse all along the way. There are pundits (from Herbstreit on down) who have decried this judgment. But if they’d paid any attention to the totality of FBS football, they might very well have seen this surge coming.
If you dive into the numbers, it really is fascinating how off-the-radar the Huskies were even up until two weeks ago… and also how deserving of this opportunity they have proven themselves all season long. In a season when the MAC was ascendant, their conference champion is doubtlessly deserving of becoming the next great BCS Buster.
Why? Well… let’s dig into a few facets of Northern Illinois’ rise to #15 in the country, according to that infernal system that has just wrapped up its penultimate season…
BCS RANKINGS ANALYSIS
|BCS RANK||BCS||PLAYED THAT WEEK|
|2-Dec||15||0.3276||W 44-37 (2 OT) v. Kent State (FRI 11/30 – MAC Chmp. @ Ford Field/Detroit)|
|25-Nov||21||0.1936||W 49-7 @ Eastern Michigan (FRI 11/23)|
|18-Nov||26||0.0633||W 31-24 v. Toledo (WED 11/14)|
|4-Nov||31||0.0326||W 63-0 v. Massachusetts (SAT 11/3)|
|28-Oct||33||0.0155||W 48-34 @ Western Michigan (SAT 10/27)|
|21-Oct||37||0.0040||W 37-7 @ Akron (SAT 10/20)|
|14-Oct||41||0.0005||W 45-3 v. Buffalo (SAT 10/13)|
When you look at their rise in ranking and their BCS coefficient, and compare it to the MAC schedule they played over that period, it is easy to see why guys like Herbstreit and the whole Sooner Nation is disgusted by the system. But there are a few things to keep in mind:
- All NIU could do was play the schedule before them. It is something that simply cannot be said enough. Have other teams played harder schedules? Yes, they certainly have. But NIU won, and kept winning, and kept themselves within range for a series of fortuitous results to lead to their salvation.
- This isn’t a new system. The clause (section 3 of the BCS selection procedures) providing non-AQ teams with a chance to automatically earn a BCS berth by reaching the top 16 and finishing ahead of a BCS conference champion has been in place since 2006, when the BCS guidelines were altered to improve inclusiveness in the wake of Utah’s landmark win over Pitt in 2004. As Will Muschamp would say, we knew the rules before the season started and we have to accept them.
- Northern Illinois is not to blame for the invocation of subsection B of section 3 of the automatic qualification procedures for the BCS. You can thank Louisville (the highest-ranked Big East team at 21st) and Wisconsin (the Big East champion ranked 26th) and a slew of other teams. We’ll get to them more later.
First, though, let’s look deeper at the data. How did Northern Illinois climb in the human polls?
The humans did their damnedest to keep Northern Illinois off the Radar. On October 14, only two coaches had the Huskies on their ballot (or one coach had them 24th). Without those two points, they would have been completely off the initial BCS ranking of 2012. As it was, they’re the 41st team in line nationally at that point. A week later, they beat 1-6 Akron and slowly made their climb up into the public consciousness. As the weeks advanced, they consolidated their position in the “Others Receiving Votes” section of both the Harris Poll and the Coaches’ Poll.
Had Toledo not lost to Ball State the weekend before, Northern Illinois would have faced one ranked team when they beat the Rockets on Wednesday ESPN MACtion on November 14. The nation had finally had a prime-time taste of dual-threat QB Jordan Lynch, who threw for over 400 yards, ran for over 160 and tossed three touchdown passes to beat Toledo 31-24. In the next installment of the human polls the following Sunday, they vaulted into the top 25 of both polls after having hovered just outside the main listings for several weeks.
A Friday night showcase game kept them fresh in pollsters’ minds; that they trounced an Eastern Michigan team everyone expected them to trounce only helped matters, with Lynch and Akeem Daniels gashing the Eagles defense and EMU unable to find much room to operate in the air or on the ground. 8-0, MAC West champions, they climbed five spots in both human polls to set up a top-20 showdown against Dri Archer and the Golden Flashes of Kent State.
A win against Kent State was significant. In successfully defending their MAC crown, the Huskies took advantage of another Friday-night thriller to cement their spot in pollsters’ memories. Then it came down to getting the cards to shake out right… but before we look at the Championship Saturday Armageddon that became Northern Illinois’ salvation, let’s look at the computers and how they dealt with NIU through the eight weeks of the BCS standings in 2012:
The truth is that it was humans who gave Northern Illinois the impetus to vault those spots, but they also started to rate higher on the computers’ radars once the numbers were compiled and they played two highly ranked teams in their final three games. This is an all-facets victory for the Huskies, one where they fought those perceptions to rise high enough to force the BCS’s hand.
What we must also not forget is that, even after securing the MAC championship over Kent State, the Huskies had to await to see if a long sequence of results would all play in their favor. They needed to jump five teams to reach that coveted #16 spot and force the BCS to include them in the series.
First, they needed #16 UCLA to lose in the Pac-12 championship in the Friday-night slot. The Bruins played a spirited game, challenging the Cardinal far more than they had the previous weekend in Pasadena. But ultimately Stanford prevailed, 27-24, in a come-from-behind victory that secured the school’s first Rose Bowl berth since 1999. UCLA was destined to fall a few spots in the poll; whether NIU could leapfrog that high remained to be seen.
They already had knocked off #17 Kent State. Next on the list was the battle between Kansas State and #18 Texas, one of the evening slots, where NIU was rooting for the Wildcats to secure a BCS berth for themselves in the Fiesta Bowl. After a shaky start, Bill Snyder’s crew did just that, pulling away from the Longhorns in a 42-24 victory.
They had not counted on the Badgers upsetting Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis. When Wisconsin ground out over 500 yards of offense and ten touchdowns against the Blackshirt defense, Bucky had bulled his way to a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl… and they had also put Nebraska on the precipice.
The shakedown was complete. All was over but the waiting.
It turned out that NIU not only jumped over UCLA, Kent State, Texas and Nebraska, but they also leapfrogged idle Michigan and Mountain West co-champion Boise State in the process. Pollsters saw fit to elevate the Huskies into the top 16 in both polls, and then the computers finished the job when five of the six had Northern Illinois in their top 25. That fifth computer — keeping in mind that the BCS throws out the high result and the low result and adds the four middle scores together to get a composite computer average — was instrumental in allowing NIU to get the boost from top-12 positioning in the rankings of both Peter Wolfe and Richard Billingsley.
HUSKIES BY THE NUMBERS
Lest you think that the BCS has become soft in its fading years, allowing in some “Little Sister of the Poor”, the reality might surprise you. Let’s look at where Northern Illinois ranks nationally on a couple of levels.
First, it bears mentioning that the Huskies are one of just six teams in 2012 to emerge from the regular season with no more than one defeat. Two of those six were not conference champions, and two others did not have to play a 13th regular-season game to win their conference championship or to go undefeated. Northern Illinois is tied with the two national championship finalists, Alabama and Notre Dame, and NCAA-sanctioned Ohio State as the only teams to have amassed 12 wins already this season.
The Huskies were an offensive juggernaut thanks to Jordan Lynch, who was forced to step in to fill the place of last year’s graduated starter, Chandler Harnish, behind a completely rebuilt offensive line. Doeren got his team on track after the disappointment of losing a winnable game against Iowa to join Ohio State and Notre Dame for the longest current winning streak in the nation. NIU ranks 15th in total offensive yardage, putting up nearly 500 yards per game on average thanks to a 9th-ranked rushing attack (250+ yards per game) and scoring nearly 41 points a game to rank in the top ten nationally there as well.
But Northern Illinois is not merely a flashy offense. As one might expect from their head coach, who came to NIU in 2011 after serving as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, the Huskies were more than merely competent on defense as well. They ranked in the top third nationally in all defensive categories — 40th in passing defense (217 yards per game) and 14th in opponent passing efficiency, 33rd against the run (139 yards per game), 35th in total yards allowed and 18th in points given up (19 per game).
That defense was fueled by a ferocious front seven that got into opposing backfields early and often. The Huskies were ranked 11th in sacks, nabbing the quarterback at a rate of nearly three per game, and 9th in tackles for loss (7.5 per game). A competent defense snagged 26 turnovers through the season, and the team finished with a +8 turnover margin thanks to the ball-hawking defense.
A combination of factors came together in the perfect alignment. In the process, Northern Illinois set a series of firsts: first MAC school to crack into the BCS; first one-loss school to bust the BCS; and the first BCS Buster to invoke Section 3(b) of the automatic qualifying procedures in reaching one of the big-money bowl games.
They’ll do so without head coach Dave Doeren, who has left DeKalb after two seasons to take over at NC State. What they will have is a resilient bunch of young men who have managed to overcome a season-opening loss to Iowa on the neutral turf of Soldier Field in Chicago, a season-long space off the radar, and a schedule that yielded nothing but skepticism to force the BCS to let them in. And this is what college football is really all about…
Oklahoma will have its shots again, as a perennial powerhouse in the Big XII, to reach one of these bowl games, but for schools like NIU every opportunity could be their least. The Herbstreits of the world have everything wrong when they ridicule the inclusion of a MAC school for the first time in history. With every other one of the six one-loss-or-less teams in BCS bowls (12-1 Alabama and 12-0 Notre Dame in the championship, 11-1 Kansas State and 11-1 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, and 11-1 Florida in the Sugar Bowl), to not include the last of the six would have been the true travesty.