Orange Bowl Preview: Northern Illinois-Florida State

The Orange Bowl matchup of Northern Illinois and Florida State created consternation among the college football establishment when it was announced, as the worthiness of NIU was called into question. TheSportsNotebook has already weighed in, defending the choice of the Huskies to go to Miami tonight. Now let’s get down to the question of what’s going to happen on the football field, and we’ll start by following the path both Northern Illinois and Florida State took to get here, then look at how they match up.

Northern Illinois faced the challenge of trying to replace quarterback Chandler Harnish, the best in school history, who’d led a team that won the MAC title a year ago. Jordan Lynch was tabbed as the replacement and in the first game of the season, Lynch didn’t look ready. He only passed for 54 yards and NIU lost by one to what would prove to be a bad Iowa team. Over the next three games, Lynch started to get settled in, and while the wins weren’t impressive—escapes against Army and Kansas, the Huskies looked ready for MAC play.

The running game kicked in, led mainly by Lynch and NIU scored 93 points in decisive wins over future bowl teams in Central Michigan and Ball State, then Lynch went into dominating mode as his team rolled over a weak part of the schedule in blowing out Buffalo, Akron, Western Michigan and UMass. Lynch was running, passing and doing everything except resolving the budget debate in Washington D.C.

Lynch showcased his ability to throw the ball in a big 31-24 win over Toledo. He threw for 407 yards and the Huskies clinched their division title, while the NIU defense shut down a good Toledo running back in David Fluellen. The regular season finale was a blowout of lowly Eastern Michigan, but in that game, the Huskies uncovered some offensive help—they got production from the conventional running game with Akeem Daniels and when Daniels again played well in the MAC title game against Kent State, the Huskies had enough to win a double-overtime thriller 44-37 and get the chance to take their talents to South Beach.

Florida State opened the season as a favorite in the ACC and with national title hopes, enabled by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit tabbing the Seminoles to reach the national championship game. The ‘Noles tuned up with blowouts of Murray State and Savannah State and then started conference play by savaging Wake Forest 52-zip. But over the course of August and early September, problems developed. They lost All-Americans on defense in end Brandon Jenkins and defensive back Greg Reid. And the injuries weren’t done.

A big September battle with Clemson would decide the clear favorite for the ACC crown and playing at home, FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel played the best game of his career, throwing for 308 yards, avoiding mistakes and leading a 49-37 home victory. Florida State avoided a letdown at South Florida a week later, overcoming a sluggish start and winning 30-17.

The first loss finally came at N.C. State and in a way that would foreshadow problems later on. FSU built a 16-0 lead, but let it all slip away in the second half and lost 17-16. And though wins over Boston College, Miami and Duke followed, Florida State would lose running back Chris Thompson for the year and then need a late drive to beat a mediocre Virginia Tech team 28-22. A victory over Maryland secured FSU’s position in the conference championship game, but between the injuries and inopportune sluggishness, they often looked less than BCS-worthy.

Questions about Florida State’s BCS-worthiness might never have risen, but for the fact that on Thanksgiving weekend there was at least an outside chance of enough chaos for the team to slip back into the national championship picture. The chaos didn’t unfold, as Notre Dame, Georgia and Alabama all held serve, but even if it had, Florida State was badly exposed in a loss to Florida. In spite of playing at home, to a team with offensive troubles and committing double-digit penalties, and despite leading 20-13 after three quarters, FSU gave up 24 unanswered points and ended up losing 37-26.

A combination of a weak division on the other side of the conference, along with probations to Miami and North Carolina, set up Florida State with a game against 6-6 Georgia Tech to settle the ACC’s Orange Bowl bid. FSU jumped out to a 21-3 lead. But just as had been the case against N.C. State and Florida, second-half complacency set in, Tech pulled to 21-15 and nearly pulled a shocking upset.

It seems to me there are some clear factors that jump out in reviewing these teams. The first is that Northern Illinois absolutely must get some production from Daniels running between the tackles if they’re going to move the ball. Lynch is a tremendous player, the one I’ve personally enjoyed following the most all year, but there’s just no way you can rely on a quarterback to do everything against a talented defense.

The second factor is that any basis for thinking Florida State is going to win this game in a blowout is purely theoretical. What I mean by that is this—we know FSU has the talent, if they come to play for four good quarters, to really take apart the Huskies. But look at our review of the Seminole season—when have they ever come to play to their potential for sixty straight minutes?

Never mind the cop-out that they aren’t excited about playing NIU. That’s a weak excuse for a team who hasn’t been to a major bowl game since 2005 and hasn’t won one since their national championship year of 1999. Just consider the fact that predicting Florida State to play four straight good quarters would be to expect something that has not occurred this season.

I’d love to pick Northern Illinois to pull the upset and I’ll be rooting like heck for it. But I can’t quite get there on a rational basis—the non-conference games were too shaky, the offense to reliant on Lynch and the MAC’s play in bowls thus far too concerning. But I would expect them to hang tough, I would expect Florida State to lollygag a little bit and that’s I wouldn’t give two touchdowns with the favored Seminoles.

Outright Winner: Florida State
Pointspread Winner: Northern Illinois (+14)
Totals Line: Over 59.5

Rose Bowl Preview: Wisconsin-Stanford

Outright Winners: 10-13
Pointspread Winners: 9-14
Totals Line: 14-9