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Orange Bowl Preview: Northern Illinois, Florida State Try to Prove They Belong

Despite the thoughts of a certain ESPN personality, there's nothing wrong with Northern Illinois playing in this game. But does that mean they can win it?


Discover Orange Bowl, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why it exists: Because the ACC champion has to go somewhere

The teams: Northern Illinois and Florida State

How Northern Illinois got here: To Kirk Herbstreit's great chagrin. And that's probably all for the better in this case. Despite the normally congenial Gameday host's epic anti-NIU rant, the Huskies are pretty good. They lost to Iowa by a point on the first weekend of the season -- and haven't lost since. Granted, there's a one-point win at Army and a one-touchdown win against Kansas in there, but NIU also knocked off a decent Toledo team and a Kent State team that probably would have been playing this game if it hadn't lost to Northern Illinois. Certainly, there are teams that might be more deserving than NIU if the BCS were all about deserving teams -- but in that case, Wisconsin wouldn't be in the Rose Bowl and Louisville wouldn't be in the Sugar Bowl. For that matter, Florida State might not be in the Orange Bowl. If the power programs can get into a corrupt system through a series of arcane contract provisions, I have very little problem with a midmajor getting in the same way.

In any case, the star for the Huskies is Jordan Lynch, a quarterback who became a fringe Heisman contender after putting up eye-popping numbers even considering that he was playing the MAC. Lynch was the number four rusher in the FBS -- as a quarterback -- averaging more than 136 yards a game, while also ranking 25th in the FBS and first in his offense-happy conference in passing efficiency. Overall, Lynch accounted for 364.1 yards a game of total offense. The defense also ended up in or near the top third of the country in most of the major statistical categories despite, again, playing in one of the most offensively explosive conferences out there. (Fully half the MAC is in the Top 45 in total offense.)

How Florida State got here: By losing to N.C. State. That might be overstating the case a bit -- the Seminoles' loss to Florida would likely have knocked them out of the national title race if the Wolfpack hadn't -- but there's no doubt that FSU's dreams of the crystal football basically went down the tubes with the loss in Raleigh. The rest of the season has seemed like a trudge to the ACC title -- witness the uninspiring 28-22 win at Virginia Tech and the 21-15 defeat of Georgia Tech in the conference championship game -- and the other ticket to a BCS game in Miami. Florida State boasts one of the best all-around defenses in the nation paired with a relatively good offense but still has the knack for a loss that comes from nowhere and re-emphasizes that, no, this is not the year that the Seminoles will finally get another national title.

On offense, the Noles are led by E.J. Manuel, who like Lynch is an efficient but not terribly prolific passer; while his quarterback rating is 157.74, Manuel has only broken 200 yards passing in seven of FSU's 13 games this year. In only three games has he thrown the ball for more than 300 yards. The difference is that Manuel doesn't produce quite as much on the ground, rushing for 284 yards on 97 carries. The Seminoles run for more than 203 yards a game, but they also won a lot of blowout victories against overmatched opponents, and no one has really separated themselves as an elite running back on a game-in, game-out basis. Lynch will want to keep an eye out for Bjoern Werner, who's averaging precisely one sack per game coming into the Orange Bowl.

College football fans care because: For those of us who like Cinderellas in the BCS, it's an opportunity to see one in action. For those of us who want to see Cinderellas get squashed in the BCS, well, that might happen.

SEC fans care because: Florida fans need no reason to watch a game that has the potential to become a train wreck for the Seminoles. The rest of us get an opportunity to maybe laugh at the ACC.

Watch this game if...: You don't have a New Year's Day meal to eat or you want to see the Cinderella game.

cocknfire's pick: Florida State 28, Northern Illinois 24

Line: Florida State by 14.5