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A Chicago shout-out to Notre Dame, NIU and Northwestern

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks Robby Tomduring first half BCS National Championship college football game against AlabamMonday Jan.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks to Robby Toma during the first half of the BCS National Championship college football game against Alabama Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Miami. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

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Updated: February 10, 2013 6:00PM

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In 1995, in Nick Saban’s first game as the coach at Michigan State, the Spartans were clobbered 50-10 by
Nebraska, which was in the midst of winning three national
championships in four seasons.

‘‘I’m thinking, ‘We’re never going to win a game,’ ’’ Saban, now the coach at Alabama, recalled while picking up more national-championship hardware Tuesday. ‘‘I remember [longtime Cornhuskers] coach [Tom] Osborne when we shook hands after the game. He put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not really as bad as you think.’ ’’

There’s a lesson in there for teams such as Notre Dame and Northern Illinois, both of which left Sun Life Stadium disappointed this bowl season. And maybe for the Big Ten, which endured a 2-5 bowl season.

The Irish were steamrolled 42-14 on Monday by the Crimson Tide, which became the first team to win three national titles in four years since those 1994-97 Cornhuskers. The Huskies also were smacked around, losing 31-10 to Florida State on Jan. 1 in the Orange Bowl.

Those routs have prompted a lot of hooting about whether Notre Dame and NIU belonged in those games. Rants about the selection process should be tempered, though, by the fact that things are set to change in 2014.

When a four-team playoff debuts that season, the grumbles will come from Team No. 5 instead of from those jockeying to be
No. 3 under the current system. And a team from a conference that doesn’t get an automatic berth into the BCS, such as NIU, will be guaranteed a spot in a top-tier bowl every season. So get used to it.

Will the new system be beneficial to the Southeastern Conference, which has won seven consecutive national championships?

‘‘I don’t really know how to answer that,’’ Saban said, arguing that the loser of the SEC title game shouldn’t automatically be out of the playoff picture. ‘‘[That] would be incredibly unfair, especially if every other conference doesn’t have a championship game to play in. You shouldn’t be able to sneak your way in. If we’re going to have to play our way in, let’s play our way in. Everybody.’’

In other words, the four-team playoff won’t halt controversy, which is the bread-and-butter of college football.

What’s not open to debate is that this was a terrific season for three of the four major-college football teams in the Chicago area. Notre Dame (12-1), NIU (12-2) and Northwestern (10-3) were a combined 34-6.

While the Irish and Huskies have been grilled for bad finishes, dismissing a 12-victory season is setting the bar pretty high. It’s just another of the maddening charms of college football and its demanding followers.

And the Wildcats, who weren’t all that far from going unbeaten, finally finished strong, beating Mississippi State 34-20 on Jan. 1 in the Gator Bowl for their first bowl victory since 1949.

All three schools are in good position for continued success. Brian Kelly looks like the right guy at Notre Dame, right down to his surname. There might be no better fit for a coach in his program than Pat Fitzgerald at NU. And Rod Carey, who was promoted from offensive coordinator, looks promising as he takes the reins at NIU, which should keep rolling despite being led by its fourth coach in seven years.

All three will have tough acts to follow after their 2012 seasons. But no school will be in a tougher place next fall than Illinois (2-10), which has lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games, including a 50-14 loss to NU in its season finale. Coach Tim Beckman has to win fans as well as games. And with his roster and schedule, that won’t be easy. His seat will be hot.

Beckman had better hope the Illini have hit bottom. In college football, you’re only as good as your last game. Just ask critics of the Irish and Huskies.

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