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Coach Brian Kelly linebacker Manti Te’o runner-up for Heisman Trophy were huge keys for undefeated Irish who are 10-point underdogs

Coach Brian Kelly and linebacker Manti Te’o, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, were huge keys for the undefeated Irish, who are 10-point underdogs to SEC powerhouse Alabama. | AP

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:44AM

If Northwestern is ‘‘Chicago’s team’’ and Illinois is ‘‘our state’’ team, what are Notre Dame and Northern Illinois?

Our BCS bowl teams.

While the Big Ten was marching East to annex New Jersey and Maryland on its annual membership drive, the Fighting Irish and the Huskies were securing trips to sunny Florida.

Notre Dame’s ascent to the BCS championship game was a steady seasonlong climb. Northern Illinois’ Orange Bowl invitation was more like a knock on the door from Publishers Clearing House.

Both of our BCS teams face tall orders. The Irish will line up against an Alabama juggernaut gunning for its third national championship in four seasons. NIU will be stepping up in weight class against an athletic Florida State team that was a couple of plays away from making its own national-title case.

While Irish fans and Huskie rooters are anticipating great memories, a good chunk of the college football establishment will be hovering, waiting to say, ‘‘Told you so,’’ to our BCS bowl teams.

Guess what? Whether lovers or doubters, both sides are going to watch — and that’s what the bowl season is all about.

Meanwhile, this shapes up as a tough bowl season for the Big Ten. Nine teams won enough games to go to bowls, but with Ohio State, the league’s best team, and Penn State, another top-tier team, ineligible, all the bowl-bound teams moved up the bowl food chain a notch or two.

All seven are favored — to lose. But if the league struggles, the real culprit might be all the ugliness that kept the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions from their bowl ­destinies for the first time in years.

Don’t be too quick to write off the Big Ten, though. ­Between long layoffs and the emotions involved in college football, bowl games have a way of taking curious turns — ­another reason we love to watch.

Here’s our viewer’s guide to the Good, the Bad and the Big Ten:


BCS Championship Game

Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Miami, Jan. 7 | Two of college football’s most hallowed programs clash. The Crimson Tide (12-1) is a heavy favorite (10 points, the last time we looked) to give the SEC its seventh straight BCS title. But the Irish (12-0) have been finding ways to survive and advance all season. And if anyone can match X’s and O’s with Alabama genius Nick Saban, it just might be ND transformer Brian Kelly.

Rose Bowl

Wisconsin vs. Stanford

Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1 | One look at the records—Wisconsin is 7-5, Stanford 11-2—says the Cardinal should bowl over the Badgers, especially because Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has departed for Arkansas. But the Badgers, who put up 70 points on Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game, might be peaking. And AD Barry Alvarez, who will coach Wisconsin, is 3-0 in Pasadena.

Orange Bowl

Northern Illinois vs. Florida State

Miami, Jan. 1 | The Huskies’ navigation of BCS rules to reach the Orange Bowl is truly a Cinderella story, even if Kirk Herbstreit and myriad other experts howled that the slipper doesn’t fit. Can record-setting QB Jordan Lynch keep NIU (12-1) from turning into a pumpkin against the Seminoles (11-2)? That’s the last chapter in this fairy tale.Fiesta Bowl

Oregon vs. Kansas State

Glendale, Ariz., Jan. 3 | If there had been a four-team playoff, the Ducks (11-1) and Wildcats (11-1), who both were tracking for the BCS title game until surprising Nov. 17 stumbles, would have been worthy. And they might have met in the title game, too. In short, this ought to be a fierce, fun game. Never miss an opportunity to see Oregon’s offense. And give crusty Bill Snyder credit for reviving K-State.

Cotton Bowl

Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma

Arlington, Texas, Jan. 4 | This isn’t a BCS bowl game, but all things considered, it’s better than at least two or three of them. ‘‘Johnny Heisman’’ Manziel, the marvelous freshman QB, leads the run-and-gun Aggies (10-2) against Oklahoma (10-2), which had a wild ride, winning late shootouts after disappointing losses to Notre Dame and Kansas State.


New Era Pinstripe Bowl

West Virginia vs. Syracuse

New York, Dec. 29 | A year ago, this would have been a Big East game. But the Mountaineers (7-5) have joined the Big 12, and the ’Cuse is bolting for the ACC next year. At least Syracuse (7-5), which started 1-3, won five of its last six to earn its teeth-chattering trip to Yankee Stadium. The Mountaineers folded after a 5-0 start that had them No. 5 in the nation. QB Geno Smith and WR Tavon Austin are very watchable, though.

Sun Bowl

USC vs. Georgia Tech

El Paso, Tex., Dec. 31 | If the Trojans (7-5), who were ranked No. 1 in the pre-season, don’t whomp on the sub-.500 Yellow Jackets (6-7), then Lane Kiffin isn’t a good coach. Georgia Tech wouldn’t be the first 6-8 bowl team if it loses. UCLA did it last year.Russell Athletic Bowl

Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech

Orlando, Dec. 28 | Is this a Big Ten preview? Rutgers, which has been anointed as the Big Ten’s 14th team, takes on Virginia Tech, a candidate to become its 15th team under the all-important contiguous-state rule. The Hokies (6-6) are known for football. The Scarlet Knights (9-3) are known for being across the river from the Carnegie Deli.

Sugar Bowl

Louisville vs. Florida

New Orleans, Jan. 2 | Barred from taking local favorite LSU because Florida (11-1) was an automatic BCS qualifier, the Sugar Bowl was looking forward to an interesting Oklahoma-Florida rematch of the 2008 BCS title. When NIU bumped the Sooners out of the BCS, the Sugar took Louisville (10-2), which isn’t expected to put up much of a fight against the snarling Gators.


Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

Minnesota vs. Texas Tech

Houston, Dec. 28 | In first bowl since 2009, Gophers (6-6) try to snap four-game bowl losing streak and avoid finishing below .500. Red Raiders will be without coach Tommy Tuberville, who departed for Cincinnati. But Tech has a ton of firepower. And Minnesota doesn’t.

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Michigan State vs. TCU

Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 29 | Under-achieving Michigan State (6-6), which lost its last five games by just 13 points, tries to salvage some holiday cheer against the Horned Frogs (7-5), who stressed defense in their Big 12 debut. One of the Big Ten’s tightest bowl matchups could be a taut, low-scoring drama.Gator Bowl

Northwestern vs. Mississippi State

Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 1 | Wildcats (9-3) take another stab at winning a bowl game for the first time in 10 games since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Defense-oriented Bulldogs (8-4), who lost four of last five, ought to be intriguing matchup for underdog NU’s clever offense.

Heart of Dallas Bowl

Purdue vs. Oklahoma State

Dallas, Jan. 1 | Enigmatic Purdue (6-6) salvaged a bowl trip by beating its last three hapless opponents, but couldn’t save the job of Danny Hope. The Boilermakers are listed as the biggest underdog of this bowl season against the high-powered Cowboys (7-5), who are fourth in the nation in scoring (44.7 ppg). This is a New Year’s Day bowl in name only.

Outback Bowl

Michigan vs. South Carolina

Tampa, Jan. 1 | Wolverines (8-4), who had a solid year even if they fell short of inflated expectations, try to finish the Denard Robinson era on a high note against Gamecocks (10-2). South Carolina defense should make that difficult.

Capital One Bowl

Nebraska vs. Georgia

Orlando, Jan. 1 | Cornhuskers (10-3), coming off humiliating 70-31 loss to Wisconsin, try to regroup against talented Georgia (11-2), which nearly elbowed past Alabama and into the national championship game. A good showing here would restore some Nebraska pride.

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