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Schools such as NIU will become regulars in a top-tier bowl

Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey — hanging with Obie Orange Bowl mascot — Huskies have made it big time. |

Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey — hanging with Obie, the Orange Bowl mascot — and the Huskies have made it to the big time. | Emily Michot~ap

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Time: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV: ESPN. • Line: Florida State by 13.

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:46AM

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. — You can agree or disagree with college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit’s rant that Northern Illinois didn’t deserve a BCS bowl slot.

“Thank goodness we’re moving to a new system in 2014,’’ Herbstreit said, lamenting NIU’s Orange Bowl slot.

But if Herbstreit, who’s generally a down-to-earth and concerned supporter of college football, and his sympathizers are disappointed the Huskies will play in the Orange Bowl, they’re really going to be in for a jolt in 2014.

When college football’s four-team playoff debuts in two years, there always will be a Northern Illinois in a top-tier bowl.

Under the new six-bowl BCS plan, one team from a conference that doesn’t automatically qualify will qualify. That includes the Big East, Conference USA, the Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences.

“The highest-ranked non-AQ program that’s a conference champion will get to play in one of these bowls,’’ NIU athletic director Jeff Compher said. “There is a spot reserved for that team. You can thank [NIU president John Peters] for that. He’s on the president’s commission. They made sure they took care of the schools from the non-qualifying conferences.’’

For bowl executives — who measure success in ticket sales, hotel rooms occupied and TV ratings — that’s a teeth-gnashing thought. Schools of NIU’s stature tend not to move those needles.

On the other hand, everybody has to start somewhere. Programs from non-AQ conferences, notably Boise State and TCU, have parlayed recent BCS bowl runs into broader acceptance. Even Penn State was an outsider at one time, Baby Boomers will recall.

The new top-tier bowl plan that includes “a little guy’’ should diminish the kind of backlash NIU experienced, though.

“I hope it will be, ‘Who is it?’ instead of ‘Why is it?’ ’’ Compher said. “The expectations will shift. People will be looking for it instead of being surprised it happened.’’

As exciting as this development is for NIU, it’s not an easy deal.

A school that never drew more than 18,374 at its 24,000-seat home stadium suddenly was responsible for 17,500 Orange Bowl tickets. The MAC, which will realize a multimillion-dollar windfall from NIU’s appearance, eased the pressure by agreeing to buy all unsold tickets in that allotment.

“The biggest goal was not to lose money,’’ Compher said. “The conference took that risk away from us and allowed us to approach this in a first-class way, rather than nickel-and-diming it.’’

NIU has sold more than 3,000 tickets, has given away 2,800 to students and has used 1,000 for its band and team guests, Compher said. Another 7,000 to 8,000 have been donated to Miami-area charities in an arrangement with the Orange Bowl.

Because the Florida State demand also has been underwhelming, officials expect no more than 60,000 at Sun Life Stadium, which has a capacity of 78,000.

For schools such as NIU, though, celebrating a breakthrough season rivals finances in importance.

‘‘Almost 90 former players are coming back for an event at our hotel on Sunday,’’ said Compher, adding that former coaches Joe Novak, Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren ‘‘will all be here. They all helped build this program into what it is today. It’s about family.’’

If NIU hadn’t blown a 17-9 fourth-quarter lead and lost 18-17 to Iowa in its season opener, the Herbstreits of the world wouldn’t have been so rattled.

‘‘We have a saying: The Hard Way,’’ said Compher, taking off his NIU ballcap to show that slogan embroidered across the back of it. ‘‘I’m disappointed people didn’t jump on the underdog bandwagon a bit more. But the more people look into our program, the more they see that we’ve been good for a long time. We didn’t pop out of nowhere.’’

And sorry, Kirk. In two years, teams such as Northern Illinois will be making regular appearances on college football’s biggest stages.

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