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Northern Illinois stirs BCS chatter

N. Illinois Cent Michigan football

N. Illinois Cent Michigan football

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Updated: October 23, 2013 10:36AM



It’s too soon to say, ‘‘They’re back!’’ But it’s far enough along to spread fear in some parts of the college-football world.

‘‘Seriously, if we get to the Fiesta Bowl and have to play Fresno or NIU, I’m gonna be [furious],’’ a Baylor fan tweeted.

Meanwhile, innkeepers in the Valley of the Sun are quietly rooting for Fresno State to stay unbeaten and ahead of Northern Illinois in the race for the Fiesta Bowl, which has the last BCS pick.

For the second consecutive year, the Huskies are knocking on the BCS bowl door. Last January, they rocked college football by playing in the Orange Bowl. Now they could play their way into the Fiesta Bowl.

The Huskies are 18th in the first BCS standings, which were released Sunday. Fresno is 17th, with only one slot available to a non-automatic qualifier. By contrast, NIU didn’t crack the top 25 last year until the next-to-last BCS standings, which were released Nov. 25. It finished 15th the following week to earn a slot opposite Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

It’s understandable that NIU coach Rod Carey doesn’t want to hear BCS talk. He knows that kind of chatter can be a distraction for his players They have six games to play, and their BCS chances will disappear if they stub their toe once.

‘‘I’m happy, I guess,’’ Carey said Tuesday. ‘‘We’re ranked 18th, which is great. But here’s the big picture. I don’t pay any attention to that stuff. The rankings right now, I don’t know what they mean, other than we better go one game at a time.’’

That said, three of the Huskies’ remaining opponents (Eastern Michigan, UMass and Western Michigan) are a combined 2-20. And NIU gets its toughest remaining opponent, Ball State (7-1), in DeKalb before it would play in the MAC title game, in which it would be favored.

In contrast Fresno State might play Boise State in the Mountain West championship game if it first dodges some dangerous regular-season opponents.

If NIU wins out and Fresno State loses a game, the Huskies would have two promising paths to the Fiesta Bowl.

Scenario No. 1: The Huskies need to be ranked in the top 16 and ahead of one conference champion. Louisville’s loss to Central Florida and Houston’s loss to BYU on Saturday opened that door. No. 20 Louisville and No. 23 Central Florida are the top-ranked teams in the American Athletic Conference, the former Big East.

Scenario No. 2: If NIU is ranked in the top 12, it automatically qualifies for an at-large bid.

‘‘Their biggest problem is Fresno State,’’ CBSsports.com analyst Jerry Palm said. ‘‘If NIU goes 13-0 [and Fresno loses], they don’t have to worry about [a BCS berth]. There’s never been an undefeated team that finished outside of the top 12.’’

Some experts will question whether NIU deserves a BCS berth, as ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit did last year. But that’s the way it works.

Thanks in part to a demand that margin of victory be removed, the Huskies are fifth in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings. NIU also is 10th through 15th in four of the five other BCS computer rankings.

‘‘I hope they make it,’’ said Sagarin, pointing out that Utah and Boise State played well in BCS bowls after being ridiculed. ‘‘What I’ve discovered in this business is this: The big boys like to talk that everybody has a chance. When a team like NIU actually takes a spot, they go berserk with anger.’’



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