The College Bowl Schedule & The Case For Northern Illinois

This past Saturday night I was in Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten Championship Game with a friend of mine. As Wisconsin’s 70-31 pounding of Nebraska got out of control, we started to look at the BCS rankings on his I-phone to see if there was any chance Northern Illinois could make it to the Orange Bowl.

We identified teams the Huskies they would have to pass in the rankings to achieve automatic qualifying status. The five battleground states, if you will, were identified as Kent, UCLA, Texas, Michigan and Nebraska. NIU had to win four of the five battles. This also assumed the Huskies—21st coming into the week—would nudge past #20 Boise to become the top midmajor on the board. With most of the experts, like CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Brad Edwards still saying NIU would come up short, and even non-expert locales like this site feeling this way on Friday, as we examined the data on Saturday night, Northern Illinois’ path suddenly looked open.

And so it was that on college football’s version of Election Day, NIU was sitting there feeling like the Obama re-election campaign watching the battleground states tip one by one in their direction until they had done a clean sweep, and not only qualified but did so at #15, with room to spare.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, playing the role of Karl Rove, was apocalyptic last night on the selection show. I like Herbstreit a lot, but I firmly I disagree with him on this point. The quality of play at the mid-major level has risen to the point where I want to see the best of this group—a group, by the way that encompasses five conferences (MAC, Sun Belt, C-USA, WAC, Mountain West) play against other top teams. I didn’t always feel that way—I took the snob approach in 2006 when Boise State was invited to play Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl and wanted the Broncos to go away.

That game changed my mind, as it changed college football. I know there are cases where mid-majors get blown out, and maybe that will be the case in the NIU-Florida State Orange Bowl (though I’m not conceding that point). But last I checked, power teams get blown out in bowl games. Bob Stoops and Oklahoma fans might remember the 2004 Orange Bowl and their 55-19 loss to USC. Herbstreit’s alma mater at Ohio State has taken its share of beatings in big bowl games, as has everyone else in the Big Ten. As has Notre Dame. As has the ACC & Big East, both of whom are represented. Why can’t we watch the best of a group of nearly 50 midmajor programs play each year and see how they stack up? If they get pounded five years running, then let’s make a change. Right now that’s not happening and that’s why I want to see Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.

Another reason for choosing NIU is, ironically, based on something Herbstreit said. The analyst rightly noted that we spend so much time talking about 1 vs. 2 (or 1 thru 4, as it will be in 2014) that we lose sight of the other bowl games, like the Oklahoma/NIU debate. We also lose sight of the minor bowls. And Oklahoma still has an opportunity to go play Texas A&M and Heisman favorite Johnny Manziel in the Cotton Bowl. Georgia can still play Nebraska in the Capital One. Do you know where Northern Illinois would have gone? The Bowl to play Arkansas State.

If we want to change the minor bowl structure to allow Northern Illinois to play a team like Nebraska or LSU or UCLA, then I’m fine with being stricter about midmajor entry into the BCS bowls, since we can still watch the midmajors play meaningful games that will give an adequate read on their strength. For now though, I’m less concerned about Oklahoma’s fate than I am with a team like Utah State, who went 10-2, won the WAC and is stuck playing Toledo. Or San Jose State, who won 10 games and plays Bowling Green. The fact the midmajors got one bone while the power leagues feasted is hardly the biggest problem.

One more point before we dig into the overall bowl schedule. Herbstreit was wrong factually when he offered thanks that when the new system goes into place we won’t see this anymore. In fact, when the four-team playoff system goes into effect the remaining major bowls are obligated to take the top mid-major team. Northern Illinois would still be in, only there would have been no debate. Sorry Herbie, the middle class is going to get its say in college football too.

With that, the time has come to stop complaining about the games we don’t have and figure out how to enjoy the ones we do. TheSportsNotebook will preview all of these games as they come up. For now, here’s a general outline of how the rhythm of the college bowl schedule will flow. Unless noted otherwise, games are on ESPN…


Sat, Dec 15: Nevada-Arizona (1 PM ET), Toledo-Utah State (4:30 PM ET)
Thur, Dec 20: BYU-San Diego State (8 PM ET)
Fri, Dec 21: Central Florida-Ball State (7:30 PM ET)
Sat, Dec 22: East Carolina-UL Lafayette (Noon ET), Washington-Boise State (3:30 PM ET)
Mon, Dec 24: Fresno State-SMU (8 PM ET)
Wed, Dec 26: Western Kentucky-Central Michigan (7:30 PM ET)

Comments: As you can see, it’s a heavy dose of the midmajors right out of the gate, and for a team that had a season like Utah State to be playing the third choice from the MAC exposes a flaw in the system. The Aggies’ only losses were by a field goal to Wisconsin and a field goal to BYU. This game doesn’t give Utah State a real chance to showcase themselves. I do like the Washington-Boise matchup. This isn’t a great Boise team and I’m interested to see how they fare against the mid-level of the Pac-12.


Thur, Dec 27: San Jose-Bowling Green (3 PM ET), Cincinnati-Duke (6:30 PM ET), Baylor-UCLA (9:45 PM)
Fri, Dec 28: Ohio-UL Monroe (2 PM ET), Rutgers-Virginia Tech (5:30 PM ET), Minnesota-Texas Tech (9 PM ET)
Sat, Dec 29: Rice-Air Force (11:45 PM ET), West Virginia-Syracuse (3:15 PM ET), Navy-Arizona State (4 PM ET, ESPN2), Texas-Oregon State (6:45 PM ET), TCU-Michigan State (10:15 PM ET)

Comments: Will UCLA bring the defensive focus necessary to slow down Baylor, the team who shook up the BCS with its four-touchdown smashing of Kansas State? The Ohio-Monroe game features two really good quarterbacks in Tyler Tettleton and Kolton Browning. West Virginia-Syracuse is in Yankee Stadium and in celebration of the old Big East, may it rest in peace. But the games really get good starting late Saturday afternoon, with Navy-Arizona State and then building to the evening conclusions with Texas-Oregon State and TCU-Michigan State. The latter two games are both very good tests of conference strength for the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten.


Mon, Dec 31: N.C. State-Vanderbilt (Noon ET), USC-Georgia Tech (2 PM ET, CBS), Iowa State-Tulsa (3:30 PM ET), LSU-Clemson (7:30 PM ET)
Tue, Jan 1: Mississippi State-Northwestern (Noon ET, ESPN2), Purdue-Oklahoma State (Noon ET, ESPNU), Georgia-Nebraska (1 PM ET, ABC), South Carolina-Michigan (1 PM ET)

Comments: This takes up to late afternoon on New Year’s when the BCS kicks in. If the Big Ten wants to stop being a joke, it needs to find a way to split their four games on January 1—or at least win one and be competitive in two. The LSU-Clemson game in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve is a stupendous game and another example of why it’s okay to pass on power conference teams in the BCS—they can still get good matchups at this level, and that’s a game that would have been a reasonable national title game pick back in August.


Tue, Jan 1: ROSE BOWL—Wisconsin-Stanford (5 PM ET)
Tue, Jan 1: ORANGE BOWL—Northern Illinois-Florida State (8:30 PM ET)
Wed, Jan 2: SUGAR BOWL—Louisville-Florida (8:30 PM ET)
Thur, Jan 3: FIESTA BOWL—Oregon-Kansas State (8:30 PM ET)

Comments: As a Midwesterner, I’m completely juiced for New Year’s Night and to root for Wisconsin and NIU back-to-back. I understand if critics want to say one of them doesn’t belong, but frankly that team is the five-loss Badgers, not the Huskies. If Herbstreit wants to argue for excluding Wisconsin and making Northern Illinois the Midwest rep in Pasadena, I’m all for it. But it won’t stop me from donning Badger apparel from head-to-toe on New Year’s. And the Oregon-Kansas State game is true undercard fight, with teams that I think are the best two in the country (although they played themselves out of the title game fair and square).


Fri, Jan 4: Texas A&M-Oklahoma (8 PM ET, Fox)
Sat, Jan 5: Pitt-Ole Miss (1 PM ET)
Sun, Jan 6: Kent-Arkansas State (9 PM ET)

Comments: Friday night’s Cotton Bowl joins LSU-Clemson is the two best games of the bowl undercard—and frankly better than a few of the BCS games. The Saturday-Sunday games aren’t bad, but those time slots wrap around the four NFL first-round playoff games, so fitting in time for college football will be tough.


Mon, Jan 7: BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP—Notre Dame-Alabama (8:30 PM ET)

Comment: We’ll preview the game itself when it gets closer. I think based on the standards the voters used last year—when they voted in non-conference champ Alabama over Big 12 titlist Oklahoma State, you can make a very good argument for Oregon over Alabama in this game. My own personal standards require a conference championship, so I’d have picked the Tide this year. But is it too much to ask for a consistent strike zone from the umpires? Either a league championship matters or it doesn’t.