Sports Column: MAC underdogs fight for recognition

They came, they saw, they conquered.

Northern Illinois ran the table after a 18-17 loss to Iowa in season’s opening week. After that, the Huskies won every game but three by more than a touchdown en route to an 11-1 regular season.

Then-No. 21 Northern Illinois went into last Friday’s Mid-American Conference championship game with a slim opportunity to earn the conference’s first ever Bowl Championship Series bid against No. 17 Kent State, who had a similar goal in mind.

Northern Illinois won in overtime to clinch its second straight MAC title but still needed plenty to happen in front of them to gain entrance into the top-16 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

Queue losses by UCLA and Texas followed by Nebraska’s obliteration in the Big Ten championship. All the pieces fell into place, and on Sunday evening, the Huskies officially put the MAC in the national spotlight as they were announced as Florida State’s opponent in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Their selection drew the ire of ESPN analysts Kirk Herbstreit, David Pollack and Jesse Palmer (graduates of Ohio State, Georgia and Florida, respectively), who claimed that Northern Illinois stole a BCS bid from more talented, deserving schools such as Oklahoma and Georgia.

Herbstreit, in fact, claimed that it was a low point in college football that Northern Illinois would be going to a BCS bowl game.

The Huskies only fault? They kept winning. They kept winning to the point where other coaches and Harris poll voters thought they were one of the best 16 teams in college football.

Sure, Wisconsin, a team with five losses in a historically weak Big Ten earning a Rose Bowl bid is perfectly alright. And Louisville, who won the Big East, a conference that was 4-4 against the MAC and has two less bowl-eligible teams is totally alright.

God forbid a mid-major team wins its conference and is rewarded with anything better than the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

This is the one sport in the entire country where about half of the teams will never get a chance to prove that they are the best in the country. A school like Quinnipiac may not have a great chance of winning the NCAA basketball tournament, but at least they have the chance.

“Is there any other sport in America where people DESPISE the underdog? Any sport in the world?” Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel tweeted after the tongue lashing the Huskies received on ESPN for daring to take advantage of the current system.

Sure, Northern Illinois may not have the massive athletic budget of Oklahoma or the blue chip recruits of Georgia, but it still is a college football team. They earned a seat at the big kids table by playing by the current rules and a program that’s been successful for more than a decade is finally getting its due.

When the Huskies take the field against the Seminoles Jan. 1, don’t think of it as only Northern Illinois. That team is Ohio, Ball State, Kent State and every other MAC school rolled into one. The Huskies embody everything the MAC is about. They’re scrappy little David biting at Goliath’s toes.

And maybe with one rock from his slingshot, David can bring Goliath down to the ground and show the rest of the nation what MACtion is all about.

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