When Northern Illinois faces Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday, it will have a high school state title game feel to it.
Saturday morning, fans clad in red will get in their cars and begin the drive to the big city. It will take several hours, but flags will be flying and there will be horns honking as the cars pass along the freeway.
Some time in the early afternoon, the game will kickoff at the "big league" stadium. Not that Camp Randall or Huskie Stadium aren't grand facilities (with Madison's contribution a little higher up than DeKalb's) but this is where the big boys play.
One of the coaches will probably use some version of this pregame speech: "Boys, don't worry about where we are playing. The field is still 100 yards long, and the team on the other side of the line is still the same one we practiced for. Now go out and play great football."
For most of the players on the field, it will be the only time they ever step foot on an NFL field. Most won't play at that level. Most won't even get a workout with an NFL team.
And at the end of the day, someone will be going home with a win, a win that will have some great meaning Saturday, but will soon pale in the grand scheme of things.
The only thing missing is Lyla Garrity dancing it up on the sidelines (since the boosters will still be there in full force).
Voila, the high school state title game, just a slightly more advanced version.You can totally understand the gimmick at play here. Northern Illinois gets to show off its one truly marquis game of the year in a real stadium. This is part of the appeal for a Big Ten school willing to take an away game against a MAC opponent.
The $1 million payout to Wisconsin for the "privilege" probably helps a little also. And that is decidedly not high school.
That Northern Illinois even needs to pay Wisconsin to come play them is a bit of a joke. That it will be coming out of a revenue stream that is not living up to expectations is even worse.
Ticket sales have been slow for the game, despite a rabid fan base in Wisconsin and in Chicago for the Badgers, despite a short morning drive for Northern Illinois fans. This was not an issue the last time Northern Illinois hosted a Big Ten team in Chicago. The Iowa game sold out, and sold out fast.
But ticket prices for that game were almost HALF of what is being charged for Wisconsin. And that game wasn't held in the midst of the economic climate the country, and especially Madison and DeKalb, is facing.
The game will likely be played in front of a half full stadium (back to the high school analogy), although that won't be an embarrassment for the schools. The game is only being shown on ESPN3, meaning most people won't be able to see it. The World Wide Leader didn't want the embarrassment of empty seats during a broadcast either.
It has to be a major disappointment for Northern Illinois, which could have used the revenue bump for its biggest game of the season. The money wouldn't have been the same if the game had been held at Huskie Stadium, but the game probably wouldn't have happened there either.
And the other disappointment probably comes from not winning against Kansas in Week 2. It was another shot to make this game more meaningful for fans of both teams.
Instead of the upstart team from the MAC, Wisconsin fans just see another 1-1 piece of roadkill. Instead of Huskie fans seeing a chance to pull off another BCS upset, they are looking at falling to 1-2 in what should otherwise be a promising season.
The game just lost its luster, all because of a defensive letdown.
That is the real story heading into Saturday. The venue, the travel, the money, it is all just window dressing.
Northern Illinois will still be taking the field with a defense that hasn't quite found its groove yet. It can make fantastic plays, but the ability to shut down opponents -- a major advantage during the 2010 season -- just isn't there.
And Wisconsin has the perfect player to take advantage of that taking the snaps.
No change has had a bigger impact on the two teams in involved than Russell Wilson transferring to Wisconsin from North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack are 1-1 solely because they don't have that playmaker any longer. Otherwise, a trip to Wake Forest doesn't set them back in the standings.
Wisconsin is the talk of the town, because they have been spectacular, even if the competition hasn't been. Wilson knows how to make plays, and look electric doing it. Few players have been as impressive through two weeks of the season. (If voters actually paid attention to performance, and not expectations, Wilson would in line for a trip to New York in December. But the love fest with Marcus Lattimore and Andrew Luck will probably have Wilson sitting at home.)
But it won't be able to generate the same push against a Badger defense that barely allowed Oregon State to move.
The Huskies are good enough to score, but not good enough to outscore what Wisconsin will likely be able to put up against the Northern Illinois defense. They probably won't even be able to close the gap enough to make the 16.5 point spread look silly.
That isn't just a statement on how good Wisconsin is this season. It is a statement on how far Northern Illinois needs to improve defensively before the MAC season begins. Even if the Huskies can likely outscore every team on its schedule. that is a hard way to win ball games.
And as night falls in the big city Saturday, one team in red will be making its way home happy. That team will have its state title firmly in hand, even if it had to travel to another state to get it.