I won't lie to you, mostly because it's not much of a trade secret: there's a very probable chance that Florida State wins tonight. The rankings, spread, the talent, the coaching, the location ... much of it favors the Seminoles, and for good reason. I'd venture there's a 70 percent chance Florida State wins, and I can throw that percentage out there, because there's no way to refute a percentage on one outcome. It's foolproof!
A 30 percent chance for Northern Illinois. The same odds of Pete Rose getting a base hit in his career.
And it's odds this team — this conference — is used to seeing. What makes tonight's Orange Bowl so great is it embodies every Big vs. Small matchup seen in our past. Florida State has won national championships, beaten powerhouses, sent loads of talent to the NFL (and will again this year), and are expected to not just win, but shame Northern Illinois into submission. The moment one of our guys try to flip the script, they'll turn around and call it disrespectful, symbolic of a small-time quarterback who hasn't won anything.
But that's just it. Northern Illinois has already won. They finished 12-1 and skated through the MAC's finest and strongest season in history. They won this for the 66 years of Mid-American Conference football that went overlooked by major bowls in the past.
They won this for Frank Lauterbur, Chuck Ealey and the 1969-71 Rockets, who went 35-0, still an NCAA record for a quarterback, and took home three Tangerine Bowl victories by an average of 25 points. They won this for Bill Mallory's Miami RedHawks from the '70s, who went 32-1-1 in three years with stifling defense and also won three Tangerine Bowls. (Tangerines: The MAC of Oranges™!) They won this for Bob Pruett, Chad Pennington and the 1999 Marshall Thundering Herd, who capped a 13-0 season with a 21-3 win in the Motor City Bowl over ranked BYU. They won this for the Ben Roethlisberger, the late Terry Hoeppner and the 2003 Miami RedHawks, not unlike this year's Huskies, who opened the season with a loss to Iowa and parlayed that into 12 straight wins.
They won for the early program builders, from coaches George Evans, Bill Mallory and Joe Novak, to the recent torchbearers Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren. They won this for all the accomplished quarterbacks, from George Bork to Chandler Harnish, for Heisman-caliber running backs LeShon Johnson, Michael Turner and Chad Spann.
They even won this for the NIU administration in the '80s who had aspirations of joining the Big 8, leaving the MAC in the 80s to become an independent, then joining up with the Big West, and after the dream was over, back to the MAC again.
They won this for every other school in the MAC, slighted when referred to as "a MAC team" or "just a MAC team" in jest, because in actuality several of these schools could have been in the Orange Bowl. If one more play went their way, this may have been Kent State against Florida State. If injuries didn't take their toll, it might be Ohio-Florida State. Or Toledo against Florida State. The depth of the conference is what helped vault one-loss Northern Illinois into a BCS bowl, a non-AQ first.
And of course, they can win more for themselves. Even if they lose 48-3 — which I'm not seeing happen — they'll be remembered as a team who made it to the same postseason dead-end pigeonhole as a team with quadruple their athletic budget. It didn't contain a pathway to the national championship, but it did have a huge sack of money, which is just as helpful for future teams.
But what if they play and execute against Florida State the way we know they can, because we've watched them all season? It's not going to systematically change the sport — Boise State didn't even do that — but the validation of our fair conference will be renewed yet again.
From the shores of Buffalo to the hills of Athens to the flatlands of DeKalb to the valley of Amherst to the flatlands of Kent to the flatlands of Mount Pleasant to the flatlands of Toledo to the flatlands of Kalamazoo to the flatlands of Oxford to the flatlands of Muncie to the flatlands of Akron to the flatlands of Ypsilanti to the flatlands of Bowling Green ... they will be watching in unison, finally with something in common.
They've already won, and so have we. All that remains is to win the Orange Bowl.