It’s January 1, 2013.
Across the country, everyone has rung in the New Year, and celebratory parties were still ongoing. After all, it’s bowl season, and the big-ticket games were about to start. This was in a time before the Playoff, when bowl committees had to adhere to certain rules in terms of “automatic qualification.”
This particular season, a relatively new name in the national lexicon emerged to become a player in the BCS bowl as a “bowl-busting” team: the Northern Illinois Huskies.
The 2012 Huskies were the first “non-power” team east of the Mississippi River to qualify for an AQ bowl and the only one to represent the Mid-American Conference in the BCS era.
According to BCS rules, in order for a non-AQ conference team to qualify for a BCS bowl, they had to finish at least 16th and be ranked higher than an AQ conference champion to be placed in an at-large bid. The Huskies managed to finish 15th in the final standings before the BCS selection process, ensuring them a spot in the Orange Bowl over Big East champion Louisville, who ended the season 21st in the country.
The Huskies that year were led by the emergent Jordan Lynch, who would go on to be a Heisman finalist in his senior year, after becoming one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks to ever play the game.
The Huskies ran the conference table and won the MAC Championship over 24th-ranked Kent State in 2012, and Dave Doeren would leave to take the NC State job before the Orange Bowl, placing Rod Carey, then a co-offensive coordinator as the interim coach. They drew 13th-ranked Florida State, the ACC champion.
The Huskies lost to the Seminoles 31-10, but the final score doesn’t quite tell the story.
Despite a subpar offensive performance, the boys from DeKalb managed to keep it close with the Seminoles, trailing 14-3 at halftime in a de facto road game and pushing the game to 14-10 with a Lynch-to-Martel Moore touchdown with 9:35 to go in the third quarter, keeping it there until the 14 minute mark of the fourth quarter.
This season, the Western Michigan Broncos take the mantle as the non-Power team to bust into the New Year’s Six bowl games, taking on the Wisconsin Badgers. How do they stack up?
Record and schedule:
NIU finished the season 12-2, but coming into the Orange Bowl, were 12-1 with a MAC Championship in hand.
The Huskies’ out-of-conference schedule contained two Power 5 schools (Iowa and Kansas), an FCS team in Tennessee-Martin and independent Army. The game against Iowa was played at Soldier Field in Chicago. The teams NIU played had a combined record of 15-32, with 8 of those wins coming from UTM, who finished in a tie for second in the Ohio Valley Conference, missing the playoffs. Take out UTM and that record becomes 7-29.
NIU lost to Iowa, who would finish 4-8, in its neutral-field matchup by a final score of 18-17 before stomping UTM at home 35-7. NIU’s first road game was to Army West Point, where Jordan Lynch threw for four touchdowns and ran for another in a 41-40 win over the Black Knights, who finished 2-10. NIU beat 1-11 Kansas by one possession at home to close the OOC slate.
The conference season is where NIU separated themselves from the pack. NIU scored an average of 45.37 points per game while holding opponents to an average 15.25 points per game, resulting in an average margin of victory of 30.12 per game.
NIU played 24th-ranked Kent State in the MAC Championship in Detroit that season and won 44-37 in OT with a likely BCS bowl bid on the line. That Kent State team featured Dri Archer and Trayvion Durham, two of the conference’s all-time running backs. The Flashes were no pushover; they beat 18th-ranked Rutgers by 12 points in Piscataway, and their only regular season loss was to Kentucky in Lexington. That qualifies as NIU’s best win of the season.
Overall, NIU’s schedule record in 2012 (not counting FCS opponents) was 44-91.
WMU finished this season undefeated with a MAC Championship after finishing on the outside looking in last season despite winning the West. They have been assigned to face Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
The Broncos’ out-of-conference slate included two Power Five opponents (Northwestern and Illinois), a Group of Five opponent (Georgia Southern) and an FCS opponent (North Carolina Central). The teams WMU played had a combined record of 24-25, with FCS opponent NCCU going 9-3 on the year. Take out NCCU and the combined record of the FCS programs are 15-22.
In conference, WMU had a pretty steady go of things. They won by comfortable, though not dominant margins (comparative to 2012 NIU, anyway,) averaging a margin of victory of 27.25 points per game. WMU also scored at about the rate as the 2012 Huskies in conference play, averaging 45.62 points per game. WMU gave up about a field goal more per game in-conference, averaging 18.37 points per game, but also recorded more shutouts than 2012 NIU with two conference shutouts to one.
Overall, WMU’s schedule record (not counting FCS opponents) was 56-79.
NIU got about the worst draw you could possibly get in terms of a “winnable” neutral-field game, drawing the 2012 Florida State Seminoles, a roster that featured 11 players that were drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft, including EJ Manuel, Devontae Freeman, Xavier Rhodes, Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine, Dustin Hopkins, Menelik Watson, and Brandon Jenkins.
The roster also included Jameis Winston at backup QB, Kelvin Benjamin, Cameron Erving, Lamarcus Joyner, Ronald Darby, Roberto Aguayo, Karlos Williams, Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards Jr. on the depth chart, all of whom were selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. The majority of those players went in the first three rounds and are currently in the NFL.
In all, a good majority of the starting lineup for the 2012 FSU squad landed on some sort of professional roster.
The Seminoles lost only two games that season, losing to NC State in conference play by one point and to sixth-ranked Florida in a late-season rivalry game. Both games were on the road. FSU was a preseason top-10 team and reached as high as the third spot before the NC State loss. FSU won the ACC Championship over Georgia Tech on a neutral field by six points.
To make things worse, the game was located in Miami’s Pro Player Stadium, a de facto home game for Florida State, whose campus is located in Tallahassee.
To say NIU was at a disadvantage in this matchup was, frankly, putting it lightly. If memory recalls correctly, FSU was a 14.5 point favorite.
WMU got a somewhat (though, not much more) merciful draw in the 10th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
The game will also be played in what can safely be described as a true neutral field, with the Cotton Bowl set to be played in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, a fairly decent trek from Madison, Wisconsin and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The Badgers finished as Big Ten runner-ups this season to Penn State, going 10-3 despite turbulence at quarterback. Wisconsin looked up and down in its out-of-conference slate, winning a de facto home game at Lambeau Field against LSU, but struggling in a true home game against Sun Belt also-ran Georgia State.
Wisconsin held a commanding 28-14 lead at halftime in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, but faltered in the second half, giving up 24 points to Penn State while scoring only three to lose by four points.
WMU and Wisconsin actually have a common opponent in Akron. WMU shut out Akron in a road game, but Wisconsin won its home matchup against the Zips by a larger margin (44 points to 41 points.)
Wisconsin’s strength is its defense, which is a top-five unit in the country. TJ Watt, brother of JJ, leads a defense that has allowed 20 touchdowns on the season and an average of 300 yards per game, with a yards per play average of 4.94.
Wisconsin is third in the country in interceptions, with 21 INT’s and a return TD on the season and has a turnover margin of +11, good enough to be tied at ninth in the country. The Badgers own 32 sacks as well, averaging approximately 2.83 sacks per game.
Wisky is favored by 6.5 points as of Dec. 30, per OddsShark.
On offense, the Huskies’ chances pretty much leaned on Lynch, their do-it-all quarterback. Lynch completed 60 percent of his passes for a total of 3,138 yards and 25 TD’s through the air, throwing 6 INT’s. Lynch also led the Huskies in rushing by over 1,500+ yards, totaling 1,951 yards on 294 attempts, scoring 19 TD’s on the ground.
Akeem Daniels was a revelation at running back, taking place of Leighto Settle, who was injured midseason, toting the ball 68 times for 460 yards and nine touchdowns. Settle also had 460 yards and five touchdowns rushing on 101 attempts.
Martel Moore led the Huskies in receiving with 75 rec., 1,083 yards and 13 touchdowns, with an emergent Tommylee Lewis (48 rec., 539 yards, five touchdowns) right alongside. Daniels was a deadly receiving back option as well, with 20 rec., 259 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
On defense, Jimmie Ward led the way for NIU in the defensive secondary. Ward, now a starter with the San Francisco 49ers, had 104 tackles and three interceptions from the safety spot, with 11 pass breakups and 14 passes defended.
The defensive line, composed of Alan Baxter, Ken Bishop, Sean Progar and Joe Windsor combined for 200 tackles, 42 tackles for loss and 27 sacks.
Before a freaky MAC Championship game performance, Zac Terrell threw only one interception all season, a ridiculous statistic that shows just how effective he is as a quarterback.
Thus far on the season, Terrell has passed for 3,376 yards and 32 touchdowns on a 70.7 completion percentage. Terrell averages 259.69 yards per game through the air as well, giving the Broncos a potent passing game.
The true center of the WMU attack is in its running back stable. Former MAC Freshman of the Year Jarvion Franklin has toted the ball for the majority of the year due to Jamauri Bogan’s issues with injury. Franklin averages 100 yards exactly per game, with 1,300 yards on 241 carries and 12 touchdowns on the year. Bogan has 865 yards rushing on 163 carries and eight touchdowns. Fabian Johnson and Davon Tucker also contribute for the Broncos.
Corey Davis, a concensus All-American, is definitely WMU’s best player and one Wisconsin will pay attention to. Davis has 91 rec. for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 109 yards per game.
On defense, linebacker Robert Spillane leads the Broncos with 105 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sack, three interceptions and a forced safety on the year. Redshirt freshman defensive back Justin Tranquill has 86 tackles and two interceptions on the year as well and has quickly become a valuable member of the WMU secondary.
Keion Adams has been a quarterback’s worse nightmare this season, with 47 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, seven and a half sacks, and 17 quarterback hurries.
Darius Phillips has also caused quarterbacks conniptions, leading all Broncos with four interceptions. Phillips, a cover corner with speed, has nine broken passes and 39 tackles on the season. Phillips is one of three Broncos to boast at least three interceptions on the year and also has the added bonus of being a dangerous kickoff and punt returner as well, returning a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season.
WMU has yet to play their bowl game, but just to get there is a major testament to the power of a program with a plan.
NIU got to where it was in 2012 because it was a consistent player for the better part of a decade in the MAC. They gave FSU all they could in what ultimately became a losing effort. They almost busted the BCS again in 2014 until Bowling Green upset them in stunning fashion. Hell, even in 2015, NIU managed to win the West despite finishing tied with two teams.
One can debate all day about which team was better, 2012 NIU or 2016 WMU, but one thing is for sure: they both represent the MAC in a grand fashion.
The MAC has been much-maligned as a conference this season and a great performance on primetime TV would be huge for all its members. Perhaps things will be different this time around and the Broncos can pull off the upset to give the MAC its lone bowl win on the year.
It’d be a pretty great way to go out, wouldn’t it?