The Seminoles concede they’d be hard-pressed to locate their opponent in an atlas.
“I could probably find Illinois,” receiver Rashad Greene said. “I don’t really know where the town is. Actually I don’t even know the town.”
“DeKalb?” Seminoles kicker Dustin Hopkins said. “Hey, next time I’ll know.”
“I thought it was in Chicago,” quarterback EJ Manuel said.
A victory tonight would put Northern Illinois on the map. The No. 16-ranked Huskies have been widely derided as unworthy of a BCS bowl berth, which makes them eager for validation when they face No. 13 Florida State.
“We’re playing a team that is going to be willing to bloody their noses and get after you,” Seminoles offensive coordinator James Coley warned.
Northern Illinois (12-1) is the first Mid-American Conference team to play in the Bowl Championship Series. The Huskies made it when they cracked the top 16 in the final standings by 0.0404 points, setting off a celebration in DeKalb and a backlash everywhere else.
The BCS busters arrived in south Florida without apology.
“There are a lot of angry people out there,” NIU offensive coordinator Bob Cole said. “But there are probably 120 of us in the hotel that are really happy about the whole deal. We don’t really care what everybody else thinks.”
The bowl berth meant 17 Huskies would see the ocean for the first time. One story about the team used the phrase “bowl bumpkins.”
“We laugh at it, whatever that’s supposed to mean,” linebacker Tyrone Clark said. “We take this as an amazing opportunity for the MAC, the school and the players.”
Actually, success is nothing new to the Huskies, who are playing in a bowl for the fifth consecutive season. Since October 2011 they have the best record in the country at 21-1.
They’ve won 12 games in a row, matching Ohio State and Notre Dame for the longest active winning streak. Quarterback Jordan Lynch leads the nation in rushing and total offense, and he finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting.
But the Huskies barely beat Army, Toledo and Kansas. They lost to Iowa, which won only three other games. They’ve never beaten an opponent ranked higher than 15th.
At a news conference Monday for the head coaches, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher agreed to pose with the Orange Bowl trophy. Northern Illinois’ Rod Carey declined, but not because his team is a two-touchdown underdog.
“Underdog? What is that?” Carey said. “Our kids play with a chip on their shoulder all the time. I mean, if we were favored by 21 points I’d be more nervous.”
Until kickoff, it’s impossible to know how seriously Florida State (11-2) will take a supposedly unimposing opponent. The matchup’s a letdown for the Seminoles, who wanted to wait another week to play in Miami — in the BCS title game.
But in the days leading up to the game, the Seminoles said all the right things about Northern Illinois.
“We’re not going to underestimate anybody,” receiver Rodney Smith said. “Everybody is trying to say NIU doesn’t deserve to be here, but as a team we’re saying they’re here for a reason. We’re going to treat them like they’re the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.”
They’re No. 1 in DeKalb, anyway, especially in the wake of their Orange Bowl berth.
“They’ve got signs all over the place in the street back home — ‘Go Huskies’ and ‘Good Luck in the Orange Bowl,’” Cole said. “For what it has done for our community, our players, our school, it has been unbelievable.”
DeKalb is located an hour west of Chicago, on the banks of the Kishwaukee River, in Rand McNally grid C-10. A good crowd at Huskies Stadium is 18,000, and the town’s population of 45,000 would barely fill half of the Orange Bowl’s seats.
“In DeKalb you’ve got your local cornfields,” linebacker Clark said. “We’ve got a lot of space there. And you’ve got your daily wind. It’s just a small town with a nice-size university — and a select number of people.”
Added teammate Sean Progar: “There’s not too much to do but play football.”
That’s what the small-town Huskies will do Tuesday on their biggest stage ever.