In a season that saw a number of "firsts" the 79th annual Orange Bowl will feature one as well, as the BCS big boys make room for a mid-major, with the Mid-American Conference's Northern Illinois Huskies taking on ACC powerhouse Florida State at Sun Life Stadium on New Year's Day.
Often times with success comes change, and Northern Illinois has had its share since the end of the season, as Dave Doeren has moved on to take over the head coaching job at NC State. In two seasons in DeKalb, Doeren led the Huskies to a 23-4 record and back-to-back MAC titles.
Offensive coordinator Rod Carey has taken over and will lead the Huskies into the postseason.
The Huskies, behind a record-setting performance by their quarterback, took the nation by storm in 2012. Northern Illinois dropped its season opener against Iowa (18-17), but ran the table after that, with its 12th consecutive victory coming in the MAC Championship Game against Kent State (44-37).
It has been a little bit surreal for Carey in regard to where he and his team are at this point.
"On our way down, I started flipping through on my phone all the old Orange Bowl scores," said Carey. "I found that Notre Dame, Colorado one from way- back-when I was a kid all those years ago. I thought to myself, can you believe it. I'm coaching in that. That's crazy. It's awesome and we are super excited. But we need to temper that a little bit. This is a reward for our guys. You have to be able to have fun and work, but it's still pretty dang cool."
By finishing within the parameters of the current rules regarding BCS eligibility, NIU became the first Mid-American Conference team to earn a BCS bowl bid.
Despite the lofty perch the Huskies sit in now, the school does not have a lengthy bowl resume' with this marking just the eighth all-time bowl bid for the Huskies. Northern Illinois is 4-3 all-time in its previous bowl experience and has won its last two postseason games, including last year's GoDaddy.com Bowl over Arkansas State (38-20). The team has received bowl bids in seven of the last eight seasons.
Jimbo Fisher is in his third season at the helm of Florida State and this was supposed to be the year the team made a run at the national championship. It certainly looked good in the month of September, as the Seminoles won each of their first five games. However, with the start of October came a shocking 17-16 road loss at NC State. To Fisher and the Seminoles' credit, FSU rallied with another five-game win streak, capturing the ACC's Atlantic Division title and spot in the ACC Championship Game. The regular season came to a close with a 37-26 loss to rival Florida, but once again, FSU bounced back, topping Georgia Tech (21-15) for its first ACC title since 2005 and a spot in the Orange Bowl.
One of the most decorated postseason teams in the country, Florida State's bowl record is an impressive 25-14-2. The Seminoles are taking part in their 31st straight bowl season, the longest active streak in the country and second longest in NCAA history (Nebraska - 35). The 'Noles have won each of their last four bowl games, including an 18-14 decision over Notre Dame last year in the Champs Sports Bowl. Florida State is 3-5 in eight previous visits to the Orange Bowl.
This is the first time that these two teams will be meeting on the gridiron.
The Huskies are not a run-of-the-mill mid-major, as NIU ranked among the nation's most prolific offenses in 2012. The team averaged a hefty 40.8 ppg (ninth nationally) and moved the ball with equal effectiveness on the ground (250.2 ypg) and through the air (235.6 ypg).
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel took home the Heisman with a truly remarkable season, but NIU's Jordan Lynch's numbers were comparable to say the least. The top dual-threat QB in the country, Lynch completed 62.9 percent of his passes, for 2,962 yards and 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions. The 6-foot junior also finished fourth in the nation in rushing (1,771 yards), averaging 6.5 yards per carry with another 19 touchdowns. Lynch finished the season with a national-best 4,733 yards of total offense and was named a Second-Team All- American.
Wideout Martel Moore certainly benefited from Lynch's monster season. The senior wideout led the team in all receiving categories, hauling in 71 balls, for 1,054 yards and 12 TDs, en route to All-MAC First-Team honors.
Despite Lynch and the NIU offense garnering plenty of headlines, the Huskies were solid on the defensive side of the ball as well. Northern Illinois allowed just 19.0 ppg this year, while holding foes to just 356.7 yards of total offense (34th nationally). The team finished in the top-10 nationally in sacks (40) and TFLs (98).
Three NIU defenders found their way to the All-MAC First-Team in defensive ends Alan Baxter (58 tackles, 11.0 TFLs, 9.5 sacks) and Sean Progar (46 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 8.5 sacks). Safety Jimmie Ward joined the two rush ends after leading the Huskies in tackles (90), PBUs (10) and interceptions (3). Leading the way in the middle of the defense is linebacker Tyrone Clark (82 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, one sack, one INT, one fumble recovery), who earned All- MAC Second-Team honors.
FSU quarterback EJ Manuel views Northern Illinois as a very deserving opponent.
"Like any other opponent, it's a huge amount of respect," said Manuel. "I think the best (show of) respect for your opponent is to prepare for them well; to go out there and give them you're a-game. We're not taking these guys lightly. They earned the right to be in the Orange Bowl and a BCS game, just like we did. I know people are probably giving them a hard time, talking about their school, that they shouldn't be in this (game). They earned it otherwise they wouldn't be in this situation."
The Seminoles put up some gaudy offensive numbers as well in 2012. The team finished the season averaging just under 40 points per game (39.9), with great balance between the run and the pass. FSU put up over 200 yards rushing (203.0 ypg) and over 250 yards passing (262.9 ypg), to finish 23rd nationally in total offense.
Manual was certainly a big part of the overall success, completing an impressive 67.9 percent of his passes, for 3,101 yards, with 22 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
Manuel's job was made a bit easier with the emergence of wideout Rashad Greene. The sophomore led the team in receptions (52), receiving yards (696) and TD catches (5).
A re-energized ground attack provided the balance needed to take the FSU offense to new heights. The backfield took a big hit with the loss of leading rusher Chris Thompson (687 yards, 5 TDs) to injury, but Devonta Freeman (630 yards, 8 TDs) and James Wilder Jr. (583 yards, 11 TDs) provided more than enough to assuage the loss.
One of the nation's premier defenses resided in Tallahassee this season, as FSU finished up sixth nationally in scoring defense (15.1 ppg), fifth in rush defense (93.0 ypg), third in pass defense (160.8 ypg) and second in total defense (253.8 ypg). As a result of FSU's success on this side of the football, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops was heavily recruited and left to be the head coach at Kentucky.
It certainly helped to have perhaps the nation's best pass rushing duo coming off the edges in Cornellius Carradine (80 tackles, 13.0 TFLs, 11.0 sacks) and Bjoern Werner (40 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 13.0 sacks). Both garnered All-American accolades, while Werner, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, was a unanimous selection.
Linebacker Christian Jones led the defense in tackles (85), with 7.0 TFLs and two fumble recoveries. The play in the secondary is highlighted by Xavier Rhodes (35 tackles, 3 INTs), Lamarcus Joyner (45 tackles, one INT) and Tyler Hunter (23 tackles, 3 INTs).