MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The Florida State tailgating tents were lined in a row outside of Sun Life Stadium about four hours before kickoff, but the bright red T-shirts of the Northern Illinois fans have been impossible to miss. This is big for the Huskies. As the first MAC school to play in a BCS bowl, there has been no lack of support. NIU students have received one free ticket each, and they were all invited to travel to the game by bus, stay two nights in a hotel, and receive several meals along the way for $150.
A total of 1,300 NIU students (almost eight percent of the undergrads there) took a total of 26 buses and made the 24.5-hour bus trip along with 52 staff members. (Good choice, today's high temperature in DeKalb was 21 degrees). NIU also invited several of its former head coaches, including Minnesota's Jerry Kill and former coach Dave Doeren, who was hired at NC State.
As for the overall atmosphere here, it's hard to tell just how good of a crowd this is going to be until the fans start filing in, and as of right now -- about 90 minutes before kickoff -- it looks like your average Miami home game (empty).
Despite the lack of interest in this game on a national level, there is plenty at stake for both teams.
Northern Illinois is out to prove it deserves its BCS-busting status -- heavily motivated by its critics -- and Florida State is favored to win and shouldering expectations to leave no doubt it's the better team. Those who have followed the Seminoles closely, though, know that they have been an inconsistent group, even in wins. This game is worth watching simply because there is a very real chance Florida State could lose, but there's also no doubt that FSU is the better, faster, deeper team. NIU is going to have to be disciplined and a little bit creative in order to compensate for the difference in talent.
NIU is the visiting team tonight, and the visiting team has won seven of the past eight games hosted by the Orange Bowl. The lone exception was Virginia Tech's win over Cincinnati in 2009.
Both FSU and NIU have talked this week about the importance of starting fast and setting the tone early. Florida State players and coaches have talked all week about how they're not underestimating the MAC champs, and how focused they've been in practices.
The thing only left to do is prove it.