Orange is enough

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the commotion following Saturday's win over Georgia Tech that secured Florida State its first conference championship in seven years, right tackle Menelik Watson chomped into an orange, while defensive lineman Demonte McAllister showed off his juggling skills with three more of them. James Wilder Jr. traversed the caverns of Bank of America Stadium with his MVP trophy tucked under one arm and a full bag of oranges under the other.

For Florida State, a trip to the Discover Orange Bowl for a BCS bowl game is a worthy conclusion to a season the Seminoles insist marks a turning point in the program's history.

"Man, South Beach -- that's all I think about," safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "Honestly, I'm so happy to make it to the Orange Bowl and to make it to a prestige bowl game."

For the players and coaches who have worked to reach a BCS bowl, their enthusiasm is understandable. For Florida State fans and the college football world at large, however, this Orange Bowl has been met with a collective groan.

Florida State will face off against Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois in Miami on Jan. 1, and pundits and fans are already lamenting yet another uninspiring opponent in a season that, in many ways, has been defined by a lackluster schedule for FSU.

Northern Illinois won its conference and slipped narrowly into the top 16 in the BCS standings, ranking ahead of conference champions from two automatic-qualifier leagues, thus ensuring a berth in a BCS bowl, but hardly stimulating the collective imaginations of FSU fans who might have hoped for an opponent with a bit more pedigree -- or, well, any pedigree at all.

"That's the great thing about college football and the system we're in -- everybody gets an opinion, and that's fine," NIU coach Rod Carey said of the negative reaction to his team's selection for the Orange Bowl. "All I know is we're really excited to be in this game in such a tradition-rich bowl against Florida State that has an unbelievable program and great exposure for our university."

Carey took over as head coach Saturday when former coach Dave Doeren left for NC State. He leads a Huskies team that has played in just seven bowl games in its history, and only once against an opponent from an automatic-qualifier conference and never against a team with the kind of firepower Florida State will bring to Miami.

The selling points for NIU are straightforward, if still relatively obscure among the college football masses. The Huskies have won 12 straight games after a one-point, opening-week loss to Iowa (which lost eight of its next 11 and finished 2-6 in the Big Ten). NIU ranks ninth nationally in scoring offense (41 points per game) and quarterback Jordan Lynch ranks third in the country in total offense (364 yards per game).

And there's this tidbit: Northern Illinois has as many victories over BCS top-25 teams this season (1) as Florida State does.

That, of course, is part of the problem. In a season when FSU rarely has been tested thanks to a dismal year in the ACC and a lifeless nonconference slate aside from the annual rivalry game against Florida, there have been precious few games for Seminoles fans to get excited about this season.

If the Seminoles fans are tepid on the matchup, though, head coach Jimbo Fisher said Northern Illinois won't share the same mindset.

"They're going to be motivated, but the more important thing is, you don't get into this game unless you're a good football team," Fisher said. "We know we're going to get an inspired opponent that's looking to prove something, and we're going to play a very good opponent. When they look at the film, they're going to see that."

Florida State has been favored in every game it has played this season, and only once before the Orange Bowl were the Seminoles favored by fewer than 12 points. They beat just two teams this season that finished with more than six wins. They played two FCS schools and two schools that fired their coaches after the season. The conference championship victory came in sluggish fashion over a Georgia Tech team that needed an NCAA waiver to qualify for its bowl game after wrapping up the season with a losing record.

But while the schedule hasn't come with much excitement, it's also one FSU has traversed with few hiccups, and even for a team that opened the year with national championship hopes, the result comes with no asterisks or footnotes in the players' eyes.

"We're still ACC champions," Joyner said. "We met one goal. We let one slip away. We have another one in front of us. That's what makes greatness is grasping the opportunities you can, and we're going to try to take this opportunity we have in front of us."

After all, Florida State has just one BCS bowl victory in its history -- that one in the Sugar Bowl to clinch the 1999 national championship. The Seminoles have lost five other BCS games. Florida State hasn't won an Orange Bowl since 1995.

So never mind that the stage isn't quite set perfectly for a rousing coda to the season, or that NIU is playing with a brand-new coach, or that FSU's own defensive coordinator has departed, as well. The tickets won't be a hot seller, but the weather is still warm in Miami, and a win still makes FSU the Orange Bowl champion.

The way the Seminoles look at it, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said, the whole process isn't supposed to be impressive. It's supposed to be expected.

"We've been trying to get here for a long time," Jernigan said. "Get back into the national title conversations, winning ACC championships and Orange Bowls and those types of games. We're Florida State. That's what we're supposed to do. It wasn't anything miraculous."