By Susan Miller Degnan The Miami Herald
MIAMI — South Florida officially got its 1-2 blockbuster — and BCS-buster, too.
No. 1 Notre Dame will play No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium.
That much was a given the moment the Crimson Tide defeated Georgia for the Southeastern Conference title Saturday.
It’s the other BCS game at Sun Life Stadium that caused a national stir when Sports Illustrated leaked early Sunday that Northern Illinois would be the first team in Mid-American Conference history to play in one of the five big bowls — namely, the Discover Orange Bowl.
The Huskies (12-1), who were No. 21 in last week’s BCS standings, leaped an unexpected six spots to No. 15 in Sunday’s final standings to secure their date with Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State (11-2) on Jan. 1.
Northern Illinois defeated former No. 17 Kent State 44-37 in double overtime Friday in the MAC title game. That, coupled with Texas and UCLA losing, and Nebraska getting unexpectedly hammered by five-loss Wisconsin, combined to create a perfect confluence of BCS-busting factors for NIU.
BCS rules state that any team from a non-automatic qualifying conference that finishes among the top 16 in the BCS standings and ahead of a champion from an automatic qualifying conference, clinches a spot in a BCS game.
NIU’s entry into the Orange Bowl put Big East champion Louisville (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 against Florida (11-1).
The Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3 will have Big 12 champion Kansas State (11-1) vs. Oregon (11-1).
The Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 will feature Pac-12 champion Stanford (11-2) against Big Ten champion Wisconsin (8-5).
“I think all of us know, being part of the BCS since its inception, that this is the framework we all work through,” said Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms, when reminded of the controversy NIU’s inclusion at the expense of schools such as Oklahoma and Georgia has created. “It’s a great story. I was in Detroit on Friday night and Northern Illinois is a tremendous team.
“As we saw in 2007 when Boise State played Oklahoma, those kind of matchups bring out theatrics. Florida State hasn’t been here in seven years, so I think we’re going to have quite an enthusiastic following coming from the northern part of Florida and those that live here in South Florida.
“We’ll be just fine.”
The Orange Bowl Committee will be more than just fine when it comes to the dream matchup of two of the most storied, tradition-rich teams in college football: 11-time national champion Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1), which is seeking its second consecutive national title, third in four years and 15th overall.
The early Las Vegas lines had Alabama favored by as many as 10 points.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that it really doesn’t make any difference how many game-winning shots you made in the past,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “The only one you’ve got to focus on is the one you’ve got to shoot right now.
“To me, Notre Dame and Alabama probably have, from a tradition standpoint, as much, with coach [Bear] Bryant and all the great Notre Dame teams of the past, as there could be. And for those two storied programs to play in a national championship game makes it even more special.”
Said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: “Certainly the tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame bring special attention. But we’re just trying to be the best team on Monday, Jan. 7, and all of that tradition and what’s happened in the past is not going to help us Jan. 7.”
Notre Dame leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 points allowed per game), ranks fourth in rushing defense (92.4 yards) and is sixth in total defense (286.8).
The Crimson Tide, whose only loss was 29-24 to Texas A&M on Nov. 10, is ranked first in total defense (246 yards allowed per game), first in rushing defense (79.8) and second in scoring defense (10.7 points).
Saban, a former Dolphins coach who left South Florida after he insisted he wasn’t going anywhere, is distrusted and disdained by many South Florida sports fans. When asked about his emotions regarding returning to South Florida, and the reception he expected, Saban replied, “Are you talking to Nick Saban?”
When told, “Yes, you,” Saban said: “I’ve been back to South Florida on lots of occasions. I know there are some people that may be upset with some things that happened in the past, but we have a lot of good friends there. We love it there. We have a lot of good relationships with a lot of people, and it’s one of the finest places in the country.”