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Zemek Orange Thought: Second Class
Posted Jan 2, 2013

Matt Zemek Thoughts on Florida State's 2013 Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois.

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

In 2014, college football will give us the "group of five" conferences, the cluster of second-class citizens who – like beggars in a big-city slum – will fight for one contract or host bowl crust of bread. We don't yet know exactly how "group of five" schools will be evaluated and measured, but if a familiar mix of human and computer polls has anything to do with this process, the reputations of various conferences certainly matter. They could very well affect the outcome of this competition in 2014 and beyond, resulting in millions of dollars for the winning school and its conference. It was for this reason that the 2013 Orange Bowl was important.

This was the Mid-American Conference's big night in the spotlight, the chance for the league and its standard bearer, Northern Illinois, to either rise or fall on their merits.

The verdict, ladies and gentlemen of the college football jury? Mixed, but necessarily – and unavoidably – negative. It was good for the sport that Northern Illinois received this opportunity, but the burden and responsibility of such an opportunity are rightly considerable, and on balance, the Huskies – while hardly the complete flop Hawaii turned out to be in the 2008 Sugar Bowl against Georgia – did not leave a particularly favorable impression. How one arrives at that conclusion, though, is important.

Did Northern Illinois belong on the same field? That was the first and foremost question attached to this contest, the lowest and most elementary bar the Huskies had to clear. The answer on this point: YES. The Huskies did belong on the same field. In the middle of the third quarter, they stood within 30 yards of scoring a tying touchdown. They did put fear in Florida State's heart. Their defense displayed a bend-but-don't-break ruggedness that earned them a fair measure of admiration. Quarterback Jordan Lynch, on a generally tough night, was at least able to summon a few minutes of excellence, showing the nation what he is capable of at his best.

Back to the bigger picture: This was not a start-to-finish beatdown. It wasn't an unholy curb-stomping. It was decisive, though, and it was put to bed with 10:33 in the fourth quarter. In a 60-minute contest, NIU was basically alive for five-sixths of the proceedings. That's better than what other teams would have done, but it's not particularly close to a wire-to-wire act. If this were a 15-round heavyweight bout, NIU would have gotten knocked out early in the 13th round… while hopelessly behind on points. This was a slow death, but it was a likely death, with the underdog getting one little opening but promptly squandering its chance and not getting another sniff for the rest of the night. Give NIU credit for battling, but one must also call the Huskies to account for not executing with very much precision and clarity. Lynch was well below par, and his receivers gave him little help as well. It's true that Northern Illinois would have fared better if Dave Doeren had remained the team's head coach – Rod Carey did not handle this occasion very well as a caretaker – but at a certain point, grading on a curve has its limits. In terms of quality on an absolute scale, Northern Illinois didn't rate very highly.

There's one more reason why the Huskies – and by extension, the MAC – can't be graded very favorably in the aftermath of the Orange Bowl: Florida State's offense – the play caller (Jimbo Fisher) and the players on the field – did not perform particularly well. Fisher used finesse runs and low-percentage passes to the edges on several occasions, instead of relying on smashmouth, north-south runs and passes to receivers in open space. Passing the ball actually wasn't a bad move for Florida State, given its abundance of athleticism on the edges, but it was Fisher's insistence on passing to the sidelines that did not give the Seminoles a sensible line of attack. Quarterback E.J. Manuel was not crisp in the final game of his career, but it's not as though his coach gave him the best mixture of plays to work with.

Picking apart Florida State's shortcomings is not an attempt (at least, it should not be seen as an attempt) to pour could water on a team that just won its twelfth game of the season and captured a BCS bowl championship. Florida State, thanks to its defense, took care of business in the Orange Bowl and capped what can legitimately be viewed as a successful season… not an artful one, mind you, but a successful one. The Seminoles deserve credit for not suffering the fate of Oklahoma (against Boise State) in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

The reason to nitpick Florida State in the wake of its victory is simple: Assessing the quality of Northern Illinois's performance and the legitimacy of the MAC represent the foremost tasks for the college football community in relationship to this game. Making those two value judgments can only be done in light of the caliber of NIU's opponent.

Look at it this way: If a team plays well but loses by 21 points because its opponent performs off the charts, it's worth crediting the losing team because it acquitted itself well, despite a given scoreboard margin. However, if a 21-point margin is more the result of two teams playing poorly, the losing team cannot and should not gain undue credit for keeping the proceedings somewhat respectable. This was not a game in which Florida State earned an A-plus grade and Northern Illinois posted a solid B-minus in defeat. No, this was a game in which Florida State played at a C-plus level while Northern Illinois garnered a D-plus.

Don't focus on Florida State's grade, but use Florida State's grade to measure Northern Illinois in full. The Huskies, even though they didn't get embarrassed, were not able to stand in the ring for the duration of this contest, and they weren't able to go the distance despite the fact that their opponent did not play all that well. This does not represent a good recommendation for the Mid-American Conference, but let's go back to the very beginning: This was a night on which Northern Illinois and the MAC had to rise or fall on their merits.

There simply weren't enough merits in evidence in South Florida to give the MAC the benefit of the doubt in the next BCS (or contract/host bowl) controversy.