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This team might make a great story, but ...
Joe Novak is one of those old school coaches who is unafraid to say anything.
But whatever else he talks about Saturday, when his No. 12 Northern Illinois Huskies go to No. 23 Bowling Green in the first Mid-American Conference matchup of ranked teams since 1973, his pregame speech won't include a word about the BCS.
He doesn't see the point.
"The reasons I won't mention it are twofold," he said Thursday from the NIU campus at DeKalb, Ill. "First, I don't completely understand how the BCS works. And No. 2, what little I've been able to figure out tells me it's completely beyond our control.
"But I'll tell you this much," Novak added after a moment's pause, "if we somehow get to 13-0, I'll be ... and moaning like there's no tomorrow."
Lot of good that will do him.
Northern Illinois has become the "Rudy" of this college football season, an overmatched program roundly admired for limitless spunk and effort, yet doomed never to get to the big game. Like their movie counterpart, an undersized kid named Rudy Ruettiger who became a walk-on at storied Notre Dame, the Huskies could outplay just about everybody ranked ahead of them and still have to settle for a consolation prize -- a bowl game that pays little and offers even less prestige.
Said Jerry Palm, an expert on how the Bowl Championship Series comes up with its weekly rankings, "I don't see, short of Armageddon, how Northern Illinois is going to get a spot."
We'll spare you the mathematical part of the explanation. But under the current BCS rules, a team has to be in the top six to guarantee a bid from any of the BCS' high-revenue, glamour bowls -- the Sugar, Orange, Rose or Fiesta -- and the top 12 just to be eligible.
The way the BCS is set up, those bowl spots are largely reserved for members of the six major conferences -- Pac-10, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big East and Big Ten -- and Notre Dame. Because of the schedules that mid-major schools like NIU play, they have absolutely no shot at an automatic bid. And despite wins over BCS members Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State, NIU could finish the season unbeaten and still have trouble hanging on to No. 12. That most likely means being exiled to the Motor City Bowl.
How could that happen?
Novak didn't have to do the math to figure it out. Just last week, he got a preview from voters in The Associated Press' weekly poll, one of the components used to determine the BCS rankings.
Despite Northern's win over Western Michigan, AP voters left the Huskies at No. 12. Because of losses, Iowa and Arkansas, two teams ranked ahead of Northern Illinois, slipped behind. But two teams that already have one loss each, Purdue and Michigan State, were able to leapfrog the Huskies.
"I'm not sure that we're the 12th-best team in the nation, but that's not the same thing as saying we don't deserve to be ranked that high or higher," Novak said.
"Our talent level isn't the same as say, Florida State or Alabama, but the most talented team isn't always the best one. So much of this game is mental, but it's the part most people understand the least. And right now our kids think they're good. We may get our butts beat by Bowling Green, but our kids are going there thinking we're going to win. And the last thing I'm going to clutter their heads with is stuff about the BCS."
For the time being, that dizzying task has been left to Congress and the NCAA.
A coalition of have-not schools, led by Tulane president Scott Cowen, whose team went 12-0 in 1998 and was snubbed by the major bowls, wants a better cut of the BCS pie.
Last month, the NCAA brokered a meeting between the non BCS and BCS factions amid vague threats of a court case. A handful of BCS officials have already testified before a congressional committee and next week, Cowen travels to Washington, D.C., to try to keep the heat on the haves.
But Novak isn't holding his breath.
At 58, he's seen the game from both sides of the fence. He played defensive end on back-to-back MAC championship teams at Miami of Ohio almost 40 years ago (for the original old-school coach, Bo Schembechler) and he was an assistant at Miami, NIU, Illinois and Indiana before taking over the Huskies program in 1996.
He knows the best place for his current squad to make its case is in the court of public opinion.
"I remember Fresno State getting off to a great start two years ago and raising the same argument, and then they lost three of their last six. So I'm leaving the BCS business to somebody else for the time being.
"Right now," he added, "I've got my hands full just trying to make sure that doesn't happen to us."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.