We usually reserve this space for meatier fare, but please indulge us today, if you will, for a moment to celebrate this year's Northern Illinois University football Huskies.
Frankly, it's been a great year for the Chicago area in college football. Notre Dame has returned to glory and will be playing for the national championship on Jan. 7. And Northwestern, which long ago shed its underdog status, will be playing on New Year's Day in the Gator Bowl, extending what has become a lengthy streak of bowl appearances.
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We're excited about them all, and we're pulling for them all, but it's difficult not to feel a special affection for NIU, a charming success story from DeKalb that continues to build a solid program below the radar of the national media spotlight.
Underrecognized and undervalued perhaps. But the Huskies wear the role of the underdog well, and they know how to raise the bar for their team and their conference.
They weren't picked to win the Mid-America Conference. In fact, in some quarters they were projected to finish second in the MAC West Division. Despite that, they ended up winning their conference title outright for the second year in a row. Only two other schools -- Wisconsin in the Big Ten and Arkansas State in the Sun Belt -- can make that same repeat claim.
The Huskies are not lucky interlopers to the BCS bowls as some might argue. NIU has earned its success. The team's 12-game winning streak is tied with Notre Dame and Ohio State for the longest in the nation, and if that's not enough evidence, think about this: The Huskies have won 21 of their last 22 games overall.
Many of their athletes weren't offered scholarships to Northwestern or Illinois or the higher-profile schools, just like many of their fellow students, yet like so many of their fellow students, they found a way to excel. And yes, it's nice to look at these players and see that they are, in fact, students. Three members of this year's squad earned first or second Academic All-America football team recognition.
On the field, they set school, conference and national records. Quarterback Jordan Lynch rushed for more than 100 yards in each of NIU's last 11 games, an NCAA record. He leads the nation in both total offensive yards (4,733) and total rushing yards (1,771).
Consider this: Last year's senior class finished as the winningest class in school history. This year's seniors topped that mark.
Underrecognized and undervalued, perhaps. But this football program just beyond the suburban horizon is not underachieving. It's played in eight bowl games and on New Year's Day, it will be making its fifth straight bowl appearance.
NIU has been a football success for years now.
This year, that success has stepped out of the shadows.
On Jan. 1, NIU will become the first MAC school to play in a BCS bowl or the Orange Bowl.
It's time to celebrate. Go Huskies!