Many people all over the Midwest flocked to gas stations and convenience stores this week for a long shot chance at prosperity.
Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher drove to Detroit dreaming of the same thing.
Ford Field are for the MAC championship and then we'll go from there,'' Steinbrecher insisted Thursday on the phone from his car.
Where the winner of the Northern Illinois-Kent State game possibly still could go is the Orange Bowl, which offers credibility impossible to quantify and a $28 million payout split among 60 non-automatic qualifying schools. The alternatives to the MAC champ, the Little Caesars Pizza and GoDaddy.com bowls, pay $750,000 apiece.
Quirky BCS rules allow a team outside the six automatic qualifying conferences to make a BCS bowl if it finishes in the Top 16 of the BCS standings <em>and</em> ahead of another automatic-qualifying conference champion. Both No. 21 NIU and 17th-ranked Kent State are ranked ahead of every Big East team, thus opening the door to South Florida a smidgen for the survivor of the MAC's most important game ever.
"For the last several years our goal has been to be the first team from the MAC to play in a BCS bowl so to have a season that puts us in that position is pretty gratifying,'' Northern Illinois athletic director Jeff Compher said. "Every game is crucial. This one's historic.''
This one involves an NIU team that "considers it a point of pride,'' according to Compher, to be called the best in Illinois — the Huskies enter one spot ahead of Northwestern in the BCS poll. This one pits two Top 25 teams against each other in a game with BCS implications that includes a player with legitimate Heisman Trophy credentials — NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, Chicago's other No. 6.
Is this one really to decide the MAC champion?
The 1989 California Raisin Bowl watch in my drawer commemorating Ball State's reward for winning the MAC my senior season still is right twice a day. But even though the gold-plated souvenir stopped working a few years after my backpedal did, it still reminds me of a memorable week in Fresno, Calif., and a very different time in MAC football.
Players never used to go to MAC programs thinking of playing for trips to major bowls on national TV. They usually went because bigger programs overlooked them or better chances to play came quicker. They went focused on the journey every football season more than the destination. They went to chase with all their might a spot in those minor bowl games elitist college football fans and media want to eliminate every year.
Now they go to places like DeKalb and Muncie, Ind., and Kent, Ohio, expecting to have more in common with the big boys because, well, they do. Now they go anticipating regional and national respect because they earned it: The MAC set a record with 16 victories over non-conference FBS opponents and, for the first time, six conference schools won eight or more games. Now they dream bigger because reality seems more within their grasp.
The Huskies still need some helping hands to seize this rare opportunity.
Without dwelling on details of the algorithms of BCS computers only guys like Nate Silver might understand, NIU associate AD and BCS guru Mark Muhlhauser advised focusing on the field.
"Figuring out the scenarios became my Sunday hobby the past two weeks,'' Muhlhauser said.
First, NIU must beat a Kent State team with fewer obstacles between it and the Orange Bowl. Then, to ascend in the USA Today/Coaches, Harris and computer polls that comprise the BCS rankings, NIU likely needs three key conference-title games to go its way:
•Stanford needs to beat No. 16 UCLA.
•Kansas State needs to beat No. 18 Texas.
•Nevada needs to beat No. 20 Boise State.
A TCU victory over No. 11 Oklahoma and/or a Georgia Tech victory over No. 13 Florida State would help too. Yet even if all that happens, Michigan still looks nearly immovable at No. 19 because the Wolverines can't lose. They are idle.
"No reason to think (NIU) can make the jump,'' said Jerry Palm, a BCS analyst for CBSSports.com.
Conventional wisdom favors Palm's projection. But then nobody expected all nine Top 25 teams NIU needed to lose last weekend to stay in the BCS pool to go down and, one at a time, they did.
"All of a sudden, I'm texting Mark and he's texting me and we're like, 'Can you believe this?''' Compher said.
The message sent from Northern Illinois and the rest of the MAC this season: Yes, we can.