DeKALB – Northern Illinois certainly wasn't the first non-automatic qualifier school to crash the Bowl Championship Series party.
Utah started the fun in 2004, going unbeaten and defeating Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 2006, the BCS National Championship, previously held at one of the four BCS bowls, became a separate identity. The fifth BCS game gave more opportunities for non-AQ teams. Boise State took advantage that season, getting a stunning, 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos made it back to Glendale, Ariz., in 2009.
Hawaii earned a Sugar Bowl spot in 2007, while the Utes earned their second BCS win after the 2008 season, topping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. TCU lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010, but came back to top Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl the next season.
Boise State, TCU and Utah all had success after their first BCS appearance – the Horned Frogs and Utes were invited into BCS conferences, the Big 12 and Pac-12, respectively. Boise State is a perennial non-AQ power.
Hawaii, on the other hand, has had just one winning season since its 41-10 loss to Georgia in New Orleans.
NIU isn't likely to be the next Hawaii.
Huskies coach Rod Carey said in fall camp that the NIU name is out there now, which is important in recruiting. The Chessick Center, scheduled to be completed in October, will give a boost to the facilities. The program's success isn't new, the Huskies have been going strong for roughly 10 years.
Starting next season, the top-ranked team from the five non-AQ leagues, or "Group of Five," will earn an automatic bid to one of the six major bowl games in the new College Football Playoff. Mid-majors will have a consistent presence in bowl games, something Carey has thrown his support behind.
TCU is the lone non-AQ to make it to back-to-back BCS bowls, something NIU has the unique opportunity to do in this last year of the BCS.
Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson told Shaw Media through the TCU sports information office that the 17-10 loss to Boise State in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl motivated his team for the following year.
The Horned Frogs went on to beat Wisconsin, 21-19, in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 2011.
"The odds are not in your favor, but it depends on how many players you have back," Patterson said. "Our kids were hungrier going into the next season because we lost our bowl game."
NIU returns 13 starters, including all-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Motivation isn't a problem, either.
"[The Orange Bowl loss] just gave us a hard edge. Everybody's coming out hard and competing," 2012 All-MAC safety Jimmie Ward said. "... Basically, going into this Iowa game, I feel like everybody's still, since we came off the loss, everybody's still got a hard edge. Everybody's got something to prove."
The Huskies' quest for another BCS game starts Aug. 31 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Most likely, NIU will have to go unbeaten to reach the plateau again.
The BCS is certainly a reality now, and expectations are higher than ever for NIU.
However, the team's internal expectations are even bigger.
"We have higher expectations for ourselves than anybody outside," Carey said. "And we're striving to meet those every day. And that's why sometimes these guys see me grumpy, because we're not there yet and we want to be there.
"But it's a process, and you've got to love the process and love the grind."
As for what exactly those expectations are?
"Those are for us to know," Carey said with a smile.