Northern Illinois to play Florida State in Orange Bowl

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Northern Illinois to play Florida State in Orange Bowl

MIAMI (AP) -- What a weekend for Northern Illinois: Win a conference championship, lose a coach and bust the BCS.

The Huskies are headed to the Orange Bowl, set to make their Bowl Championship Series debut against Florida State. Northern Illinois won the Mid-American Conference title on Friday, lost coach Dave Doeren to North Carolina State on Saturday, and then spent Sunday anxiously waiting to see if it cracked the top 16 in the final BCS standings.

By 0.0404 points, the Huskies did just that and will play in Miami on Jan. 1 as their reward.

The MAC champions (12-1) were 15th in the final BCS standings. Finishing in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of a qualifying conference - they actually finished ahead of two, Big East winner Louisville and Big Ten titlist Wisconsin - meant the Huskies were automatically BCS-bound, earning them this date with the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Seminoles (11-2).

Northern Illinois is the first MAC school to reach the BCS. The Huskies were 21st in last week's BCS standings, meaning they not only needed to beat Kent State - which entered championship week as another BCS hopeful - in the MAC title game to have a shot, they also needed some help to reach the top 16. And enough help came, particularly with Nebraska losing badly in the Big Ten title game, along with UCLA and Texas both falling over the weekend.

So it's the Huskies and Seminoles, a matchup that surely very few people would have expected when the season began.

And while Northern Illinois will be a fun story line throughout bowl season, the Huskies earned their way into the conversation. Since last Oct. 2, Northern Illinois is 21-1, the best record in the country. For comparison's sake, that's two more wins than Alabama and four more than Notre Dame - the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish are this year's title-game qualifiers - over that stretch.

In fact, all that separated Northern Illinois from being perfect this season was one measly point.

If it wasn't for an 18-17 loss against Iowa on Sept. 1, the Huskies might have been coming to Miami with an undefeated record. Northern Illinois led Iowa by eight points with 10 minutes to play, then gave up the game-deciding touchdown with 2:15 left.

Otherwise, who knows? Maybe NIU would have found some way to bust into the BCS title game, also to be played in Miami this season.

Florida State earned its Orange Bowl trip by topping Georgia Tech 21-15 in the ACC title game on Saturday night.

For Florida State, it's the ninth trip to the Orange Bowl and the Seminoles' first since the end of the 2005 season - a triple-overtime defeat to Penn State, in a game that pitted Joe Paterno against Bobby Bowden.

Consider: The Seminoles have been in more Orange Bowls than Northern Illinois has been in bowls, period. This trip to Miami will be the eighth postseason game for the Huskies, who lost to South Florida in the International Bowl three seasons ago, then beat Fresno State (Humanitarian Bowl) and Arkansas State (GoDaddy.com Bowl) in the past two years.

The stakes are a tad higher this time around.

The Huskies' getting into the BCS mix came at Oklahoma's expense.

Oklahoma (10-2) won a share of the Big 12 title and lost only to Kansas State and Notre Dame. Kansas State earned the Big 12's automatic bid to the Fiesta Bowl, but the Sooners seemed like a lock to get an at-large bid - most likely to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to play Florida.

Instead, Louisville is going there to meet the Gators, and Oklahoma is on the outside looking in of the BCS picture despite finishing 11th in the final standings, ahead of four teams that will actually be playing in the biggest-money games.

Hawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks' bottom six steps up in Colorado

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AP

Hawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks' bottom six steps up in Colorado

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Jamal Mayers discuss the bottom six carrying the Blackhawks to a come-from-behind win over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night.

Later, Mayers weighs in on possible targets with the NHL trade deadline just six weeks away.

Listen to the latest episode of the Hawks Talk Podcast below:

Pro Football Focus gives Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman historical 2016 grade

Pro Football Focus gives Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman historical 2016 grade

Bears GM Ryan Pace struck gold with his signing of Jerrell Freeman last offseason.

Freeman, who signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Bears last March, was graded as the NFL's No. 1 inside linebacker in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus.

Freeman's 93.8 overall grade was PFF's third-highest defensive grade behind Los Angeles Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald (95.6) and Oakland Raiders standout edge rusher Khalil Mack (93.9). 

Here's what PFF's Mike Renner had to say about Freeman's historic 2016 season:

One of the most impressive pure statistics any player amassed this season came from Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman. He made 40 tackles in coverage while missing only one tackle attempt. That ratio is insane, and it’s the best we’ve recorded since 2012. That’s about the only exciting stat, though, as the Bears’ front-seven desperately missed a fully-healthy Pernell McPhee for a good portion of the year.

Despite Freeman's outstanding season, he was left off of PFF's All-Pro Team for 2016. Although he was ranked ahead of Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (91.6) and Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (92.9), PFF likely omitted Freeman due to him missing four games with a PED suspension.

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In his first season with the Bears, the 30-year-old Freeman led the team with 110 tackles (the next highest total was Harold Jones-Quartey's 78). Freeman also finished with a team-high 7 tackles for a loss. 

Check out a snapshot below of Freeman's PFF metrics from last season:

If there's any doubt about Freeman's play falling off after serving a suspension, he put that theory to rest. Freeman's second-best game grade came in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings (3.5). Freeman also had a positive grade (1.4) in his first game coming off the suspension against the Washington Redskins in Week 16.

"People know me," Freeman told the media after returning from suspension. "People know who I am. People know what I'm about. I wouldn't do that on purpose. I made a mistake and that's what it is. It's not like I was going out of my way to do something (illegal). But it happened. It's my fault and I take responsibility for it."