Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Best Team You'll Never See in the BCS Title Game

This team is one of the best teams not only in their conference, but they are also the no.-1 ranked team in the country.

However, you won’t see them play in New Orleans in the BCS title game. In fact, you won’t even see them play in a BCS Bowl game or even a bowl game at all. That’s because they play in Division I-AA, or the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The team is none other than the University of Northern Iowa Panthers (UNI).

The Panthers are the top ranked team in the AGS FCS rankings and second ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll, behind North Dakota State. UNI is 8-0 and are coming off of a 14-13 comeback victory against 22nd ranked Youngstown State.

The Panthers were down 13-0 going into the fourth quarter; when wide receiver Johnny Gray scored on a 29 yard pass from redshirt senior quarterback Eric Sanders, with 11:58 left in the game. Gray would score again on a 19-yard run to put the Panthers ahead for good.

The game was played at the UNI-Dome, a 16,000 seat dome that is not only a huge staple of the campus, but of the town of Cedar Falls. It certainly isn't the Big House, but they always fill the seats week in and week out. Let’s not forget about the Astroturf that covers the field, a true dying breed in college football.

The school itself is one of the best in the Midwest, according to US News and World Report, ranked second in public comprehensive universities. The enrollment is just over 10,000.

The school is in Cedar Falls, a town of 36,000 people. According to the US Census taken in the year 2000, the median age is 26. Cedar Falls is like any ordinary town, it has a mall, a movie theatre, a bowling alley, even a bike trail.

As for Sanders, he’s a highly touted quarterback who knows how to win, ever since his days at Oelwein High School, a school that barely has 500 students enrolled. The town itself, Oelwein, is a town of 6,000 people, a true small town where everybody knows each other.

Sanders led Oelwein to the state playoffs during his junior and senior season. However, Oelwein fell short midway through the playoffs. He then went to UNI, where he spent his freshmen year as a red-shirt.

In 2005, Sanders led UNI to the Division I-AA Championship game against Appalachian State. (Sound familiar?)

The Panthers had to go through Eastern Washington, a no.-1 ranked New Hampshire team and Texas State to reach that point. They would lose the title to Appalachian State.

Sanders was named the Gateway Football Freshmen of the Year in 2004 and was named a Second Team All-American by in 2005.

It’s been two years since that magical season and the Panthers are looking to win it all this year. This weekend, they’ll play Missouri State and will try to clinch the Gateway Conference, earning the Panthers an automatic bid in the playoffs.

Even if the Panthers make the playoffs and make it to the National Title game, they’ll still be somewhat overshadowed in Iowa by both the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State Cyclones. It’s a Cy-Hawk state, not a lot of room for the Panthers.

There won’t be any controversy; you won’t hear Tony Kornheiser or Michael Wilbon argue about it on PTI. There won’t be wall-to-wall coverage of this team on any of the games on Fox. More importantly, this will be a game that won’t be played in January.

The Panthers don’t need to worry about their ranking in the AP Poll, nor do they need to worry about their strength of schedule. They won’t lose sleep over not blowing out their competitors. All the Panthers need to do is win.

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