Rod Carey had it right from his opening press conference.
Northern Illinois' newest on-field leader didn't need any collegiate head-coaching experience to know where the Huskies' Orange Bowl berth stood in the history of NIU football games.
"The biggest," Carey said. "You can say it that easy. It's the biggest."
Certainly it is. And nothing comes close.
It's not NIU's first January bowl game – the Huskies played in the GoDaddy.com bowl last season and the now-defunct International Bowl at the beginning of 2010 – but neither of those came on New Year's Day, the most revered of days in the college football bowl season.
The Orange Bowl will be the most prestigious game in Huskie history.
Yet it will be only the start of what could prove to be the most impactful calendar year in the program's 114-year existence.
Fast-forwarding past the matchup with Florida State in Miami, 2013 could be a game-changer for NIU because of the personnel the team brings back next season and the resources and events the program gains next fall.
Jordan Lynch's exceptional junior season, combined with the New Year's Day exposure NIU will receive playing in prime time, should put him on the list of preseason Heisman hopefuls for 2013.
But to even have him in the conversation, NIU will need to post another 12-1 or 13-0 season. The Huskies have winnable showcase games at Iowa and Purdue and, with 12 of 22 starters coming back, should be the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference again. NIU has a good shot to become only the second team in MAC history to win three consecutive MAC Championship games.
It's an impressive resume when talking to high school football players in the ever-heightening recruiting battles.
But the impact of NIU's recent success is buoyed by the expected opening of the Chessick Practice Center this fall. The long-awaited indoor practice center gives NIU something comparable to the facilities of in-state rivals Northwestern and Illinois. No longer will the Huskies have to rent out the Sports and Recreation Center from the city's park district.
Of course, the scheduled opening of the Chessick Center is also partially responsible for NIU's successful bid to host the IHSA state football finals every other year, starting next November.
The finals had been held at the Illinois' Memorial Stadium in Champaign since 1999, but now 16 of the state's best teams will get a first-hand look at what NIU has to offer. It's yet another tool to draw in recruits for a program that often has trouble getting national, or even state-wide, exposure. On Thanksgiving weekend, DeKalb will be the center of Illinois football.
The Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 is the most significant event in NIU's football history. Win or lose it will be remembered as such.
But it's far from the only thing Huskie fans should be excited about in 2013. It's literally just the start.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at 815-756-4841 (ext. 2224), or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org