FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In the early years of the BCS, Florida State was the premier program in college football.
The Seminoles played for the national title following the 1998, 1999 and 2000 seasons — the first three years of the current system. Florida State beat Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl to win the school's second national title.
Over the first eight years of the BCS, the Seminoles competed in a BCS bowl game six times, although the program's lone victory came when it won the national championship in New Orleans.
However, after the school's last BCS bowl appearance, a 26-23 triple-overtime loss to Penn State in the 2006 Orange Bowl, the Florida State program started to slip.
From 2006-2011, the Seminoles finished just 7-6 three times, failing to win an Atlantic Coast Conference title. Following the 2009 season, legendary Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden, owner of an NCAA-record 377 wins, retired.
In stepped Jimbo Fisher, who served as the Seminoles' offensive coordinator/head coach-in-waiting from 2007-09.
This season, Florida State, which finished No. 12 in the final BCS standings, won an conference title for the first time in seven years, and will finally compete in a BCS bowl game, something which used to come naturally.
In Tallahassee, Fla., there's a sense that Florida State is back where it belongs.
"I really believe that. You can see that this team has been moving up the last few years, being higher and higher," FSU wide receiver Rodney Smith said. "The next step can only be the national championship."
The national championship was something a lot of fans expected the Seminoles to compete for in 2012. Those hopes were dashed with a 17-16 loss at N.C. State Oct. 6.
Even with a late-season loss to rival Florida, the Seminoles still won 11 games, an ACC title and made it to a BCS bowl.
"It's always a goal to make the national .championship," said wide receiver Rashad Greene, who leads the Seminoles in catches (52), receiving yards (696) and touchdown catches (five). "But we accomplished a lot of things.
"Some might say that Northern Illinois will be playing with a chip on its shoulder Saturday, as NIU has never experienced a game like the Orange Bowl. The thing is, this Florida State group hasn't experienced a game of this magnitude either.
"Now we know what it's like to get into this big game, BCS Orange Bowl," said Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley, an FSU graduate. "Yeah, it's definitely a big time step up from where we were in the past."