In a time when players are choosing not to play in their team’s postseason bowl game in favor of an early departure for the NFL, college football bowl games are slowly turning into just a prelude for the ultimate prize: the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games. Still, some programs are on the cusp of their ultimate goal to end the season, and one game is more important than them all.
Aside from having one of the craziest bowl sponsors of them all, the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl pits the UAB Blazers (10-3) and Northern Illinois Huskies (8-5) against each other at FAU Stadium in Florida. This game might not look that exciting for an average fan, but this matchup means more to these two programs than most realize, and there are four justifications as to why you should pay attention on the night of December 18.
1. UAB (Literally) Shouldn’t Be Here
The UAB Blazers are led by head coach Bill Clark, who was named the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year by the Football Writers Association of American and the Allstate Sugar Bowl in 2018. After the school decided to shut down the program following a 6-6 campaign in 2014 — It was the first time the Blazers were bowl eligible since 2004.
After not fielding a team for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the University of Alabama at Birmingham returned to field in 2017 under Clark once again, and miraculously won eight games. Things only improved this season, as the team won 10 games for the first time in their history, plus they captured the school’s first division and Conference USA title.
For a team to go from total non-existence to the cusp of an 11-win season is unheard of, and everyone in Alabama should be a Blazers fan on Tuesday night.
2. NIU is an Elite Group of 5 Program
The Northern Illinois Huskies football program has averaged 9.3 wins over the last 10 seasons, including competing in a postseason bowl game in 13 of the last 16 years — In 2005, they finished 7-5 and lost by one point in the MAC Championship game, but they weren’t selected for a bowl.
The Huskies have won the Mid-American Conference four times since 2011, secured at least a share of MAC West division title seven times since 2010, and they churn out high-level talent along the way. This season, junior defensive end Sutton Smith tied for the NCAA lead with 15.0 sacks on his way to earning First-Team All-American honors.
The Achilles heal for the Huskies is closing the deal. Led by head coach Rod Carey, are looking for their first bowl win since 2011, but they have all the tools to end that streak in Boca Raton, Florida.
3. Only 1 of 3 Bowls with Two Conference Champs
Including the Rose Bowl, with the Pac-12 champion Washington Huskies and Big Ten champion Ohio State Buckeyes meeting in Pasadena, and the Orange Bowl, where the Big 12’s Oklahoma Sooners will face the SEC’s Alabama Crimson Tide, the Boca Raton Bowl is just one of three matchups pitting two conference champions against each other.
Led by C-USA All-Conference running back Spencer Brown (1,152 rushing yards, 16 TDs), who will run behind four All-Conference offensive lineman, this UAB team is the real deal. The Conference USA champions finished 7-1 in conference play and survived the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in the title game, 27-25.
On the other side of the field, NIU rebounded from a 29-10 deficit by scoring 20 unanswered points to win the MAC Championship game, 30-29, over the Buffalo Bulls. It’s the program’s 12th conference title all-time.
Any time two conference champions square off, the game is bound to bring a little extra swagger to the field. They’re both riding high and looking to finish on a positive note, so expect the Boca Raton Bowl to definitely have a little extra motivation for both these teams.
4. Nobody Knows What Cheribundi Tart Cherry Is
Finally, for all of us who have absolutely no clue what Cheribundi, or what the health benefits of 100 percent natural tart cherry juice actually are, it’ll be time to settle the debate once and for all with three hours of commercials dedicated to the bowl game sponsor.
The Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl will take place at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN, and these two teams are going to put on a show with elite players, stout defenses, and a whole lot of pride on the line.
UAB vs. Northern Illinois is going to be a ton of fun.