DEKALB -- George Rainey admitted sleep was a little hard to come by on Christmas night.
But the Northern Illinois defensive end was alert and smiling early Wednesday as Orange Bowl reality set in as the Huskies began a nearly 1,300-mile trip to Miami in pre-dawn darkness.
"I was so excited that I couldn't really sleep at all," said Rainey, a redshirt junior from Milwaukee as he boarded one of six buses carrying players and staff to Rockford Airport. "But I'm wide awake."
Fifteenth-ranked Northern Illinois (12-1) plays on the biggest stage in program history when it meets No. 12 Florida State (11-2) at Sun Life Stadium on New Year's Day.
"I'm expecting to have fun, expecting a new experience, something new for all of us," said Rainey, who recorded 24 tackles in 12 games, including 2 1/2 sacks. "(And) we'll be playing in warm weather."
Temperatures were predicted in the low 80s in Miami, a big contrast to DeKalb where it was windy and in the upper 20s early Wednesday.
Dawn was still two hours away as the Huskies gathered at a far west campus parking lot for the ride to Rockford and a charter flight to Florida.
Buses were already nearly filled at 5:10 a.m. and the final stragglers boarded over the next 20 minutes.
The nearby Convocation Center was bathed in orange lights as head coach Rod Carey briefly stepped out of his bus to check on arriving players.
"They're excited to be up this early and at 'em," said Carey, named NIU head coach nearly three weeks ago after Dave Doeren's departure for North Carolina State. "Everyone's looking forward to it. We'll have a little reception down there and go right to practice. There's a sense that they want to get this going."
Carey spent the last two years on Doeren's staff and served as offensive coordinator this season after Mike Dunbar stepped away to concentrate on a battle against cancer. Carey will continue to call offensive plays for the Orange Bowl.
The NIU caravan rolled out at 5:31 a.m. to catch a scheduled 7:45 a.m. flight. The Huskies were set to arrive in Miami around 11:30 a.m., then hold the first of five practice sessions at Barry University in Miami Shores.
But it won't be all work for Northern Illinois.
A Thursday beach party is planned at the Fontainebleau Beachfront in Miami Beach. Other days will feature dinner outings, a prayer breakfast, a hospital visit by players and a series of press conferences and receptions.
Winners of a school record 12 straight games, the Mid-American Conference champs bring the nation's No. 9 scoring offense (40.77 points per game) against the Seminoles' No. 6 scoring defense (15.08 points).
The Huskies will play in a postseason bowl for the seventh time in the last eight seasons, but never one so lofty. They are first MAC team to appear in a major Bowl Championship Series game and meet Florida State, the Atlantic Coast champ, for the first time.
NIU is 3-6 all-time against teams from the Sunshine State and 2-6 against current members of the ACC.
The Orange Bowl kicks off at 8 p.m. (Eastern) next Tuesday and will be televised nationally on ESPN.