Northern Illinois made its third straight bowl appearance and played in a postseason game for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. The Huskies were ranked in the top 25 in the BCS after winning nine straight games and went undefeated in the Mid-American Conference during the regular season. NIU is led by senior running back Chad Spann, who was voted the Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year and took home league MVP honors. Spann led the MAC with 1,293 yards on 226 carries and is tied for second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 20 rushing touchdowns, a NIU single-season record.
Fresno State was invited to the Humanitarian Bowl after posting an 8–4 regular season record. Fresno State won their season finale against Illinois, 25–23. Since 2000 the Bulldogs have won 17 games against teams from BCS Conferences. This was the 3rd time that Fresno State appeared in the Humanitarian Bowl. They entered the game with a 2–0 record in the bowl game with a 37–34 OT win over Virginia in 2004 and a 40–28 victory over Georgia Tech in 2007.
Fresno State and Northern Illinois faced each other four previous times. The series was tied 2-2. NIU won in 1973 by a score of 24–15 in Fresno and then in 1990 in DeKalb 73–18. Fresno was victorious in 1972 in DeKalb by a score of 9–6 and then in Fresno in 1991 55–7.