The door opened up a bit for Northern Illinois this weekend as the Huskies attempt to reach their second elite bowl game in three years. They took care of their own business, surviving a cold Tuesday night contest at Ohio 21-14 to move to 9-2 on the season. NIU, more importantly, has a clear path to reach its fifth consecutive MAC Championship Game; with a win over Western Michigan next Friday, the Huskies will guarantee themselves another December trip to Detroit to take on Bowling Green.
Rod Carey’s crew also gained position in the polls for several other reasons. Marshall and Boise State remain the odds-on favorites to claim the Access Bowl bid, but should both falter and fail to win their respective conference championships NIU is in prime position to capitalize.
The one conference that would ostensibly get the nod ahead of the MAC, the American Athletic Conference, is suffering from parity at the top. If Memphis, UCF, and Cincinnati all win out, they would share the AAC title with identical 9-3 records and 7-1 marks in conference play. Only Memphis and Cincinnati have played each other already, with the Tigers winning 41-14 on the road, and none of the trio are scheduled to play one another in the last weeks of the season. That could have the effect of splitting votes among the CFP selection committee.
The Sun Belt, the last of the Group of Five conferences, currently looks like it is going to be won by a team that limped along to a 7-4 record last season… in the FCS. Because they are ineligible for postseason play until 2015 as a transitional FBS program, Georgia Southern would eliminate the Sun Belt by default should they win their last game against Louisiana-Monroe on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
For NIU to sneak into one of the big-money bowl games, they still have to take care of their own business — and we saw how that worked last season against Bowling Green. They also need a bit of help from whichever teams play opposite Marshall and Boise State/Colorado State in the C-USA and MWC Championship Games. But the Huskies were the beneficiaries of far more chaos when they claimed an Orange Bowl bid in 2012, and it isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that NIU could be playing in Miami (or Atlanta or Dallas or Glendale) once again.
Their loss against Arkansas looks far less damning than it did two weeks ago — after all, the Huskies were able to score two more touchdowns against the Razorbacks than LSU and Ole Miss combined. They’ve beaten a Northwestern team that knocked off Penn State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame and is a win over Illinois away from bowl eligibility. Should they claim their third MAC title in the past five years, Northern Illinois certainly has a resume that compares favorably against the other likely champions of the other Group of Five leagues.
Where do the other contenders fit in the pecking order? Click ahead to read more about where the top teams rank in the race for the Access Bowl bid that will be handed out in December in this week’s CFP Mid-Major Power Rankings…