In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
Northern Illinois Huskies
2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 in MAC)
Head Coach: Rod Carey (.793)
Returning Starters: 14/24 (6 OFF/8 DEF/0 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 116th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 19 @ Ohio State
- Sept. 26 @ Boston College
- Oct. 10 v. Ball State
- Nov. 3 @ Toledo
- Nov. 18 v. Western Michigan
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE HUSKIES
You most likely remember Northern Illinois as that upstart MAC squad that managed to game the BCS system to claim a spot in the Orange Bowl opposite Florida State in 2012. Of course, they looked more like Hawaii than Boise State or Utah did when they received their shot at the Cinderella spotlight. And while the Huskies remain a contender for MAC titles and the Access Bowl, the last lingering memory of their 2014 season isn’t exactly a positive one:
The Huskies are now in a three-year slump since losing that Orange Bowl, last year’s 52-23 debacle against Marshall following that 31-10 Orange Bowl loss against FSU and a 21-14 defeat against Utah State in 2013. Five straight division championships and MAC titles in three of the past four seasons have built up a modicum of brand loyalty for NIU as a sustained mid-major powerhouse. But they will first have to repeat as MAC champion once again to even have a chance, a tall task in its own right.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE HUSKIES IN 2015
The pipeline just continues to hum along for Northern Illinois, which has (nearly) seamlessly moved from Chandler Harnish to Jordan Lynch to Drew Hare at quarterback during its streak of conference dominance. Hare is back this season after a first year as a starter where he threw for 2322 yards with 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions, adding another 900 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Hare’s return will help ease three new starters on to the offensive line, and 6’2″, 225-pound tailback Joel Bouagnon should ably step into a starting role after Cameron Stingily’s graduation.
The other bright light is the return of eight starters to a defense that was tied with Florida State and Iowa in points allowed per game in 2014. Even marginal improvement from the unit could solidify Northern Illinois’ chances against teams like Ohio State and Boston College. That defensive unit generated 24 turnovers in 2014 and should be able to get the ball back to the offense with regularity. Couple that with Hare’s strength in protecting the ball and preventing interceptions, and the two units could combine for the most special season yet in DeKalb.
WHAT COULD COST THE HUSKIES THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
Northern Illinois isn’t even certain of maintaining its perch atop the MAC West, much less the entire conference, this season. Several challengers have emerged to push the Huskies for the top spot in the division, beginning with Western Michigan. Toledo and Central Michigan (who ended NIU’s home winning streak last year) also pose a threat to Northern Illinois’ reign atop the West, and the Access Bowl immediately dies if the Huskies fails to return to Detroit for the sixth straight season. While WMU comes to DeKalb, the Huskies must travel to both Mount Pleasant and the Glass Bowl.
The schedule outside the MAC offers a mix of easy pickings and likely losses, making the margin for error in conference play that much thinner. And while there is a lot of talent returning, another year of similar defensive success — especially in the red zone, where the Huskies were ranked outside the top 100 among FBS teams in keeping teams off the scoreboard — will probably cough up at least one upset along the lines of CMU last year. That might be all it takes to slip out of the Access Bowl hunt. (And this all could happen even before a MAC championship where, should NIU reach the game, the Huskies have faltered twice as a favorite, barely won two other times, and only really dominated last year during their streak.)
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
The home opener against UNLV on kickoff Saturday, and the following weekend at home to take on FCS Murray State, offer a pair of opportunities for NIU to get up to full speed against overmatched opponents. They’ll need every minute, because awaiting on the third weekend is a trip to Columbus to face defending CFP national champion Ohio State. Assuming the Buckeyes haven’t lost all of their skills in a languorous offseason, that will undoubtedly end in loss. The trip to Boston College could go both ways, but let’s be generous and assume that the Huskies walk away with one statement win over Power Five competition. A win in Boston would give NIU a 3-1 record entering October…
… and immediately awaiting is a trip to try to exact revenge over a Central Michigan team that severed a 28-game home winning streak and brought an end to the fullest realization of Access Bowl dreams in 2014. While a toss-up, NIU should have the firepower to successfully return the favor of a home defeat to the Chippewas. Nobody in October should really worry NIU, really, with Ball State the best of a trio that also includes Miami and Eastern Michigan in MAC play. Realistically, 7-1 is well within Northern Illinois’ reach before the stretch run.
That stretch run, though, could prove the undoing of the Huskies. Toledo will probably lose to NIU, even at home, and Buffalo on the road should be fodder for Rod Carey’s team. The season really all boils down to the November 18 showdown with Western Michigan at home. No magic in DeKalb will be enough to defeat an even more experienced team, and it will be the Broncos instead of the Huskies representing the West in the MAC championship game. For the first time in six years, NIU will be irrelevant altogether in the race for the Access Bowl (and its antecedent BCS Buster). A bowl victory will only partially assuage the pain of the defeat as NIU reaches 11 wins but falters from its goal yet again.
PREDICTED RECORD: 11-2 (7-1 in MAC)