The Northern Illinois Huskies were a big player in the mid-major college football hierarchy during the BCS era but face major transition in 2014. The team started the 2013 season 12-0 and within a MAC Championship Game away from busting the BCS for a second straight year. However, a slip-up against the Bowling Green Falcons cost them and they followed that loss up with another flat performance in a 21-14 loss to the Utah State Aggies in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Now, NIU not only has to rebound in 2014 from a nose-dive at the end of last season, they must do it without one of the best players in MAC history. Jordan Lynch had a phenomenal run under center for the Huskies, breaking just about every record on the books and finishing his career as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He did just about everything for the team offensively and will be nearly impossible to replace. But how well NIU covers the hole left by Lynch will determine just how far the Huskies will go in 2014.
It will be an unenviable position to try and replace Lynch as anything less than 3,000 passing yards and 1,850 rushing yards (Lynch’s average as a starter) will be a disappointment. Still, NIU needs someone under center and backups Drew Hare and Matt McIntosh have both shown dual-threat ability. Whoever wins the job, however, will have to deal with inflated expectations and will have to try and focus on just doing their best in the offense, even if isn’t at the same level as Lynch.
Whoever wins the quarterback job, the team will have the benefit of a ton of experienced options around them to take the pressure off. While Lynch led the team in rushing, the Huskies had another prolific rusher in 2013 in bruising running back Cameron Stingily who rushing for 1,119 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He returns in 2014 looking to build off that and become a leader on offense with an expanded role this fall.
At receiver, NIU will enjoy their top three pass-catchers from 2013 back this fall. Led by seniors Da’Ron Brown (46 catches, 752 yards, nine touchdowns) and Tommylee Lewis (86, 715, 3), the Huskies have a deep and reliable pass-catching corps that will help ease their new quarterback into the offense. Also look for big 6-foot-4 Juwan Brescacin to make a major impact in 2014 after catching 33 passes for 499 yards and six touchdowns a year ago.
There will also be some serious turnover on the defensive line for NIU in 2014. Four of the top five defensive linemen from 2013 have moved on leaving some major holes up the middle that will need to be filled. The team is happy to welcome back defensive ends Jason Meehan and Perez Ford to lead the group after the duo combined for 11 sacks and 16 tackles for loss a year ago in a rotational role as pass-rush specialists.
The linebacker corps, however, will return completely intact for NIU this season, though the team would like to see the group make a few more negative plays this year. Jamaal Bass will be a leader of the group as a senior in 2014 after posting 67.5 tackles with six tackles for loss and two sacks last season from his outside linebacker position.
In the secondary, NIU has to find a replacement for their top defensive player from 2013 in strong safety Jimmie Ward. He led the team with 78.5 tackles, seven interceptions, and 10 pass breakups a year ago and leaves a huge leadership void in the back end of the Huskies’ defense. Dechane Durante returns at free safety and Paris Logan at one corner position but NIU needs some fresh faces to step up in a big way. Look for junior Marlon Moore to see significant playing time after flashing shut-down ability at corner last season, recording 11 pass breakups and an interception.
The schedule in 2014 sets up nicely to get NIU back to the MAC title game this postseason. They get the division rival Toledo Rockets at home which gives them an advantage in securing their fifth straight MAC West title. A road game against the Ball State Cardinals could be a dangerous hurdle for the team to get over, but if they do they should have a clear shot at a MAC title game berth this season.
While they’re still a contender for the MAC title, don’t expect the Huskies to make noise nationally as a mid-major candidate for the College Football Playoff. Three of their first four games will be non-conference road tests against the Northwestern Wildcats, UNLV Rebels, and Arkansas Razorbacks that could saddle the Huskies with as many as two losses before they even get into any wild MAC-tion.
There is enough talent on this team for NIU to still be a very good MAC team in 2014. They will need to be much more collaborative on offense, however, to offset the loss of a star like Jordan Lynch to get it done. At the end of the year, look for NIU to win eight or nine games and in contention for the MAC title.