A perennial powerhouse of the MAC under Rod Carey, the Northern Illinois Huskies bounced back from their poor 5-7 showing in 2016 to go 8-5 last year, coming up just short of a MAC title, and making a bowl game vs. an ACC opponent, the Duke Blue Devils. They would go on to lose that bowl game, 14-36, but it was another solid season for Northern Illinois in Carey’s 5th year, though coming up just short of their yearly goal of winning the MAC Title.
With a signature win over Nebraska as an 11-point underdog, a 6-point loss to then #19 San Diego State as a 10-point dog, and a push against Boston College (+3) who turned out to be a solid team in the ACC, it’s safe to say that the Huskies surpassed expectations in big games last year. Junior Quarterback Ryan Graham was injured for the season in the home opener, and then Freshman Quarterback Marcus Childers took over, and would eventually go on to be named MAC Freshman of the year with 1675 yards passing, with 16 TDs, only 5 INT’s, and 609 yards rushing with 5 TDs.
In 2018, the Huskies will return 14 starters, including Marcus Childers, and once again a MAC championship and a Bowl bid are well within reach. They will not only be one of the most experienced teams in the MAC, but one of the most experienced teams in the nation (34th) and should be the favorite to win the MAC West, getting back to the MAC title game for the 7th time in 9 years. With their season win total set at 6.5 (+100,-120) at BetOnline, however, I’m not so sure if the market is all that confident in the Northern Illinois to do what they seem to always do in the MAC.
|9/22||@ Florida State||+19.5|
|9/29||@ Eastern Michigan||-5.5|
|10/6||@ Ball State||-10.5|
|11/14 (W)||Miami (OH)||-8.5|
|11/20 (Tu)||@ Western Michigan||PK|
Eight of the returning 14 starters will come back on the Huskie offense coordinated by Mike Uremovich, in his 3rd season, that had a bit of a down year in 2017: putting up 28.9 PPG and 378 YPG, their lowest outputs in the last seven years and 10 years, respectively.
Returning the MAC Freshman of the Year at Quarterback should help matters though, as well as all the other experience with him; including standout Junior WR Spencer Tears, who led the team in receiving in ’17, in addition to a talented and veteran offensive line (3 Seniors, 2 Juniors). Losing 2nd team All-MAC RB and the teams’ leading rusher, Jordan Huff, could leave one of the only holes on the team, but Junior Marcus Jones has some experience, having played in 24 games in his career, with 3 starts last year. Look for improvement in this offense that will start Juniors and Seniors all over the field and return a Quarterback that impressed in his Freshman season, both throwing and running the football.
The Northern Illinois defense will return six starters to a unit that allowed just 22 PPG, 339 YPG, and only 4.62 YPP, good for 7th in the entire nation. They’ll be a bit younger on the defensive side of the ball, especially with the loss of Senior once All-American and last year 1st team All-MAC CB Shawun Lurry. But there is still hope for a return to dominance, however, as the Huskies will return Junior DE and MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Sutton Smith, to an experienced defensive line (1 senior, 2 juniors) as one of the six returning starters.
Last year’s linebacker’s coach, Jeff Knowles, will take over as Defensive Coordinator and will hope to continue upon the improvements made in 2017, further improving upon 2016’s dismal, decade-worst performance (452 YPG, 30.3 PPG). Defense is often a rarity in the MAC, but last year Northern Illinois showed that they could be the exception to the rule and there is no reason to believe that they can’t be as good this year as last.
The Huskies will have no easy path to another MAC Championship in 2018, with schedule that is no easy sledding for a team out of the MAC. Starting off the season in the Big Ten, at Iowa, and then having to host Utah the following week, 0-2 is a more than probable possibility. Follow that up with a home game with last years’ MAC champion Central Michigan, only to go to Florida State the following week, and one can see how Northern Illinois could stumble out of the gate. They will get Ohio and Toledo at home, which could help matters, but having to go to BYU and Western Michigan with both teams coming off byes, their schedule really doesn’t have many easy wins foreseeable.
Season Win Total Pick: Lean Over 6.5
As tough as their schedule appears to be, however, I have a tough time betting under 6.5 on a team that, in Rod Carey’s five seasons, has only gone under eight wins in one season. They will have to pull off a few upsets without a doubt; but being battle-tested early in the season against the likes of Iowa, Utah, and Florida State should only make this team stronger come time for conference play and dominating the MAC is something Northern Illinois has done in all but one season under Carey. I’ll take the bait of the reduced juice and lean over the 6.5 at even money for the Huskies in 2018.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Northern Illinois Huskies
MAC – West
2016 record: 5-7 SU & 6-5-1 ATS
Head Coach: Rod Carey – Head Coaching Experience: 5 years (5th with No. Illinois)
Season Over/Under Win Total: 6; Under -130
Odds to win 2017 MAC Conference: 10/1 (5th Best odds)
Returning Starters: 11 (Offense: 5 Defense: 7)
Sep. 1 Boston College
Sep. 9 Eastern Illinois
Sep. 16 @ Nebraska
Sep. 23 Bye
Sep. 30 @ San Diego St.
Oct. 7 Kent St.
Oct. 14 @ Buffalo
Oct. 21 @ Bowling Green
Oct. 26 Eastern Michigan
Nov. 2 @ Toledo
Nov. 15 Western Michigan
Nov. 24 @ Central Michigan
Considering what the Northern Illinois Huskies have done offensively under Rod Carey during his 6 year tenure, the 31 points per game the Huskies have averaged in these last 3 seasons is actually below expectation. They have not been without adversity, however, as QB injuries have derailed their seasons the last 2 years.
Last year, Drew Hare suffered a season-ending injury for the second straight year and the Huskies had 4 different QB’s see game action: Anthony Maddie, Ryan Graham (55.9%, 680 YDS, 8 TD, 6 INT), Daniel Santacaterina (47.4%, 361 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT), and Hare. In addition to Hare, Maddie and Graham both sustained season ending injuries leaving, redshirt Freshman Daniel Santacaterina to finish out the season; leading the team to a comeback OT win at Eastern Michigan and also to a win @ Kent State. Both Hare and Maddie graduated, leaving Santacaterina and Graham to battle it out over the summer to earn the starting gig for an offense starved for QB continuity.
The Husky running game got off to a slow in 2016, with top 2 running backs Joel Bouagnon and Jordan Huff each scoring only 1 TD through the first 8 games. The 2nd Team All-MAC Senior, Bouagnon, (182 ATT, 885 YDS, 8 TD) would finish the year as the eventual rushing yardage leader, with Jr. Jordan Huff (111 ATT, 703 YDS, 5 TD) close behind and actually outpacing Bouagnon in YPC (6.3 to 4.9). With Bouagnon now gone, Huff figures to split work with a So. Virginia transfer, Tre Harbison, for what should be an improved running game if everybody can stay healthy this year.
Quite possibly the biggest loss on offense will come at WR, where NIU will have to replace N. Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay, who (87 REC, 1156 YDS, 8 TD) became the first ever NIU receiver to put up multiple 1,000 YD years. Replacing talent like that of Golladay’s (3rd Round NFL) is never easy for a MAC school, but at least the Huskies will have some experience to aid in the effort. Seniors Chad Beebe and Christian Blake will be joined by Jr. DJ Brown and Sr. TE Shane Wimann, for a group that in spite of all of its experience will struggle to reproduce Golladay’s production.
Despite losing a 1st Team All-MAC center and a 2nd Team guard, NIU improved by 50 yards rushing per game to ‘15’s numbers and allowed the least amount of sacks in the entire FBS. This year, they will lose 2x 2nd Team All-MAC LT Levon Myers, LG Josh Ruka, and RG Lincoln Howard, but will still return 3 linemen who started the last 8 games. A key return will be 1st Team All-MAC RT Jr. Max Scharping, a part of the 46 career starts returning that should make this NIU offensive line just as good as last year’s.
With 6 returning starters on defense in 2016, the Huskies under 1st year Defensive Coordinator Kevin Kane, gave up a decade worst 452 YPG, while surrendering 30.3 PPG. This year with 7 returning starters and one of the top-rated secondaries in the MAC, NIU should see some improvement in Kane’s second year.
Always known for their toughness up-front and their stingy rush D, the Huskies have been progressively allowing more rush yards per game in each of the last 4 seasons. Last year, they suffered major losses on the line: losing a 1st Team All-MAC DE, a starting DT, and another DE starter. They will lose a collective 27 starts up-front this year, but will return 4 players who combined for 21 starts in 2016. While slightly less experienced than last year, there is only room to improve upon what was one of the worst seasons in that last decade on the defensive line for NIU.
Though losing a 1st team All-MAC linebacker and #1 tackler for 2016, NIU returned everybody else but suffered through injuries, with 2 starters missing a combined 7 games. The result was starting out the first 3 games of the season giving up over 40 pts per game and finishing the season allowing 30.3 ppg, their worst ppg allowed since 2007. This year they will lose 2 starters, their #1 and #2 tacklers: MLB Jamaal Payton and OLB Sean Folliard. The lone returning starter Sr. OLB Bobby Jones will be joined by 2 Sophomores and will hope to at least match last year’s performance which was hampered by injury.
Last year, despite losing a 2nd Team All-MAC FS and starting CB to graduation while also losing their starting CB Albert Smalls to season-ending injury the first game of the year, the Husky secondary was still one of the better ones in the MAC (56.7% completion percentage, 25 TD, 14 INT). For 2017, the entire 2 deep will return, including 2015 3rd team All-American CB Shawun Lurry, who will come back to lead this secondary as a Senior. With 2 more Seniors at the Safety positions, and all of their depth returning, this is one of the MAC’s best secondaries.
NIU will certainly miss former Special Teams Player of the Year and 1st Team All-MAC Kick Returner Aregeros Turner (25.8 ypr, 1 TD, long 97), who will move on for 2017. They will also lose their Punter Jake Ambrose (39.1 YPP), but will return their Kicker Sr. Christian Hagan, who struggled in ’16, going 11-18 with 2 blocked kicks. This unit may slip a bit in parting ways with such a great returner, but the kicking game should improve with Hagan having a down year in 2016 compared to his 14-18 2015.
2017 Season Outlook
2016 was a year to forget for Rod Carey and the NIU Huskies, suffering injury after injury and ending both: their 6-game MAC title game streak and 8 straight bowl games streak. Going 5-7 last year with 2 net close losses in 16 with a barrage of injuries, this is a perfect team to buy low on for 2017. NIU is a team that has consistently been the class of the MAC under Carey and has made the MAC title game in 6 of the last 7 seasons. They should be favored in at least 6 of their games in the MAC and will get an FCS opponent Eastern Illinois at home. Buy low on the Huskies and trust that last year was an anomaly for NIU.
Season Win Total Prediction: Over 6