At the beginning of the season, we went out on a limb and projected that the Huskies would lose one game in the MAC West, and that would probably keep them from the conference championship game. There was no way to guess that that game would come against Central Michigan.
The team that should have been the one knocking out the Huskies was the Toledo Rockets (or Western Michigan, but the Broncos went quietly into that deep, dark night). Despite that, this game still will help decide the winner of the MAC West.
If Toledo wins, there is no stopping the Rockets. They will be in the championship game because it is hard to see another team coming close to what is likely the best team in the conference for the rest of the season.
If Northern Illinois wins, Toledo still might be heading to the title game, but will need a little help. And given the way that the Huskies have played this season, that help could come from anywhere. Ball State, Eastern Michigan: teams that would have been a laugh to knock off the Huskies just a year ago are now serious contenders to spoil even Toledo's run for glory.
Which makes Tuesday night -- yes, the fate of the conference title game may rest on an "off-day" contest -- even more important. Toledo can cement this race. Northern Illinois can throw a wrench into the proceedings and make what looked like an almost lost season even more exciting the rest of the way.
If the Huskies can pull this off, they will have fans on the edge of their seats during every fourth quarter for the rest of the season.
"Will this be the one that they blow it?"
"Can the defense truly be this good?"
"Is this really Kansas in disguise?"
The questions are truly endless.
But first comes Tuesday, the opening of November football. And that means we need five things to look at.
1. Will the Toledo defense stand up? - The Rockets provide one of the toughest run defenses in the country, at No. 27 on the national list. Allowing just 116 yards a game is good, damn good. But what can it do against the Northern Illinois attack that is No. 11 in the country at 244 yards per game. And the Huskies don't bring the traditional running attack, with Chandler Harnish also getting a sizable chuck of carries.
This is going to test if Toledo can really stop the run, especially if they don't necessarily need to worry about a huge passing game. The Harnish threat to throw is there, but it isn't the winning game plan for the Huskies.
2. Will Northern Illinois be able to stop anything? - Toledo has the third best offense in the MAC, behind the Huskies and Ohio, with a greater weighting toward the passing game. That is playing right into Northern Illinois' weak spot in the defense. Someone in the two-headed quarterback tandem of Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens is going to have a good day. Which should just set up Morgan Williams to decimate the Huskies defense.
Then again, surprises have been known to happen.
3. How much can Harnish add to his push for MAC player of the year? - Winning will go a long way toward elevating Harnish even higher in the MAC player of the year race, but putting up some gaudy stats can't hurt. The issue with Harnish is that he isn't the best throwing quarterback in the conference. You could pick one of the sophomores, either Owens, or Tyler Tettleton. You could pick one of the juniors in Dantin or even Alex Carder. So what if Harnish is the best senior out there. Last I checked, we have had some sophomores win the Heisman Trophy now. Being a senior counts for a lot less than it used to. But Harnish is the best running quarterback in the conference (No. 3 in the country behind Denard Robinson and Collin Klein) and position aside, he is among the best backs period in the MAC. All apologies to Bernard Pierce who is just a stud.
So can Harnish put up numbers that back that up in this game, against the best defenses in the conference that he will see? Chances are, he will put on a show, but if the Toledo defense is keying on him, there aren't a lot of other options for the Huskies.
4. Can Northern Illinois hold on to the ball? - Think back to the Central Michigan game if you can stomach it. What hurt Northern Illinois was the inability to secure the ball, leading directly to Chippewa points. Toledo is much better at forcing turnovers (fourth in the nation in turnover margin), both through fumbles and interceptions, than Central Michigan can ever hope to be. So what will Northern Illinois be able to do to stop it?
Last I checked, Stick-um is regulated. Maybe some leftover Halloween candy smeared on the hands is a better option?
But Northern can't afford to have two or three fumbles in this game, giving Toledo a short field and wasting chances for its offense. If that happens, forget the prediction below. Northern will be lucky to be within three touchdowns.
5. Toledo is a 7 point favorite at home. What's the prediction? - Northern Illinois isn't going to get blown out, and no matter how good the Toledo defense is, stopping Harnish et al is a tough deal. But Northern Illinois took a bus to the game, and will be a little sluggish out of the gate I am guessing. That should be enough to keep Toledo out in front. Going with Toledo 45 - Northern Illinois 35.