2011 MAC Football Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

Now that summer is winding down, football season winds up. While NFLers were negotiating, college programs have been practicing and filing down their depth charts in preparation for Labor Day weekend when the season begins. The weather outside is heating up and that must mean it's time for us to begin previewing the MAC, one team at a time...

It is not every team that can go 11-3 and call a year a disappointment, but that has to be how Northern Illinois looks at 2010. It wasn't that the team didn't go far, winning the Humanitarian Bowl over Fresno State.

It was that the season was supposed to be that much better. Northern Illinois is the home of overachieving. How else can you explain the legend that was Garrett Wolfe?

But that was before Jerry Kill; before the man who could will wins out of nothing -- or at least cover the spread. During his three years, Northern Illinois covered in every game against the Big Ten and SEC, and twice pulled the upset.

Unfortunately the miracle man is gone. Kill took his talents to Minnesota, which is decidedly not South Beach. Then again, neither is DeKalb. In his place is the former defensive coordinator in the land of cheese, Dave Doeren.

Last season: The Huskies should be hanging a banner for 2010. Not that football teams hang banners, but if they did Northern Illinois can certainly feel robbed of theirs.

The Huskies rolled through the conference season, outgaining MAC opponents by more than 200 yards per game. For comparison, the next best total in the league was Western Michigan at 78.8 yards.

By no coincidence was that the only close game that the Huskies had until the MAC Championship.

And the MAC Championship was a doozy. The Huskies had the game in hand. They should have been rolling on to the Pizza Bowl.

OK, so it wasn't like they were robbed of a BCS berth, but when you calibrate expectations for the MAC, the Pizza Bowl is a big deal. Instead, they had to watch as Toledo got the top invite from the conference -- a team the Huskies decisively handled 65-30.

That is a major slap in the face. All because of a tipped ball on 4th and 20.

Even the GoDaddy.com bowl passed over Northern. If the Huskies weren't guaranteed a bowl spot by winning the West, there is a chance they may have been spending the holidays at home instead of scenic Boise, Idaho.

Now beating Fresno State probably gave the Huskies a little more street cred than say whupping Florida International or Middle Tennessee State.

But you can see why this could be seen as a disappointment after such a dominant season.

Returning Players: The biggest name is Chandler Harnish who should be the dominant quarterback in the MAC. This means he will get a nice token mention twice this season on SportsCenter and then be ignored while putting up numbers that would make most Heisman candidates blush. Harnish will be back behind his massive offensive line, including 1st team MAC stars Scott Wedige and Trevor Olson who both made the Lombardi watch list. Olson has started every game of his career which has been helpful for all of the Huskie quarterback. He is 6-6, 306. Fellow first teamer Joe Pawlak, who comes in at a slim 6-5, 301, will anchor the other side of the line for Northern. Plus the top three leading receivers and all but the top rusher from the team return. This is what you would call "the good news."

New Faces: How about almost all of the defense. Northern Illinois brings back just two starters from last season and loses six of its seven top tacklers. Most of the players filling in saw action last season, mostly in blowouts against conference rivals. But a couple of names might spring up, including Frank Boenzi, a Chicago-area product who could fill up a lot of holes at nose guard for the Huskies. Boenzi weighs in at 310 pounds and could be tough to move off the line considering his "size" advantage. Luke Eakes, another redshirt freshman, could contend to be the resident bowling ball for Northern, as a 6-4, 250 pound fullback.

Game(s) to circle: Wisconsin, because it will be Doeren's chance to really stick it to Bret Bielema. Or maybe that is the other way around. Wisconsin's offense will likely shred the new Huskie defense, unless they can't stay standing on the grass at Soldier Field. And while you are at it, circle Toledo, because it will be in fabulous 3D in the 27 homes in America that have actually purchased a 3D television and get the channel on their cable system.

Did You Know: Northern Illinois netted 11 turnovers last season, 15th best in the FBS. Since 1996, teams with more than double digit turnovers have had the same or worse record 76.4 percent of the time. No, I didn't do the math; Phil Steele did. Still it would be hard for the Huskies to do better than 11-3. So chalk this one in the 76.4 bucket.

Prediction: There is a lot riding on how quickly Doeren can transform the Northern Illinois defense into something resembling the team that took the field in 2010. But the schedule for Northern Illinois is the second easiest schedule in all of the FBS (only Ohio gets off easier. Who says the MAC doesn't represent?!). Here's going out on a limb at 9-3 and then praying for another bowl invite. Maybe somewhere cold, like say... Boise?

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