The Northern Illinois Huskies (6-6, 5-3 Mid-American Conference) were the first MAC team to find out their bowl destination, as they’re set to travel down south to take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference) in the 2023 Camellia Bowl.
The tenth edition of the MAC/Sun Belt affair has seen its share of classic contests, and the hopes are with two of the more unpredictable teams from both conferences being put together, it could produce some #SunBeltHeat, some #MACtion, or (most ideally) a little bit of both.
NIU had to earn their way into bowl contention on the last week of the season and did so, squeezing by the 1-11 Kent State Golden Flashes in the waning moments to qualify for the postseason. They started the year off in the most off-kilter way possible, upsetting Boston College on the road in Week 1 before taking a bad loss to FCS Southern Illinois at home in Week 2. The rest of the season was similarly see-saw, with a 1-4 start before reeling off three-straight wins and splitting the final four contests.
The Huskies had a lot of struggles offensively; as seventh-year QB Rocky Lombardi did, so did the rest of the team. Overall, the team was 77th in the NCAA with 365.1 yards of total offense on average, with the good majority of that thanks to a stout run game 178.7 yards per game; 40th in NCAA.)
Defensively, NIU matured into a unit who could control the situational, finishing 2023’s regualr season as the 21st-ranked defense by total yardage (316.9 yards per game) and 28th-ranked defense in points allowed (21.17 per game.) Their major issue was the inability to cause turnovers to stave giveaways by the offense, something which didn’t start to get fixed up until the latter half of the season.
Arkansas State, much like NIU, had a turbulent start to the season before riding a roller coaster of results. The Red Wolves took an infamous 73-0 loss to Oklahoma on the road in Week 1, which had head coach Butch Jones in tears during the post-game press availability. Following a subsequent loss to Memphis, the Red Wolves would turn it around, winning three-straight contests to get back to a winning tally. Their Sun Belt season started off tough, with two losses to eventual SBC champion Troy and Coastal Carolina back-to-back, but they rebounded to win three of their last five games to qualify for a bowl bid.
The Red Wolves are an average team on offense, sitting 72nd in the NCAA in total yards (375.5 yards per game), but have often had to make up for a porous defense, as they allow 445.5 yards per game (124th) and 31.17 points per contest on average (104th).
The 2023 Camellia Bowl, played at the Historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, is set to kick off on Saturday, December 23rd, at noon Eastern time. ESPN will provide television coverage.