The Northern Illinois Huskies don't usually start dealing with this question until later in the season. It normally starts popping up as NIU creeps into polls and the bowl match up conversation begins. MAC fans know the question - "but who have they played?" It's started a little earlier this season as Arkansas fans murmur that very phrase upon the arrival of the undefeated Huskies this weekend. The 81 yards of rushing allowed per game by their defense is all well and good, but who have they played?
Who have they played? It's a fair question. So far they stomped the FCS Blue Hose. Defeated a Northwestern team that is almost at the very bottom of rushing in all the FBS. And finally, a late game victory over a UNLV team that struggled to beat Northern Colorado earlier this season.
As far as the rest of the college football world is concerned, the Huskies are unproven up to this point . It's always like that for a MAC team. If they're lucky, they get one game a year to prove themselves. For the Huskies, that game takes place in Fayetteville, Arkansas versus the Razorbacks this Saturday evening. Even though Arkansas may sit in the bottom half of the SEC, it's the best bottom half you'll find anywhere outside of a Jen Beilema photo. The SEC is college football's top conference and is strong from top to bottom.
Arkansas may soon be climbing out of that lower half of the SEC and back into the top half like they were in 2010 and 2011. Those seasons they posted 10 and 11 victories respectively under then head coach Bobby Petrino. After that the scooter scandal hit the wire, and the Razorbacks hit the skids. Their first step in rebuilding the program was being able to hire hot coaching commodity Bret Bielema from Wisconsin. Bielema's brought his own bit of controversy, but he's also brought some optimism and attitude.
Has Bielema righted the ship already in 2014? With Arkansas' victory over Texas Tech last week, there seems to be a groundswell building that the tide has turned for the Razorbacks and they are getting back to their winning ways. Yet much like the Huskies, their resume leaves plenty of questions. They opened the season at Auburn. They even managed to hang in with the 6th ranked Tigers for a half, yet eventually fell 45-21. They had a cake walk with FCS Nichols to break their ten game losing streak and then got some momentum with a big win over Texas Tech. But it's a Texas Tech team that appears to be down this year as they had trouble gaining victories over Central Arkansas and UTEP to open the season.
So we have two teams who think they have a little something going on, but both squads won't know for sure until they get a quality test. A win for NIU is obviously huge because it's a win versus the SEC. The bottom half of the SEC is not like the bottom half of the B1G. A win against anyone from this conference is a reason to gloat.
A win for Arkansas may mean the difference between bowl eligibility or not. With conference play coming up for the Razorbacks, six wins is not an easy task. Any non-conference victory you can add to your win total is an important one. Also, with the MAC being top heavy, NIU should have no problem getting to nine or maybe ten wins. A victory over a ten win team will only help Arkansas' appeal if they're seeking an at large bowl bid.
We have fast, frantic and quick meeting huge, strong and imposing. But styles be damned, this game is going to be won or lost at the line of scrimmage. That's no secret. Much of the talk has centered around the offensive and defensive lines of both squads. And while there's nice skill players on each side, this is a game for the big boys to decide.
For the sake of column space and time, let's call things a wash between the teams at their skill positions. Brandon Allen and Drew Hare are both going to manage this game, and while terrible play could lose it, neither are likely to will their team to victory. The running backs are a an edge to Arkansas. Alex Collins and Jonathan Willimas will be the best tandem NIU will see this season. But Cameron Stingely, Akeem Daniels and the supporting bunch are pretty darn good themselves. NIU has the edge at wide receiver because they have the one big play maker in Da'ron Brown.
Outside of the offense and the front seven on defense, both secondaries can be liabilities. This may actually play huge in this game, but it will be because of one or two busted plays. Da'ron Brown poses a real threat to any secondary and will have his opportunities for a big play against a suspect Arkansas defensive backfield. NIU's group is skilled but inexperienced and has shown they can make mistakes themselves.
Arkansas' offensive line is humongous. Led by 6-foot-10, 326-pound left tackle Dan Skipper, that group uses it's size to manhandle opponents. The notion that the Razorbacks would do anything other then run the ball early just doesn't make sense. Bielema needs to make a statement to his team. You're an SEC team, at home, versus a supposedly smaller MAC school. There's zero reason to get cute. Take the line, take their will, and you take the game. I fully expect a steady dose of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams pounding the ball up in the hole. This is where the game hinges. If NIU can find a way to stop this and force Arkansas to pass, things may swing in their favor. It's the big match up of the game.
The Huskies' defensive line, while not huge, does have decent size up the middle. A constant rotation at defensive tackle will be made between William Lee (301-pounds), Corey Thomas (302-pounds) , Donavan Gordan (293-pounds) and Mario Jones (270-pounds). Behind them will be 243-pound, Boomer Mays playing middle linebacker. NIU should be able to hold the middle, a bit, until the other linebackers and safeties can assist if needed.
On the edge the Huskies are smaller and will try to use speed. They'll often be in a 3-4 look since their best athletes and biggest play makers are at linebacker. With defensive end Perez Ford( 228-pounds) at times lined up with his hand in the dirt, and at other times standing up, rushing more like a linebacker, the Huskies mix up their fronts often from 3-4 to 4-3 to something in between. Opposite Ford is defensive end Jason Meehan, 252 pounds. He has thus far proven to be an every down player as well as a pass rusher and will be on the field whether they go 3-4 or 4-3. Expect those two to try to speed rush around the mass of humanity that is Dan Skipper and Brey Cook(6-foot-7, 314-pounds) to get into the backfield.
Along side Boomer Mays, the smaller Rasheed lemon will have to run down plays from behind when he can, and try not to get enveloped by linemen when they get on him. If the Huskies want to go with a little more size at linebacker we may see a bit more of the ever improving Sean Folliard(6-foot-2, 227-pounds) as well as Ladell Flemming(6-foot, 224-pounds). They should see plenty of action as everyone does in this defense. Rotations are a constant and they'll need that against the bigger Arkansas squad. The linebackers are going to have to be extremely active and disciplined to stop this running assault.
When NIU is on offense the same scenario applies to them. The Huskies line will need to control an Arkansas defensive line that is surprisingly small. There are no starters over 290-pounds. NIU's offensive line runs almost right at 300-pounds a man outside of guard Tyler Pitt who's 6-foot-5, 314-pounds.
This is a veteran group who have played together for years and will be trying to create holes for sledgehammer back Cameron Stingely(6-foot-1, 235-pounds). The question may not be can NIU's D-line stop Arkansas' rush, but can the Arkansas's D-line stop NIU's rushing attack.
While Arkansas' defensive line may be smaller, they do boast a hefty sized linebacking crew. Brooks Ellis is a player who stands out when you watch them play. He looks to be a future star and this will be a confrontation I look forward to when Stingley and Ellis collide.
The Huskies will likely throw the ball more often than Arkansas. Hopefully no more than 30 attempts, otherwise we're probably playing catch up. TommyLee Lewis being healthy is a big thing and can give the Huskies' the underneath passing attack and jet sweeps that helps keep a defense spread thin along the line.
It goes without saying that there will be plenty of facets to this game that help determine the outcome. But this has become a bit of a "the SEC is just too big and strong for MAC teams" battle cry. I wanted to get into some of the actual sizes of these guys and point out that the differences aren't as great as suggested. While Arkansas' O-line is huge, no doubt, they average about 322-pounds to NIU's 302-pounds. But their D-line is a tad smaller than NIU's, especially up the middle where Arkansas is only around 270-pounds a man.
NIU is going to need some big plays to offset the uphill battle they face physically, as well as a hostile environment the likes of which they've never seen before. But at the end of the day, players' size really isn't going to determine who's the better team, yet more so the caliber of football player and athlete is going to determine that. Will Arkansas and the SEC be too much for MACtion and NIU? If they are it's not going to be because they were bigger. Just because they were better.