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How NIU Has Quickly Become Illinois' Best Team

It wasn't long ago that the Huskies were the laughing stock of the NCAA. But over the last 15 years the Huskies have climbed their way to the top of Illinois football.

The Huskies can celebrate being Illinois best team over the past decade
The Huskies can celebrate being Illinois best team over the past decade
Chris Trotman

The Northern Illinois Huskies have not always been good. I know, it's hard to believe. I had my first encounter with NIU football way back in 1995 when my sister invited me to DeKalb for siblings weekend. At the time, I didn't pay attention to football, and I'm glad I didn't, as those are the years NIU would like to forget.

The 1995 season started rather promising for the Huskies, but turned quickly. After a solid 3-3 start, the Huskies lost their final five games. And it only got worse from there. In 1996, NIU managed just one win - a victory over Arkansas State in week four - while dropping ten. And, somehow, it got worse from there. The 1997 season saw NIU go winless, 0-11, with the Huskies only scoring more than 14 points once! They scored 129 points all season long, while giving up 382 points (losing by an average of 33 points).

Then, in the 1998 season, NIU lost their first five games before they finally beat CMU 16-6 on Oct. 17, 1998. The Huskies lost 23 in a row between 1996 and 1998, and were a combined 2-31 from from Oct. 14, 1995-Oct. 14, 1998. They were also cchanged conferences a few times during this span: Big West (1995), an FBS Independent (1996), and the MAC (1997-now).

Fast forwarding 17 years and the Huskies are one of the most consistent teams in the NCAA. NIU has played 57 games since the beginning of 2010 (the most of any FBS team) and they have won an astounding 47 of those games, tied for second most in the NCAA (with Alabama and Stanford). Only Oregon has won more, with 48 wins. The Huskies have won 82.5 percent of their games the last four seasons, which is amazing considering where they were two decades ago.

Most Wins Since 2010
Team Wins Losses Win %
Oregon 48 6 88.9
Alabama 47 7 87
Stanford 47 8 85.5
NIU 47 10 82.5
Florida State 46 10 82.1

Joe Novak changed everything we he took over to start the 1996 season. Yes, he is credited with the longest losing streak in Huskie history, but his patience, recruiting, and skill helped right the ship for NIU. But it all changed in 1999, when the Huskies won five games. And since that season, NIU has been under .500 in the regular season just once (2-10 in 2007, Novak's final season).

Unfortunately for the other two FBS schools in Illinois--both of which are in the B1G--football hasn't been such a bright spot. Neither of the other schools have even come close to the success the Huskies have seen on the gridiron in the past decade.

Since 2003, NIU has gone 86-49 (63.7 percent). The University of Illinois Fighting Illini has been the worst FBS team in the state of Illinois. The Illini have gone just 44-88 since 2003, and only made it above .500 twice (2007 and 2010).

The Northwestern Wildcats have been a roller coaster since 2003, going 74-65 (53.2 percent). They have made seven bowl games since 2003 and, in 2012, went 10-3 and won their first bowl game in 57 years. Last year they followed that up with a 5-7 season, winning just one B1G game (against Illinois) and losing seven of their last eight games.

Last season the two B1G teams from Illinois each won just one conference game - Illinois beat Purdue and Northwestern beat Illinois. The Huskies, on the other hand, won two B1G games , as they had wins against Purdue and Iowa.

And for those that argue that the B1G is a much higher competition level, you're right. Yes, overall, NIU's 5-36-1 record against the the Big Ten (does not include the win against Maryland in 2003) is not good, but in their last eight games against the B1G, the Huskies have gone 4-4. Northwestern and Illinios are both 1-7. Since 2009 the Huskies have gone .500 in the Big Ten games, the best in the state. Northwestern is a close second, winning 42.5 percent of their conference games. Illinois once again comes in dead last, winning a meager 22.5 percent of its games against B1G opponenets.

In head-to-head matches, the Huskies, however, have not fared well at all. Against Illinois the Huskies have lost all four meetings. The Huskies first played Illinois in 1992 when the Illini claimed a 30-14 victory. Two years later, NIU lost agian, this time 34-10. In 2001, Illinois scraped a 17-12 win over the Huskies. And finally the last meeting between the Illini and Huskies happened in 2010, when NIU fell 28-22, but were in the game the entire time and led some of it. All four games took place in Champaign.

The Huskies haven't done any better against Northwestern. NIU is 0-6-1 against the Wildcats, with all seven games taking place at Ryan Field. The first meeting was way back in 1975 when the 'Cats survived with a 10-3 win. After a seven year hiatus the teams met again in 1982, with NU handing down a 31-6 beat down to the Huskies. The game in 1982 had special meaning for the Wildcats, in addition to being a big win, it also ended Northwestern's 34 game losing streak - the longest losing streak in NCAA history.

The 1985 meeting was a little closer, Northwestern won that 38-16. But two years later, NIU would not lose! In 1987 the Huskies forced a 16-16 tie with the Wildcats. Since then, the Cats have won three straight: 24-7 in 1990, 35-17 in 2000, and 38-37 in 2005.

However, outside of the B1G teams, the Huskies have dominated Illinois - going 27-13 against the others.

NIU vs In-State Teams
Team Wins Losses Ties Win % Last met
Illinois 0 4 2010
Northwestern 0 6 1 7.1 2005
EIU 3 1 75 2013
ISU 9 4 69.2 2000
SIU 10 3 76.9 2007
WIU 5 5 50 2009
Total 27 23 1 54%

Despite being winless against Illinois or Northwestern, the Huskies have proven they can beat Power-5 teams. Since 2003, NIU has four wins against the B1G, two wins against the Big 12 (Kansas and Iowa State), and a win against the ACC (Maryland) and SEC (Alabama).

The Huskies were also the last team from Illinois to make a BCS Bowl, as NIU went to the Orange Bowl in 2012. The Wildcats never made a BCS Bowl and the Illini were 0-2 in their two chances - 2002 Sugar Bowl and 2008 Rose Bowl.

NIU can also boast that they have had the best chance to win the Heisman Trophy in the past decade. Jordan Lynch finished seventh in the voting in 2012 and then finished third in the voting last season. The Wildcats last had a player on the ballot in 2000, when Damien Anderson finished fifth. Illinois hasn't had a player crack the list since 1982, when Tony Eason finished eighth.

This week the eighth meeting between NIU and Northwestern will take place. The Huskies have quickly, and quietly, become Illinois best college team, so this Saturday...may the best team win.