Breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look ahead. It's a little thing called "Know Your Opponent." The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Northern Illinois at Northwestern
September 6, 2:30 p.m. CT
Big Ten Network
2012 Record: 12-2 (8-0 MAC)
Returning Starters: Offense - 9 Defense - 7
Coach: Rod Carey, 2nd season
Coming off an impressive 2012 season that concluded with an Orange Bowl appearance, Northern Illinois completed a second consecutive 12-win season in 2013. The Huskies opened up last season with quality wins over Iowa and Purdue, and finished the regular season undefeated. Another BCS Bowl appearance seemed inevitable. But a loss to Bowling Green in the MAC title game sent the Huskies to the Poinsettia Bowl, where they lost to Utah State.
In his final season, senior quarterback Jordan Lynch threw 23 touchdowns, rushed for another 22 scores, and finished third in the Heisman voting. NIU ended the season ranked 7th in the FBS in rushing yards and 77th in passing yards. The Huskies averaged 39.6 points per game, but ranked 52nd in points against at 25.1 points per contest.
The Huskies only lost two offensive starters from last year. But one of them was arguably the greatest quarterback in MAC history. Lynch holds the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a season (1,920), most rushing yards in a game (321), most 100-yard rushing games by a QB (12) and most rushing yards per game by a QB in a season (137.1). That production is irreplaceable.
The Huskies have not named a starting QB for 2014. Matt McIntosh, Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie are still competing for the job. Fortunately for them, the team returns a strong supporting cast on offense. Four members of the offensive line are back. So are all three of the starting wide receivers from a year ago. Doak Walker candidate Cameron Stingily is also returning. He rushed for over a 1,000 yards last season and should get even more carries this year with Lynch gone.
The good news: NIU's linebacker corps should be the best it's been for years. All three starters return. The bad news: these linebackers will have a lot of cleaning up to do. The entire front four graduated. The silver lining: last season the Huskies ranked dead last in the FBS in runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage. This year's defensive line can't do any worse. Right? Rushing defense will be the primary concern. NIU should be average at defending the pass; three of the four starters in the secondary also return.
Three players to know
Cameron Stingily, RB: Last season Stingily rushed for 1,119 yards and nine scores on 203 carries. Last week he was named one of the 53 candidates for the 2014 Doak Walker Award (top running back).
Da'Ron Brown, WR: Brown led the Huskies in receiving yards (752) and receiving touchdowns (9) last season. Last week the redshirt senior was named to the 2014 Biletnikoff Award Watch List (top receiver).
Jamaal Bass, LB: A redshirt senior, Bass is the centerpiece of the NIU defense. He was second on the team in tackles last season. Last week he was named to the 2014 Rotary Lombardi Award Watch List (top O/D lineman or linebacker).
Behind enemy lines:
SB Nation's Bill Connelly breaks down the expectations for Northern Illinois in 2014:
"In 2014, it appears that a lot of NIU's strengths (skill position depth, offensive line play, linebackers) will get stronger while its weaknesses (activity on the defensive line, big plays in the secondary) get weaker...NIU looks good enough at the other 10 offensive positions that Lynch's absence might not be a killer...
...The schedule certainly helps. NIU plays eight teams projected 102nd or worse and hosts division rival Toledo. Despite the road trip to Ball State, that could give the Huskies a decent chance at their fifth consecutive MAC West title. If they indeed get to the title game, they probably won't be favorites this time around, but they'll have a chance. Considering the quality of the quarterback they just lost, that's pretty impressive."
Northern Illinois should take a step backward in 2014. Another double-digit win season is not out of the question because of the schedule, but uncertainty at quarterback will prevent this team from making a big splash in the MAC. Now for the Week 2 matchup...The game is schedule for 2:30 p.m. (CT), Sept. 6 at Ryan Field. Northwestern and Northern Illinois have not played since 2005, when the Cats won 38-37. And NIU has never beaten Northwestern (0-6-1). NU's ground game should overpower the NIU defensive front. But Northwestern cannot sleep on the Huskies. Anything can happen early in the season and NIU has enough talent returning to pull off the upset.