It is reasonable to project Northwestern to be 3-0 heading into its first Big Ten game on Sept. 27 against Penn State. The Wildcats' first non-conference opponent is Cal, which went 1-11 last season and was picked by media to finish last in the Pac-12 North. The week before the conference opener, Northwestern will face Western Illinois in a game that shouldn't be competitive past the first quarter. Sandwiched in between WIU and Cal is a team I think we should be paying more attention to.
In 2013, Northern Illinois won at least 11 games for the fourth straight season. Yet the Huskies are not ranked in the preseason AP or Coaches Polls (they did receive one vote in the coaches poll, though). What's going on? For one, Northern Illinois plays in the MAC, so voters are hesitant to put too much stock into all those wins. For another, the Huskies lose their two best players from last season: safety Jimmie Ward, a first-round NFL draft pick, and star dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch.
When a team loses a player as transcendent as Lynch, it's natural to question how his production will be replaced. In two seasons as the Huskies' starter, Lynch passed for 6,030 yards and 49 touchdowns and rushed for 3,735 yards and 42 touchdowns. He also led the Huskies to a BCS bowl and, along the way, pulled off some ridiculous plays - spin moves, stiff arms, miraculous escapes, stuff you don't see most other quarterbacks try. With Lynch moving on, Northern Illinois is cooked, right?
Maybe, maybe not. There were similar doom-and-gloom forecasts about Northern Illinois after three-time All-MAC QB Chandler Harnish graduated following the 2011 season. Lynch picked up right where Harnish left off, leading the Huskies to 12 wins in 2012. Skeptics may charge that the Harnish-to-Lynch transition was a unique set of circumstances that can't be replicated - one star handing over the offense to another - that the next passing of the torch at QB won't be nearly as smooth.
Yet who's to say Northern Illinois doesn't have another future star signal-caller lying in wait? The latest reports say coach Rod Carey has yet to make a decision on a starting quarterback, with sophomores Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie and junior Matt McIntosh still in the mix. There may not be a quarterback of Lynch or Harnish's caliber among that group. All of them received two-star ratings from Rivals.com, and none of them drew a scholarship offer from a major conference program.
But trying to decipher whether Lynch's successor will put up Lynch-like numbers sort of misses the point. Northern Illinois may have enough talent at other positions - particularly at running back and wide receiver - to weather the departure of Heisman finalist at quarterback and still be among the nation's best non-Power 5 teams. My feeling is this program is so solid that losing the player that elevated it to new heights won't keep the Huskies from churning out 10/11-plus-win seasons.
That's why, if Northwestern fans look at the non-conference schedule, see game against Northern Illinois and think to themselves "Jordan Lynch is gone, so Northern's basically just like another of those pushover directional Illinois schools that we should dominate for four quarters," they should pause. The last time Northwestern faced Northern Illinois, in 2005, the Wildcats eked out a one-point win, 38-37. For what it's worth, the Wildcats and Huskies both finished 7-5 that season.
Northern Illinois has improved since then. Northwestern might be more talented, but it's hard to know what to expect coming off a 5-7 season and the losses of two top offensive playmakers to injury/transfer (Christian Jones/Venric Mark) and two others to graduation (Kain Colter, Rashad Lawrence). And while the Huskies have never beaten the Wildcats in seven tries, this matchup will be different for one simple reason. Northwestern hasn't faced a Northern Illinois team that's this good.
The quarterback position is unsettled and there are question marks on defense - two very important things, yes - but the offensive line looks like a strength, Tommylee Lewis and Da'Ron Brown should be of the MAC's top receiving tandems and bruiser Cameron Stingily leads a solid group of running backs (Of note: Stingily will miss the first four games of the season with an injury. Akeem Daniels, a smaller back who missed all of last season with a foot injury, will have to pick up the slack.)
The Huskies may slip a bit after going 12-2 last season, but they should give Northwestern a tougher game than Cal. Northern Illinois beat Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in the season opener for both teams a year ago. The Hawkeyes, as we'd come to learn, were an above-average Big Ten team. That game says nothing about how the Huskies will play Northwestern, only that they were in a similar spot one year ago - on the road against a Big Ten team in the early part of the non-con.
The week 2 clash in Evanston could end similarly for Northwestern. Or maybe I'm reading too much into this game, and the Wildcats' advantages in size and athleticism, particularly on both lines, will shine through and they'll cruise to a comfortable, double-digit victory. Or maybe it's simply too early to know how Northern Illinois will fare without Lynch, since it hasn't played any games yet. Here's guessing we won't learn anything from the Huskies' week 1 date with Big South foe Presbyterian.
Fans like having their favorite team's opponents figured out before they face each other, but Northwestern supporters may not really know what to expect from Northern Illinois.