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Northern Illinois Is the State’s Best College Football Team. It’s Okay You Never Heard of Them.

A new fan’s guide to the NIU Huskies, about to play the biggest game of their season at a tiny stadium in DeKalb.

Northern Illinois University's quarterback, Jordan Lynch. Totally incredible, totally obscure.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Has college football in Illinois ever been this bleak? The Northwestern Wilcats may never win again, the Fighting Illini are 3-6, and the smaller state teams just stink. 

But. There is this one team, which, you probably haven’t noticed, is busy having an incredible season: The Northern Illinois Huskies.

The Huskies are ranked in the top 25. They are also undefeated. With a win tonight, against a 9-1 Ball State team, they will probably not lose at all in the regular season.

Were you aware of any of this? No? You’re not alone. Here’s everything else you need to know:
 

They play at this tiny field in DeKalb

On the west side of NIU’s campus, near the student dorms and a few academic buildings, stands Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium. The proud home of Huskie football since 1965 is incredibly tiny—the capacity is only 24,000. And it doesn’t even fill up.

Fans, this season, have given NIU its first sellout since 2003. Packed to the rafters, Huskie Stadium holds about 25% as many people as, say, LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. It’s unlikely the deafening crowd noise will be as much a factor tonight against Ball State as it would after the sun sets in Death Valley.

The quarterback could win the frickin’ Heisman 

It’s highly unlikely, but a Heisman Trophy for NIU is possible. Quarterback Jordan Lynch is that good. He’s in the top 10 of every Heisman rankings list, and he’s a top 5 candidate by some analysts’ measure. 

Look at his numbers compared with the current top two Heisman candidates:

  Passing yards Rushing yards Touchdowns
Johnny Manziel
Texas A&M QB
3,313 611 39
Jameis Winston
Florida State QB
2,661 157 29
Jordan Lynch
Northern Illinois QB
1,871 1,150 31

Over a thousand yards rushing at this point in the season is outstanding for a running back. For a quarterback, it’s incredible. 

Last year was no fluke

If you have heard of Northern Illinois, it’s because last season’s team improbably rattled off 12 consecutive victories, set the school record for wins, and received an at-large bid for one of the top post-season spots in college football, the BCS Orange Bowl. (They lost to Florida State—but it was pretty close!)

All in all, 2012 marked the best season, by far, in Northern Illinois football history. 

But then head coach Dave Doeren left for North Carolina State. People thought it was over for NIU. Yet, this year, new head coach Rod Carey filled in masterfully, Jordan Lynch continues to be great, and the team is undefeated. And ranked. And awesome. 

But their schedule is soooo weak

Of course, with all this attention and admiration, there’s a catch. Northern Illinois’ schedule is pathetic. It’s ranked nationally—brace yourself—as college football’s 145th toughest. Number one hundred and forty-five.

Last year, that BCS bid depended on the strength of NIU’s conference, the MAC, which had a few top 25 teams. This year, no one is nearly as good, so when NIU wins, it doesn’t mean as much. The only notable victory so far this year came against the mediocre Iowa Hawkeyes. And tonight, in prime time on ESPN2, the team has probably its biggest shot all season to show the country that there is, indeed, a college football team in DeKalb, Illinois. 

With such a lame schedule, it’s unlikely that even an undefeated NIU team could head back to a top-tier BCS bowl. The current predictions from CBS have the team headed to the Little Ceasars Bowl. (It is probably obvious to even casual football fans that something called the “Little Ceasars Bowl” is not the pinnacle of prestige.)

But still, even if another Orange Bowl appearance looks unlikely, that’s no excuse for disappointment. Enjoy this ride while you can, DeKalb. You are home to the best college football team in the state of Illinois, and that’s something. Even if nobody knows about it.

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