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.



9 months ago
Posted by John M.

Do some research about how the smaller illinois schools "stink" this year. Eastern Illinois is ranked #2 in the FCS and their only loss has been to off all teams; Northern Illinois!. Question do you even know what the FCS is? I doubt it.

9 months ago
Posted by Paul P

NIU says Thank You? Pretty much the most condescending article about one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the Midwest. #MACtion Jack Cassidy, welcome to it.

9 months ago
Posted by meaks

"Enjoy this ride while you can, DeKalb. You are home to the best college football team in the state of Illinois..."

Pretty sure they've been the best college football team in Illinois a number of years.

9 months ago
Posted by Gep

And they're better than the perennially overrated team from South Bend.

9 months ago
Posted by FootballCraveFan

This is the most unnecessarily condescending article about A team that is doing great this season. Oh, and they didn't do so bad last season and the season before as well.

Great tone in the article.

9 months ago
Posted by mikegun

Wow, is this for real or satire?

Smaller schools in IL just "stink"? Eastern is #2 in the FCS, (the largest group of the "smaller" schools.)

9 months ago
Posted by Tom T.

Only people who aren't from Chicago or its suburbs, which comprises the majority of your readership, wouldn't know about NIU or its football team. Go back to Iowa, yuppies, your team stinks.

9 months ago
Posted by ChicagoSportsFan

This article is rediculous. Anyone that knows anything about sports is aware of NIU's success on the gridiron. But for Mr. Cassidy--an editorial intern--let me provide some education:
1) 2013 is the sixth straight season NIU is bowl eligible and eighth time in the past 10 years the team will go to a bowl game;
2) The 2003 team--which didn't go to a bowl--finished 10-2 and beat Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State and reached as high as No. 12 in the BCS standings; and
3) NIU has more Big Ten wins than Illinois and Northwestern combined in 2013.

The bottom line is that NIU has been good for a long time. It is finally getting some credit for excellence on the field, and in the classroom, where the team ranks 3rd among the BCS top 25 teams in graduation success rate with an 85% GSR.

The school has built its program "the right way," and fans should come see for themselves and help to sell its "little stadium" out. The team just opened a brand new indoor practice facility and added a state-of-the-art high-def scoreboard and LED boards to enhance gameday experience, and the pregame tailgating is the best it's ever been.

Jordan Lynch is the real deal. Whether beating Iowa or Purdue or Ball State or Central Michigan, fans should try to see him in person before his college career ends. The Huskies host Western Michigan Tue. Nov. 26 as the team looks to extend its 25 game home winning streak, and tickets are still available.

No interest in NIU football? In a couple weeks, the school is hosting the IHSA Football Finals. The top 16 teams in the state will square off for eight games Thanksgiving weekend.

9 months ago
Posted by BillD

Wow Jack were things slow on your usual beat ... my guess is cooking and baking ... so they assigned you a real story? I'm not sure how you could be so unaware of the college football landscape to write a story like this. My guess is you slipped this past your editors or at least for their sake I hope you did.
Wait I get it ... This is the new site for the Onion right?!?

9 months ago
Posted by ScottP0705

I signed up here just so I can express my feelings for how much I hate this article. The comment saying this is condescending is exactly right. I got the feeling reading this article that the author, as well as anyone else who read a word of this before and during publishing has ZERO clue about college football. Wow. This article would have been embarrassing even last year, but with the season they have had following an Orange Bowl, this is beyond laughable. Anyone who isn't aware of what NIU is doing I can assure you has absolutely no interest in college sports. Those are the same people who won't read an article about college sports. So, congrats on publishing an article where every reader with have the same feeling I just expressed.

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