The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 77 Northern Illinois.
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Offense for 2014:
Once known as Tailback U for its string of 1,000-yard rushers, Northern Illinois turned into Quarterback U after the sterling back-to-back careers by Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. The two quarterbacks combined to win the last three MAC MVPs, with Lynch setting a new standard with consecutive MVPs and placing seventh and third, respectively, in the last two Heisman Trophy races.
Replacing the dual-threat Lynch is the main priority for Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. Lynch, who passed for 2,892 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 1,920 yards and 23 scores last season, handled the majority of the snaps the last two seasons. The top three candidates — Matt McIntosh, Drew Hare and Western Michigan transfer Anthony Maddie — all bring different elements to the offense. McIntosh, a junior, possesses the most experience, with Hare boasting the best arm and Maddie a mixture of both.
Regardless of the starter at quarterback, the running back corps should help ease the transition. This is the clearly the deepest and most talented position on the team. After rushing for 1,119 yards last season, Cameron Stingily might not even be the featured runner. Akeem Daniels, who sat out last season with a foot injury, is healthy and primed for a big role.
Often overlooked due to Lynch’s big-play ability, the NIU offensive line allowed just 11 sacks in 14 games and helped generate a MAC-best 297.2 yards rushing per game last season. Count on the Huskies running the ball more this upcoming season, though the senior wide receiving tandem of Da’Ron Brown and Tommylee Lewis is polished and dangerous.
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Defense for 2014:
This is a unit currently in the midst of a massive shakeup after losing all four starters on the defensive line and some key pieces in the secondary. A year ago, the Huskies dealt with a similar reconstruction process along the front four, so this won’t be a big issue. There’s plenty of experience along the line, with senior Jason Meehan and junior Perez Ford slated to start at end. Senior nose guard Donovan Gordon will demand double-teams, while tackle Mario Jones played quality minutes last year.
The linebacker group is the strength of the defense, with Jamaal Bass, Boomer Mays and Jamaal Payton forming an athletic and seasoned trio. As the leading returning tackler with 87 stops last season, Bass is a durable playmaker. Mayes, a junior, is ready for a breakout season after tallying 82 tackles last season.
Safety Jimmie Ward, called the “quarterback of the defense” by Carey, will be missed. Marlon Moore was moved from cornerback to safety in the spring.
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Specialists for 2014:
There’s no doubt that the Huskies will miss the clutch kicking of Mathew Sims. Punter Tyler Wedel is the odds-on favorite to take over the placekicking duties, becoming a possible jack-of-all-trades in handling the punting and kickoff jobs.
After the best two-year run in school history, Northern Illinois faces a daunting task trying to maintain its level of excellence. There should be some early-season growing pains without Lynch’s leadership and big-time production spearheading the offense. Following the season opener, the Huskies hit the road to play at Northwestern, UNLV and Arkansas.
Although NIU is loaded at several offensive positions, most notably at tailback, offensive line and wide receiver, Lynch is tough to replace. Carey is emphasizing the importance of finishing strong, with the Huskies losing their last two games last season and not winning a bowl game in the last two years. Even without Lynch, the Huskies return enough talent to contend in the tough MAC West.