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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Get to Know Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois has won six straight since a six -point loss to Illinois on Sept. 18. That loss, as well as a setback to Iowa State to open the year, constitute N.I.U.’s only losses on the season: at 8-2, 6-0 in conference play, the Huskies have staked a sizable claim to the being the best team in the MAC. This wasn’t supposed to be: Temple was supposed to be the top dog — I thought the Owls would lead the rest of the pack by a significant margin, in fact. I must stand corrected, and not merely because the Huskies topped Temple by 14 points a month ago.

You can’t help but be impressed by the way Northern Illinois dispatched with Toledo, the only team with a shot at upending N.I.U.’s run towards a perfect conference season. There’s no question that the Huskies will win out; with Ball State and Eastern Michigan remaining, the only question is the final margin of victory.

I’m certainly impressed, even if I could say I saw it coming: I ranked the Huskies 25th in my recent re-rankings. They more than lived up that billing against Toledo, dismantling a team that, like N.I.U., brought into the game a perfect 5-0 mark in MAC play. Now 5-1, Toledo must be satisfied with one of the MAC’s bowl tie-ins; N.I.U. will await the winner of Temple-Ohio — who meet on Nov. 16 — in the conference title game.

It was 28-0 at the half, thanks to a picture-perfect ground game that set an early tone. Meet Chandler Harnish, N.I.U.’s junior quarterback: healthy after missing three MAC games a year ago, Harnish rushed for a career-best 149 yards to go with 162 yards passing. You may already know about Chad Spann, the diminutive senior running back whose 70-yard total last night gave him 1,000 yards rushing for the second consecutive season.

Spann’s also a touchdown machine: after scoring 19 times last fall, Spann has already notched 12 touchdowns through 10 games — at least one in each of N.I.U.’s last nine games. Though Spann finished with less than 100 yards for the first time since Oct. 9, he scored three times — from one, five and eight yards out.

Meet Spann’s understudies: Jasmin Hopkins, Akeem Daniels and Cameron Bell. It was thought that Hopkins, a JUCO transfer, would push Spann for the starting role come September; that hasn’t been the case, though Hopkins remains a burgeoning member of the rotation. Daniels, the talented freshman whose career might lie at either running back or receiver, scored twice last night, including one 50-yard scoring scamper that gave a taste of his potential in this offense.

If you don’t know about this defense — after a decade-plus of stellar play — then you haven’t been paying attention. This year’s group is Kill’s best: strong up front, led by ends Jake Coffman and Sean Progar, and paced by linebacker Alex Kube, N.I.U.’s defense is the MAC’s best. We knew this back in August, before a game was played; we’re sure of it now.

Though the defense allowed a season-high 30 points last night, Northern Illinois entered the game allowing 18.7 points per game, good for 16th nationally — the sixth-best among the non-B.C.S. conferences. Prior to last night, the Huskies were giving up 14.6 points per game in MAC play; only Western Michigan, which scored 21 points in defeat, topped the 17-point mark.

Finally, get to know Jerry Kill. The third-year coach is now 21-15 with the Huskies, having improved his team’s win total in each of his three seasons; after winning six games in 2008 and seven games a year ago, Kill has already set a new single-season high through the first 10 games of 2010. Kill is no joke: he’s a Midwestern-born, Midwestern-bred brand of football coach perfectly fit to follow up on Joe Novak’s success at Northern Illinois.

If you don’t know N.I.U., it’s about time to get on board. This team is for real: good enough to stand toe-to-toe with countless B.C.S. conference teams from across the nation, the Huskies are the best team in the MAC.

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  1. Bob J says:

    “I’m certainly impressed, even if I could say I saw it coming: I ranked the Huskies 25th in my recent re-rankings.”

    They landed at 28th in the Bob Rankings. Close enough.

    Paul: Finally, it has a name — the Bob Rankings.

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