It’s a miracle that in this day and age a program like NIU football can get schools from Power 5 conferences to even bother putting them on their schedule.
For a Power 5 program, finding their way into the College Football Playoff or even gaining bowl eligibility at all is about padding the win total. Playing in a difficult conference means the best way to do that is to stock your non-conference schedule with pushovers. However, there are still enough teams out there hoping to challenge themselves for a program like Northern Illinois to wet their beak.
And these particular beaks have been dripping for more than a decade now.
The Huskies haven’t been an easy out since an uncharacteristic 2-10 season in 2007. They’ve been a winning program going back to the turn of the century now, with just three losing seasons in 18 go-rounds. Along the way, they’ve taken down their proverbial big brothers (Power 5 schools) with regularity.
Back in 2003, they went to Tuscaloosa and defeated Alabama 19-16. However, nobody in the Midwest must have been paying attention because the Big Ten has continued scheduling NIU almost annually, and they’ve paid a major price.
In the last decade alone, NIU has beaten Purdue twice (2009 and a 55-24 beatdown in 2013), Minnesota in 2010, Iowa in 2013, Northwestern in 2014 and Nebraska last season. They’ve done all that damage on the road and added a home win over Kansas in 2012 for a total of seven Power 5 victories in the last decade.
They’ve also had a number of close calls along the way, nearly beating Tennessee of the SEC in 2008 and giving Big Ten powers Wisconsin, Iowa (you fools) and Ohio State serious scares in 2009, 2012 and 2015, respectively. Yet, these schools continue to schedule NIU, and the Huskies will have three more chances in 2018 to prove themselves on a big stage against programs of stature.
Iowa has welcomed them back into their homes again for some reason on Sept. 1, Utah is making the Charlie Weis-era Kansas mistake of traveling to DeKalb on Sept. 8 and Florida State (with a first-year head coach) will welcome them into Doak Campbell on Sept. 22. And despite only playing to two games over .500 in the last three years, those programs will all be facing an incredibly dangerous NIU football team.
For starters, NIU has arguably the most disruptive defender in the country. Sutton Smith will ruin your Saturday and quite possibly your season if he gets a free run at your quarterback. Even if you don’t give him an unimpeded route, he’s liable to find his way into your backfield anyway.
After showing up as a running back from Missouri, Smith has added about 40 pounds to his frame to become a devastator off the edge. He’s still an unconventional size and shape at 6-foot and 232 pounds. But try to tell the quarterbacks and running backs he took down for a total of 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks last season that he’s too small to man an edge.
Smith is the headliner, and he’s bound to earn more national attention as the year goes on. Even as scouts argue about whether his skills translate to the next level, the end result will be some incredible highlight packages of him making offensive tackles look silly and quarterbacks look disheveled. However, there’s more to this iteration of the Huskies than just one dominant defender.
Much like when Jordan Lynch was earning Heisman praise while leading the Huskies to a BCS bowl and an undefeated regular season in 2012 and 2013, there’s talent and depth across the roster. In particular, the offensive line is going to be one of the best in the country regardless of program stature thanks to five returning starters with a combined 107 starts under their belts. In fact, they have enough depth on the offensive line that a couple of those starters might even wind up losing their jobs this offseason because they’re being pushed by their No. 2s.
In total, NIU welcomes back at least 50 percent of their passing yards, rushing yards, receptions, tackles, tackles for loss and sacks in 2018, as John Walters pointed out in The Athletic recently. And while they’ve got some obvious holes they’ve been working diligently to fill this offseason (particularly at linebacker), this shapes up like a team who is going to cause some friction between athletic directors and head coaches yet again in 2018.
They’ll take their three swings at Power 5 opponents with an opportunity to raise the national profile of the program yet again. And if things go right and they handle their business in the MAC, they could very well come out on top of the Group of 5 and earn another shot to prove their reputation as giant slayers in a high-profile bowl game.
But that possibility also makes you wonder what they’ve got to do to earn the respect they truly deserve in the Chicagoland area. Yes, Smith is from Missouri and being a MAC school requires them to find castoffs from all across the country to round out their roster, but they’ve largely built a very good program with local talent (Garrett Wolfe, Jordan Lynch, Larry English and the like). Yet, they don’t really register in our collective conscience.
Perhaps Loyola’s brilliant run in men’s basketball opened up our minds to the possibility of embracing the little guy punching above its weight class. Because that’s exactly what NIU football has been doing for quite some time. They don’t have a realistic path to contending for a title like Loyola does with the NCAA Tournament, so perhaps not.
However, that’s another column for another day. Right now what we can say with certainty is that if you want to watch a bunch of local kids with chips on their shoulders giving the bigger schools that refused to recruit them for whatever reason hell, NIU is your best bet.
Although, if you were to go as far as calling them underdogs, they might take issue. And with good reason. They’ve got a long history of showing Power 5 schools that if they’re expecting an easy victory they should be looking elsewhere.