The big 2014 Northern Illinois football preview: One giant, obvious question mark

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Most of Northern Illinois' recent strengths will get stronger in 2014; the skill units are overflowing with options, the offensive line is fantastic, and the linebackers are strong. But the defense will still be sketchy, and there's still the matter of one of the best players in MAC history leaving.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

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1. Stars leave

It is a fact of life in college football and, to a less rigidly scheduled degree, every other sport. As good as your favorite players are, they eventually run out of eligibility.

In two years as Northern Illinois' starting quarterback, Jordan Lynch helped the Huskies win 24 games, passed for 6,000 yards, rushed for 3,700, scored 24 touchdowns, passed for 49 more, lost a single MAC game, led NIU to the Orange Bowl, and ended up a Heisman finalist. These are not things that are supposed to happen. Lynch was one of the most effective rushing quarterbacks in college football's history and packed four years' worth of stats into two years.

Now Lynch is gone. He leaves behind a team that is experienced in most units, and from a recruiting standpoint, the freshmen and redshirt freshmen entering the mix were more highly touted than the ones leaving. NIU's program is just about as healthy as a MAC program can be, but the Huskies now have to replace an irreplaceable quarterback. We'll see how that goes.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 12-2 | Adj. Record: 10-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 60
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug at Iowa 29 30-27 W 32.7 - 30.4 W
14-Sep at Idaho 116 45-35 W 24.5 - 35.8 L
21-Sep Eastern Illinois N/A 43-39 W 33.1 - 45.6 L
28-Sep at Purdue 114 55-24 W 33.1 - 41.3 L
5-Oct at Kent State 106 38-24 W 37.6 - 28.3 W -4.1
12-Oct Akron 108 27-20 W 21.8 - 20.4 W -4.3
19-Oct at Central Michigan 111 38-17 W 39.8 - 29.3 W 0.1
26-Oct Eastern Michigan 124 59-20 W 39.7 - 26.1 W 5.3
2-Nov at Massachusetts 118 63-19 W 46.4 - 32.8 W 9.7
13-Nov Ball State 57 48-27 W 47.6 - 28.4 W 11.7
20-Nov at Toledo 62 35-17 W 42.3 - 26.1 W 14.6
26-Nov Western Michigan 117 33-14 W 32.3 - 28.2 W 13.3
6-Dec vs. Bowling Green 47 27-47 L 37.8 - 39.5 L 10.3
26-Dec vs. Utah State 32 14-21 L 31.4 - 19.6 W 9.9
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +4.2% 45 -2.0% 74 -1.1% 90
Points Per Game 39.6 11 25.1 53
Adj. Points Per Game 35.7 19 30.8 92

2. Slow start

Despite solid experience, NIU's 2013 team simply wasn't quite as good as the 2012 Huskies. The speed-over-size defense got pushed around a bit more and spent far less time in opposing backfields. But after a slow start, this was still an awesome team over the last half of the regular season.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Opponent 33.6, NIU 30.5 (minus-3.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): NIU 41.4, Opponent 28.5 (plus-12.9)

Early near-misses against Idaho and Eastern Illinois led to an air of vulnerability despite an impressive win at Iowa and a blowout of hapless Purdue.

But beginning in mid-October, as conference rivals began to think they might have a shot at ending NIU's long conference win streak, the Huskies laid the hammer down. Their back-to-back wins over Ball State and Toledo, by a combined margin of 39 points, were fantastic. They absorbed some shots from both teams, then pulled away with no mercy in the second halves. They averaged more than 7.3 yards per play in both games (after averaging more than 9.0 against EMU and UMass); they averaged 7.8 yards per play and allowed 5.0 in Games No. 7-12. They completely dominated.

And then they ran into a buzzsaw in the MAC title game, which completely changed the tenor of the season as a whole (and set the table for two fun BCS bowl upsets: UCF over Baylor and Oklahoma over Alabama).

After winning 24 of 26 games, Jordan Lynch finished his career with two losses.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.17 51 IsoPPP+ 103.8 41
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 49.5% 11 Succ. Rt. + 105.2 45
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.7 45 Def. FP+ 101.4 41
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.7 34 Redzone S&P+ 115.2 18
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.0 ACTUAL 17 +1.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 5 31 46 24
RUSHING 7 19 47 13
PASSING 76 51 45 61
Standard Downs 40 60 32
Passing Downs 34 38 69
Q1 Rk 41 1st Down Rk 27
Q2 Rk 34 2nd Down Rk 35
Q3 Rk 71 3rd Down Rk 64
Q4 Rk 18

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Jordan Lynch 253 404 2892 24 8 62.6% 10 2.4% 6.8
Drew Hare 6'1, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 5 9 153 2 0 55.6% 0 0.0% 17.0
Matt McIntosh 6'1, 197 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 2 2 54 2 0 100.0% 0 0.0% 27.0
Anthony Maddie 6'1, 200 So. 3 stars (5.5)








Landon Root 6'3, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)








3. There was no way NIU could replace Chandler Harnish

Jordan Lynch was an all-time stat collector. Not too long ago, a 2,000/1,000 season (2,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards) was a rather remarkable accomplishment. Lynch averaged 3,000/1,850.

From a pure stat perspective, there's almost no way for a quarterback to top what Lynch accomplished. For NIU to succeed at a high level moving forward -- and to be sure, NIU could very well do that -- skill-position players are going to play more of a role, and the defense will need to raise its game. The quarterback position isn't going to produce what it has in the last couple of years.

That said, it does bear mentioning that we were saying things quite similar to this two years ago when Chandler Harnish's NIU career ended. Lynch's predecessor averaged 2,800 passing yards and 1,100 rushing yards over his last two seasons; those are dynamite numbers, and Lynch blew them out of the water. It's never a guarantee that the new guy will be worse than the last guy.

And hey, NIU backups Drew Hare and Matt McIntosh did average 18.8 yards per pass attempt and 10.2 yards per carry last year. Projected to match Lynch's attempts, that's 7,500 passing yards and 2,800 rushing yards! Because that's how projections work, right?

Hare, McIntosh, Anthony Maddie and incoming three-star signee Landon Root should assure that NIU puts a quality quarterback on the field, even if the winner of the job doesn't approach either Lynch's numbers or 7,500/2,800. And if the quarterback's decent, the rest of the offense should be excellent.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Jordan Lynch QB 282 1980 23 7.0 6.2 49.6%
Cameron Stingily RB 6'1, 244 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 203 1119 9 5.5 3.7 48.3%
Akeem Daniels (2012) RB 5'7, 184 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 68 447 9 6.6 4.5 N/A
Tommylee Lewis WR 5'7, 155 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 30 356 1 11.9 9.9 66.7%
James Spencer RB


29 173 3 6.0 5.4 41.4%
Joel Bouagnon RB 6'2, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 22 86 0 3.9 0.9 36.4%
Keith Harris, Jr. RB 5'8, 181 Jr. NR 21 143 2 6.8 6.2 42.9%
Draco Smith RB 5'9, 185 So. 2 stars (5.3) 13 96 0 7.4 9.2 38.5%
Aregeros Turner WR 5'11, 170 So. 3 stars (5.7) 8 23 0 2.9 4.3 50.0%
Matt McIntosh QB 6'1, 197 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 6 44 0 7.3 2.1 83.3%
Drew Hare QB 6'1, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 5 68 1 13.6 11.0 80.0%
Jordan Huff RB 5'11, 205 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tommylee Lewis WR 5'7, 155 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 109 86 715 78.9% 27.5% 72.1% 6.6 -230 6.1 82.1
Da'Ron Brown WR 6'0, 194 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 92 46 752 50.0% 23.2% 56.3% 8.2 114 8.3 86.3
Juwan Brescacin WR 6'4, 219 Jr. NR 59 33 499 55.9% 14.9% 51.9% 8.5 69 9.3 57.3
James Spencer RB


18 14 167 77.8% 4.5% 53.3% 9.3 12 9.0 19.2
Luke Eakes TE 6'3, 250 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 15 12 113 80.0% 3.8% 60.0% 7.5 -18 7.8 13.0
Angelo Sebastiano WR


13 6 83 46.2% 3.3% 38.5% 6.4 -4 6.1 9.5
Desroy Maxwell TE 6'2, 245 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 13 11 113 84.6% 3.3% 61.5% 8.7 -4 8.7 13.0
Aregeros Turner WR 5'11, 170 So. 3 stars (5.7) 11 8 70 72.7% 2.8% 45.5% 6.4 -21 6.3 8.0
Tim Semisch TE 6'8, 266 Sr. NR 11 7 84 63.6% 2.8% 66.7% 7.6 -1 5.1 9.6
Matt Williams WR


10 6 109 60.0% 2.5% 42.9% 10.9 34 8.6 12.5
Cameron Stingily RB 6'1, 244 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 9 7 44 77.8% 2.3% 71.4% 4.9 -33 5.2 5.1
Keith Harris, Jr. RB 5'8, 181 Jr. NR 9 7 95 77.8% 2.3% 62.5% 10.6 18 13.6 10.9
Jacob Brinlee WR 5'9, 185 Jr. NR 8 6 76 75.0% 2.0% 71.4% 9.5 9 8.0 8.7
Chad Beebe WR 5'9, 165 So. 2 stars (5.3) 7 2 101 28.6% 1.8% N/A 14.4 61 0.0 11.6
Blake Holder WR 6'2, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0 0 0 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0 0 0.0 0.0
Shane Wimann TE 6'4, 225 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Malik Mitchell WR 6'4, 181 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)









Kenny Golladay
(North Dakota)
WR 6'4, 195 Jr. NR









Christian Blake WR 6'1, 170 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)









David Senior WR 5'10, 160 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)









Dale Brown TE 6'5, 245 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)









Ezra Saffold WR 5'7, 160 Fr. 2 stars (5.2)









4. Is there such a thing as too much skill position depth?

You look at what NIU returns at running back and receiver and you wonder if the Huskies have spent too many scholarships on these particular areas. The Huskies are loaded with options here.

At running back, big Cameron Stingily returns; he wasn't explosive, but he was a nice bruiser to complement Lynch. He's joined by a pair of sophomores (Joe Bouganon, who didn't do much with 22 carries in 2013, and Draco Smith, who did a lot with 13) and an exciting junior (Keith Harris, Jr.). More importantly, however, he will also team up with senior Akeem Daniels.

Daniels was a revelation late in 2012; after a rather lackluster season, he rushed 29 times for 240 yards and five touchdowns against EMU in the season finale and Kent State in the MAC title game. He brought a speed aspect that NIU needed to keep attention off of Lynch, but he missed 2013 with recurring foot problems. From the Injuries Hurt in the Present but Help in the Future files, Daniels' absence allowed Stingily to emerge. Now, in Lynch's absence, NIU appears to have a thunder-and-lightning combination to unveil, at least as long as Daniels is healthy this time around.

NIU should have a nice running game, and at the very least it has options in every shape and size in the passing game. Return specialist Tommylee Lewis turned into a decent possession man in 2013, averaging a meager 8.3 yards per catch with a lovely 79 percent catch rate. Meanwhile, medium-sized Da'Ron Brown and big Juwan Brescacin each averaged at least 15 yards per catch (with sketchy catch rates). Tight ends Luke Eakes and Desroy Maxwell might be in position to play larger roles in 2014, transfer Kenny Golladay caught 43 passes for North Dakota in 12 games, and big things still might be in the cards for one-time star recruit Aregeros Turner.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 117.4 3.76 4.18 49.3% 73.0% 12.6% 282.4 2.9% 0.7%
Rank 9 3 5 3 39 4 3 23 1
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Tyler Loos RT 6'5, 282 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 19 1st All-MAC
Jared Volk LG 29 2nd All-MAC
Andrew Ness C 6'3, 286 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 28
Aidan Conlon RG 6'3, 287 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 28
Ryan Brown LT 6'6, 283 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 27
Matt Krempel RT 11
Tyler Pitt RG 6'5, 292 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 1
Levon Myers LT 6'5, 267 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Matt Battaglia LG 0
Michael Gegner C 6'3, 283 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0
Josh Ruka RT 6'5, 295 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Scott Taylor OL 6'2, 295 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Shane Evans OL 6'4, 295 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Max Scharping OL 6'6, 250 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

5. Ninth and third

In my Toledo preview, I mentioned that the Rockets were one of only six teams to rank in the top 20 of both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rates. Well, only one team ranked in the top 10 of both categories: NIU.

Obviously there are some extenuating factors here -- Lynch's running ability would have made any line look pretty good, and the wealth of quick passes to Tommylee Lewis certainly limited sack opportunities. But when the stats are this good, that probably means something.

NIU's new starting quarterback will not only have a few exciting backs and diverse options at receiver; he'll also have the MAC's best offensive line in front of him, one that welcomes back five players with starting experience (a whopping 103 career starts in all), three two-year starters, and an all-conference tackle in Tyler Loos.

The scheme's good, the skill help is solid, the line is great ... there are worse situations for a new starting quarterback to inherit.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.09 42 IsoPPP+ 96.0 89
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.6% 82 Succ. Rt. + 87.5 105
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.4 39 Off. FP+ 102.5 32
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 39 Redzone S&P+ 87.6 94
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 29.0 ACTUAL 30.0 +1.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 79 106 105 116
RUSHING 49 93 106 86
PASSING 107 110 97 120
Standard Downs 112 112 110
Passing Downs 61 69 35
Q1 Rk 117 1st Down Rk 118
Q2 Rk 106 2nd Down Rk 65
Q3 Rk 75 3rd Down Rk 72
Q4 Rk 92

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 85.8 3.29 3.36 38.4% 70.9% 12.8% 109.4 5.9% 5.8%
Rank 118 103 71 54 87 125 44 30 88
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ken Bishop DT 14 53.0 6.5% 7.0 1.5 2 1 0 0
George Rainey DE 14 37.5 4.6% 10.0 4.0 0 4 1 0
Joe Windsor DE 14 30.0 3.7% 8.0 4.5 1 1 1 0
Jason Meehan DE 6'1, 241 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 23.5 2.9% 7.0 6.5 0 1 0 0
Anthony Wells NG 11 22.5 2.7% 2.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Perez Ford DE 6'0, 218 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 19.5 2.4% 9.0 4.5 0 0 1 0
Stephen O'Neal DE 12 16.5 2.0% 3.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Donovan Gordon NG 6'0, 275 Sr. NR 13 15.0 1.8% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Mario Jones DT 6'0, 275 So. 3 stars (5.5) 11 10.0 1.2% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Michael Ippolito DT 6'3, 259 So. 3 stars (5.5) 11 6.0 0.7% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Austin Smaha DE 6'1, 210 So. 2 stars (5.2) 12 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Corey Thomas DT 6'2, 308 So. 2 stars (5.2) 1 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Zach Anderson NG 3 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Matthew Baltimore DE 6'3, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4)
Ben Compton DE 6'4, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.2)
Ruben Dunbar DE 6'3, 260 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Herlandez Corley DE 6'3, 240 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

6. Not a lot of time in the backfield

In 2012, NIU's pummeling offense had a perfect counterpart in a fast, aggressive defense. NIU's defensive line was one of the smallest and most active in the country, with seven players logging at least 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacking the quarterback at least four times.

Unfortunately, both starting ends (Alan Baxter and Sean Progar, who combined for 18 sacks) graduated. That seemed to gum up the works. In 2013, NIU still managed a decent sack rate (four more linemen had at least 4.0 sacks, though none had more than 6.5 this time around). Meanwhile, NIU ranked 125th, dead last, in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). When you're not making aggressive plays with a small defensive front, all you're left with is the "small" part. NIU got pushed around, and while the Huskies were able to swarm and limit big plays on the ground for the most part -- considering the help up front, NIU's linebackers were quite strong in this regard -- this inefficiency opened the door for some glitches in pass defense.

For better or worse, NIU's mostly starting over up front this time around. Pass rush specialists Jason Meehan and Perez Ford return, but NIU is completely starting over at defensive tackle. The Huskies might not be much worse up front, but they almost certainly won't be better.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jamaal Bass OLB 5'10, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 14 67.5 8.2% 6.0 2.0 0 2 0 0
Boomer Mays MLB 6'0, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 14 64.0 7.8% 5.5 2.0 1 0 1 0
Michael Santacaterina OLB 5'10, 210 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 12 51.5 6.3% 2.0 1.0 0 5 0 0
Jamaal Payton OLB 6'0, 210 So. 2 stars (5.2) 11 33.5 4.1% 3.0 1.0 0 3 1 0
Sean Folliard MLB 6'2, 205 So. 2 stars (5.3) 11 15.0 1.8% 2.0 0.0 0 1 1 0
Cody Hazelett OLB 6'2, 200 So. 2 stars (5.2) 10 11.0 1.3% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Rasheen Lemon OLB


2 10.0 1.2% 1.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
Ladell Fleming OLB 6'0, 194 So. 2 stars (5.2) 9 6.5 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Bobby Jones IV LB 6'0, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Martayveus Carter LB 5'11, 200 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Renard Cheren LB 6'0, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)






Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jimmie Ward SS 14 78.5 9.6% 2.5 1 7 10 1 0
Dechane Durante FS 6'2, 196 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 44.5 5.4% 0 0 3 5 3 0
Paris Logan CB 5'9, 179 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 14 38.0 4.6% 0 0 1 7 1 0
Dominique Ware FS 14 35.0 4.3% 0 0 2 4 0 0
Jhony Faustin CB 14 31.5 3.8% 0 0 1 5 0 0
Marlon Moore CB 5'9, 180 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 14 31.5 3.8% 0 0 1 11 0 0
Sean Evans CB 7 16.0 1.9% 1.5 0 0 1 1 0
Nate McNeal S 14 6.5 0.8% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Mycial Allen SS 5'11, 183 So. 3 stars (5.6) 10 6.0 0.7% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Marckie Hayes CB 5'8, 176 Sr. 2 stars (5.2)
Brandon Mayes DB 5'11, 182 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Deion Hallmon DB 6'0, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Tifonte Hunt DB 5'9, 170 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Mayomi Olootu DB 5'9, 170 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)






7. New leadership in the back

NIU's linebackers really were pretty strong, both in terms of cleaning up messes and in making a few plays along the way. All three starters return, as do all three primary backups. But between the rebuilding line and a similarly dissheveled secondary, the linebackers will likely have plenty of messes to clean up again this year.

Big plays were an issue for the NIU secondary in 2013, but at least the Huskies had safety Jimmie Ward in the back to make some plays of his own. He's gone, as are Dominique Ware and Jhony Faustin. NIU does get back a potential lockdown (when the lock works) corner in Marlon Ware, and Dechaen Durante was a big hitter at the free safety position, but there is no obvious, immediate replacement for Ward. If Moore and Paris Logan mature at corner, maybe that's not a problem. But it will probably be an issue at times.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tyler Wedel 5'11, 186 Sr. 50 40.4 1 28 14 84.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Tyler Wedel 5'11, 186 Sr. 101 59.8 32 6 31.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Mathew Sims 61-63 12-16 75.0% 5-13 38.5%
Tyler Wedel 5'11, 186 Sr. 8-8 2-2 100.0% 1-3 33.3%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Paris Logan KR 5'9, 179 Jr. 20 24.1 0
Tommylee Lewis KR 5'7, 155 Sr. 11 28.4 1
Angelo Sebastiano PR

9 10.8 0
Tommylee Lewis PR 5'7, 155 Sr. 6 3.7 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 90
Field Goal Efficiency 98
Punt Return Efficiency 83
Kick Return Efficiency 23
Punt Efficiency 98
Kickoff Efficiency 87
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 81

8. Legs need improvement

Because of the efficiency of the offense, NIU was a pretty decent field position team in 2013. But the Huskies could use a bit more help from special teams in that regard.

Tyler Wedel was a fair catch machine, but NIU was still only 98th in Brian Fremeau's Punt Efficiency ratings and 59th in Net Punting. Meanwhile, while kick returns were (and will be) a strength, punt returns were lacking.

Assuming the new quarterback isn't quite as proficient from an efficiency standpoint, a lot of other pieces will need to improve to make up the difference. That obviously includes kicks and returns.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
28-Aug Presbyterian NR
6-Sep at Northwestern 49
13-Sep at UNLV 109
20-Sep at Arkansas 48
4-Oct Kent State 102
11-Oct Central Michigan 106
18-Oct Miami (Ohio) 121
25-Oct at Eastern Michigan 122
5-Nov at Ball State 81
11-Nov Toledo 53
18-Nov at Ohio 108
28-Nov at Western Michigan 113
Five-Year F/+ Rk 4.2% (49)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 98
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 12.9
TO Luck/Game +0.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (9, 6)

9. All but one strength gets stronger

In 2014, it appears that a lot of NIU's strengths (skill position depth, offensive line play, linebackers) will get stronger while its weaknesses (activity on the defensive line, big plays in the secondary) get weaker. This could result in a lot of #MACtion-style shootouts, but that will indeed depend on the quarterback position. NIU looks good enough at the other 10 offensive positions that Lynch's absence might not be a killer. But until we see someone step up and play well, we don't know for sure that it will happen. And even if it does, that probably won't help a sketchy defense very much.

The schedule certainly helps. NIU plays eight teams projected 102nd or worse and hosts division rival Toledo. Despite the road trip to Ball State, that could give the Huskies a decent chance at their fifth consecutive MAC West title. If they indeed get to the title game, they probably won't be favorites this time around, but they'll have a chance. Considering the quality of the quarterback they just lost, that's pretty impressive.

10. MAC balance of power

At the end of each conference run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference's balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. They're just how I would rank the teams after writing 4,000 or so words about each of them.

Tier 1
Bowling Green
NIU
Ball State
Toledo

Bowling Green finished the season the strongest, returns a ton of talent, and brought in a coach who seems to fit the personnel. The defending champs begin the season still at the top of the heap, but the next three on the list aren't far away. Any of these four could win the MAC.

Tier 2
Ohio
Akron

I'm actually excited about where both of these teams will be in 2015, and either team is just one or two surprises from joining the top tier. But for now, I'm going to stick with the thought of them being a year away.

Tier 3
CMU
Buffalo

CMU is coming up because of experience, and Bufflao's moving down because of a lack thereof. Both of these moves could be temporary.

Tier 4
Kent State
WMU
EMU
Miami (Ohio)
UMass

There is more hope in the bottom tier than before; EMU, Miami and UMass welcome in new coaches (and their corresponding new optimism), Kent State has had a year to rebound from an inevitable fall, and WMU just signed an incredible recruiting class. There's a chance that the MAC is a bit deeper than it was last year, but the bottom teams are still going to be pretty bad.

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