The checks and balances for building an annual power in the MAC are both well-established and effective. If you win big, you lose your coach. And if you win big with a certain group of players, they leave. The latter, obviously, happens everywhere in college football. But in a league where the base of talent is so even, where every roster is made up mostly of two-star recruits, one or two diamond-in-the-rough types can make all the difference in the world.
Miami won a MAC title with Ben Roethlisberger in 2003, and within three years they were 2-10. Drew Willy, James Starks and Naaman Roosevelt powered Buffalo to a surprise title in 2008, and the Bulls have not had a winning record since. Dan LeFevour led Central Michigan to a run of three titles in four years, something not seen in the MAC since Chad Pennington and Marshall were dominating, and Central Michigan has won six games in the two years since he graduated.
Northern Illinois has survived one check. Jerry Kill inherited a 2-10 team when he took over in DeKalb in 2008, and the Huskies went to three straight bowl games and won the MAC West by 2010. He took the Minnesota job, but his replacement, Dave Doeren, won the MAC in his first year on the job, just like Tom Amstutz did at Toledo in 2001 when Gary Pinkel left.
The second check, however, comes into play in 2012. NIU returns some interesting running backs and receivers, not to mention a vast majority of its defense, but Chandler Harnish is no longer the Huskies' quarterback. And that is a simply enormous loss.
Statistically, Harnish was quite possibly the best quarterback in college football last season. Obviously he benefited from facing MACtion defenses (and Kansas), but one just marvels at his stat line: 3,216 passing yards (62 percent completion rate, 28 touchdowns, six interceptions, just a 2.8 percent sack rate) and 1,462 pre-sack rushing yards (8.0 per carry, 11 touchdowns, plus-35.4 Adj. POE). For years, we considered a quarterback magnificent if he pulled off a 2,000/1,000 season. Harnish damn-near pulled off 3,000/1,500.
You don't just win with one player, obviously. But with the way NIU won the MAC in 2011, with five of their eight wins coming by a touchdown or less (four by three points or less), it is impossible to see how Harnish didn't repeatedly push them just over the top. His likely replacement, Jordan Lynch, is a really, really interesting prospect who completed 75 percent of his own passes and found time to rush for 253 yards in mostly mop-up duty. But the bar could not possibly be set any higher.
As stiff as the checks and balances tend to be in this conference, two different teams have a chance to break the rules in 2012: Northern Illinois, without its title-winning star quarterback, and Toledo, with a ridiculously small number of returning starters and some unusually highly touted recruits waiting their turn. If experience still reigns above all, then perhaps this is the year that Western Michigan breaks through (or perhaps we await an out-of-nowhere title run by an Eastern Michigan or Ball State). But NIU and Toledo will each have a chance to surprise by simply staying on top.
This being the MAC, the goal for NIU is simple: do well enough that you might have to hire yet another new coach in a few years. Doeren is young (39), salty, midwestern and relatively experienced. His is the perfect resume for a MAC head coach ... and in a few years, if things go well, it could likely be the perfect resume for a Big Ten coach as well. Life for a MAC school is like life in League One in English Soccer. You hope the talent you obtain does well enough to get you promotions and make more money, but you know that if you're successful, the talent will leave, and you'll have to find more. It is hopeful and depressing, socialist and capitalist. In the last decade, NIU has navigated the waters about as well as anybody (aside from that random, terrible 2-10 season), and they get the benefit of the doubt from me here: I have little doubt that Doeren was a solid hire ... and I have little doubt that the next guy they hire will probably be pretty good too. […]
The offense really will be fun to watch in 2011, but I have no idea what to make of the team for two reasons: 1) The defense is almost certainly going to regress, and 2) perhaps the two most well-stocked MAC teams not named Northern Illinois also reside in the MAC West.
It took a while for the defense to come around, but by the end of the season, despite the fact that Chandler Harnish was hobbling around a bit (that's right, he posted those stats despite some nagging injury issues), things clicked. The Huskies started the season 2-3, with tight, frustrating losses to both Kansas (45-42) and Central Michigan (48-41), but didn't lose again. They whipped Kent State, Western Michigan and Bowling Green, took out Buffalo, Toledo, Ball State and Eastern Michigan by a combined 13 points and overcame a three-possession deficit against Ohio to win the MAC title. It was a blessed run, one that might be difficult (but not impossible) to pull off again with a new face for the program.
When Doeren came to town, he brought with him a pass-happy offensive coordinator from Indiana named Matt Canada. From a styles perspective, his approach at Indiana was quite different than NIU's had been in 2010, but the changes he brought in his first year were minor. NIU went from running 73 percent of the time on standard downs to 66 percent, from 42 percent on passing downs to 39 percent. NIU ran at a higher pace, but that could have just been MACtion wearing off on Canada. The Huskies regressed slightly, from 19th in Off. F/+ to 27th, but clearly they were good enough for Harnish to record simply silly stats and for Canada to get yanked away to serve as Wisconsin's new coordinator. As his replacement, Doeren brought in an old hand: Mike Dunbar, who was Gary Pinkel's coordinator at Toledo in the mid-1990s and was the head of the New Mexico State offense in 2010.
Dunbar has vowed not to make any major stylistic changes in 2012, so it appears the major questions will be based around quality and experience instead. Jordan Lynch takes over behind center, and to be sure, the junior from Chicago has acquitted himself well when given the opportunity. He rushed ten times for 113 yards in a blowout win over Western Michigan, and with Harnish a bit hobbled against Arkansas State, he came in and completed four of four passes for 64 yards and rushed for a short touchdown. He has patiently waited his turn, and now it is here. He has a couple of interesting backfield mates as well. Leading tailback Jasmin Hopkins is gone, but junior Akeem Daniels, who achieved just as much on a per-carry bases (only with 70 percent fewer carries) returns, as do junior Leighton Settle and short-yardage back Jamal Womble. Big Perez Ford, a three-star athlete recruited as a running back, could have an opportunity to make noise as a freshman as well.
The biggest issue for both the running and passing games could be the offensive line. The Huskies featured the same exact starting five for most of the year (backup Jared Volk started two games for Logan Pegram at left guard), and four starters who combined for 56 starts in 2011 and 151 starts for their career (including first-team all-conference performers Trevor Olson and Scott Wedige) are gone. Their replacements will certainly look the part -- last year's second string averaged 6'5, 287 pounds -- but the dropoff in experience here is staggering. The Huskies ranked in the nation's Top 40 for both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate in each of the last two years; the line was a huge part of their success, and now it must be almost entirely rebuilt.
If Lynch has time to pass, and if he isn't facing constant passing downs because of an ineffective run game, he should find some receivers with whom to share the ball. Two of Harnish's top three targets from 2011, Martel Moore and Perez Ashford (combined: 137 targets, 95 catches, 1,282 yards) return, as does three-star sophomore Da'Ron Brown and two other wideouts who caught at least 13 passes. There may be a spot in the rotation for three-star freshman Charlie Miller, and Daniels proved an explosive weapon out of the backfield well. There is talent here, but it is impossible not to think about regression with what was lost at quarterback and on the line.
As one might expect with a new head coach and coordinator and almost an entirely new two-deep, the NIU defense started slow in 2011. They allowed 534 yards and 45 points to what turned out to be a poor Kansas offense in Week Two, allowed 621 and 49 to Wisconsin in Week Three, 372 and 30 to Cal Poly in Week Four, and 563 and 48 to Central Michigan in Week Five.
But to coordinator Jay Niemann's credit, he began to right the ship. The Huskies allowed 31.7 Adj. Points per game in their first five games but just 24.0 in their final nine. Yes, there were still occasional steps backwards (this game still happened, after all), but the Huskies allowed just 4.1 yards per play to Western Michigan, 3.8 to Eastern Michigan and, perhaps most impressive of all, 4.4 to Arkansas State in what was supposed to be a MACtion-level shootout. Their ratings ended up downright decent, all things considered: 73rd in Def. F/+, 64th in Rushing S&P+, 56th in Passing S&P+.
Like injuries, youth tends to destroy you in the present tense and benefit you greatly in the future tense. That NIU was able to begin figuring things out with a unit that returns mostly intact for 2012 is reason for optimism.
The excitement starts up front. A line that ranked 50th in Adj. Line Yards and 54th in Adj. Sack Rate returns eight of last year's top 10 and adds three interesting newcomers. Ends Sean Progar, Alan Baxter and three-star sophomore Jason Meehan (combined: 26.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks) all return, as does senior tackle Nabal Jefferson and a pair of tackles who have looked good this spring: senior Nabal Jefferson and three-star sophomore Frank Boenzi. Throw in bit junior college tackle Ken Bishop and a couple of three-star freshmen -- tackle Mario Jones and end Michael Ippolito -- and you've got yourself one of the best lines in the MAC.
The linebacking corps undergoes quite a bit more transition but still has upside. Pat Schiller and Jordan Delegal, NIU's No. 1 and No. 4 tacklers last year (combined: 142.5 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes broken up), are gone, but sophomores Jamaal Bass and Michael Santacaterina have quite a bit of potential (depending, I guess, on how much time Bass misses following his recent scraps with both marijuana and the Toledo band), and the Huskies happily welcome back Devon Butler. A junior from Florida, Butler redshirted in 2011 after suffering a serious gunshot wound last fall. He has been slowly easing back into action this spring. Three-star freshman Mike Cotton enters the fray this fall as well.
There are virtually no losses to discuss in the secondary. The Huskies were efficient (34th in Passing Success Rate+) but leaky (68th in Passing PPP+) last fall, and experience should be in their favor. Corners Rashaan Melvin, Jhony Faustin and Sean Evans (combined: five interceptions, 19 passes broken up) give NIU one of the better cornerback units in the conference … and if there's one thing you would like to have in the MAC, it is a nice set of cornerbacks. Safeties Jimmie Ward and Dechane Durante need to raise their game a bit (anytime the pass defense fits the "efficient but leaky" description, eyes turn toward the safeties), but they made their share of plays (6.5 tackles for loss, four picks, eight passes broken up), and they were a sophomore and freshman, respectively, last year.
When you have won two straight division titles, you would be kind of disappointed if you don't get a third, right?
The key for NIU in 2012 will be balance. If an experienced defense can offset whatever losses the offense may suffer following the departures of a successful quarterback, offensive coordinator and most of a good offensive line, then the Huskies will be serious factors in the race for their third straight division crown. But there is a lot of pressure to go around: on Dave Doeren, to prove he can continue momentum as the program shifts more toward his own recruits (and to be sure, his 2012 recruiting class was an intriguing one). On Jordan Lynch, to prove he can continue what was a pretty solid Chandler Harnish impersonation at times last fall. On guard Logan Pegram, the lone returning starter on a thin line. On NIU's safeties, to prove they can shore up their glitches. On the NIU front seven, to hit the ground running a lot faster than it did a year ago.
NIU won the MAC last year with eight returning offensive starters and just two returning defensive starters. This year, the onus turns around -- NIU returns eight starters on defense but just three on offense. The talent is exciting, but after toeing a rather thin line on the way to last year's MAC title, NIU will find an even thinner line this time around. The Huskies survived one check; now they face another.