Spring football 25: Northern Illinois Huskies

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t the 25 best going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Louisville


What happened in 2012
Of all the teams in college football, it's very possible none will look back and remember 2012 more fondly than Northern Illinois.

For Alabama, it's just one of many championship teams. For Notre Dame, it ended in disappointment. Northern Illinois' 2012 season is unlike anything it has experienced before, and possibly will experience again.

Northern Illinois was a surprise story at the end of the year. A couple days after it won the MAC championship, suddenly there were reports that NIU might have pulled off the improbable, getting into the top 16 of the BCS standings, ahead of the Big East champion, and therefore earning an automatic BCS berth. Sure enough, later that day Northern Illinois was invited to the Orange Bowl.

The Huskies were thoroughly dominated in the Orange Bowl by Florida State, but the 2012 season was still special for Northern Illinois. The Huskies had never played in a bowl better than the Poinsettia or Independence Bowl. Being the Cinderella of college football for a few weeks was a fun time.

Now, the question is whether Northern Illinois can stay in the national consciousness beyond those few weeks.

What makes them interesting in 2013
Given NIU's history, the Orange Bowl trip looks like a fluke. But that's yet to be determined.

The Huskies are building a good program. They have won back-to-back MAC championships, ending a drought of conference titles that dated back to 1983. The talent level in the program has gotten significantly better. One issue is that coach Dave Doeren left to N.C. State. He was replaced by Rod Carey, who was promoted from within almost immediately after Doeren's departure so there were few distractions before the Orange Bowl. Not only does NIU have to deal with increased expectations, it will do so with a head coach who will be coaching his second career game on opening day.

Just like last postseason was the first of its kind for Northern Illinois, so is this offseason.

What needs to happen this spring
The spring will be big for the coaching staff. There are five new coaches on the staff, and Carey is in a new role. There's a lot of work to be done. The changes on both sides of the ball probably won't be dramatic, considering Carey was promoted from his job as the offensive coordinator as understands how well the formula that was in place worked. It helps that the Huskies return a team that should again be the class of the MAC, riding a 17-game conference winning streak, with a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback.

It would be hard for anyone from the MAC to win a Heisman. But NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch did finish fifth in the Heisman voting among the players who will return in 2013, and seventh overall. People are well aware of how good he is.

Lynch's numbers last year were incredible. He threw for 3,138 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. He rushed for 1,815 yards and 18 touchdowns. He rushed at least 100 yards in a game 12 times last season. And he was just a junior.

Lynch came out of nowhere last season. He had just 179 career passing yards his first two seasons. Perhaps opponents will adjust. But opponents knew all about him by the latter stages of the season and aside from Florida State's elite defense, they still couldn't stop him. He should continue to dominate the MAC and be one of the most prolific players in the nation.

Wild cards
Like most teams, Northern Illinois has some holes to fill. The front seven on defense will be pretty young. Five of the team's starting linemen and linebackers last season were seniors. The defense will need some work.

There's some areas on offense that are concerning too. Leading receiver Martel Moore, who had 12 of the team's 25 receiving touchdowns and whose 1,054 yards were twice as many as any other NIU player, is gone. Superb returner Tommylee Lewis will probably take over as the No. 1 receiver. Lynch does most of the running for the offense but running back depth is a bit thin. Keith Harris and Akeem Daniels are the only scholarship backs with the team now, but NIU is hoping some fall newcomers can help.

Key games
Aug. 31 at Iowa
Sept. 28 at Purdue
Oct. 5 at Kent State
Nov. 20 at Toledo

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri , Tulsa, Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss.

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