This afternoon when NIU takes on Iowa at Soldier Field, the Huskies will enter the season as Mid-American Conference champions for the first time since 1984. NIU also will be playing with the nation’s longest winning streak.
It will be tough for the Huskies to top 2011. A number of key players from last season, including quarterback Chandler Harnish, the 2011 MAC MVP, have graduated.
But NIU still is talented, and has a year of experience with head coach Dave Doeren’s system. As the 2012 season begins today, here are the top five ways NIU will be able to call the this season a success. All of these things don’t have to happen for it to be a successful campaign, but the Huskies need several of them to happen if they’re to look back fondly on this season.
1. Win another MAC title
Since the MAC began play in 1947, the league has had only 17 back-to-back champions. When NIU last won a MAC title in 1983, the Huskies followed that up with a 4-6-1 campaign.
Miami (Ohio) won the league in 2010 but finished 4-8 the next season. The MAC is a league that features a ton of parity. Winning another conference title isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
2. Win another bowl game
When the Huskies won the Silicon Valley Classic in December of 2004, it was their first bowl appearance since 1983. Since then, going bowling has become an annual event. NIU has earned five bowl berths since that 2004 appearance, and has participated in the postseason in each of the past four years.
The Huskies have won two consecutive bowl games, beating Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in January and defeating Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl in December 2010.
Simply reaching a bowl game shouldn’t be good enough for NIU these days. The Huskies need to be winning bowl games year after year.
3. A signature nonconference win
This is one thing NIU didn’t do last season, as the Huskies lost both of their key nonconference contests getting blown out against Wisconsin and losing on the road at Kansas.
NIU has two chances for a big nonconference win this season: Today at Soldier Field and Sept. 22 against Kansas at Huskie Stadium.
Sure, a lot of people wouldn’t consider a win over the Jayhawks, who were just 2-10 last season, an upset. But fans said the same thing last season, and the Huskies couldn’t get the job done in Lawrence, losing to Kansas, 45-42.
MAC schools take pride in beating teams from BCS conferences. In 2009, NIU went to West Lafayette, Ind., and beat Purdue. The Huskies took down Minnesota in 2010. It’s time for another one of these wins.
4. Keep the nation’s longest winning streak going
Sure, NIU is the only team that can say it has the country’s longest winning streak (nine games) headed into the 2012 season. How about winning a few more games and keeping it alive?
Should NIU upset the Hawkeyes, there’s certainly a chance the streak could go on awhile, with winnable nonconference games against Tennessee-Martin, Army and Kansas. NIU’s start to the MAC schedule is fairly easy as well.
5. Go unbeaten at Huskie Stadium
Sept. 26, 2009.
That was the last time NIU lost a game at Huskie Stadium. That day, the Idaho Vandals came to DeKalb and beat the Huskies, 34-31. Since that afternoon, NIU has owned its home field.
NIU’s 2012 home schedule begins Sept. 8 with the Tennesee-Martin game. The Huskies close out the Huskie Stadium slate Nov. 15 against Toledo. That contest could arguably be NIU’s toughest game in DeKalb.
• Steve Nitz is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @SNitz_DDC.