For months Rod Carey avoided the question.
The Northern Illinois football coach refused to talk about the big-picture meanings of every one of the Huskies’ accomplishments this season.
What was the significance of NIU’s four nonconference wins, including two road victories over Big Ten teams?
What did it mean to set a new Mid-American Conference consecutive wins record?
What were the team’s thoughts on recording the first perfect regular season in school history?
The answer from Carey was always some version of “I haven’t even thought about that.” To his credit, Carey consistently said he was focused only on the next opponent and would wait until after the season to answer those questions.
Now the season is over, quicker than anyone had imagined. But just more than three weeks after NIU stood only 60 minutes from a history-making second consecutive Bowl Championship Series bowl game, the would-be answers to those questions have emphatically changed.
The records broken and standards set have been diminished in importance after back-to-back losses to close out 2013. The lackluster finish will be rightly compared to the 7-0 start in 2003 that ended in a 10-2 record.
Ten years later the disappointment of no MAC championship and no bowl game that season still remains among the Huskies’ fan base, even though the season is now looked back on more fondly as time has passed. The historic wins against Alabama and Maryland are now the lasting images rather than the initial loss to Bowling Green and subsequent defeat at Toledo.
It may take another 10 years for NIU fans to get over 2013. Currently the shock of the two December defeats is still too fresh for many to put the past year into proper perspective.áThat will likely happen sometime down the road.
But while those questions are no longer relevant, Carey will have to deal with another set of questions needing answers. Questions that may have been nonexistent less than a month ago, but are now pressing matters going into next season.
The high-tempo, big-play offense that was so productive for most of the season seemingly disappeared in the final three games of the year. NIU didn’t record a single play longer than 25 yards against Bowling Green or Utah State.
Carey is now 12-0 in the regular season, but 0-3 in the postseason. While there is no way Carey is in danger of losing his job – he’s actually more likely to get an extension going by recent NIU history - it’s fair to ask if his inexperience as a head coach has been exposed when NIU faces equal competition.
Remember, NIU played one of the weakest schedules in the country as Western Michigan, UMass, Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Purdue combined for a mere six wins this season, while Akron and Kent State also had losing records. The MAC’s current winless bowl season doesn’t exactly play into NIU’s favor either.
After six years of premier quarterback play from Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch, will that kind of production continue with Drew Hare or Matt McIntosh, and what will the offense look like after losing the most prolific rushing quarterback in FBS history?
Can the much-maligned NIU defense, which actually played its best game of the season in the Poinsettia Bowl, progress even after the losses of many key contributors, including All-American Jimmie Ward?
Will Carey be able to deliever one of the most important recruiting classes in NIU history, capitalizing off the buzz from last year’s Orange Bowl and a full year in the national conversation in 2013? The program’s stock has certainly never been higher after a BCS berth, Big Ten wins and a Heisman Trophy finalist in the past calendar year.
Will NIU continue to solidify its status as the MAC’s premier program or will the Huskies slide back to the pack, much like what happened after 2003?
Uncertainty - a feeling recently unfamiliar to NIU fans - now hovers over NIU football because of a couple results in a couple of weeks.
Once again, Carey and NIU don’t have the answers right now. Those will only come starting in August.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.