Coach Dave Doeren did an excellent job of keeping his players focused as they pursued their second consecutive MAC Championship. NIU came up just short in its season opener versus Iowa and lost 18-17. The loss to the Hawkeyes was the only one the Huskies experienced during the regular season. They won their next 11 games by an average of 25.1 points per game and their thrilling, 44-37 victory over Kent State in the MAC Championship game marked their 17th straight win over league opponents.
In his first year as the starting quarterback, Jordan Lynch took the nation by storm. The top dual-threat QB in the country, Lynch was named a Second-Team All-American. Many thought the MAC Player of the Year should have been a finalist to win the Heisman Trophy, but he was not invited to the award ceremony.
After he collected his second MAC Championship, Doeren left the program to take over the head coaching job at NC State. Doeren's departure came before NIU took on Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Offensive coordinator Rod Carey led the team into its first-ever BCS Bowl game, but the Seminoles overpowered the Huskies en route to a 31-10 decision.
Carey's loss to FSU was not enough to discourage NIU from offering him the head coaching job on a full-time basis. With no head coaching experience besides the Orange Bowl loss, the 42-year old made it clear he isn't plotting huge changes.
"When you have a program like this, it's not about what you can change; it's about what you can keep. We've got great players and we want to keep this ball rolling."
OFFENSE: The Lynch-led offense was stifled in the season opener and bowl game, but it dominated in all 12 of the team's wins. NIU ranked 20th among 120 FBS programs in total offense with 469.6 yards per game and 13th in scoring offense at 38.6 ppg.
No one would have batted an eyelash if Lynch was a Heisman Trophy Award finalist considering his jaw dropping statistics. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns against just six interceptions. The 6-foot junior also placed seventh in the nation in rushing (1,815 yards), averaging 6.5 yards per carry with another 19 touchdowns. Lynch finished the season with 4,953 yards of total offense. Of returning players, only Johnny Manziel amassed more yards than Lynch in 2012.
Lynch may not find passing as easy without the graduated Martel Moore (1,083 yards, 13 TDs). Junior wideout Tommylee Lewis is the leading receiver among returners in receptions (48), yards (539) and touchdowns (five), but his 5- foot-7, 155-pound frame will prevent him from ever being a possession pass catcher. Junior tight end Luke Eakes brings big play potential to the table and should see more passes come his way during red zone trips. Da'Ron Brown will also have an expanded role.
Lynch's duel threat ability makes him the most dangerous weapon in the rushing game. Senior halfback Akeem Daniels is an asset out of the backfield. He showed he can be an every down back by surpassing the 100-yard mark in the regular season finale and MAC Championship. He scored four of his nine rushing TDs against Kent State in Detroit.
Lynch and Daniels are lucky to have the entire starting offensive line back for their senior campaigns. Junior tackle Tyler Loos (6-5, 282) is a key player on the blocking unit that gave up just 1.2 sacks per contest.
DEFENSE: NIU was one of the top teams in the conference on the defensive side of the ball as well. The Huskies ranked second in the MAC in scoring defense and third in total defense with allowed averages of 19.8 points and 369.3 yards of total offense per contest.
The defensive unit has some rebuilding to do as seven starting spots became available because of graduation. Senior defensive tackle Ken Bishop (6-1, 308) is the only starter back on the front four. Senior end Joe Windsor wasn't listed as a starter last year, but he still finished third on the squad in sacks with seven and also tied for second in tackles for loss with 10.5.
The leader of the defense is going to be All-MAC safety Jimmy Ward, who paced the team with 104 total stops in 2012. He also deflected 11 passes and recorded a team-high total of three interceptions. Sophomore cornerback Marlon Moore joins Ward in the secondary after a very promising rookie year.
Without Tyrone Clark in the lineup to anchor the defense, junior linebacker Jamaal Bass is poised for an all-conference caliber season. Bass was named to the MAC All-Freshman Team in 2011 after tallying 77 total stops and four interceptions. Last season, he increased his total number of tackles to 86, set a career-high with 10 tackles for loss and forced a fumble.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior Matthew Sims has connected on 74.4 percent of his 47 field goal tries over the past two seasons while also converting all but three of his 134 extra point tries. He frequently comes up in the clutch and tied for 29th in the nation in 2012 with 78.9 percent accuracy on field goal tries. Junior Tyler Wedel was once the kickoff specialist for NIU. His above average leg power should translate over nicely to the punting game.
Lewis's lack of size may hurt him as a wideout, but it makes him more elusive as a returner. He racked up 589 yards and a touchdown on 24 kick returns in 2012.
OUTLOOK: NIU does not have as well-balanced a team as it did a season ago. It still is one of the premier non-BCS conference programs in college football and was selected by the media to win the 2013 MAC Championship.
"It's flattering," said NIU head coach Rod Carey. "It's not something you pay attention to, but I know why they do it. It goes along with everything else. Expectations are high, but no one has higher expectations for us than us."
Every game on the schedule is winnable for Lynch and company. The Huskies will hit the road to take on Iowa and Idaho in their first two games of the season. Then they host Eastern Illinois at NIU Stadium before another two-game road swing that features a non-conference duel at Purdue and a MAC Championship rematch at Kent State. NIU's remaining seven games are against league rivals it defeated in 2012. The toughest challenges come after a bye in November when NIU hosts Ball State and plays at Toledo in back-to-back weeks.
Carey shouldn't be held to the standard of the 2012 squad, especially since the Huskies have to play seven of their 12 games on the road. The bull's-eye on NIU's back gets bigger and bigger with each successful step it takes. It's only a matter of time before a league rival ends its streak. Still, the Huskies are too good of a team not to contend for another conference title.