2018 Northern Illinois Football Season Preview, Predictions, Prospectus

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After a blip in 2016, the 2017 Northern Illinois football team returned to the level of excellence that we have come to associate with the program. Led an ultra stingy defense that returns almost all of their key players and stars, the bar is set higher this fall. For NIU, it’s time to win more than the MAC West division in 2018.

Success will be defined by winning the MAC, getting to a bigger bowl game and ending the postseason game losing streak. This journey will include the most ambitious and impressive non-conference schedule that NIU has seen in recent memory. They open at Big Ten West power Iowa, and travel to college football blue blood Florida State in late September.

“I like this team, they’re a tight-knit group,” said head coach Rod Carey at Northern Illinois football Media Day.

“More than the fact that they like each other, they’re holding each other accountable, and when you get that, you’ve got a shot. As far as personality, it’s business-like right now, but you can tell they’ve got a little something underneath the collar.”

Offense:

QB: “Feels good to have your starter established,” Carey said at Northern Illinois football Media Day in regards to 2017 MAC Freshman of the Year Marcus Childers. The Huskies QB1 went 6-1 as a starter last season, taking the reigns of the offense just four games into the season. 

He’s more developed as a runner than a thrower at this point, but he’s also far from the finished product.  “There is more of the runway ahead of him than behind,” Carey added.

In college football, when you have a solid, dependable QB, you’re in contention, and if you don’t, then you are donezo. So NIU is sitting pretty in that regard right now. 

OL: “Weren’t good enough up front last year, probably for the first time, during my time at NIU,” said Carey.

“The o-line is the number one priority. We have everybody back, and they’ve improved.  They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster and they have a cohesion – now they need to play like that.”

Thinking positively, the best player on this side of the ball resides in this position group- two-time All-MAC offensive tackle Max Scharping, A three-year starter on the offensive line, Scharping moved from right to left tackle last season. He allowed just five total quarterback pressures on 425 pass blocking snaps in 2017 to rank among the best in the country. Center Luke Shivey is also a stand out in this group. 

RB: Carey says if this isn’t the best group of RBs in the conference, then somebody did something wrong- either the coaching staff or the position group itself. Junior Marcus Jones (audio of exclusive with him is below) is the starter, with Tre Roberison the primary back-up. With so much tradition for this program at this position, much will be expected. 

WR/TE: The youngest position group on the team, they will lean heavily, at least at first, on two veterans, junior Spencer Tears and senior D.J. Brown. The air attack was the weakest link in ’17, as the Huskies won ballgames with phenomenal defense, some running attack and just enough passing to get by. 

Tight end will not be a major focal point, as replacing the very stellar Shane Wimann will be difficult. It’s an open competition right now to replace him.

Defense:

DL: Without a doubt, it was the defensive side of the ball that led the way to the Huskies’ 8-5 season last year. With so many key returnees, and the team’s best player, DE Sutton Smith, coming back the expectations are high.

sutton smith

“I told them, ‘Pressure’s on,’ ” Carey said. “It’s that simple. When you’re coming off a year where you were that good and with that many guys coming back, can you do it again? Sustaining excellence is the hardest thing in sports to do, and they have that challenge in front of them.”

Smith led the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in tackles for loss with 29.5 and broke the school record for sacks in a single season with 14, which tied for the nation lead in ’17. The 2018 Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year finished just 2.5 TFLs shy of Western Michigan’s Jason Babin (2003) for the NCAA single season record.

You can read a whole lot more about him at this link, and listen to his audio from Northern Illinois football media day below:

If opponents double team him, Josh Corcoran is on the other side, and he wreaks a lot of havoc himself.

LB: Kyle Pugh is expected to start in the middle between redshirt junior Antonio Jones-Davis (a potential all-conference selection) and junior Lance Deveaux Jr. NIU must adjust to losing outside linebackers Alex Schwab and Jawuan Johnson. Pugh’s season ended after just four games, due to a torn biceps injury, but he collected 35 tackles in those four contests, playing his best ball against the high majors Boston College and Nebraska.

DB: Albert Smalls and former Iowa Hawkeye Jalen Embry form one of the league’s most formidable corner duos. Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster are both really solid at safety as well. The secondary is certainly one of this Northern Illinois football team’s biggest strengths.

Northern Illinois Football Schedule Analysis:

The Huskies, 4-1 under Carey against Big Ten opponents, open at Iowa before hosting Utah in week two. They’ll head to Florida State in week three and visit BYU in late October to round out the non-conference.

Athlon ranked their non-conference schedule the second toughest in the nation behind only Pittsburgh’s. Florida State and Iowa were actually the first two opponents Carey faced as head coach. The FSU clash is a rematch of his very first game in charge, the 2013 Orange Bowl.

We detailed this game in more depth at this link, with a lot of insights and quotes from Northern Illinois football players.

fsu dbu

Northern Illinois Football Preseason Rankings:

The Mid-American Conference preseason poll picked the Huskies to win the West Division, with Ohio pegged to win the East and also the MAC title game. Toledo is expected to be in the mix too. Athlon projects NIU to go 7-6, 7-1 in the MAC and win the division.

Athlon ranks Northern Illinois football 74th nationally, with a berth in the Dollar General Bowl and Childers the 67th best signal caller in the country. Street & Smith’s sees NIU winning their division and playing in the Boca Raton bowl.

niu football

Northern Illinois Football Bottom Line/Expectations:

“I know we had that hiccup there in 2016, but otherwise we have had sustained excellence,” Carey said at Northern Illinois football Media Day.

He’s right. Northern Illinois football has more or less been considered the MAC standard over the course of the last decade or so. You can see why the MAC Preseason Poll this summer pegged the Huskies to top the West Division. Both the 2010 and 2013 NIU squads were selected as preseason favorites and went on to win the division and play in the MAC Championship game. 

Anywhere from eight to ten wins is just expected now in DeKalb. The MAC title game has often become just a familiar part of the schedule. Hopes are high this year, just as they are every year. NIU was picked to finish third in each of the three previous preseasons (2015-17) and finished second in the voting in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

niu huskies

Even with that extremely formidable schedule, 2018 feels like a 9-3 or 8-4 kind of season for Northern Illinois football.

2018 College Football Season Previews 

#12 Notre Dame    Northern Illinois     Northwestern    Purdue    #11 Michigan State

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, is currently a regular contributor to SB Nation, WGN CLTV and Chicago Now.

Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Sound Cloud and YouTube. The content of his cat’s Instagram account is unquestionably superior to any and all of his.

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