Created:Sunday, January 3, 2010 10:53 p.m.CDT

Forward thinking

Northern Illinois defensive tackle Brian Lawson (bottom) and linebacker Tyrone Clark get in on a tackle of South Florida receiver Daniel Bryant during Saturday’s International Bowl in Toronto. (Scott Walstrom – NIU Media Services)

TORONTO – The window is open.

With what Northern Illinois returns and what the teams in the rest of the Mid-American Conference lose, it's difficult to argue that the Huskies aren't one of the favorites going forward in the conference.

NIU returns a slew of players on both sides of the ball. Just off of the two-deep from Saturday's 27-3 International Bowl loss to South Florida alone, the Huskies return 19 players on defense (20 counting linebacker Alex Kube, who missed the game with a sprained knee) and 18 on offense.

"We lost some great seniors, we really did. But we have some great young guys that stepped up over this past year," quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "That's at every position. Defensively you could see a lot of young guys make some big plays for us."

Consistently, the message out of the NIU locker room was that players and coaches couldn't wait to get back to DeKalb to start preparing for next season. That sentiment isn't always the case at the end of a long season.

"I'd rather just start training camp tomorrow, especially the way it is when you've got hungry kids," wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck said. "If you don't have hungry kids, it's, 'Thank God the season is over.' My gosh, these kids are hungry."

Despite the loss to the Bulls, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys felt the same way.

"This isn't good enough for any of us. Hell, you get here and you'd like to win the [darn] thing," he said. "That's the whole goal and I'm disappointed in that. But I'm not disappointed in the effort of our kids and I'm not disappointed in the effort the program is going. We've redshirted some tremendous kids. I'm excited to get started in the offseason."

Some of those redshirts include wide receiver Anthony Johnson and defensive linemen Anthony Wells and Stephen O'Neal, cornerback Sean Evans and quarterbacks Jordan Lynch and A.J. Hill.

Then there is what the rest of the MAC loses.

Defending champion Central Michigan already has lost coach Butch Jones to Cincinnati. Record-setting quarterback and the face of the conference Dan LeFevour graduates, as do defensive end Frank Zombo and wide receiver Bryan Schroeder. Western Michigan loses its own record-holders in quarterback Tim Hiller and all-purpose man Brandon West. Ohio says goodbye to quarterback Theo Scott. Toledo loses safety Barry Church, who single-handedly beat the Huskies this season.

Saturday's loss to South Florida wasn't the step forward NIU wanted to take forward in that process of becoming one of the top teams in the MAC, though.

"We've got to get to where we can't be close or we're right there," NIU coach Jerry Kill said. "We've got to win. There's no question about that."

A recruiting class that so far is shaping up to be a memorable one on paper could help put NIU over the top in beating good teams and teams with winning records like a South Florida.

"We've got to get over that hump," Kill said. "You get over that hump by recruiting players now. You've got to recruit. We've got great kids and South Florida has great kids. But we've got to continue to recruit and continue to build our program."

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?