CHICAGO – All they wanted was to leave the field. They weren’t looking for extra motivation. They didn’t need to discuss what outsiders thought of them.
But sometime between the huddle breakdown and showers after Northern Illinois’ conditioning session Tuesday afternoon, the conversation started. The Huskies were supposed to finish second in the Mid-American Conference West, according to a panel of MAC football writers. Never mind being the defending division champs, winning the Humanitarian Bowl after Jerry Kill left for Minnesota or returning nine offensive starters.
Running back Jasmin Hopkins thought linebacker Pat Schiller was first to bring it up, but it could’ve been anybody.
“We’ve got people that are on the Internet 24/7,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got people like Anthony Wells, Demetrius Stone who are always on the computer and know everything about football.”
The players talked about it, but they’re OK with being ranked two voting points behind Toledo in this year’s preseason poll. At least that’s what they’re saying. It’s not the prize they’re after.
But make no mistake. The poll is extra motivation, even if NIU players weren’t looking for any.
“Personally, I like being picked not first,” Schiller said. “That gives us something to strive for and something to prove other people wrong. I think that’s what our program is all about. Coach (Dave Doeren) talks all the time about how we have a chip on our shoulders, how we do things the hard way. It’s just another thing we need to prove wrong.”
I’m not going to pretend the MAC preseason poll possesses some sort of power. It doesn’t. Miami ranked fifth in last season’s poll, only to win the whole thing. The RedHawks are favorites to win the East this season, even if Ohio has four more first-place votes. Obviously, there are flaws.
I understand the reasons NIU was picked second, even if I disagree. Coaching changes are always uncertain. No one knows how good the defense will be. Chad Spann, Jake Coffman, Tyrone Clark and Devon Butler are good players and significant absences this season.
And, maybe most important, NIU has to travel to the Glass Bowl to play Toledo in November, a place that has been unkind to the Huskies. And that’s putting it nicely.
But I don’t understand how NIU, a team that won its five division games by a combined 174 points and embarrassed everybody in the West except Western Michigan, is expected to just fall back into the pack. Given the returning starters on both sides, beating Toledo 65-30 has to mean something. Take three touchdowns away this fall. Call it home-field advantage. That’s still a 14-point win.
Sure, the Huskies are an imperfect team. They have weaknesses. But come on. This is MAC football, a league that didn’t produce one drafted player in April. There is no such thing as a team with no holes. They all have blemishes. And even counting what NIU lacks, its strengths still are superior to anything else in this conference.
I expect NIU to win the West, head for Detroit’s Ford Field and finish business there. I expect a double-digit win total, a third straight season with a win against a BCS opponent (Kansas), maybe even a Top 25 ranking.
Anything less would be a disappointment.
If you doubt me, just ask Schiller.
“How about 12 wins?” Schiller said, posing a question that only raises expectations. “But obviously, we just want whatever amount of wins it takes to get a MAC championship. I can’t tell you an exact number. I would say at least win 11 games, have another season like last season. We’ve got to go undefeated in conference, that’s No. 1.
“Nothing less than a MAC championship.”
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter at the Daily Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @rwood_DDC or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.