Created: Thursday, November 24, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT

Bowl picture in focus

Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish throws in the first quarter of the game against Wisconsin on Sept. 17 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Wisconsin defeated NIU, 49-7. (Kyle Bursaw file photo –

DeKALB – With the rest of the Mid-American Conference bowl picture complicated by an influx of eligible teams, Northern Illinois' possible postseason destinations appear simple.

Two bowl executives with primary MAC ties told the Daily Chronicle they expect the Bowl in Mobile, Ala., to take the winner of the MAC championship game played Dec. 2 in Detroit. MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said Wednesday that scenario would not surprise him.

Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State already has accepted an invitation from the Bowl. The Red Wolves (9-2, 7-0 Sun Belt) have won eight straight games since losing 26-7 at No. 4 Virginia Tech. They received 10 points in this week's USA Today Coaches Poll, tying them with NIU for 31st nationally.

"I'm anticipating the winner of the championship game would likely be selected by the Bowl," said Ken Hoffman, executive director of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. "I think the bowl in Mobile is looking at the possibility of putting together a championship of champions with the champion of the Sun Belt and MAC."

NIU athletics director Jeff Compher said he has not been told the Bowl will invite the MAC champion. The Bowl did not answer multiple requests for an interview with executive director Frank Modarelli. It has first pick among the MAC's three primary affiliates, which include the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

NIU could advance to the MAC championship game with a win against Eastern Michigan at 10 a.m. Friday. The Huskies are 19.5-point favorites against the Eagles, and likely would be heavily favored in a possible title game matchup against MAC East champion Ohio.

Other possible scenarios exist, including a matchup between NIU and Big Ten opponent Illinois or Northwestern in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which invites the eight-place Big Ten team. Hoffman called it an "intriguing matchup," but it's unlikely if NIU wins the MAC.

Hoffman said he was unsure whether Steinbrecher would try to arrange that matchup with Mobile. Steinbrecher said it's too early to speculate.

"There are lots of moving pieces," Steinbrecher said. "I think we'll need to get through this weekend's games, and really through our championship game. I think it's dangerous to go too far down the road on what could happen."

Last season, NIU beat Fresno State, 40-17, in the Humanitarian Bowl. It since has changed its name to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and this year will receive the last pick among the MAC's primary affiliates.

Kevin McDonald, executive director of the Potato Bowl, said his bowl would not hesitate to invite NIU for a second straight year. But he doesn't expect the Huskies to be available.

"My guess is if they play and win the MAC championship game, they will probably play in Mobile," McDonald said.

"I was really excited to have Northern Illinois last year because I thought Northern Illinois was the best team in the conference. Even though they slipped up last year in the championship game, we felt like they were the best team. We would definitely consider them two years in a row, but my guess is they're probably going to be selected before we get an opportunity."

If NIU is selected by Mobile or Detroit, McDonald said, the Potato Bowl likely would select Toledo, Ohio or Temple.

"We'll probably go with the team with the best record that is available when we select," McDonald said.

The MAC has six teams with the necessary six wins to be bowl eligible. Eastern Michigan and Kent State could become bowl eligible with victories in their final regular-season games this week. The most bowl participants the conference has had in a single years is five, which happened in 2004, 2008 and 2009.

Steinbrecher said it's too early to know whether the MAC will surpass that mark this season.

"I think the next two weekends will be critical," he said. "Four bowls is very doable. Five bowls is a distinct possibility. Six bowls, we'll have to see. Clearly, we have some teams performing very well in the non-conference part of the year to give them a chance to be bowl eligible."

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?