Daily Chronicle sports editor Ross Jacobson and sports reporter Steve Nitz spend their days covering the area’s sports scene. Occasionally, they give their viewpoints on those local sports. In this installment of their Take 2 column, they discuss the chances Northern Illinois will win its third straight Mid-American Conference title.
Jacobson: Steve, a year ago at this time there were a lot of question marks surrounding Northern Illinois football. Would Jordan Lynch be able to step in and replace Chandler Harnish? Would an experienced defense finally become one of the Mid-American Conference's best units? And most importantly, would NIU be able to defend its MAC championship?
The answers to all those questions was a resounding "Yes," as NIU set a program record with 12 wins and went to the Orange Bowl. With Lynch and a majority of last year's starters back, the expectations around DeKalb are 3-peat or bust.
So, who do you have winning the MAC Championship this year: NIU or the field?
Nitz: In my preseason poll, I picked the Huskies to win the MAC. However, to me, common sense says to go with the field. I think Ball State and Toledo should provide good challenges to the Huskies in the MAC West – and the Huskies have to go win at the Glass Bowl, where they're just 3-18 all-time. I also think Ohio and Bowling Green – the two most logical opponents for NIU in Detroit, will be tough. I like this Bobcats squad, and people forget, they were the MAC favorites last year but suffered through an injury-riddled year.
I'm sticking by my prediction for NIU to win the conference, but logic says to take the other 12 teams.
Jacobson: I'm taking the Huskies over the field. Although Ohio and Toledo might be contenders, wins and losses in college football often boil down to one area: quarterback play. And NIU has the best quarterback in the conference.
With consecutive MAC championships, there no longer is any pressure on NIU to break through in Detroit. Instead, the focus will be on the long title droughts of Toledo (nine years), Ohio (0 for 3 in MAC title games) and Bowling Green (hasn't been to MAC title game since 2003).
The only thing that potentially worries me is Jordan Lynch's injury risk. He's proven to be as tough as they come at the quarterback spot, but it only takes one awkward tackle or hit to the helmet that would force Matt McIntosh or Drew Hare into action. The more carries Lynch takes, the more hits he's susceptible to.
What concerns about NIU do you have that make the field the more attractive pick in this scenario?
Nitz: It's not really concerns about NIU that makes the field more of an attractive option, more just the law of averages. I still think NIU is the best team in the conference.
You mention quarterback play – Lynch certainly is the favorite to win his second straight MAC MVP, but there are a lot of other good QBs in this league – Ohio's Tyler Tettleton, Ball State's Keith Wenning and Toledo's Terrance Owens, for staters.
Ball State very easily could have beat the Huskies the past two seasons. That game in DeKalb on Nov. 13 will be huge. Winning at Toledo won't be easy, and of course, you have the potential MAC title game. NIU has a good squad this year, but this is a deep and talented conference.
Jacobson: The Marshall teams of the late '90s didn't so much care about the law of averages in winning four MAC Championship games in a row. It's very similar to NIU's Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch, where two outstanding quarterbacks (Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich) were the centerpieces of those Thundering Herd teams.
In case you were wondering, NIU is listed as a +140 favorite to win the MAC Championship, which implies a 41 percent probability. But what do Vegas oddsmakers know, right? I'll go higher and put NIU at 63 percent chance to win the conference crown. What's your number, Steve?
Nitz: You make a great point about those Marshall squads. I'll put NIU at a 37 percent chance to win the conference crown. The Huskies certainly are the favorites, but crazy things can happen. Keep in mind, NIU should be going for its fourth straight title, but a fluke play against Miami (Ohio) in the 2010 MAC title game ended that. Should be an interesting season in the conference.