It’s Thanksgiving weekend and that means that college football’s regular season is winding down. Some teams have wrapped up their schedules -or will wrap up this weekend- and are either done for the season, or waiting to find out which bowl game they’ll be playing in. Other teams however are preparing for next week’s slate of conference championship games. In the case of the Northern Illinois Huskies (8-3, 6-1 Mid-American Conference), they’re technically in a state of limbo.
While the Huskies do have an opportunity to play in their first Mid-American Conference championship game since 2015, it’s an opportunity that rests in the hands of another team. So not only does NIU need to win their regular season finale at Central Michigan on Black Friday, they’ll need some help from their arch-rivals in the Toledo Rockets (9-2, 6-1 MAC). Toledo, who defeated Northern back on November 2nd, holds the key to the Huskies winning the MAC’s West Division title. The Rockets wrap up the regular season at home against Western Michigan on Friday.
So that means a Huskies win combined with a Western Michigan upset of Toledo will give NIU the MAC West and send them to Ford Field in Detroit next week. Under head coach Rod Carey Northern Illinois has played in three MAC Championship games but only winning one (2014). During NIU’s three division titles under Carey (2013, 2014, 2015) the Huskies won those outright. If they get the miracle that they need on Friday, it’ll be the first division title that would have been won essentially by default.
So how did we arrive at this scenario? When NIU lost to Toledo earlier this month the Huskies went into that game unbeaten in conference play. The very next week the Rockets would lose their first MAC game on the road at Ohio, thus creating Friday’s situation. So if Northern Illinois wins and Toledo loses, the Rockets will have two conference losses and will drop to second place in the MAC West standings. Of course getting everything to fall into place for the Huskies is easier said than done.
NIU has lost their last three games to CMU by a combined score of 97-64, last year’s game took three overtimes to decide. The inconsistency of freshman quarterback Marcus Childers over the last couple of weeks also complicates matters, and the offense is officially under his control now that junior signal caller Ryan Graham -who started at the beginning of the year- is officially out for the season due to a nagging elbow injury. Now while Toledo has lost two straight to Western Michigan, this year the Rockets possess a dynamic offense that averages 38 points and over 500 total yards per game.
Plus, this isn’t the same Broncos team that was led from 2013 to 2016 by offensive genius P.J. Fleck who’s now the head coach at Minnesota. So at the end of the day, the Huskies have a difficult challenge on their own outside of needing Western Michigan’s help. The best thing for Northern Illinois to do will be to focus on CMU and worry about Toledo’s outcome later. The good thing is that NIU is already bowl-eligible, but a conference championship to go with that bowl game would be pretty sweet.