USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Sadly, there's no way Northern Illinois can replace this quarterback – no, not this one, the best quarterback to ever come through campus, the irreplaceable star behind the program's rise.
Not when he set 30 school records for passing, rushing and total offense. Not when he compiled a hair shy of 12,000 yards from scrimmage, the equivalent of about seven miles; not when he lifted the Huskies to the finest season in program history, and not when dozens of teams tried and failed – often failing miserably – to corral his dual-threat otherworldliness.
Yeah, Chandler Harnish was impossible to replace. Until, you know, he was replaced, and the rest is history.
There's the face-value facts of the matter: Northern Illinois enters life without Jordan Lynch with a sense of trepidation, a fitting sentiment considering all that Lynch brought to the table during his memorable two-year run as the Huskies' triggerman.
Then there's the pragmatic approach to the matter: Lynch is gone – gone yet not forgotten – but NIU moves onward and upward, secure in its belief that this system transcends any individual quarterback. The belief is that this is foolproof, a friendly system designed to make the most of the quarterback's ability to move the ball in and out of the passing game, and that the beat will go on despite the changing cast.
It's only fair to have some faith in the system. The Huskies went from Harnish to Lynch and improved, amazingly enough; while future improvement seems mathematically improbable, the Huskies can tout an asset unshared by the vast majority of the Football Bowl Subdivision: NIU has a can't-fail offensive mentality.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The Huskies are going to win the MAC and make a run at the BCS. My take: NIU goes 10-2 or 11-1 in the regular season, beating at least one Big Ten opponent, and nets another conference championship. Losing one game in the regular season could land NIU another BCS spot, should Louisville and Boise State suffer their own setbacks. It'll be another banner season.
In a nutshell: Another season spent banging on the door of the Bowl Championship Series, though this one fell short of January: NIU was undefeated heading into the conference title game but lost to Bowling Green, a bitter end to one of the great runs by a non-major program in recent FBS history. Unsurprisingly – well, perhaps a little surprisingly – NIU came out flat in the Poinsettia Bowl, losing to Utah State for the program's first multiple-game losing streak since 2011. Bitter, yes, but not quite sour enough to remove the fresh taste of an otherwise perfect regular season. Twelve teams tried; 12 teams failed. Among the vanquished were two Big Ten programs and two of the Huskies' would-be divisional rivals – Toledo and Ball State, that is, and each by two or more touchdowns. For three months, NIU was a wrecking ball of offensive destruction and defensive opportunism.
High point: Beating Iowa in September – a little recompense from a 2012 defeat – and topping Toledo and Ball State in November. There was a time that NIU couldn't sniff the Rockets, the old man recounts to his grandchildren.
Low point: Bowling Green.
Tidbit: NIU's 46 wins during the past four seasons are tied with Alabama for the second-most in college football. Both trail only Oregon, which is 47-6 since the start of the 2010 season.
Tidbit (home and away edition): Northern Illinois enters 2014 with a 26-game home winning streak, the longest active streak in the FBS. That's great, of course, as is this: NIU has also won 15 true road games in a row, likewise the longest active streak in the country. One team in the FBS holds the active highs for longest home-field winning streak and longest winning streak in true road games – those games played away from a home but not at a neutral site.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Last two quarterbacks, FBS programs
1. Florida State (Manuel and Winston)
2. Texas A&M (Tannehill and Manziel)
3. Northern Illinois (Harnish and Lynch)
4. Oregon (Thomas and Mariota)
5. Baylor (Florence and Petty)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: At some point during this season, hopefully, Rod Carey will have the backfield options he needs to run a true by-committee approach, an option not at his disposal a season ago. For now, NIU moves forward for at least the season's first four games without Cameron Stingily (1,119 yards), who is sidelined with an undisclosed injury. As one leaves, another enters: Akeem Daniels is back after missing all of last season due to injury, and the Huskies must view the returning contributor as the key cog in the running game while Stingily recovers. But when – or if – both are together, NIU has to be excited about this tandem can achieve inside and out of the box: Daniels, speedy and shifty, would be the burst to Stingily's between-the-tackles boom. If used together, this pair will help NIU recoup at least a percentage of Lynch's lost production, which was obviously immense, but there will be touches in play for reserves Keith Harris, Draco Smith, Joel Bouagnon and Jordan Huff.
In total, no team in the MAC can match what NIU brings to the table at the skill positions. The entire group remains intact: Da'Ron Brown (46 receptions for 752 yards) and Tommylee Lewis (86 for 715) are the league's best pairing, for starters, and the quintet of Brown, Lewis, Juwan Brescacin (33 for 499), Chad Beebe and Aregeros Turner – the latter two very impressive sophomores – paints a pretty picture for NIU's passing game. The Huskies also cobble together consistent production from tight ends Luke Eakes and Desroy Maxwell, though I think both could be more useful options in the red zone – typically Lynch's playground, but NIU needs to develop some pass-game targets near the goal line. No secondary in the MAC has the bodies required to run with NIU's deep, experienced and explosive receiver corps.
Toledo's line is great; NIU's should be better. It's funny: Expectations were high heading into last season, but there were some concerns over the quality of a reworked front – so yeah, it's funny how wrong projections can be, for one, and also how quickly things can change in the span of a season. One year later, this line is locked and loaded, ready to brutally push and contain front sevens throughout the conference. This is doubly true if Tyler Loos can shake off his injury woes and protect the blind side; if he's good to go, it's easy to see the entire line clicking into place before the end of August. Elsewhere, Aidan Conlon will shift from right to left guard, replacing Jared Volk, while Tyler Pitt steps up a peg as Conlon's replacement on the strong side. Andrew Ness steps back in at center – he's set to improve – while Ryan Brown moves from left to right tackle to accommodate Loos' return. Brown, Conlon and a healthy Loos are all-conference locks; I think Ness could also earn postseason accolades.
Defense: Lynch's departure earns the headlines, but the Huskies' defense is of far greater concern than the change in personnel under center. There goes Jimmie Ward, the defense's leader, and his loss leaves a simply irreplaceable void along the back end. There goes the entire front four, leaving massive gaps on the two-deep and helping to explain why NIU inked seven defensive linemen – one of the JUCO variety – in February's signing class. The back end is in flux; the front is in transition. It's a queasy scenario, to be honest, and one that will task Carey and this staff more than any other challenge during the Huskies' recent run – yes, even more than the move to a new starting quarterback.
That one JUCO addition is interesting: Ben Compton, though technically an end, is listed at 275 pounds, meaning he could either serve as a run-down anchor or move inside as a quicker, speedier interior lineman. He'll have to play from behind, however, since NIU has seemingly identified a new starting quartet. The ends are obvious: Jason Meehan (31 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and Perez Ford (24 tackles, 8.0 for loss) are logical, can't-miss new starters after excelling as situational reserves the last two seasons. That both can get after the quarterback is an enormous, perhaps defense-changing positive – seeing that a healthy pass rush will go a long way toward addressing the personnel issues in the secondary. Along the interior, look for NIU to lean on the four-tackle combination of Mario Jones, Michael Ippolito, Donovan Gordon and Corey Thomas. My biggest concern: NIU doesn't have a Ken Bishop-like block holder at tackle, with Thomas and William Lee the only interior linemen tipping the scales at over 300 pounds.
The second level experiences no turnover, however. Once again, look for sophomore Jamaal Payton (42 tackles) and senior Michael Santacaterina (64 tackles) to continue battling for the starting job at one outside spot, though both will play extensive snaps regardless of the two-deep. The Huskies' remaining two starters will earn All-MAC honors: Boomer Mays (82 tackles) is one of the league's top three middle linebackers, in my opinion, and with Ward's departure, Jamaal Bass (87 tackles) becomes NIU's most disruptive defender. The idea of putting Bass off the shoulder of one of Meehan or Ford is exciting, to put it lightly.
I'm worried about the secondary, and about the group's ability to force turnovers in particular – Ward's leading specialty, among his many qualities. Again, there is one positive to consider: Meehan and Ford could put together the sort of pass rush needed to offset any decline from the secondary. But that's an unknown, to be fair, as are new starting cornerback Anthony Brooks and Ward's replacement at strong safety, Marlon Moore. Now, Moore's a total unknown; he's done a nice job at cornerback, but it's safe to wonder about how well he'll take to the shift to the back end. Moore will be aided by senior free safety Dechane Durante (55 tackles, 3 interceptions), while Brooks will get a boost from junior Paris Logan, an unheralded and overlooked cog in last year's attack.
Special teams: Matthew Sims' disappointing final season makes him a little easier to replace. Look for Tyler Wedel to handle the entire gamut: kicking, punting, kickoffs. Lewis and Logan will split duties in the return game, giving NIU as explosive a pairing as you'll find in the MAC.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: By the time the dust clears, a quarterback on this roster – and there's nearly a handful jostling for the job – will inherit the kingdom. Unfortunately, the Huskies' spring provided little insight into which option will eventually serve as Lynch's successor: NIU is still looking at three holdovers from the spring, and could even add a fourth contender should true freshman Landon Root live up to expectations during fall camp. For now, however, let's place Root in fourth behind junior Matt McIntosh and sophomores Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie, with Hare and McIntosh combining for 207 yards and four scores as Lynch's backups a season ago.
As noted, it's a work in progress: McIntosh held a slight lead during much of the spring, in my view, slightly ahead of Hare, with Maddie running third – but after a distressingly ineffective showing from the position during the end-of-spring scrimmage, Carey may be inclined to have the entire group start from square one in August. Four things to consider: one, McIntosh and Hare have played; two, all three have spent at least two full seasons in this system; three, the system is so friendly as to be nearly foolproof; and four, it's been a long, long time since NIU landed anything but sublime play from its quarterback.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Toledo: It's the same story: Toledo and Ball State are NIU's greatest threats in the West Division – tilting at windmills and all that, but the Rockets and Cardinals are in contention. The non-conference slate includes road trips to Northwestern, UNLV and Arkansas, with added emphasis on those two matchups with major-conference competition. Let's keep in mind how NIU has fared on the road throughout Carey's tenure.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Northern Illinois is not going to give away the West Division. This is the Huskies' house, you see, and these Huskies – the program we've seen grow before our very eyes since 2010 – won't go down without a fight, with or without the star quarterback the meat and bones of last year's defense. Ball State and Toledo are two good, strong, capable teams; neither has what it takes to stop NIU from reaching another MAC title game and competing for another season with double-digit wins. Allow the situation at quarterback speak for the entire program: NIU has become bigger than any one individual player – the system in place, on the field and off, virtually ensures no significant decline from one season to the next.
I'm not that worried about the Huskies' situation at quarterback – I mean, I understand the difficulty inherent to replacing a legend, but the offense is so quarterback-friendly as to guarantee the new starter challenges for all-conference accolades. As a whole, the offense will rival Bowling Green for the MAC's best. What worries me more than the quarterback spot – and much, much more, to be honest – is this defense. There are significant problems, in my mind: NIU is fine at end but questionable in reserve, so keeping Meehan and Ford healthy is a priority; the interior of the line is a mess, not to mention undersized; the second level is great in space but must be kept clean by the front four; and the secondary is clearly going to struggle without Ward patrolling every quadrant of the deep middle. Add an average kicking game into the mix and you have some issues to address.
So this isn't a 12-win team, I'd say. Instead, look for NIU to have some early issues, likely dropping two games in September, before finding a groove and some momentum heading into MAC play. With no Bowling Green on the regular-season slate, I see no reason why this team can't again go undefeated from October through November and earn yet another spot in the conference championship game. This is life: NIU is built to last, built to survive a hiccup and built to run roughshod over the overwhelming majority of the MAC – and that's not changing in 2014. The Huskies are not quite as good as the program's recent versions, but this team is again one of the best in the conference – if not the best, period, to little surprise.
Dream season: NIU goes 11-1 in the regular season before topping Bowling Green in the MAC title game.
Nightmare season: The Huskies slide to 7-5, third in the West Division.
Who's No. 38? Using the total sum of Zagat's three categories – food, décor and service – the best restaurant in this school's home city is located in a renovated church with hand-painted deco walls.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014