First of all, take some time if you haven't already to head over to Paul Myerberg's fabulous college football blog Pre-Snap Read for his in-detail preview of Northern Illinois football at #59 in his countdown. Toledo came in right ahead (this seems to be a trend) at #56 as well. I consider Myerberg's previews in the top echelon of football previews right there along with Phil Steele. Read it. Here are a couple highlights:
And you know why? It’s not just because of a talented group of running backs; it’s largely to do with one of the best offensive lines in the country. All five starters are back, four of them seniors, three of them all-MAC picks — in short, this is a line that could make any offense look good. It’s a group anchored by tackles Trevor Olson and Keith Otis, with the most telling thing I can say about Olson is that even as a lineman he deserves to be in the mix for MAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Speaking about Olson, he's been named to the Outland Trophy Watchlist.
Sean Progar is back, but Jake Coffman is not — for real this time, I promise. Like Coffman before him, Progar might be the MAC’s best defensive lineman: he was a first-team all-conference pick last fall, when he made 39 tackles (10 for loss, second on the team) and 4 sacks.
But there are two more significant reasons why I expect N.I.U. to take a step back: one is the coaching change, the other the losses to graduation. To be more specific about the latter, it’s about the losses on defense.
Secondly, SB Nation's new advanced statistics blog Football Study Hall has one of the best NIU previews you will see as well. I really like the metaphors that he makes about the MAC and about how good the NIU offense is going to be next year:
Mind you, I'm not too worried about it either way. With the talent that returns, you could hand the offense over to Paul Myerberg, Chris Brown and me, and we could do some pretty great things with it.
Harnish has quite a few options in the passing game as well. Four of the top five targets return, and the each of the top three averaged, at worst, a great 9.4 yards per target. Youv'e got go-to man Willie Clark (602 yards, 14.3 per catch, 66% catch rate, 7 TD), possession receiver Martel Moore (525 yards, 13.1 per catch, 77% catch rate!, 4 TD), hit-or-miss big-play guy Nathan Palmer (532 yards, 18.3 per catch, 54% catch rate, 6 TD) and another interesting possession option in Perez Ashford (206 yards, 10.8 per catch, 73% catch rate).
Now we all know that NaPalm has iffy hands (see: 2010 MACC) but I had no idea that he only caught 54% of the balls thrown in his direction. Hopefully he can become a bit more consistent in his senior year. We're going to need him. And, Moore is a man-beast.
If you don't know what catch rate is, you can find out more on the Football Outsider's website right here:
DYAR and DVOA include all passes intended for the receiver, both complete and incomplete. Catch Rate represents the percentage of passes to this receiver completed. This is a reference to incomplete passes, not dropped passes: dropped passes are not specified in publicly available play-by-play, and unfortunately we cannot yet correct for this.
One more insightful prediction/projection by Mr. Connelly:
The offense really will be fun to watch in 2011, but I have no idea what to make of the team for two reasons: 1) The defense is almost certainly going to regress, and 2) perhaps the two most well-stocked MAC teams not named Northern Illinois also reside in the MAC West. NIU gets WMU at home and Toledo on the road.
Really, two small stretches will define NIU's 2011 season: the opening combination of Army-@Kansas, and the three game, Buffalo-Toledo-BGSU road trip in late-October and early-November. If the defense is competent early, they could quite easily start 2-0, but anything less than that could hint at trouble down the line. (Let's face it: at this moment in time, they're just better than Kansas and should be favored in that game unless they lose to a tricky Army squad.) Meanwhile, NIU should take down Buffalo, but Toledo's good and Bowling Green is tricky.
Go 5-0 in these five games, and they're almost certainly in the MAC title game and winning 10 games again. But 1-4 or 2-3 are also in play -- that's how questionable the defense is.
And. For something I had never seen before, here is some intricate details of Chad Spann explaining how awesome he was last year in Part I, Part II and Part III of this extremely intricate football strategy blog that I found.