The history between inter-conference opponents can often be divided into different eras.
Eras see one team completely dominating the other and winning the annual contests every year. An example would be the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry, where Lloyd Carr's Michigan teams continually beat John Cooper's Buckeye teams in the 90's, only for Jim Tressel to reverse the process and continually beat Carr and the Wolverines in the 2000s. A more appropriate comparison would be Toledo and their domination of NIU in the late 90's and for most of the 2000's.
But there are also eras where instead of one-sided domination, there is a more competitive, more evenly matched, and more often than not more memorable struggle, where teams alternate wins each year and things become harder to anticipate and predict.
We can find an example of this kind of era by looking at the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry again, specifically the "Ten Year War" between the Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler led teams from 1969-1978, with Michigan winning 5, Ohio State 4, and a memorable 10-10 draw in 1973.
NIU's recent history with its opponent this Saturday can be broken down into these two kinds of eras.
The first era, from the period from 1998-2005, began with the win that ended the nation's longest losing streak and resulted in the fish in the East Lagoon having to deal with a group of temporary student squatters and a pair of goal-posts. Starting with that initial 16-6 victory, NIU beat Central Michigan every year.
For those 8 years, NIU was on the rise, while Central Michigan was usually in the middle or at the bottom of the MAC. It was an era of NIU domination that Central Michigan couldn't break free of. Whether it was played in DeKalb or Mount Pleasant didn't matter. When this game came around, the Huskies were gonna win it. There was nothing CMU could do about it.
And then a guy named Dan LeFevour showed up.
Times They Are A Changin'
LeFevour's arrival in Mount Pleasant in 2006 signaled the end of the era of NIU domination and the beginning of a new, more competitive era, between the two teams.
NIU beat LeFevour and the Chippewas handily in 2006, so it at first appeared that nothing had changed from the previous years. For the next 3 years however, the Chippewas beat the Huskies all 3 times, twice by crushing margins.
After LeFevour's departure in 2010, NIU beat CMU easily. And of course last year, NIU lost to CMU (for everyone who just vomited thinking about that game, I apologize) in what was perhaps the most brutal NIU game to watch since the previous year's MAC Championship (again, I apologize).
The past 6 years seem to fit the model of a competitive era to perfection. But not entirely.
Unlike traditional competitive eras, where games are often very closely fought, with the exception of the 2008 contest in DeKalb where CMU won 33-30 in OT, the games between NIU and CMU during this period haven't been all that competitive. Here are the final scores:
2006 31-10 NIU
2007 35-10 CMU
2008 33-30 OT CMU
2009 45-31 CMU
2010 33-7 NIU
2011 48-41 CMU
The 5 other games in this era have been relatively one-sided. NIU made it close at the end last year, but they didn't deserve to win that game. And with the exception of 2008, the home side has won every game.
On paper, it seems easy to predict the result of this game.
NIU is statistically the better team and has looked the better team in the season's earlier games. The game is also in DeKalb, where NIU holds a 17-game winning streak.
But CMU has done the one thing that NIU has not done this year. They beat Iowa. While not a large accomplishment, the Chippewas deserved that win and will be riding high coming into DeKalb on Saturday, so an NIU win may not be set in stone just yet.
If we're still in the most recent era of alternating victories, then the game this Saturday won't be close and the home team will win.
The question is, will the 6-year long era continue, or will a new era begin?