Some games define teams and the future of a program.
Take Boise State, for example. After beating Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos were a legitimate BCS buster.
On the other hand, take Ohio State. After losing in the National Championship game to Florida that same year, the Buckeyes have struggled against top five opponents.
For Northern Illinois, it has been a while since a defining victory, and certainly a solid 28-21 win over Purdue, in Lafayette, qualifies. It was the first win over a Big Ten opponent since 1988, pushing the Huskies' record against the conference to 2-32-1. It's their first win over a BCS conference team since a 24-16 victory over Iowa State in 2003.
But how defining of a victory is this just three games into the 2009 season?
In 2003 the Huskies took down the Cyclones, No. 21 Alabama, and No. 15 Maryland. They finished 10-2 with losses to No. 23 Bowling Green and Toledo.
Without finishing the season strong, this Huskies team dilutes all meaning from this game aside from another win next to the lopsided loss column against the Big Ten.
NIU needs to stay focused on the fact that there are nine games to go. It can't settle. Actually, it's time to get humble. Like Central Michigan, the Huskies now have a target painted on their backs. The Mid-American Conference will be gunning for them, and it will be more important than in the past to not overlook opponents. After all, staying humble is a strength of this still-young Huskie team.
It starts this weekend versus perennial whipping boy Idaho.
Going 10-2 might be asking a lot, but certainly the expectations have risen. The predicted 7-5 team, third in the MAC West, will now be held to higher standards, and it will up to them and only them to meet those.
Teams in the MAC have a bad habit of losing games to each other. Potential BCS buster Ball State lost in the MAC title game to Buffalo last season. Central Michigan has clearly been the class of the conference for years but also tends to fall off the tracks here and there.
So what is fair to expect from NIU now?
Certainly a 7-5 season after this win cannot be considered a complete success, though it will be one game better than 2008. Tough games with Toledo, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan lie ahead.
I predicted a 20-13 NIU win over Purdue in the preseason and still handed out a 7-5 record. Why? Purdue is far from the class of the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is far from the class of the BCS. But now, even my expectations have risen to a 9-3 or 8-4 season.
Beating Purdue won't be a program-defining victory as those in 2003, but it will certainly have the chance to be a win that defines this 2009 team and its place in the MAC.
Buyer beware though—it's only Week Four. A lot of football is left to be played.