However, there is an asterisks: Steele does mention that in all 9 of his power rankings, NIU has the slight talent edge but WMU gets the nod because their conference schedule is easier than Northern's. The Huskies have to take on not only the best team in the MAC in Temple, but also face Western Michigan & Ball State on the road. Both of which will be far from pushovers this upcoming season.
Who is this Phil Steele character?
Looking at the schedule alone
NIU: @ Akron, Temple, Buffalo, CMU, @ WMU, Toledo, BYE @ Ball St, @ EMU
WMU: Toledo, BYE, (Idaho), @ Ball St, (@ Notre Dame) @ Akron, NIU, @ CMU, EMU, Kent St, @ BG
Clearly, dodging Temple gives WMU a legs up in competition. All of their road games are against significantly depleted teams. When your toughest road game is in Muncie, you're going to be in pretty good shape. Toledo & Kent, arguably their toughest opponents are going to be fought in Kalamazoo.
However, I think that the Notre Dame game sandwiched between two road games may screw things up though for the Broncos. Three straight road games plus that 4th road game in 5 weeks against rival Central Michigan in Mt. Pleasant is going to be brutal. This stretch of games is being extremely overlooked.
Steele put the toughest schedules up today on his blog and when you factor the entire schedule in, WMU is #113 & NIU is #119!! This is due to the fact the Broncos have to face Michigan State & Notre Dame rather than conference cellar-dwellers Iowa State, Illinois & Minnesota.
Phil Steele has two different rankings. In his top 40 in the front of the magazine, he ranks how he thinks the teams will end up at the end of the season:
46. Northern Illinois
Don't see any of our other opponents or MAC teams on there.
Now on to the Power Poll, ranking teams on pure talent, regardless of schedule difficulty:
69. Northern Illinois
73. Western Michigan
76. Iowa State
Let's just say theoretically NIU sweeps through their OOC opponents then falls to Temple and WMU. We could finish 10-2 and not make the MAC Championship again just like in 2003! That would be both weird and terribly disappointing.
What Western Michigan does have
I know what you're thinking...this man is nuts. Didn't we beat the Broncos 38-3 last year? Didn't they lose their all-time leading passer in Tim Hiller and the NCAA leader in all-purpose yardage in Brandon West?
While Hiller may be gone, his receivers all return and should be the best corps in the MAC. We'll find out soon enough whether it was the wideouts or the quarterback doing the majority of the work last year as sophomore Alex Carder steps into the helm.
The new running back stepping in will be the speedy Aaron Winchester and he'll have plenty of room to run behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation. Not to mention they also added Michigan transfer Dan O'Neill to their rotation.
Steele's big leap of faith comes on the defensive side of the ball. He likes their experience and athleticism, especially in the front seven. I'm not sold yet, but it won't be hard to improve after last year's poor performance finishing 101st in total yards given up. Coach Cubit went out and hired former Hofstra HC Dave Cohen after the (now disbanded) Pride impressed him earlier in the season when they played.
Will the new defensive presence happen right away? Or will it take a while to set in? Cubit himself coaches the offense, so at least there's some consistency there. Overall, it's a ballsy prediction but I see some logic in the double down for the Broncos.