Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak is a realist. Equaling last year just isn't plausible, even with two nationally televised home games on the slate.
"We had a great season," Novak said. "Last year's senior class might be the most productive senior class we've had. It was a season for the record books."
The Huskies won their first seven games en route to a 10-2 record, recording wins over BCS members Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. Northern Illinois opened up 10th in the first Bowl Championship Series standings. The dream season ended with road losses at Bowling Green and Toledo. The loss of four all-conference players to injuries led to the late collapse, which spoiled chances for the school's first bowl bid in 20 years.
The Huskies lost four assistant coaches in the offseason, including their offensive and defensive coordinators, but welcome back a wealth of firepower with 13 returning starters.
OffenseNorthern Illinois won't have any problem scoring points. The Huskies return the bulk of an offense that averaged 32.2 points per game but will need to replace its most valuable asset. Michael "The Burner" Turner ran for 1,648 yards last year and ended his career with 4,941 yards. Junior A.J. Harris might not possess Turner's running ability, but he gives the Huskies their first running/catching threat in years. Adrian Davis, Garrett Wolfe and Cas Prime should factor into the mix.
Durable senior quarterback Josh Haldi has proved to be a consistent winner. He owns an 18-6 career record and has attempted 590 of NIU's 615 passes over the past two seasons. Haldi passed for 2,544 yards and threw 25 touchdowns with just nine interceptions last fall.
"Josh is very efficient and a great decision-maker," Novak said.
The receivers are big, fast and talented. The best of the group is Dan Sheldon, who returns after missing the last seven games due to an elbow injury. The speedster is joined by downfield threat Sam Hurd and sure-handed Shatone Powers.
Despite the loss of all-conference center Todd Ghilani, the offensive line should be a strength. Tackle Jake VerStraete anchors a big and smart group.
DefenseThe biggest hits suffered by the Huskies came on the defensive side. The big-play defense lost four all-conference players, as well as coordinator Scott Shafer, who was hired by Illinois.
The linebackers should be a stabilizing force. Brian Atkinson slides over to the middle after playing the strong-side spot the last two years. The defensive line looks shaky, with Travis Moore and Martin Wilson as the only experienced returnees. The secondary has helped account for the majority of the league-leading 44 interceptions the last two years. Senior free safety Lionel Hickenbottom is the most experienced member of the secondary. Rob Lee and Adriel Hansbro will handle the corners and Ray Smith takes over at strong safety.
SpecialistsThe loss of four-time all-conference kicker Steve Azar is a big hole to fill. "The last four years, Steve Azar may have spoiled us," Novak says. "He was Mr. Automatic for us, a truly great kicker." True freshman Chris Nendick has the tough job of taking over for Azur. Punter Anthony Gallagher should be improved after a full season under his belt.
Sheldon looks to return to the form he showed as the nation's leading punt returner in 2002.
Final AnalysisThe Huskies still have the talent to contend for a third straight West Division title. Northern Illinois' schedule doesn't make matters easy, with road games at Maryland and Iowa State, two teams hungry for revenge. The conference slate is favorable, with home games against Toledo and Bowling Green.
The Huskies will have to adjust to another season in the limelight, playing two games on ESPN. Whether the defense can adjust to a new coordinator and several first-year starters could be the key to another title run. The offense has the tools for another high-scoring season, but the defense must come together and slow down the opposition.