Quick note: Preview was done by AJanzen, due to a technical difficulty I ended up publishing it for him. Thanks AJ.
Head Coach: Dave Doeren
2010 Record: 11-3 (8-0 MAC)
Returning Starters: 8 offensive, 4 defensive
Key Returning Starter: Chandler Harnish, Sr. (QB)
The Northern Illinois Huskies are coming off of one of the best seasons in their program's history, going 11-3 and thumping Fresno State 40-17 in the Humanitarian Bowl. Unfortunately for the Huskies, this success led to their head coach being hired away by a BCS program (as success often does for coaches at non-BCS programs), the Minnesota Golden Gophers. In addition to the loss of their coach, their is substantial turnover at all levels of the defense.
However, the Huskies do return 8 starters on an offense that was pretty good last year, including senior quarterback Chandler Harnish and the entire offensive line. If the Jayhawks want to win this tough early season match up, they will need to match the physicality of the Huskies O-line, and take advantage of a defense integrating quite a few new pieces.
Offense: The NIU offense was one of the most productive in the country last season, averaging 38 points per game, which was good for 12th nationally. They relied pretty heavily on the run, gaining over 3500 yards on the ground as a team. While the Huskies lose a key piece of their rushing attack in RB Chad Spann, his replacement, senior Jasmin Hopkins, looked good in his limited opportunities last year average nearly 10 yards a carry in his 38 attempts. Harnish was also a key part of last years rushing success, gaining 836 yards on the ground (6.1 ypc) along with 7 touchdowns.
Harnish wasn't strictly a running quarterback though, as he passed for 2530 yards and a 64.7% completion rate, all while maintaining a great TD to INT ratio (21/5) and spreading the ball around evenly (the top four receivers all recorded at least 35 catches).
While the Huskies don't look to have a lot of question marks on the personnel side, they are breaking in a new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, who ran a much more pass-heavy offense than NIU did last year (Canada was IU's coordinator last season). While it's doubtful the Huskies undergo a complete change in offensive philosophy, how the NIU offense adjusts to its new coordinator will be something to watch.
Defense: The Huskies defense was nearly as impressive as its offense last year, ranking 14th nationally in points scored. Unlike the offense though, the Huskies lose a lot of key guys, including all four starting secondary players, sack leader Jake Coffman, both outside linebackers, and middle linebacker Devon Butler, who was lost for the season after getting shot (he is expected to recover fully).
While their is some decent talent to step in for the players lost, linebacker and corner are probably the chief concerns on the Huskies roster. With KU's group of talented young backs, expect a very run heavy approach, and perhaps a couple of deep play action passes to take advantage of some inexperienced corners.
Prediction: Despite the Huskies being a non-BCS opponent, they should probably be expected to win this game. Their offensive line is one of the best units in the country, which is not something a KU fan wants to hear, especially this early in the year.
Still, KU managed to upset a run-heavy non-conference opponent last year, and with an improved LB core, who knows? Add in some major personnel losses on defense for the Huskies, and there is certainly some hope, but head prevails over heart here. I'll say NIU wins, 38-20.