The last piece of the NIU schedule puzzle dropped earlier this week when the Mid-American Conference released its football schedule, completing the picture of what the Huskies’ 2023 schedule will look like.
Eager to move on from a disastrous, injury-riddled, worse-than-expected 2022 season (3-9 after winning the MAC title the year before), the Huskies open the new campaign Sept. 2 at Chestnut Hill against Boston College. The home opener is the next week against Southern Illinois, and the MAC slate starts Sept. 30 at Toledo.
In fact, all three of those games will give fans a good indication of how the 2023 season will play out for NIU. So let’s look at those three games, plus two others, that will show us whether the 2023 season will be a replay of 2021 or 2022.
And for extra fun, I ranked them from most important on down. So here we go.
1. At Nebraska, Sept. 16
This is a winnable game. Depending on how the first two games of the season go for the Huskies, this could be the most telling game. The Huskers are coming off a 4-8 season. Their new coach, Matt Rhule has turned around Temple and Baylor. But the Owls won three games in his first season, and the Bears won one game.
Not to mention, NIU has won there before. Of course, that was three Nebraska coaches ago. And a win this time probably won’t lead to an AD being fired the next day. But it’s a game a bowl-bound team in a conference title hunt should win.
2. At Boston College, Sept. 2
The Huskies enter the year with low (external) expectations and head on the road to face an ACC team. Just like in 2021 with Georgia Tech, the Huskies open 2023 with Boston College. The Eagles also are coming off a three-win season.
Against the Yellow Jackets, the Huskies pulled off a late touchdown drive and 2-point conversion in Rocky Lombardi’s first game as a Huskie with the type of magic that defined the season, and was notably missing last year. Also notably missing for most of last year was Lombardi, so make of that what you will.
3. At Toledo, Sept. 30
The Ball State game may have a fancy trophy, but Toledo has been the de facto rivalry game for the Huskies for a while as the two teams usually battle for control of the MAC West.
The Huskies have won two straight in the Glass Bowl (by a combined five points) but lost by 20 at home to the Rockets last season. And sure, the past four full-season MAC West champs have lost at least two conference games, so there’s room for a hiccup in conference play. But a road win at the defending conference champs to open MAC play is certainly a statement. And a good sign.
4. Tulsa, Sept. 23
The Golden Hurricane dominated the first half last year and held on for a 38-35 win. What better way to prove last year is in the rearview mirror than by avenging a road loss?
Tulsa wasn’t a world-beater last year, finishing 5-7. And this game could be the difference between NIU starting 2-2 and 3-1, two very different records. Or, heaven forbid 2-2 and 1-3. (Should we be tossing around 4-0? Probably not yet. But still. But no. End parenthetical).
5. Ball State, Nov. 7
Sure, nine games into a season is a very large sample size. But this game has turned into a tough one for the Huskies, who have lost three of the past four to the Cardinals in an attempt to retain the Bronze Stalk. And the one win was by a point at home in a year the Huskies owned many, many horseshoes.
Here’s why this is here: The last time NIU lost to Ball State and finished with a winning record was in 2005. Put an asterisk on the 2008 season, when the Huskies lost to Ball State in Jerry Kill’s first year as coach, made a bowl and finished 6-7. So if NIU heads into this game something like 5-4 overall and 4-1 or 3-2 in conference, it can make a big difference heading into those last two games.