The 75th season of Mid-American Conference Football unofficially kicked off at Ford Field with Tuesday’s MAC Media Day event. It’s the first time since last year’s major shutdown, right before the conference basketball tournaments in Cleveland, that the league was able to host players, coaches and press in that capacity.
Coming off of an 0-6 record after last year’s shortened season, Northern Illinois was projected to finish last in its MAC West division by the preseason media poll. It’s the second year in a row where the Huskies were picked to finish last in the division.
“We’re ready to prove what we can do,” returning starting center and sixth-year super senior Brayden Patton said. “Last year was an interesting year with [the COVID-19 pandemic] and everything. Now, everyone’s a year stronger, a year faster, another year in the program. We’re just ready to prove what we can do.”
NIU almost didn’t have an 0-6 season last year because there almost wasn’t a football season at all. In fact, MAC presidents voted against moving forward with fall sports in early August 2020, but a new vote weeks later led the conference to instead host a six-game conference-only season. The MAC was the first Football Bowl Subdivison league to make the big change and eventually the last to have a formal outline in place.
Regularly-scheduled testing and contract tracing meant players would sometimes miss games or practices.
“2020 was an interesting year. We weren’t able to play all the games; all the protocols showed what you could take for granted if you got shut down due to Covid. You got to look back and see what could happen if Covid really did hit and you couldn’t play football – couldn’t do what you normally do,” Patton said.
Head coach Thomas Hammock, an NIU alum in his third year leading the program (5-13 overall record) doesn’t see the team’s overwhelming youth as a negative. Between the incoming group of freshmen signees, redshirt-freshmen and freshmen that retained freshmen eligibility through the pandemic year [“Covid freshmen” as NIU puts it in its media guide] there are more than 80 freshmen on the roster this year.
Hammock admitted that starting 10 or 11 true freshmen all at once isn’t the best formula for immediate success, but it should have a positive long-term impact on the program.
“What you have to do is establish standards and expectations,” Hammock, 40, said of his program’s culture. “We’re building a program of accountability: everything matters. The best players play, and if you want to play you have to earn it whether you’re a senior or you’re just walking into the program. I think when you have clear guidelines, clear standards and expectations, it becomes easier to run a program.
“I think our youth is a benefit. They have energy, they’re enthused, they don’t have the same scars of past performances. So everything that we have going on, we’re molding the clay. And we have a great batch of clay. And the molding is exceptional. We’re not inexperienced, we just love our team.”
Also in attendance to represent NIU at Media Day was incoming transfer, running back Clint Raktovich. Ratkovich hasn’t taken a single snap for the NIU offense yet, but he said he’s excited for the opportunity to be a part of NIU’s rich history. The Crete, Illinois-native had the privilege of playing at Huskie Stadium his senior year of high school in the state championship.
“Growing up, when I was really getting into football and starting to follow a lot of stuff was the Jordan Lynch days,” Ratkovich said. “So it was easy to look at NIU as a big powerhouse and always a winning a program. It’s awesome to be a part of it now, being part of that winning culture.”
Ratkovich is a three-time All-Mountain Valley Conference running back at Western Illinois, where he was a receiving and rushing threat at the FCS level. In his three-year career, Ratkovich rushed for 429 yards on 97 carries with three touchdowns, and caught 128 passes for 1,204 yards with 10 scores.
Ratkovich doesn’t have a lot of time left to prove himself at NIU. He’s a transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, and even he notices how deep his position group is with Waylee Harrison and Erin Collins both coming back.
“I definitely feel like this is the deepest position group on the team,” Ratkovich said. “I think we all bring something different to the table, and I think that’s what’s going to help push the offense.”
This year’s favorite to win the West division is Ball State, the returning champions of 2020. The Cardinals received 11 first-place votes, with 114 total points. Toledo (seven first-place votes) and Western Michigan (4) also received votes to win the division with second and third-place finishes, respectively, followed by Central Michigan in fourth and Eastern Michigan in fifth.
The East’s division is led by Kent State with 11 first-place votes, but Ohio (2), Miami (5) and Buffalo all have convincing arguments to win their division as well.
“[This year is] going to be exciting. Without fans, it wasn’t the college football atmosphere you’re usually used to. There wasn’t any buzz when you ran out onto the field. The excitement – it was there because we were about to play a football game, but the crowd really gets you fired up,” Patton said. “To have fans, to have family, to have everything back, to get back to some sort of normalcy, it’ll be exciting. We’re excited to have fans back, I’m excited to have family and fans back. Not only at the big crowds like when we go play at Michigan or at Georgia Tech, but to have them at home. To have our own fanbase back at Huskie Stadium, it’s going to be exciting.”
The Huskies open the season Sept. 4 at Georgia Tech (3-7 record in 2020). The first home game of the season will be the next week, Sept. 11, against Wyoming. NIU opens MAC play Oct. 2 against EMU at Huskie Stadium.
2021 MAC Football Preseason Media Poll Results
- Ball State (11 first-place votes), 114 total points
- Toledo (7), 104)
- Western Michigan (4), 103
- Central Michigan, 68
- Eastern Michigan, 44
- Northern Illinois, 29
- Kent State (11), 112
- Ohio (2), 96
- Miami-OH (5), 94
- Buffalo (4), 93
- Akron, 39
- Bowling Green, 28