CLEVELAND – Last season, Northern Illinois became the third team in as many years to go from being picked last in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference football preseason media poll to winning the division.
Heading into the 2022 season, the Huskies’ preseason outlook is much different. NIU received 11 votes to finish first in the MAC West Division – ahead of Toledo (nine votes) and Central Michigan (four votes) – and a league-high nine votes to repeat as conference champions. Miami received 20 first-place votes in the East Division.
At the MAC football kickoff, coach Thomas Hammock, who’s entering his fourth year leading the Huskies, said they don’t “pay much attention” to the poll.
“I mean, what does the media know?” Hammock said. “They picked us last, last year. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how we prepare and how we play. So all that preseason stuff has no relevance to how the season’s going to play out.”
The past three seasons, the MAC West team picked to finish last in the preseason poll went on to play in the conference championship game with NIU winning the title in 2021 and Ball State doing the same in 2020.
Joining Hammock on Tuesday at the House of Blues were redshirt senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle James Ester. Both downplayed the significance of being the league favorite entering the season.
Even now with a proverbial target on its back, Ester said the team has been preparing the same way it did a season ago.
“We’re working the same way we worked last year,” Ester said, “just continuing to not let guys get complacent and just continue to push and encourage each other.”
The Huskies lose seven starters from last season, including leading rusher Jay Ducker (1,184 rushing yards) and two of their leading tacklers in Lance Deveaux Jr. (75 tackles) and Dillon Thomas (62 tackles). On paper, they return 22 starters (eight on offense, 14 on defense) from last year’s championship squad, including Lombardi at quarterback.
Lombardi said although the expectation entering last season was to win “a lot of games,” returning experience on both sides of the ball has increased the team’s confidence entering this year. The goal now, Lombardi said, is to continue improving, which includes increasing the margin of victory after a 2021 season in which NIU won all six of its conference games by a possession or less.
“Our goal is to separate a little bit this year, beat people by more than one, maybe five or six would be nice, 10 to 12,” Lombardi said. “I think we’ve seen a tremendous amount of improvement on the defensive side this year. Everybody’s working hard, and I think we’re going to be, as a whole, a lot better as a team.”
That’s a goal Hammock reiterated, saying the team knows it must put its “best foot forward every week” to give the Huskies a chance to repeat last season’s success.
With a heavy contingent of returning players, Hammock said NIU has room to improve this season.
“We’ve got a chance to get better,” Hammock said. “We can play much better football, and that’s the exciting thing about us. You know, I feel like last year we didn’t play our best football and found a way.
“A year ago, there was uncertainty. They didn’t win a game [in 2020], they had no confidence. Now they have confidence. Now you’ve got to be able to handle that adversity.”