Ohio State's opponent in Week 3 for next season, Northern Illinois, is coming off what might be considered a down season...and they still won 11 games. The Huskies have dominated the MAC for five yeas, have won double digit games every season since 2010, have spent time in the AP Top 25 for three of the past five years, made a BCS bowl, and cracked the Top 16 in both 2012 and 2013, rarified air for a MAC program. While the Huskies are expected to get a stiff challenge from Western Michigan, NIU is still expected to at least contend for a conference title and some real estate in the Also Receiving Votes section of major polls. Few min-major programs have been more successful in recent history, and while they aren't expected to beat Ohio State, this shouldn't be a bad team.
That's an impressive run for a ton of programs, and when you consider how long the odds are for NIU to be as good as they are, it becomes even more amazing. The Huskies have been one of the great underdog stories of the last half decade. How have they pulled this off, and can they keep it up?
First, geography does NIU little favors. If you're a smaller program that is looking to improve in football but doesn't have deep financial resources, you'd want some geographical proximity to fertile recruiting grounds, like East Texas or South Florida. NIU is located in DeKalb, Illinois, a town with under 50,000 people in a state they share with two other Big Ten programs, and a slew of FCS teams. NIU fans might clamor about their proximity to Chicago, but it's roughly the distance to the Windy City as Ohio University is to Columbus. NIU isn't quite as middle of nowhere as say, Ball State, but its hardly a bustling metropolis, a recruiting hotbed, or even an especially attractive locale to sell to recruits.
Not being in a great location is less of an issue if you're awash with cash, but NIU isn't. In fact, they're near the very bottom. Per USA TODAY, Northern Illinois spent the 7th smallest amount of money on recruiting in all of FBS, spending only $138,261. Recruiting budgets across the MAC skew small, but that's nearly half of what Ohio spent ($264,928). Their total budget is also small. Per the latest USA TODAY figures, the NIU athletic department took in a little over $25 million last year, a number behind 96 other schools, including multiple programs that don't even have FBS football, like New Hampshire and VCU. Lower budgets mean fewer flights across the country, less fancy promotional budgets, less money for coaches and less expensive scouting resources. Only Louisiana-Monroe has been able to experience more on the field success with less recruiting money than NIU, and they sit much closer to better HS talent than the Huskies.
The NIU recruiting strategy has been to pick up talent in Illinois, Wisconsin and throughout the western part of the midwest that the major programs miss, while filling out the roster with the occasional signee from Florida, Alabama and others. Despite dominating the conference over the past several years though, the Huskies haven't finished higher than 4th in the 247 MAC recruiting rankings since 2008. Under P.J Fleck, Western Michigan has continued to put considerable distance between themselves and the rest of the conference, but Toledo, Miami (OH), Bowling Green and others have signed better regarded classes. The Huskies are winning without money or with a star-advantage.
A team winning in spite of geography, money or recruiting stars is possible, but typically, that means you're going to have to replace a coach, and all bets are off if you can't nail the next hire. The Huskies have had to replace two coaches since 2010, but have kept on trucking. Jerry Kill helped build the program after Joe Novak, but then left for Minnesota. NIU hired Dave Doeren, who promptly left after two seasons for NC State, leaving Rod Carey in charge. That's a ton of personnel turnover, even if all of the coaches are philosophically similar. Carey is 23-6 at NIU, so it's possible that the NIU athletic department managed to nail three hires in a row.
NIU has build a sustained run without an advantageous location, lucrative TV deal (or much money at all), big name recruits (or even many average ones), and while having to change coaches multiple times. They've been able to do this in part because they play in the MAC, where their talent and financial deficiencies are minimized a little bit because nobody is pulling in five stars or raking in millions, but they've also had exceptional player development, excellent scouting, and have nailed multiple hires.
At some point, maybe you win enough games to change some of those weaknesses. Boise State started with similar institutional weaknesses, and now is an established brand that out-recruits nearly every other non power-five program. NIU has scheduled aggressively in the future, with Utah, BYU and Maryland scheduled for home and homes, so they certainly think this level of competition has be sustained. If money and recruiting don't tick upwards though, and the Huskies have to make another coaching hire, or if some other MAC programs structurally improve, it may be difficult to sustain this run.
Can NIU sustain this run forever? Without improving recruiting, or if they have to make another coaching change, or if other MAC programs structurally improve, probably not. This year's team has significant questions about their offensive line, and there's some good evidence to suggest that the Huskies were plenty lucky last season. But the reasons to be skeptical about NIU's sustainability aren't new, and when the dust settled, they were still a double digit win team and the MAC champion.
NIU isn't going to beat Ohio State, and probably won't even come that close, but this is a program that's achieved something fairly remarkable, and could keep that going for the future. And if the Huskies break through for another run through the MAC this season, that only helps Ohio State.