- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Today we're looking at Northern Illinois, which is coming off a dream season that ended in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Coach: Rod Carey (0-1 overall)
2012 record: 12-2 (8-0 MAC)
Key losses: WR Martel Moore, WR Perez Ashford, DE Alan Baxter, DE Sean Progar, LB Tyrone Clark, LB Victor Jacques, CB Rashaan Melvin, CB Demetrius Stone
Newcomer to watch: WR Malik Mitchell. Mitchell was an ESPN three-star prospect from Milton (Ga.) High, where he hauled in 40 receptions last season for 500 yards and four touchdowns. Mitchell chose the Huskies over fellow MAC schools Toledo and Western Michigan. NIU loses two of its starting wide receivers from last season, and though it still brings back plenty of capable bodies from last year's unit, the 6-foot-4, 181-pound Mitchell is capable of potentially earning his way onto the field, where he will clearly be playing with a strong quarterback.
Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 31 at Iowa, Sept. 28 at Purdue, Oct. 5 at Kent State, Oct. 19 at Central Michigan, Nov. 13 vs. Ball State, Nov. 20 at Toledo
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The biggest question mark facing NIU in 2013 is, simply, the Huskies' defense. NIU loses seven starters from last year's underrated unit, which was overshadowed by Lynch and the often-electrifying offense while allowing just 19.9 points per game -- good for second in the MAC and 21st nationally. The Huskies need to replace three starters up front, three of their linebackers and two starters from their secondary, including three of their top four sack leaders from 2012.
Forecast: NIU did things last year that few believed were possible for a MAC team. The Huskies finished 12-2 and proved to be one of the final BCS-busters of the BCS era, but their 31-10 loss to Florida State in the Discover Orange Bowl sent them into the offseason hungry for more.
Oh, and that defeat also left Carey with a less-than-ideal 0-1 career coaching mark, something he has joked about publicly this offseason.
Still, Carey brings back enough talent to field a team that enters 2013 as the preseason MAC favorite, as NIU is 23-5 over the past two seasons.
Perhaps most importantly, the team brings back Jordan Lynch, who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting last year before a less-than-stellar showing against the Seminoles (15-41 passing, 220 total yards) ended his season on a down note. The 6-foot, 216-pound Lynch enters his redshirt senior season as a player the Huskies have promoted for this year's Heisman, and after he rushed for 1,815 yards and passed for 3,138 last season -- while tallying 44 total touchdowns -- why shouldn't they?
What's more, the same men return who helped protect him up front last season, along with a deep receiving corps that features five players who caught at least 11 passes last season. The conference's top offense from 2012 should not miss a beat in 2013.
The challenges will come on defense, where the Huskies return just four starters from last year's unit. Still, Carey has said he is confident in a lot of the first-team newcomers, several of whom have seen extensive playing time despite not starting.
Can NIU mount a repeat of last year's run and crash the BCS once again, in the system's final season? Due to outside factors, that might be asking a lot for a second straight season. (Welcome back off the bowl ban list, Ohio State. ... Good to see you again, Big 12 heavyweights.)
Still, the Huskies boast all of the necessary parts to help Carey build up that record and end his first full year with another conference title for the program.