Hey, Big 12: Northern Illinois deserves serious look

My esteemed colleague, Mark Blaudschun, has been doing some fascinating reporting and analysis on Big 12 expansion.

Let me offer this suggestion to that beleaguered Power Five conference: Northern Illinois.

I know the Huskies aren’t an obvious candidate. I know they have their drawbacks.

But if the Big 12 is as wobbly as it appears, and if it is as desperate as it appears to make itself television-network worthy, I will say this: Why not?[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The bottom line: If Rutgers gives the Big Ten a presence in the New York television market, then Northern Illinois would give the Big 12 a presence in the Chicago television market.

And Lesson No. 1 in the modern era of top-echelon college sports is that it’s all about television.

Lesson No. 2 and No. 3? See Lesson No. 1.

I’m sure many of you are scratching your heads at the thought of NIU, which plays in the Mid-American Conference.

But it makes a lot of sense. So much so that ESPN.com reports that the Huskies are one of 17 schools that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby will interview regarding expansion.

While NIU obviously would be receptive to such a move, athletic director Sean Frazier was understandably cautious about to that possiblity. That’s the right posture. It’s also an indication that might be a hint of fire behind the smoke.

``We can compete with anyone in the country. I’m excited about that,’’ the highly regarded Frazier, who worked for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, said the other day. ``As far as expansion conversation goes, we’re really focused on the MAC. But I also will say we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we should be talked about. Our body of work in football the last 10 years is pretty damn phenomenal. If we’re not talked about, shame on you.’’

In the last 15 years, the Huskies have at least shared the MAC’s Western Dvision title 10 times. They are 65-19 the last six seasons, including a 3-1 record against the Big Ten the last three season. NIU lost 20-13 in Columbus last season after putting a scare into Ohio State. It beat Northwestern in 2014 and took down Iowa and Purdue in 2013.

NIU went 12-2 in its glorious 2012 season. And if the Huskies lost 31-10 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, merely playing in that venerable New Year’s Day game was remarkable.

And they werent any less competitive than Notre Dame was in its 42-14 loss to Alabama in the same stadium the following week. I know. I covered both games.

Another big plus is that Northern Illinois has enjoyed continued success despite playing for four coaches—Joe Novak, who retired; Jerry Kill, who left for Minnesota; Dave Doeren (N.C. State) and current coach Rod Carey. That’s the sign of a program , rather than one charismatic leader. And that matters.

In addition, record-setting quarterback Jordan Lynch finished third in the 2012 Heisman voting. I stand by my first-place vote for Lynch, who represented college football (which is supposed to matter, if you follow the Heisman voting instructions) in a way that 2012 winner Johnny Manziel did not.

After a brief look in the Chicago Bears training camp, Lynch went on to score the game-winning touchdown for Edmonton in the 2015 Grey Cup.

Fun facts aside, while it’s true that NIU has proved itself on the field, it’s also true that the Huskies’ fan base is not something that will excite Big 12 officials.

Despite its success, NIU is not a huge draw at home. Part of that can be attributed to the MAC policy of playing a bunch of mid-week, late-season games, which great for ESPN exposure but not great for tailgating.

While the Huskies, who are 65 miles west of downtown Chicago, have a sizable alumni base in the Chicago area, the school tends to attract students who are more about education than rah-rah stuff. Many of those who live on campus head home for weekends.

That said, the Big 12 would be well advised to take a hard look at NIU. All of the schools being mentioned for expansion have their pluses and minuses.

And while it surprises me that Northern Illinois, for all of its winning, doesn’t stir up more ticket-buying excitement against the Toledos and Western Michigans of the world, I wonder what impact a steady diet of Texas and Oklahoma would have. I also think lots of conference games against Big 12 opponents would encourage NIU alumni to turn on their televisions—which is what seems to matter most these days.

NIU will play Toledo on Nov. 9 at the White Sox’ Cellular Field home in Chicago. With the right Big 12 opponents, that game could be built into an attractive annual event.

Chicago is a big tough pro-sports town that doesn’t tend to have time for college hijinx.

And Northern Illinois is hardly a no-brainer for the Big 12.

But given its precarious position, the Big 12 ought to give NIU a hard look.

If the Big Ten believes in Rutgers, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the Big 12 to believe in Northern Illinois. [/membership]

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