As great as this season has gone for Northern Illinois, the truth is that the Huskies have been here before.
Friday, they'll square off against the Bowling Green Falcons for the MAC championship. Win that game, and it's likely on to a BCS bowl game. Again.
It's not that this dream season for NIU is necessarily old hat, but these aren't first-time affairs for the Huskies. Experience is on their side. Just last season, NIU grabbed a MAC title and went to a BCS bowl game. The task this season has been doing it again. The next step in completing that goal comes Friday.
So even though a win in the MAC title bout would send the Huskies to a 13-0 record, a mark possible for only two other teams in the country — those ranked Nos. 1 and 2 — it doesn't make the stakes any different from last year.
"We talk about this as a team, no one has higher expectations for this team than us," head coach Rod Carey said at his press conference Tuesday. "So those haven't changed, and everyone wants to talk about the pressure now like it's some mounting thing. Hey, there has been a lot of pressure on us all year because we put it on ourselves. Pressure isn't a bad thing. It's a good thing because that's what gets you to perform."
The old one-game-at-a-time approach has worked wonders for the Huskies this season, as they've rolled to wins in every game. But while pundits debate their BCS merit based on an apparently weak MAC schedule, the championship game against Bowling Green might not be the ho-hum formality many are making it out to be.
The Falcons drew comparisons to Big Ten title game participant Michigan State from Carey and not without reason. Bowling Green's defense ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 13.8 points per game, and seventh nationally in total defense, surrendering 296.6 yards of offense each week. The Falcons' pass defense is the fourth best in all of college football, with just 161.8 yards allowed through the air.
The 9-3 Falcons head into the title game on a four-game winning streak, with just one conference loss on the season.
"Well they attack the line of scrimmage with their front four, and then on third down, they're not afraid to get after you with the blitz and play in man-to-man coverage. That group has played together for three years, so if you put those three things together, everyone likes to talk about the Big Ten with Michigan State's defense, I've seen some of their film through crossover games, very similar attitude," Carey said. "They attack. That gives you a point of reference. I think that's what makes them tough."
The better news for the Huskies is that Bowling Green is hardly as dominant when it comes to stopping the run, ranking just 28th in the country and allowing 134.8 yards on the ground per week. NIU is the nation's fourth-best rushing team, averaging more than 318 yards per game.
The majority of that comes from quarterback Jordan Lynch, who won't stop setting records as the season marches on. Additionally, nationally televised games in recent weeks have raised awareness of Lynch around the country, fueling greater speculation each week that he could crash the Heisman party, usually reserved for college football's big boys.
But, of course, that's not the focus inside the program, no matter how many "Lynch For 6" tweets get sent out each week.
"I'll tell you this, I don't think he's worried about enhancing his award status, I think he's worried about winning this game," Carey said. "I think then if you do that, then the other kind of takes care of itself. Really all we ever ask for in any game we ever play is a chance in the fourth quarter with the ball. If we've got that, we're doing a pretty good job."
Northern has done a very good job indeed through 12 games this season — all wins. And, if those first dozens "W's" are any indication, the Huskies can expect a chance in the fourth quarter come Friday.