While the Northern Illinois Huskies started slow under head coach Dave Doeren last season, dropping three of their first five games for a 2-3 start, they sure learned how to finish.
After losing to Central Michigan in week five, Northern Illinois (11-3, 7-1) didn't lose another game and enters this season on an nine-game winning streak after a 38-20 victory over Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
The road to repeat won't be easy, though. Five of the Huskies' 11 victories were decided by three points or fewer and most of the offensive starters graduated including career passing leader Chandler Harnish, who passed for 3,216 yards and 28 touchdowns last year while also rushing for 1,379 and 11 scores.
Doeren will be looking for some younger players to step up, most notably junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, who may have the largest shoes to fill.
The schedule is favorable, however, with seven home games (including Soldier Field) and only 3 teams with winning records. NIU's strength of schedule is ranked No. 122, with opponents posting a 39.31 win percentage last season. Here's a closer look at NIU's opponents this fall:
2012 Northern Illinois football schedule
Sept. 1 vs. Iowa (7-6) at Soldier Field: The last time Northern Illinois played a Big Ten opponent at Soldier Field, it didn't end well. But after a 49-7 beatdown from Wisconsin, the Huskies are determined to put on better showing in the NFL arena this year against the Hawkeyes.
Sept. 8 vs. Tennessee-Martin (5-6): The Huskies haven't lost a home game since 2009 and this year's home opener against Tennessee-Martin shouln't buck the trend. This will Northern Illinois' first meeting with the Ohio Valley Conference foe.
Sept. 15 at Army (3-9): The Huskies defense will be tested on the ground against the Black Knights. Army quarterback Trent Steelman attempted just 45 passes last season, but he ran for more than 600 yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns. Both Steelman and leading rusher Raymond Maples (1,066 yards, four touchdowns) are among Army's 15 returning starters.
Sept. 22: vs. Kansas (2-10): Despite their 2-10 record, the Jayhawks dealt Northern Illinois one of its three losses last season. While this matchup is in DeKalb, the Jayhawks will be much improved under former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and the Huskies will need to contend with transfer quarterback Dane Crist, who played his first two seasons for Weis at Notre Dame.
Sept. 29 vs. Central Michigan (3-9): The Huskies last lost came against the Chippewas on the road in 2011 but Northern Illinois is 15-1 in MAC home games over the last four years. Ryan Radcliffe, the second all-time leading career passer, is back for Central Michigan and should again test the Huskies secondary.
Oct. 6 at Ball State (6-6, 4-4): Seven of the Huskies' 2011 victories were won by a touchdown or less including a come-from-behind victory over Ball State. The Huskies fired off over 700 yards of offense in the 41-38 comeback victory, but the Cardinals surprisingly hung with them despite more than a 300-yard gap in offensive production between the teams.
Oct. 13 vs. Buffalo (3-9, 2-6): Lost by just one point last season -- have lost seven straight against the huskies but could Brandon Oliver -- the second leading rusher in the MAC last season, trailing only Branden Oliver's stellar campaign of 1,481 yards and 27 touchdowns that now has him backing up Ray Rice in Baltimore.
Oct. 20 at Akron (1-11, 0-8): The Zips won just one game last season and finished last place in the MAC. Arkon brought in head coach Terry Bowden to right the ship, but a turnaround will take time. The Huskies pummeled the Zips 50-14 at the last meeting at home in 2010.
Oct. 27 at Western Michigan (7-6, 5-3): A few close loses kept Western Michigan from last season's MAC crown, but the Broncos should compete for the title again next year and the Oct. 27 game against Northern Illinois may be for the conference championship. Dual-threat quarterback Alex Carder returns as arguably the best quarterback in the MAC and should have Western Michigan back in the conference picture.
Nov. 3 vs. Massachusetts (5-6, 3-5): The Huskies will get their first look at the newest member to the conference on Nov. 3. The Minutemen had success in the FCS over the years but the move to the MAC has UMass looking at a much more challenging schedule and the Huskies will certainly be a handful.
Nov. 14 vs. Toledo (9-4, 7-1): Tim Beckman left for Illinois but offensive coordinator Matt Campbell was promoted to head coach and the Rockets should employ the same high-powered, two-quarterback system on offense. Last year's second place MAC team gave the Huskies nearly all they could handle in a 63-60 shootout, and while star receiver Eric Page is gone, quarterbacks Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin return for the Rockets.
Nov. 23 at Eastern Michigan (6-6, 4-4): The Eagles haven't had a winning record since 1995 and last year's six victories was their best season since then. But Eastern Michigan held Northern Illinois' potent offense to just 286 yards last season, almost derailing the Huskies' winning streak in a 12-18. Northern Illinois will take on the Eagles to end the regular season for the third-straight year.