For NIU, nothing would be finer than to beat Coastal Carolina in Cure Bowl
Before departing for Florida for his first bowl game as a head coach, Thomas Hammock acknowledged the historical importance of Northern Illinois facing Coastal Carolina in Friday night's TailGreeter Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
"I don't know if any team went from no wins to 10 wins," Hammock said at a recent news conference. "We have a chance to make real history.
"If we win this one, it's a great opportunity to build momentum into next season."
If this season's success is any indication, the momentum to 2022 could have as much bounce as a Florida swimming pool board.
Hammock, 40, with the security of an extension through 2026, is intent solely on a strengthened foundation filled with underclassmen.
The Huskies overcame an 0-6 season in 2021 despite possessing the second youngest team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) that helped produce nine victories and their first Mid-American Conference title since 2018.
NIU became the first team in FBS history to win a conference title after going winless the previous season.
The Huskies won seven games by one-possession margins, which either could be interpreted as a sign of poise or a considerable degree of fortune. But after beating Kent State for the MAC Championship on Dec. 4, Hammock and his players were more eager to play the first game of the seemingly endless bowl season than receive an extended break and play their bowl game later in December.
"I prefer we get it out of the way," said safety CJ Brown, who looked forward to spending extended time with his family in southwest Michigan after the bowl game.
The early bowl date has long-term advantages for the Huskies. The first two practices were devoted to players buried on the depth chart as well as players who can still play in the bowl game without losing their redshirt status.
In an interesting twist, Hammock said he performed virtually all of the home visits to recruits shortly after the MAC title game, while the assistants stayed on campus to prepare for Coastal Carolina's option offense.
The many recruits who orally committed to NIU were expected to visit the campus last weekend before signing their Letters of Intent on Wednesday's early signing day.
Usually, Hammock will look at videotape of an upcoming opponent and suggest ways to attack. But for Coastal Carolina, Hammock listened to the suggestions made by his assistants before verifying their comments on video.
The contract extension bolsters the faith the administration holds for Hammock, an NIU alum. And Hammock's willingness to adjust his game planning reinforces his preference to put multiple sets of eyes on stopping a Coastal Carolina team that has averaged 40 points and 493 yards per game.
"We will not get complacent," Hammock said. "We will continue to move forward as a football program."
Two of NIU's 2022 nonconference opponents -- Tulsa and Kentucky -- will participate in bowl games. And SEC opponent Vanderbilt is scheduled to visit Huskie Stadium, so NIU should be battle-tested again prior to MAC play.
With the exception of recruiting, Hammock has put next season on the back burner. The traveling party departed Tuesday morning for Orlando, with a tour of Universal Studios scheduled Wednesday afternoon.
Sophomore running back Clint Ratkovich was curious to see the changes at Universal Studios since his last visit as a 10-year-old. But this remains another business trip that the players have welcomed, and not just because they can enjoy the warm Central Florida weather for four days.
Linebacker Nick Rattin of Fremd High School likened one of last week's campus workouts to a fall practice.
"It was pretty competitive," Rattin said. "We're definitely not taking a break. You know that's been our MO the whole year. We haven't turned it off. And I think that's part of our edge that Coach Hammock talks about and has done a good job of instilling."
This marks the Huskies' fourth bowl appearance in the state of Florida since 2013, but they've gone winless in their last six bowl games.
Somehow, the chance to snap this losing streak wasn't raised by Hammock or four players at last week's news conference.
"I'm big into the preparation on how you prepare, how you execute," Hammock said. "Momentum is the next play."