NIU’s plans for contention are evident in its incredibly ambitious schedule

NIU cornerback Shawun Lurry. (Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports/Mike Dinovo

Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier says of his program’s non-conference scheduling philosophy: “We’re not afraid of anyone.” But even he would admit the Huskies’ recently completed 2018 slate is more ambitious than initially intended.

On Thursday, the school announced it would visit Florida State on Sept. 22, 2018, trading in a scheduled home game against Idaho for a $1.6 million guarantee check.

That one-off, a rematch of the teams’ 2013 Orange Bowl game, is not necessarily noteworthy on its own. But check out NIU’s full non-conference schedule the season after next:

— at Iowa

— Utah

— at Florida State

— at BYU

Florida State is Florida State. Utah has appeared in every set of College Football Playoff rankings for the past three seasons. Iowa is two years removed from a 12-win season. BYU has reached a bowl game in 12 straight seasons.

I can’t recall any team, Power 5 or Group of 5, undertaking that challenging a four-game slate recently.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Not all 2018 schedules are finalized, but combing through FBSchedules.com, I found 10 other schools (all Group of 5) that will play three Power 5 opponents in 2017 and/or ’18. None have a fourth opponent the caliber of BYU, with the vast majority rounding out the slate with an FCS or low-level FBS foe.

Only two other schools were comparatively ambitious. Middle Tennessee State in 2018 is playing road games against three SEC opponents, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, with the fourth game yet to be announced. And Akron in 2018 will visit Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa State.

In both cases, those teams’ three foes account for more combined losses the past two seasons than NIU’s four, which collectively went 41-12 in 2015 and 36-16 last season.

Frazier came to NIU in 2013 from Wisconsin, where he helped AD Barry Alvarez put together high-profile matchups with LSU and Alabama. He immediately set out to upgrade the Huskies’ schedule in advance of the College Football Playoff system, where he correctly foresaw the selection committee greatly emphasizing schedule strength when choosing the Group of 5 team for a New Year’s Six bowl.

“Even last year there was some debate over [undefeated] Western Michigan getting to that [New Year’s Six] bowl even up until that last weekend, whether or not [9-5] Navy won,” said Frazier. “Going undefeated at any level is a pretty astounding achievement. For that to even be questioned by anyone comes down to who did they play and who did they beat.”

NIU, which from 2010-14 posted five straight seasons of at least 11 wins, aims to be a regular contender for that golden ticket. This year it faces Nebraska, Boston College and San Diego State.

The Huskies, it should be noted, are coming off their first losing regular season (5-7) since 2008.

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Oftentimes when a respected Group of 5 program like Boise State or Marshall takes flack for its schedule, we hear how difficult it is to get the big boys to play them. Especially when it comes to home-and-homes.

Frazier says it’s a matter of making a lot of calls. Within a year of his arrival, in July 2014, he staged #SchedulePalooza, a week-long social media campaign in which he revealed future home-and-homes with Utah, Maryland, BYU and San Diego State. Boston College and Vanderbilt followed shortly thereafter.

NIU will also visit Nebraska four times and Iowa twice in the coming years.

“It’s not rocket science,” Frazier said. “You’ve got some great ADs out there who see the vision, who also understand that to be considered by the College Football Playoff committee, they want to see your body of work. You play us, whether you beat us or lose to us it doesn’t really matter, you went on the road and you played someone.”

Unfortunately, Frazier’s impetus for the 2018 Florida State game was not primarily about impressing the selection committee. It arose out of a fiscal crisis.

The state of Illinois is nearing its third year without a budget due to a crippling standoff between its Republican governor and Democrat-controlled legislature. NIU, located in DeKalb, has seen its annual state appropriations dip from $91 million in 2015 to $26.4 million, according to the Chicago Tribune. The school said it has cut 50 academic programs.

NIU coach Rod Carey. (Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Frazier said his department has cut “millions” from its reported $27.3 million annual operating budget, in part because a third of its funding comes from student fees — and enrollment is declining.

So while playing one non-conference home game is hardly ideal for coach Rod Carey’s program, the $1.6 million payday from Florida State is roughly double the take from a typical game at 24,000-seat Huskie Stadium.

“A $1.6 million infusion saved a lot of jobs and a lot of heartbreak in our department,” Frazier said. “Our football staff stepped up and were a team player.”

Now the Huskies must brace for a serious step up in competition.