Hard to beat the system when the system is Northern Illinois football

Paul Myerberg

TOLEDO, Ohio — Successful college football programs exist in dog years. Change is constant. Success is fleeting. Programs that can maintain their winning ways are blue-chip stocks: Alabama as Apple, Oklahoma as Wal-Mart, Ohio State as General Electric, Notre Dame as Disney.

Redshirt freshman Ryan Graham (17) was big in relief for Northern Illinois on Tuesday.

Yet consistency create its own hurdles, beginning with the increased, often unmatchable expectations that come with each passing achievement. The worst part about winning once is you'll be expected to so twice — and immediately. Productive programs on the Group of Five level, meanwhile, face another impediment: Winning draws eyeballs.

It's hard for any program to win with regularity without stability. New coaches bring new schemes, new ideas, new values; these don't always mesh with returning personnel, leading temporarily successful Group of Five programs to often revert back to square one with each staffing change.

There's a reason why Northern Illinois never loses in November, why the Huskies never lose to Toledo, why this program dominates its league, the Mid-American Conference, at a rate unmatched by any active competitor on the Football Bowl Subdivision level: NIU's success is rooted in continuity, in a philosophy passed down through a string of athletics directors, coaches and players for the better part of a decade.

"At NIU, we're going to have to be very true to who we are," athletics director Sean Frazier told USA TODAY Sports. "We're a Midwestern, tough-nosed football program. It's a system. We're true to our system. We understand what we want to do. It's a system that all the coaches have kept."

You can call it scheme-based, which may be true. NIU has implemented the same blueprint, slightly tweaked to match its quarterback, under Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and Rod Carey, promoting Carey from within Doeren's staff. But it's also confidence-based. Personnel-based. Motivation-based. The Huskies' success is based not just in an identity but in the dedication to an identity: As others tinkered, NIU found a winning formula and opted not to deviate from the script.

"We are who we are," Carey said. "We're process-oriented. It's the best way I can say it. It's boring. It's not sexy. Every year, we go to work and wipe the slate clean. Every week you wipe the slate clean. You just go to work."

Northern Illinois rallies to hand No. 20 Toledo its first loss

It's a method passed down from coach to coach, from Kill through Carey, and from player to player, with upperclassmen given the task of indoctrinating each year's newcomers. Each great team starts with the seniors, fifth-year linebacker Boomer Mays said.

"Every year I've been here we've had a tremendous senior class that's pulled the young guys along," said Mays. "That way, when (seniors) leave, they know how to handle it. And it keeps building, every year. That's our team. It's always building."

Only two programs, the Huskies and Oregon, have won at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons. NIU is the only program in the FBS to reach its conference championship game in each of the past five years. The Huskies' 62 wins since the start of the 2010 season rank fourth nationally, trailing Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. NIU has now won 20 games in a row in November — the last loss coming on Nov. 27, 2009 — and six in a row against Toledo, the program's on-paper rival in the MAC West Division.

Questions raised by the initial College Football Playoff rankings

As seen in a 32-27 win against previously unbeaten Toledo, the only MAC team in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, NIU's confidence might be its greatest asset. The Huskies didn't panic after losing starting quarterback Drew Hare to a season-ending injury, instead rallying behind backup Ryan Graham, a redshirt freshman, and "trusting the scheme," wide receiver Kenny Golladay said.

Once the Huskies' fifth-string quarterback — injuries and attrition forced him up the depth chart — Graham completed 9-of-12 attempts for 132 yards and a touchdown, at once illustrating the friendliness of NIU's offensive system and its ability to identify overlooked talent on the recruiting trail.

In a way, NIU shares one defining characteristic with the historic elite of college football: The Huskies always believe they're going to win.

"We always have confidence in ourselves," Graham said. "There was never one moment on the sideline where anybody said, 'Oh, we're done.' We had the confidence."

Northern Illinois wide receiver Kenny Golladay catches the winning touchdown Tuesday against No. 20 Toledo.

The Huskies feed off this confidence, as well as the underdog label inherent to success off the power-conference level. NIU is a have-not, as is every non-major program in the era of Power Five autonomy. That's a curse — the gap between the Power Five and Group of Five continues to widen — but also a blessing, in a way.

"Just looking at the Group of Five, you don't want to play NIU," Frazier said. "The Power Five schools are looking at us, they're circling, saying, 'We're going to get punched in the mouth in this game.' I think our kids feed off of that."

Add it all together — the scheme, an identity, talent evaluation, player development and the chip on NIU's shoulder — and you have an elite program succeeding where others have not. It's not easy to win with consistency as part of the Group of Five; NIU just makes it look that way.

Even the deep-pocketed, cream of the crop in college football can take a lesson from the Huskies' blueprint. Coaches will leave. Players will graduate. Yet with a formula based in continuity, NIU has found a way to manage change itself.

"The reality is that when you build that way it lasts," said Frazier. "It's going to keep on going. And that's the true test of a system."