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Wisch: NIU Should Push For Big 12 Membership

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Of the three Division-I football programs in Illinois, only one has an SEC opponent on its schedule this season – or for any upcoming seasons.

And it's not either of the football programs that play in the Big Ten.

Rather, it's Northern Illinois.

But that might not happen again for NIU if the SEC has its way (and it usually does), which is why the Huskies should go beyond simply pursuing big-time conference foes and actually start pursuing a big-time conference membership.

In light of college football's dynamics tilting ever more toward the power conferences, it only makes sense.

Over the past four seasons, NIU has gone 46-10, won two MAC championships, won four division championships and gone to an Orange Bowl, cementing itself as one of the premier mid-major football programs in America. Over that time, the Huskies have also established themselves as not only the Land of Lincoln's best pigskin program but also its most aggressive when it comes to scheduling non-conference heavyweights.

This coming fall, for example, NIU will travel to SEC turf with a game at Arkansas, never mind that the Razorbacks are coming off a poor season. In 2015, the Huskies will road trip to Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State. Between 2017 and 2023, they'll travel to Nebraska's Memorial Stadium four times. And in 2018 and 2020, NIU will play games at Iowa.

For years, the Huskies have behaved like a program willing to take on all comers, even if those foes will no longer come to DeKalb. Since 2008, NIU has beaten major-conference opponents Iowa, Purdue (twice), Kansas and Minnesota. On Sept. 20, the Huskies should have a decent chance of beating Arkansas, their first SEC foe since 2008, when they lost 13-9 to Tennessee in Knoxville.

It also could potentially be their last.

That's because on Sunday, SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced on that his league will be sticking with an eight-game conference schedule and also sticking its conference members with a strength-of-schedule mandate beginning in 2016 that will require all SEC schools to schedule at least one team each season from the other power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12) or schedule Notre Dame.

As a member of the MAC, NIU wouldn't satisfy that strength-of-schedule requirement, even though of late its been a stronger program than many "power conference" schools, including Illinois and Northwestern in its own state.

Undeterred by the SEC's announcement, NIU athletic director Sean T. Frazier tweeted on Monday, "Looking forward to being a part of any SEC FB scheduling conversation, call collect & I'll accept the charges!"

But what I'm thinking is that NIU should instead get on the phone and call up the Big 12 to express its interest in joining that conference, which with just 10 teams is currently two shy of the number in its name.

Back in March, two Illinois state senators introduced legislation in Springfield to study the feasibility of making one of Illinois' current state universities a Big Ten school. No other institution in the state besides Illinois and Northwestern, however, currently has the academic chops, including Association of American Universities (AAU) membership, to merit Big Ten consideration. Beyond that, the Big Ten is showing no current desire for further expansion, meaning a new member school in Illinois is at best the longest of shot.

But as for the Big 12? Well, the academic expectations of its members aren't as lofty as the Big Ten, for one thing. And with the realignment madness of the past few years having reduced its size to only 10 current schools – two shy of the requirement to hold a conference football championship game – one has to think that the Big 12 is open to growing its league again at some point.

On that topic, NBC Sports reported in March that, "The problem the Big 12 faced once (it lost) Texas A&M, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado and (added) West Virginia and TCU is there was a lack of attractive expansion candidates that would boost the membership to 12 schools. The BYU talk has been sitting in a corner waiting for a reason to pull up a seat to the table, but without a 12th member that made any sense for the Big 12, nothing really developed."

Is NIU a 12th member that makes sense? Perhaps, considering the current strength of its football program, its apparent desire to continue to grow that program and face top teams and the fact that NIU would provide the Big 12 with access to Chicago's lucrative television market.

At the very least, it's a discussion that both Northern Illinois and the Big 12 would be wise to have with each other. Perhaps Sean T. Frazier could call up Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and tell him to reverse the charges.

Who knows what they both might collect.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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