Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Arkansas State (10-2)
Jan. 8, 8 p.m ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: Pointy point points! The Huskies and Red Wolves field, respectively, the No. 13 and No. 26 scoring offenses in the FBS, and have scored a combined average of more than 70 points per game this season.
NIU shot its way through the vast majority of the MAC, coming up short only once in conference play, a 48-41 loss to Central Michigan way back in Week 5. The Huskies clocked out with fewer than 40 points on the scoreboard on just four occasions this season, and avoid playing defense whenever possible, allowing an average of 31 points. (If you’re not a MAC partisan and are wondering why this team sounds familiar: It was on the winning end of that fiery 63-60 Tuesday night game with Toledo that put MACtion on the map for casual college football fans.)
You may know Arkansas State as The Team With The Guy From The Blind Side (The Coach, Not The Player), but Hugh Freeze is off in Oxford now trying to reanimate Ole Miss Football. He did a yeoman’s job of work before departing Jonesboro — the only reason the Red Wolves recorded any losses at all this season is a nonconference schedule that included Illinois and Virginia Tech — but will be replaced on the sidelines this weekend by interim skipper David Gunn. Gunn plans to stay on as part of the new staff of the team you’ll now know as That Team Gus Malzahn Left Auburn For.
Keep an eye on: Chandler Harnish, the Huskies’ dual-threat quarterback and carrier of Dan LeFevour’s discarded “Rust Belt Tebow” mantle. Projected as a late-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Harnish has always hovered around the fringes of the national quarterback conversation as a trendy darkhorse Heisman pick. He ranked eighth nationally in the FBS in individual total offense in 2011, rushing for close to 1,400 yards and throwing for 4,300 more.
Did you know: Formerly the Arkansas State Indians, the school adopted the Red Wolves name in 2008, cruelly dismissing my politely proffered ideas of the Arkansas State Vine-Ripe Pink Tomatoes, the Arkansas State Non-Indigenous Pine Beetle Infestation and the Arkansas State Man-Made Lakes of Massive Proportion.
Final analysis: The Red Wolves are also no strangers to shootouts, and owe much of their Sun Belt-besting success to the prolific tandem of quarterback Ryan Aplin and receiver Dwayne Frampton. Expect them to score handily, as opponents have on the Huskies almost all year long. On the opposite side of the ball, however, they’re going to give NIU fits. The Huskies have Harnish, who is very, very good at football, an excellent kicker in Mathew Sims, a solid running back in Jasmin Hopkins and assorted other point-scoring weapons. What they don’t have is any semblance of a coherent defense. State does, and it’s the most formidable unit the Huskies will have faced this season apart from Wisconsin’s (which, to remind you, wrecked them 49-7). They’re particularly effective against the run, which happens to be NIU’s strong suit, allowing just more than 107 yards per game, and with that offense, State won’t need more than a few crucial stops to get a couple scores ahead and stay there.
The pick: Arkansas State 35, NIU 21