NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock (Justin Gasterline-Getty Images)

Toe Meets Leather in three weeks, Yellow Jackets fans. That familiar smell of preseason optimism is wafting through the air of college campuses and homes across the U.S. Every team is undefeated, and every fan's opinion is unblemished.

Contrary to popular fan opinion, success and failure will not be defined solely by those bearing headsets on the west sidelines of Bobby Dodd Stadium nor only the players in white and gold. Come week 1, there's another squad with something to say about that. Coming to Atlanta for the Jackets' 2021 season opener are the Northern Illinois Huskies. This will be the first ever head-to-head match-up between schools. With that, for many Tech fans this will be a first look at a proud program out of the Mid-American Conference (MAC).

The Huskies' recent history in the MAC is noteworthy, having won 4 conference championships in the last 10 years. They strung together 10 bowl appearances in 11 years from 2008-2018. All of this within a conference known for giving P5 teams a fit.

So what are they this year? To be determined, of course. Looking back at 2020 offers a glimpse. Coming off a disappointing 0-6 season in 2020, the Huskies have nowhere to go but up. They're led by third year Head Coach Thomas Hammock, a proud alum of the school who joined the program via assistant coaching stops at Wisconsin, Minnesota and most recently with the Baltimore Ravens.

A third year head coach, trying to right the ship, in a role that he describes as his "dream job". Sound familiar?

Winless seasons have few silver linings, and last year was no exception. The Huskies gave up 30+ points in each of their six conference-only games. They lost by 3+ scores in three of those tilts. They averaged 1.70 points per drive offensively (#104 nationally) and gave up 2.77 points per drive defensively (#96 nationally). For a relative comparison, the Duke Blue Devils' 2020 output comes close (1.63 offense, 2.77 defense). Disclaimer: that comparison does not account for strength of schedule.

But guess what? Much like many Tech fans are wont to dismiss 2020 as an anomaly, you can bet Northern Illinois is thinking the same. In a season without prior precedent, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Huskies to believe that. Per Phil Steele, the Huskies played 14 walk-ons last year.

Offensively, the Huskies were remarkably balanced in 2020, with 36.8 pass attempts and 36.8 rush attempts per game. That resulted in an average output of 240 yards passing and 127 yards rushing per game. Tyrice Richie, a six foot senior wideout, returns after averaging 8.8 receptions and nearly 100 yards receiving per game in 2020. The offense will likely be led by Michigan State transfer quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, who threw for 1,000+ yards, 8 TD and 9 INT during his final season with the Spartans.

Defensively, the Huskies lacked a disruptor. Only one player registered 2 sacks in 2020. They allowed 245 yards passing per game. A cornerback, 5'10" Jordan Gandy, led the team with 41 tackles. All-MAC linebacker Kyle Pugh returns after leading the squad with 3.5 TFL.

On special teams, the Huskies safely outperformed the Jackets in the placekicking game. Who didn’t?  Returning kicker John Richardson converted 7 of 9 field goal attempts in 2020, with a long of 46 yards. He was a perfect 14 for 14 on extra points.

There are reasons for optimism for Northern Illinois this year. According to, the Huskies were really young in 2020. They bring back all five starters from the offensive line last year, a position that arguably has the greatest need for continuity and reps. They return 10 starters on defense. Phil Steele named 13 Huskies to his preseason All-MAC teams for 2021.  Safe to assume they will be an improved team.

It's also safe to say that, after putting up a donut in 2020, the Huskies have not lacked for motivation this offseason.  Combine that with their P5 opener on the road at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 4th, and we have the all the makings of a feisty opener for the Jackets.