DeKALB, Ill. -- After Northern Illinois went 5-7 in 2019, coach Thomas Hammock asked his players to start "buying the dip."
Hammock wasn't making a condiment request for NIU's football team banquet. He saw a senior-laden group that would get much younger over the next few seasons. More losses were likely before NIU could turn things around.
"Buying the dip meant there's going to be some rough roads ahead," Hammock explained to ESPN on Monday. "I said, 'Just continue to buy into the process, buy into the culture and you will be rewarded tenfold.'"
Hammock had no way of knowing how rocky the road would become for his team. The coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, wiping out spring football just six days after practices had started. The Huskies spent most of the spring and summer apart. Then, the day after preseason camp opened, the Mid-American Conference canceled the fall football season.
An abbreviated season finally kicked off in early November, and NIU went 0-6, its first winless campaign since 1997.
A year later, though, NIU is the MAC champion, and Friday it will aim for its 10th win as it faces Coastal Carolina in the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl (6 p.m. ET, ESPN). Despite being the nation's second-youngest team -- 75 players graduated high school in 2020 or 2021 and 11 others in 2019 -- the Huskies completely flipped the script. They recorded seven one-score victories, most in the FBS, before pounding Kent State in the MAC title game.
The Huskies flipped their record through player development, a familiar offensive identity and improved leadership and focus in tight games.
While NIU is the first team in FBS history to win its conference championship game a year after going winless, the Huskies weren't the only notable turnaround in college football this season. Four FBS conference champions this season had losing records in 2020, including Michigan, which went from 2-4 to its first Big Ten title in 17 years and its first CFP appearance.
From 2001 to 2020, only 12 FBS teams went from losing records to league champions, and never more than two in a single season.
"Last year was just such a weird season," NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. "Programs were in transition, and then dealing with the daily challenges of COVID, not just practicing and playing, you've got to sit at home all day. Everybody's life was completely different, and that definitely [makes] an impact on the field."