By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) I’ve always found it odd that here in Illinois, despite being the fifth most populous state in the country, we have only three major college football programs.

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Out west, Colorado and Utah have just as many FBS schools. Kentucky does too. Even Indiana has four, while Michigan boasts five and Ohio a whopping eight. But, yes, here in the Land of Lincoln there are but three: Illiinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois.

The first two schools, of course, are members of the Midwest’s boldest and best conference, the Big Ten. But it’s the third one, a member of the Mid-American Conference, that’s the best program in this state. Yes, that’s right. NIU is indeed Illinois’ No. 1 football operation – and not just for this season, during which the Huskies are 10-1, the Wildcats 7-3 and the Illini 2-8.

The truth is, Northern has held that title for a while.

Have your doubts? Well, let’s look at the numbers.

To start, let’s flash back in time to 1997 when we were living in the Wasteland of Lincoln when it came to college football. Illinois went 0-11 that season. Northern Illinois went 0-11 that season. And Northwestern, with its 5-7 record, just barely kept the state’s football torch flickering.

That sadsack season of ’97 took place 16 years ago, but in the 15 seasons since much has transpired on the college gridirons of Champaign, Evanston and DeKalb. To examine the 15-season span from 1998 to 2012, I looked at the overall records of Illinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois in 15-, 10- and five-year chunks. And here’s what I found, starting with Illinois.

In the 15 years since 1998, the Illini have gone 72-105 overall for a winning percentage of .407 and have posted five winning seasons. In the 10 years since 2003, the Illini have been 43-78 (.355) with three winning seasons. And in the five years since 2008, Illinois has gone 24-36 (.400) with two winning seasons.

Next up, Northwestern. In the 15 years since ’98, the Wildcats have gone 87-93 for a winning percentage of .483 and have posted six winning seasons. In the 10 years since ’03, NU has gone 66-56 (.541) and had five winning seasons. And in the five years since ’08, Northwestern has gone 37-24 (.607) with four winning seasons.

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And then there’s Northern Ilinois. In the 15 years since ’98, the Huskies have gone 107-75 for a winning percentage of .588 and have posted 11 winning seasons. In the 10 years since ’03, NIU has gone 80-46 (.635) and had eight winning seasons. And in the five years since ’08, Northern has gone 45-20 (.692) with four winning seasons.

In terms of conference championship and postseason success, Illinois has won one Big Ten title in the past 15 years (in 2001) and has gone 3-2 in bowl games. Its two losses came in BCS games and, most recently, Illinois has posted postseason victories each of the past two seasons.

Northwestern, meanwhile, has not won any Big Ten championships in the past 15 years and has gone 0-7 in bowl games since ’98, including losses in each of the past four years.

NIU, over the past 15 years, has captured four MAC Division West titles (2005, 2010, 2011, 2012) and won one MAC championship in 2011, with a shot for another one coming on Nov. 30. In bowl games, NIU has gone 2-2 with both wins coming the past two seasons in the and Humanitarian Bowls.

Now, of course, one can argue that NIU’s competition in the MAC over the past 15 years hasn’t been as stiff as Illinois’ or Northwestern’s competition in the Big Ten. And that’s true, it hasn’t. There’s no denying that. But NIU does also regularly schedule big-time nonconference foes, and has held their own in such games. After all, it’s the only school of the three to have played – and beaten – Alabama (19-16 in 2003) any time in recent memory.

Fact is, NIU has risen from the same 0-11 ashes that the Illini found themselves in way back in 1997 and built its program into what’s now among the most consistently excellent in the country.

Neither the Illini (who have lost 6 out of every 10 games since ’98), nor the Wildcats (who are yet to break through with even one postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl) can make that same claim, much to the chagrin of their fans. Today, NIU is the gold standard for college football in Illinois, and has been for some time.

Even if the conference the Huskies play in isn’t as shiny.

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Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.