By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Just one letter separates NIU from NU, but if Northern Illinois can beat Northwestern on Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field in Evanston, the Huskies’ victory would spell out a whole lot more than just a W-I-N.

It would author an undeniable statement that NIU is the state’s best football program, which it has long looked like.

I’ve argued in the past that NIU has been the Land of Lincoln’s premier football operation for longer than you think, but the Huskies also have always had one glaring hole in their resume: They’ve never beaten Northwestern or Illinois, the state’s two other FBS programs.

The Huskies have come close to besting the Illini in each of the schools’ last two matchups, losing 28-22 in 2010 and 17-12 in 2001, both times in Champaign. But overall against Illinois, NIU stands at 0-4.

Meanwhile, the Huskies are 0-6-1 against the Wildcats, having fallen just shy of victory in a 38-37 loss in Evanston during the schools’ last clash in 2005. However, if NIU (1-0) can finally break through on Saturday at Northwestern (0-1), the underdogs from DeKalb will have the final feather in their cap – or, you know, helmet – that they need to claim the state’s pigskin crown.

Have any doubts? If so, let’s flash back to 1997, when we were living in the Wasteland of Lincoln when it came to college football. That year, Illinois went 0-11, Northern Illinois went 0-11 and Northwestern went 5-7, which was better, but hardly good. In the 16 full seasons (and one game) since that woeful one, a lot has changed on the gridirons in Champaign, Evanston and DeKalb – but mostly in DeKalb.

Dating back to the 1998 campaign, Illinois has gone 77-115 overall for a winning percentage of .401 while posting five winning seasons. Northwestern has gone 95-102 for a winning percentage of .482 with six winning seasons. And then there’s NIU, which since ’98 is 122-78 for a winning percentage of .610 while enjoying 12 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 , with both losses coming in BCS bowls. Northwestern earned a share of the Big Ten title in 2000 and has gone 1-7 in bowl games, most recently winning the Gator Bowl after the 2012 season.

On the other hand, NIU has captured five MAC Division West titles, including four straight, and two MAC championships over the past 15 seasons. In bowls, NIU has gone 2-4, having lost its last two postseason games, with one coming in the Orange Bowl.

Of course, one can argue that NIU’s overall competition in the MAC over the past 16 years hasn’t been as stiff as Illinois’ or Northwestern’s competition in the Big Ten. While that’s true, consider that NIU also is 4-3 against Big Ten foes since 2009 and just last season beat two of them in Iowa and Purdue.

If the Huskies can turn that trick again on Saturday in Evanston, they won’t just have Big Ten bragging rights.

They’ll have the state’s, too.

Dave Wischnowsky is columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.