Potential BCS title berth on the line in MAC title; more parity in NCAA this season

Today's Mid-American Conference Championship game has more than its regular conference title on the line for No. 17 Kent State.

If the Golden Flashes beat No. 21 Northern Illinois, it would likely propel them into the Bowl Championship Series come January - a first for the MAC. NIU will attempt to defend its MAC title at 7 p.m. at Ford Field, broadcasted on ESPN.

The BCS has a rule that if any team in a conference without an automatic bid to the BCS wins its conference championship and finishes in the top-16, and also ranks above a school with an automatic conference title bid, the non-BCS school will be in a BCS game. So, if Kent State wins the MAC, it will likely be ranked in the top-16, which would be above Rutgers and Louisville, both in the Big East title game.

A BCS berth would be icing on the cake to an already stellar season for the MAC.

When Central Michigan kicker David Harman booted his career long field goal to beat the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten Conference, it was not the only MAC upset on Sept. 22.

In Kalamazoo, Western Michigan used a late 53-yard fumble recovery returned for a touchdown to beat the Connecticut Huskies, of the Big East.

Across Lake Michigan in Dekalb, Ill., Northern Illinois scored 17-unanswered points to finish the game and come back to beat the Big 12 Conference’s Kansas Jayhawks.

In Muncie, Ind., Ball State knocked off South Florida of the Big East, a week after beating Indiana in the Big Ten.

“It was a great weekend for our conference with four wins over BCS teams,” Ball State head coach Pete Lembo said in the weekly MAC teleconference. “We’re excited to be one of those. It is the first time Ball State has ever beaten a BCS team at home, also the first time ever to beat them two weeks in a row.”

Those four victories were more league wins of major conference teams than in each of the past three seasons. The Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10, ACC, SEC and Big 12 are the six major conferences that make up the BCS and are awarded with the majority of bowl invitations.

The MAC’s success shows there is more parity in college football than the past or the MAC players and coaches have just gotten better.

What does all this MAC success mean? It’s harder for CMU to win conference games.

The previous four times CMU beat BCS schools, the Chippewas ultimately had success in conference play. In 2008 and 2009, after beating Big Ten teams, CMU went on to win the MAC one year and both years appeared in bowl games.

In the early 1990's, CMU picked up wins over Michigan State and wound up having success in conference play, including a one-loss 1991 season.

MAC moving up

Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos knows about the advantages that BCS teams have over lower conferences. He played quarterback at Michigan State and coached there for several years.

“When you understand the resources they have, the money they have, facilities and recruiting aspects, it's a big deal,” he said after beating Iowa. “This is only the fifth time in CMU history we’ve beaten a Big Ten team. I take a lot of pride in it.”

Enos said there is more parity in recruiting and more conference schools will likely beat BCS schools.

Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren said he thinks the coaching is to thank for the MAC success.

“(The MAC) won another bowl cup last year – had best record in bowls,” he said. “Even games we didn’t win last week against (BCS schools), the teams are playing tough against those schools. There is a lot of good recruiting and coaching going on in the MAC.”

The conference went 4-1 during bowl games last season. It tied Conference USA for best bowl-game winning percentage.

This season, the MAC finished the regular season 9-21 against teams from BCS conferences. The MAC hasn’t won that many non-conference games against schools of that caliber since 2003.

The biggest non-conference wins might have been in October when Toledo beat No. 21 Cincinnati on the road and Kent State knocked off at the time No. 15 and undefeated Rutgers.

“Its great to see our conference having success and getting noticed,” CMU quarterback Ryan Radcliff said early in the year. “I think it shows how there is parity in college football.”

Historical numbers

A breakout year for the MAC was in 2003 when it went 10-19 against major conference opponents, including 2-0 in bowl games.

For travel reasons, the MAC plays the majority of its non-conference games against Big Ten schools in the Midwest. In the past seven years, the conference has a 14-87 record against the Big Ten. Indiana has been the easiest team to beat, with MAC schools finishing 4-8 against the Hoosiers.

The most success has come from playing Big 12 opponents though. The MAC has won five of its 26 meeting the past seven years against them, led by Toledo’s victories over Iowa State, Colorado (then a Big 12 member) and Kansas.

Rough league play

Days after Harman knocked in the kick for one of CMU’s biggest wins in program history, Enos talked about how difficult the next two games in the MAC would be. CMU ended up losing 55-24 and 50-35 against NIU and Toledo the next two weeks.

Even the once-ranked Ohio head coach knows how fortunate it is to win in this league. After going 4-0 in its non-conference schedule, including beating Penn State, Ohio lost four of its final five games in the MAC.

“We’re just trying to survive in our conference,” Bobcats head coach Frank Solich said. “Every week we understand what the challenge will be.”


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