When Northern Illinois and Kent State met at Ford Field on Nov. 30, they were playing for more than the Mid-American Conference championship. At stake was a possible berth in the Orange Bowl.
No MAC team had ever been invited to one of the four illustrious BCS bowls. Both the Huskies and Golden Flashes played like the stakes were raised. It was a see-saw affair, featuring a 21-point Kent State fourth quarter to force overtime.
The 44-37 NIU win in an extra frame punched the Huskies’ tickets to Miami. It also elevated the bar for a conference with impressive recent history, but marginal national respect.
A more competitive outcome than the 31-10 defeat NIU suffered against the Florida State Seminoles would have done wonders for the MAC. The final score is ultimately what matters, though it is worth noting that NIU moved deep into Seminole territory late in the third quarter. A Terrence Brooks interception at the FSU 14 thwarted a Huskie effort to tie the game, and snatch momentum.
What if Lynch’s pass had gone for six instead of an interception, returned to midfield? What ifs surround pivotal moments in MAC history, most notably 1999. What if Marshall was invited to the Orange Bowl instead of 9-2 Michigan?
The 1999 Thundering Herd set the benchmark for what MAC programs can accomplish. That Chad Pennington-led team finished the season undefeated, and posed one of the earliest challenges to the BCS power structure.
What if the Ben Roethlisberger captained Miami RedHawks of 2003 don’t lay an egg in the season opener against Iowa? That team won its 13 straight and broke into the top 15 by season’s end. Per new BCS measures, the RedHawks would have earned an at-large bid.
There have been plenty of what ifs for the MAC, but 2013 could mark an answer to the questions. Lynch leads a Northern Illinois program that has won 10 games or more each of the last three seasons, and could use its Orange Bowl lesson as a stepping stone to even more in 2013.
Winning the MAC once more is going to be a lofty challenge for Lynch and Huskies, though. This may be the best the conference has been since the 2003 season, when NIU, Miami and Bowling Green all reached the top 25. Marshall also stunned No. 6 (and eventual Big 12 champion) Kansas State on the road that season.
With teams like 11-game winner Kent State, defensive dynamo Bowling Green, Ball State and consistent Ohio, the phenomenon called “MACtion” takes on a whole new meaning.
Thrilling contests are nothing out of the norm in the MAC. My earliest exposure to this was the 2001 conference championship game.
Host Toledo overcame a 23-0 first quarter deficit against Marshall, erupting for 25 points in the third quarter then holding off the Herd 41-36. In 2002, the same teams met against in another instant classic. Byron Leftwich passed the Herd to a 49-45 win.
Similarly in 2011, there were shootouts between Toledo and NIU, and Toledo and Western Michigan that gained national attention.
Such offensive outputs are what have made MAC football popular among pundits and bloggers. And indeed, four MAC teams ranked in the top 44 in scoring last year, including divisional winners NIU and KSU.
The Huskies and Golden Flashes pit their explosive offenses against one another in a championship rematch on Oct. 5. Leading each side are Lynch and Kent State’s electrifying all-purpose back, Dri Archer. Both Lynch and Archer are the stars of preseason Heisman campaigns.
Other MAC programs have their own offensive standouts to follow. Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens joins David Fluellen to form one of the nation’s best backfields — a claim Ohio can also make with Tyler Tettleton and Beau Blankenship. And don’t overlook Ball State’s Keith Wenning and Jahwan Edwards. They powered the Cardinals’ 33.6 point per game offense.
But a veteran-heavy, defensive-minded roster at Bowling Green might have the antidote to the conference’s many high scoring offenses. The Falcons allowed just 16.8 points per game, 10th fewest in the Bowl Subdivision.
The MAC’s single best player might also be on the defensive end. Linebacker Khalil Mack is entering his fourth year as a big-time play maker for the Buffalo Bulls. He keys a UB team that could be this year’s surprise out of the conference.
The best MAC fooball is still to come, and a banner 2012 could just be the beginning of even more for the league in 2013.