2012: The Year Of The MAC

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2012 was a magical season for college football fans everywhere. A team that started out unranked will be playing in the BCS National Championship game; a quarterback from the Lone Star State captured the hearts and minds of fans everywhere and became the first freshman in NCAA history to win the Heisman; and a little conference in the heart of America caught the nation’s attention and “crashed” the BCS party.

On Jan. 1, 2013, in The Discover Orange Bowl, the Florida State Seminoles (11-2, 7-1 ACC), a perennial football powerhouse will take on an up and comer from a little conference in the mid-west that is mostly known for its wacky weeknight games: the Northern Illinois Huskies of the Mid-American Conference (12-1, 8-0 MAC).

“For one of our schools to be able to have an opportunity to perform on a national stage…the culmination of it being played on January 1st and to see the Northern Illinois Huskies go out there and take on Florida State from the ACC in The Discover Orange Bowl, it's just going to be a great opportunity for that program, our conference and a celebration for both,” said Ken Mather, Assistant Commissioner for the Mid-American Conference, by phone.

A celebration indeed, NIU’s trip to The Discover Orange Bowl marks only the eighth time since the BCS’s inception in the 1998-99 season that a non-AQ team (teams from conferences that lack an automatic qualifying BCS bid) has been invited to a BCS bowl. This game will also mark the first time that a non-undefeated, non-AQ team and that a school from the MAC has made it to one of the big games.

In the previous seven matchups of the “underdogs” versus the “powerhouses” non-AQs have gone 5-2, with one of the games actually pitting two non-AQs together. The most famous is the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl that saw an undefeated Boise State Bronco’s team upset the Oklahoma Sooners 43-42 in overtime on the famous “statue of liberty” play that was almost as “out-there” as the Broncos bright blue and orange uniforms.

NIU earned its historic trip to The Discover Orange Bowl after an impressive run that started with a 1-point loss to Iowa at home, followed by 12 consecutive victories, including a thrilling double overtime win over Kent State in the MAC Championship game in Detroit on Nov. 30 before a national television audience. The Huskies were led all-season at quarterback by breakout junior sensation Jordan Lynch, who rewrote the college record books in his first season as a starter. Lynch broke the FBS record for most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback, outgained the Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel with 133 more total yards and had an eye-popping 43 touchdowns – 24 passing, 19 rushing.

It all culminated in a perfect storm of events in the final week of the regular season when the right number of teams lost, shooting NIU up to No. 15 in the BCS standings, putting them ahead of the Big East conference winner, No. 21 Louisville, thereby earning the Huskies an automatic bid to a BCS bowl. The Huskies head into their New Year’s Day matchup against Florida State as a 13-point underdog, but with the 10th best offense in the nation they are sure to put up a fight.

“It could be a very exciting game. You just never know, when teams have had that much time off to prepare for one another you never know what's going to develop,” said Larry Wahl, Vice President of Communications and Media Relations for The Discover Orange Bowl, via phone. “Our people are obviously hoping for another Oklahoma versus Boise State, which was one of the most exciting games ever. It'd be great to see that. I think when you've got a player like Jordan Lynch; (NIU) can put it on Florida State.”

“We certainly feel that the eyes of the nation are watching and obviously we'll be playing the role of the underdog, the ‘David versus Goliath’ mentality, and hopefully we'll have the nation behind us and see a strong performance by the Huskies,” said Mather.

Though the Huskies trip to The Discover Orange Bowl is impressive and will be considered as the biggest success for the MAC this season – especially if they win – it certainly isn’t the only one.

“The year was a phenomenal success story for us in football in 2012. It was a collective effort of all of our programs…we had four different schools over the course of the year ranked somewhere in the top 25, whether it be in the USA Today Coaches Poll, the AP Top 25 and eventually the BCS rankings…In addition to that from a non-conference perspective we had our best record of winning against other FBS opponents with 16 overall wins against other conferences, which topped our previous high which was 14,” said Mather of the MAC’s impressive list of feats in 2012.

“When you look at the AQ conferences…we had wins over eight of those programs. It really started the first week of the season with the (Ohio) Bobcats going into Penn State and winning on the road against the Nittany Lions, in that 24-14 victory. Every week in non-conference scheduling there seemed to be an opportunity where one of our schools came away with a big victory,” he added.

The eight wins over BCS AQ teams is an impressive feat for sure, with wins over teams from the Big East (four), Big Ten (three) and the Big 12 (one). It seemed like every week a team from the MAC was knocking off some bigger school and sending ripples through the college football ecosystem. Then, of course there is the MAC record of seven schools going to a bowl this season. Ball State, Toledo, Central Michigan, Bowling Green, Ohio, Kent State and of course NIU all went or are going bowling this winter. Last year the MAC won (along with Conference USA) the Bowl Challenge Cup by going 4-1 in postseason games. Though unlikely to win it this season – through the first five bowls the MAC has played in this season the conference boasts a 2-3 record – it will certainly be looking to once again put its stamp on college football.

The success of the league over the past few years has helped to elevate the national profile of the conference. Though many still looked at the league as nothing more than a bunch of smaller schools who play games on weird nights of the week (MAC games are often broadcast nationally on Wednesday and Thursday nights late in the season instead of the traditional Saturday), people high up in the industry had taken notice of the league’s growing footprint a few years back.

“I met with some MAC athletic directors two years ago and I said to them 'You guys are this close,' and I held my index finger and thumb close to about a quarter inch apart. I said 'You are about this close to having a team in the BCS.’ Obviously it's proved to be true," said Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the BCS, by phone, when asked about the MAC’s recent success.

It certainly did come true, and while NIU surely has garnered the most attention this season with its upcoming trip to Miami, the rest of the league has had its fair share of attention this year as well. Every week the league had at least one nationally televised game, with north of 50 in total on the season. The national spotlight, first grabbed by Ohio when it beat Penn State to open the season, seemed to keep falling back on the league, especially when in back-to-back weeks in late October, MAC teams knocked off undefeated Top 25 teams (Toledo beat then No. 21 Cincinnati at home on Oct. 20, Kent State beat No. 15 Rutgers on the road on Oct. 27). Teams have been featured in national publications such as Sports Illustrated and the league was even the source of a recent article about the high level of coaching going on in the MAC.

“I think everybody knows the MAC, what a competitive league it is, how well-coached the teams are and the commitment by the schools to college football. The MAC is greatly respected all around the country,” said Hancock. “MAC football is very exciting because of that competitive nature."

The MAC’s brand is surely growing, but not just for its feats on the field. The league, which was formed in 1946, is earning a reputation of being one of if not the most stable features in the world of college football.

In the ever changing landscape of college sports, where it seems like conference realignment is completely altering the face of the college athletics roadmap, one thing has remained steady and true, the Mid-American Conference.

“It is very much a changing landscape in the industry that we're in. We are unique in any of what we are currently termed as, the non-AQ’s…we are the focus of stability,” said Mather.

Six of its 12 full football members have been in the conference for at least 60 years: Ohio (1946), Miami (1947), Western Michigan (1947), Toledo (1950), Kent State (1951) and Bowling Green (1952). Three other members have been in the league since the early 1970’s: Central Michigan (1971), Eastern Michigan (1971) and Ball State (1973). Then of course there is the location of the conference’s members. The MAC boasts the most geographically centered members of all eleven of the FBS conference. Six of the full members are located in the state of Ohio, with three more located in Michigan and one each in Illinois, Indiana and New York. Located in what many consider the heartland of the nation, the league has built its reputation on its stable face and brand of high-powered offensive football, something that resonates with many fans throughout the nation.

The league seems content to stay where it’s at as well, with no public plans of expanding anytime in the near future. Fans have grown to love the league for its traditions and long-standing rivalries amongst its members, something many of the other conferences, which rarely look like what they did five years ago, let alone 50, have trouble saying.

“That is a strength, that is certainly strength in a time of collective change in college athletics,” said Mather. “Certainly there is a lot of shifting around, there are a lot of universities that are changing conferences and moving and it's been an unfortunate aspect of this side of the business…Hopefully others can see, (and) certainly we hope within our membership we can see, that there is a value in consistency and stability and we have that in the Mid-American Conference.”

Though remaining stable in membership, everyone would likely agree that the competition level and success rates in all sports have risen steadily over the past decade and have the MAC on the verge of becoming a real force in the world of FBS football. No longer considered a league of bumbling football programs with little on-field success; the MAC is quickly becoming a high-powered football force. Certainly NIU’s trip to The Discover Orange Bowl will go a long way in boosting the MAC’s reputation to higher levels than it’s ever reached before, especially if it wins.

"I don't think there is any question that it will help,” said Wahl when asked about how the Huskies’ national spotlight on Jan. 1 will impact the league’s reputation as a whole. “I read a story the other day where applications to Northern Illinois went up. I think you're going to find that MAC schools are going to get more credit. People are going to learn more about them and what a great year the conference had as a whole. I think that the telecast is going to be exposure for the conference and everything they do. It will help everybody’s recruiting and it could help scheduling in the future.”

Obviously it’s already started to work – this article explains that in the days following the BCS selection, applications to NIU went up 19 percent – But the real impact will come down the road, as the MAC has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Northern Illinois, Kent State and Ohio all look poised for big seasons next year as well, and if the Huskies win the orange Bowl, they could become the latest edition of Boise State of College Football. The MAC has been around forever, often overlooked, but on January 1st it will look to take the nation by storm and finally let the country know that despite everything else that happened in college football this year, 2012 was the year of the MAC.