It was not that long ago that the preseason favorites in the MAC would be waxed by the basement of BCS AQ (automatic qualifier) leagues. In 2004 a Minnesota team that would go just 3-5 in the Big Ten, beat Toledo 63-21 and it wasn’t even that close. The Gophers led 42-7 at the half and 56-7 after three quarters. Minnesota rolled up over 700 yards on the Rockets. That Toledo team was the MAC champions. They went 7-1 in-league and avenged that lone conference loss in the title game against Miami (OH). Their other losses were to Kansas, 63-14, and Connecticut in the bowl game, 39-10. Kansas would finish 4-7 (2-6) and the Huskies’ bowl triumph would bring them to 8-4 in a year in which they played a FCS school, 2-9 Army, 2-9 Duke, 2-9 Temple, 2-9 Buffalo and a Rutgers squad who would go 1-5 in league play. Hardly murderer’s row there.
Oh sure there were some highlights along the way. Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic with Miami (OH) and the league had some other triumphs over AQ teams, but for the most part, the Toledo example is what the MAC experienced in the modern college make up (the 1978 split into division 1a and 1aa, since renamed FBS and FCS). The haves and have-nots was made even more extreme in the 1990s when an attempt to end the poll system and crown a true champion paved the way to the BCS, which in turn created the automatic qualifiers. Overnight the mid major leagues were all but shut out. The WAC (which had 1980s power and the last non AQ team to win the national title in BYU), the MAC, C-USA, Mountain West and the Sun Belt suddenly had to scrap for bowls and respect.
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Over the last ten years we have seen parody emerge. Boise State, TCU and Utah are the prime examples. Conference USA has had tons of success from Tulane’s 1998 undefeated season to more recent seasons turned in by Houston and others. The Mountain West was in the argument of receiving AQ status until realignment and the tournament ended AQ status for any league. The Sun Belt schools are newer to division one and tend to be given a pass, although ULM might be singlehandedly breaking that down. The MAC has some historic schools. For instance, Miami (OH) has a long lineage of coaching. The league has been around since the 1940s and yet, never had much of a breakthrough on a national stage…until now.
On opening weekend of the 2012 college football stadium, Ohio beat Penn State in Beaver Stadium. The league has followed that up with wins against Indiana, Iowa, Connecticut, South Florida and Kansas. Toss in wins against the Mountain West and the WAC and you don’t have isolated successes, but league wide wins; a trend and in my opinion, a storm brewing.
Parody has spread across the football landscape. Louisiana Monroe can beat Arkansas one week and follow that up with strong games against Auburn and Baylor. Louisiana Tech and Utah State can beat Utah and blow out Illinois as they carry the WAC banner for one more sad season. C-USA and the Mountain West are having teams jump ship to the Big East for a reason. Now it is the MAC’s turn.
The majority of MAC teams play with a high octane style that offensive players love. They also utilize quicker passes that neutralize size; meaning small, but fast kids who get ignored by the big boys can flourish in this league. This league describes itself as the league of quarterbacks. With several schools in pass-happy offenses, a lot of quarterbacks who have good arms and good football sense but aren’t either tall enough, fast enough or not high profile enough, head to the MAC where they can rack up a ton of yards and get a lot more playing time than they would at an AQ school.
These reasons are why the MAC is having a breakthrough year and are also the reason I enjoy watching this league. They have insane mid-week games to feed the football addiction, but they also have some solid units. Toledo went toe-to-toe with Arizona on opening day. Ohio isn’t afraid of anyone. I will be watching both these teams for their on-field product, as well as their off-field focus. This isn’t a reason why the league is doing well, but it is an easy reason to root for these programs.
The MAC boasts one of the best graduation rates, not just in football, but in any sports in all leagues. This is important because the vast majority of these kids will not be playing on Sunday. They get to enjoy four years of playing time they wouldn’t otherwise get, as well as receive the all important diploma. This is impressive, since, let’s be honest, these schools aren’t Ivy league institutions. Sure, some of them have great academics, but several of them are quote-unquote safety schools and/or cheaper option for people who can’t get into the Michigan’s of the world. This means there is the potential to get kids who would be passed over by the more academically inclined institutions. Letting these great athletes excel at their sport and get a degree they might not otherwise have the opportunity to get is the best thing the NCAA does. I applaud the MAC for standing up for this principle, and succeeding at it, while other leagues and schools are worried about what the changing climate of football means for their finances.
Do yourselves a favor and check out some MAC action this weekend. Watch the class of the league, Ohio, take on UMass (Saturday, 3:30 eastern, ESPN3), the offensive fireworks of Toledo at Western Michigan (Saturday, 7 eastern, ESPN3) or any of the other intriguing games (I think Central Michigan at Northern Illinois and Ball State at Kent State could be entertaining). Not only will you be supporting the best of college athletics from an idealistic standpoint, but you’ll also get to watch a league coming into it’s own.
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