MAC football teams proving they are no longer cupcakes

MAC football teams proving they are no longer cupcakes
MAC football teams proving they are no longer cupcakes

Last season's Northern Illinois-Toledo game at the Glass Bowl in northern Ohio epitomized the quirky, Twitter-friendly spirit die-hard college football fans have come to know by one fawning term: MACtion.

The word has even made Urban Dictionary. And, it's almost a guarantee you can find MACtion in your trending column on virtually any Tuesday or Wednesday night in the fall. The same way #riseandgrind is there for you every morning when you wake up.

That 63-60 NIU-Toledo game on Nov. 1, 2011 included a Mid-American Conference record 17 touchdowns and had nine lead changes. Nope, nothing screams MACtion more that.

"I think MACtion probably means fast-paced. Down-to-the-wire. Exciting," said Jon Steinbrecher, the commissioner of the MAC, who sounded delighted that such a moniker as he put it, is sticking. "I think it is kinda neat."

Ryan Nielsen, who was on the NIU defensive staff for last year's shootout with Toledo, wasn't such a fan of the high-scoring game, but the 33-year-old coach, now the Huskies' co-defensive coordinator, was blown away by the impact of MACtion the morning after the game when he logged onto his computer. Nielsen, also the Huskies' recruiting coordinator, had more than 100 emails from recruits from all over the country waiting for him. Each came attached with the prospect's highlights.

"The TV exposure that we get from those [mid-week national TV] games is awesome," Nielsen said. "It's hard to do better than that."

The MAC has never been hotter than it is these days. On Wednesday night, the conference divisional races will play out on national TV with Ohio (8-2) visiting Ball State (7-3) and Toledo (8-2) traveling to NIU (9-1). Both games will be on ESPN channels.

The midweek games do challenge MAC schools hoping to maximize attendance because, Steinbrecher says, big portions of their fan bases travel significant distances and can't always do that during the week. The games also are tricky from an academic standpoint since players are in classes until 1 p.m. on game days. Normally, for Saturday games, the players stay in the team hotel and distractions are kept to a minimum, but it's harder to do that for midweek games. Still, it's become obvious the positives have outweighed the negatives. Three MAC programs -- Ball State, Ohio and Toledo -- won't play a game on Saturday this entire month. Those three are a combined 23-7.

In all, the MAC has six teams with at least seven wins this season. Only the SEC has more teams (seven) with seven victories. More impressive, this year MAC programs have set a conference single-season record with 16 wins over FBS non-conference opponents, two more victories than the previous best (2008). The MAC owns three wins over Big Ten opponents (Penn State, Iowa and Indiana) and is 4-4 vs. the Big East, including spoiling the perfect seasons of Rutgers (Kent State) and Cincinnati (Toledo).

The MAC's big year actually started last winter during bowl season when its teams went 4-1. (The conference had never won more than two bowl games in years when it got five teams into bowl games.)

Two years ago, the league won only seven games over FBS competition outside its own league. When Dave Doeren arrived in DeKalb, Ill., to take over the Huskies after Jerry Kill moved on to Minnesota, the former Wisconsin defensive coordinator watched NIU's game film from the 2010 season and noticed how the team dominated in league play.

"Half the teams you watched looked really bad," Doeren said. "A lot of teams had just hired new coaches, and so now you're seeing a lot of growth, and the ADs have done a nice job of allowing these coaches some time develop their programs."

'Nothing mid-major about our football'

The MAC has always been known as a breeding group for great coaches. Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Ara Parseghian are all part of the legacy. Nick Saban played defensive back in the MAC at Kent State in the early 70s. Urban Meyer got his first head coaching job in the MAC; Bowling Green took a shot on the unknown Notre Dame receivers coach. Brian Kelly's first FBS coaching job came in the MAC. Same for Brady Hoke. Bob Stoops also spent some time as an assistant at a MAC school.

It's also not like the conference hasn't been a pipeline to the NFL. There were 84 MAC products on NFL rosters in September. Among them: Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, Ohio); Michael Turner (NIU); Antonio Gates (Kent State); James Harrison (Kent State) and Jason Babin (Western Michigan). In the 2011 Super Bowl between the Steelers and the Packers there were 15 former MAC players in the game.

Despite that pedigree the league has battled the tag of being a "mid-major, along with the Sun Belt, living in the margins of FBS football, where budgets and facilities are far from what fuel the power conferences. The coaching positions often turn into stepping-stone jobs as they did for Meyer, Hoke and many others.

Of course, no one inside the league is partial to being called a mid-major.

"There is nothing 'mid-major' about our football," Steinbrecher said. "And, I think the results on the field support that. People line up against us and they see that we are big, we are fast and we play exciting football. We pass the eyeball test."

One of the unique things about the conference -- unlike much of FBS football -- is the MAC is pretty balanced among all of its members. The closest thing to a dominant program would be NIU. If the Huskies beat Toledo, NIU will win the MAC West Division title for the third year in a row. They also own the longest home winning streak in the country at 20 games, and the program has won 14 in a row over MAC opponents.

Last season, the Huskies went 11-3 and hammered Arkansas State, 38-20, in the bowl in Doeren's debut season. Even though only one other MAC team returned fewer starters this fall, NIU has kept rolling. Junior QB Jordan Lynch has emerged as a starter, taking over for Chandler Harnish. The 6-foot, 215-pounder has rushed for more yards than any quarterback in the country, averaging 134 yards a game. He's also got a stellar 19-3 TD-INT ratio and hasn't thrown a pick since September, a stretch of six games with an interception. Lynch's numbers are even more impressive when you consider that NIU had zero starting linemen returning and also had to break in a new offensive coordinator.

"He's really gifted," Doeren said. "He's an excellent runner, but he's also got a very quick release and good touch. The thing I like about him most, though is how competitive he is. He's thinking, 'I'm the best dude out here and there's nothing you can do about it.'"

That attitude isn't uncommon among MAC players. Many come to college with a chip on their shoulders after having been overlooked in the recruiting process by bigger schools, Doeren says. He also points out that the league also has some academic flexibility that the Big Ten often doesn't, so the MAC can get in some Big Ten-caliber athletes that the bigger conference can't. That, coupled with those guys who may be two inches too short or a step slower on some 40-yard time can make for a potent mix, he says.

It also doesn't hurt that the added visibility is breeding more success. Last winter, NIU beat Kansas for a gifted junior college defensive lineman, 300-pounder Ken Bishop, who two weeks ago picked up MAC Defensive Player of the Week honors. NIU also hung on to an offensive lineman that Wisconsin had offered late.

The news out of the Denver earlier this week where the BCS presidents approved access for non-BCS schools in a playoff also figures to help boost the MAC and others who make of the "Group of Five" that had been further diminished by the "AQ" conferences in the current system. Steinbrecher, a member of the Revenue Distribution Committee, said the two biggest issues facing the BCS had been access and revenue. He says access will now be "very realistic" for the top MAC team to get to a host bowl that would be open to the highest-ranked of those from the Group of Five.

How things would be split among the Group of Five, Steinbrecher was uncertain. "We still haven't gotten that far yet," he said, adding that there will be more meetings the day after the BCS championship game in January.

In the meantime, the MAC will continue to liven up weeknights in November, and the country's football fans will enjoy their fix of MACtion.

Originally posted by Bruce Feldman on