Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Rise of the MAC

In September of 2003, the Mid-American Conference had their proverbial coming out party. In one weekend Big 12 North power Kansas State was finally scalded for scheduling cupcakes as MAC power Marshall defeated the Wildcats in Manhattan. Kansas State would go on to win the Big 12. Later that same day, the Toledo Rockets defeated Larry Fitzgerald and the Pitt Panthers, one of the Big East’s top teams. Earlier in September, Bowling Green knocked off eventual New Year’s Day bowl participant Purdue and came very close to defeating the defending national champion the Ohio State Buckeyes. These were three very big wins for a conference that had been long regarded as a big step down from the Big Ten. The MAC was founded in 1946 and for the first 50 years of the league’s existence, no power team ever emerged onto the national stage. That all changed in 1997 when the MAC’s first national power, Marshall, joined the league after dominating 1-AA football for the past 15 years. During this time period another team emerged as a MAC and national power, longtime league member Toledo. The Rockets announced their presence on the national stage when future Baltimore Ravens running back Chester Taylor ran all over Penn State as the Rockets embarrassed the Nittany Lions 24-6 in Happy Valley. After a very successful eight year run in the MAC, the Marshall Thundering Herd are now leaving to join Conference USA along with short time MAC member Central Florida. With Marshall’s departure, an opportunity now opens for teams, especially ex-bottom dwellers, to become successful programs on the national stage. Some of these teams include already established Bowling Green and Northern Illinois but also teams such as Akron and Eastern Michigan who typically suffer through losing season after losing season.

Marshall’s return to the MAC in 1997 after a 28-year hiatus marked the beginning of what can be called no less than a dynasty. The Herd rejoined the MAC and 1-A football after having spent the past 15 years as one of the most dominant 1-AA football programs. Head Coach Bob Pruett and the Herd hit the ground running, winning the MAC title in their first season back. The Herd’s star wide receiver, Randy Moss, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and went on to become of the best receivers in the NFL. The 1997 team laid the groundwork for what would be the MAC’s first national power. From 1997 through 2002, Marshall won five MAC championships and went to six bowl games. The Herd has also sent several players to the NFL over that span including QB Chad Pennington, QB Byron Leftwich and WR Darius Watts in addition to Moss. As mentioned earlier, Marshall will be leaving the MAC for Conference USA beginning in 2005. The Herd finished up their final season in the MAC by earning a birth in the Fort Worth Bowl against Cincinnati.

Not only has the MAC made an impression on the college football landscape, but on the National Football League as well. The MAC has become a stable of future NFL quarterbacks as they have sent several since the 2000 season. The cream-of-the crop includes Chad Pennington (Marshall), Byron Leftwich (Marshall), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami of Ohio) and Charlie Frye (Akron). The MAC QB class of 2006 will include Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green and Bruce Gradkowski of Toledo. Some other notable MAC players sent to the NFL in recent years include RB Chester Taylor (Toledo), DE Jason Babin (Western Michigan), RB Michael Turner (Northern Illinois), WR Doug Gabriel (Central Florida) and DT Cullen Jenkins (Central Michigan). The tragic death of Northern Illinois offensive lineman Shea Fitzgerald prevented the MAC from adding a terrific offensive lineman to that list of players. Outside of Akron QB Charlie Frye there were not many draft prospects from the MAC in the 2005 NFL Draft. However, there are several MAC players who will highly touted going into the 2006 draft. Bowling Green QB Omar Jacobs and WR Martin Nance of Miami of Ohio are regarded as potential first round draft picks.

Despite Marshall and Central Florida both leaving the MAC, the future remains bright for one of the nation’s top mid-major conferences. Temple will join the MAC in football only beginning in 2006. The addition of the Owls will once again leave the MAC with 13 teams, making it slightly more difficult to align into two divisions. There are several schools that may join the MAC in the future to bring the number of schools back up to an even 14. At the 1-A level schools such as Middle Tennessee State (Sun Belt) and Army (Independent) may receive consideration. The addition of a 1-AA school may be the route taken. Some of the potential choices include Youngstown State (Gateway), Western Kentucky (Gateway) and Delaware (Atlantic 10). 2004 may have marked the best season by the Mid-American Conference as a whole. The MAC placed four teams into bowl games (Bowling Green (GMAC Bowl), Marshall (Forth Worth Bowl), Miami of Ohio (Independence) and Northern Illinois (Silicon Valley Football Classic). The Akron Zips finished 6-5 and were the only bowl eligible team (excluding self-penalized 6-5 Clemson and South Carolina) to not receive a bowl bid. The MAC should continue to grow as a conference and continue to reach new heights. After sending four teams to bowl games last season, receiving a BCS bowl bid is the next goal. In 2003, Miami of Ohio finished the season 13-1 and came very close to receiving to a BCS bid. Had the Redhawks not lost to Iowa to begin the season, it is very likely that they would have preceded Utah as the first school from a mid-major conference to earn a BCS bowl bid. In 2005, Bowling Green will have the best chance to achieve the feat. However, the Falcons will need to get past arguably the nation’s premier mid-major power in Boise State as well as the rest of the MAC.

Some may believe that the MAC has already reached its pinnacle. The league has already beaten some of the nation’s premier major football programs, won bowl games and sent a myriad of players to the NFL. Many claim that the 85-scholarship limit has helped the MAC as well as the other mid-major conferences. Prospects who would in the past ride the bench at Michigan or Penn State are now becoming rising stars in the MAC. While that has been a contributing factor, the brand of football is simply getting the better. The MAC has sent several head coaches onto bigger programs with some of the bigger changes being Ohio’s Jim Grobe to Wake Forest, Toledo’s Gary Pinkel to Missouri, Bowling Green’s Urban Meyer to Utah and now Florida and Miami of Ohio’s Terry Hoeppner to Indiana. In today’s world of parity in college football, the rise of the MAC and the rest of the mid-majors are only going to become progressively greater. It will not be much longer until we are talking about a MAC team making it into the BCS. The MAC is here to stay and there is nothing the Big Ten or anyone can do about it.


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