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MAC takes step in right direction

Central Michigan players celebrate their 32-31 win at Iowa on Saturday.
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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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Last year, Northern Illinois took the field on Nov. 1 for a Tuesday evening showdown with Toledo that was oddly timed, to say the least. And after three hours and 123 combined points — including 43 in the fourth quarter alone — the Huskies escaped with a 63-60 shootout win.

The following Tuesday, Toledo played again, and this time the Rockets were the ones to come out ahead, holding on for a 66-63 victory against Western Michigan that featured more total points than the Jan. 14 basketball meeting between the teams two months later.

Then on Tuesday, Nov. 15, Northern Illinois was back in action once more, hosting Ball State in a school-night conference game that turned out to be a defensive battle by comparison, as the Huskies rallied for a 41-38 win over the Cardinals.

For most casual fans, this is Mid-American Conference football — or MACtion, as it were — quirky, high-scoring, midweek, late-season competition that few seek out but everyone loves to watch.

You wouldn’t pick a MAC showdown over LSU-Alabama on Saturday, but there’s not much else to watch on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or even Friday nights, and the games are almost always entertaining, so, heck, why not? Any football is better than no football, right?

The problem with this, of course, is that, by Saturdays in November, the MAC, its teams and the thrill of their weeknight barnburners are all but forgotten, stored away in our minds until at least next Tuesday while we enjoy watching the big boys play.

But after a stunning weekend in which the conference felled four BCS teams and put a scare into two more, maybe it’s time fans start taking MACtion a little more seriously — and tuning into MAC games because they want to, not because they have to.

“I just think there’s a lot of good recruiting and coaching going on in the MAC conference,” Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. “There are a lot of good coaches who have been able to stay where they’re at for three to four years and develop their players and you’re seeing the benefit of that now.”

On Saturday, the MAC saw Doeren’s Huskies beat Kansas 30-23. Ball State beat South Florida in the first home win over a BCS team in school history. Central Michigan defeated Iowa by scoring twice in a thrilling final minute. And Western Michigan topped Connecticut for the second straight season.

In addition, Eastern Michigan led No. 21 Michigan State 7-3 at the half and trailed just 10-7 with less than eight minutes left to play in the game, and Akron went into the half tied with Tennessee and trailed by just four points early in the fourth quarter.

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It was, perhaps, the conference’s best single-week showing since 2003, when Marshall beat No. 10 Kansas State, Toledo defeated No. 9 Pittsburgh, Northern Illinois beat No. 21 Alabama and Bowling Green nearly stunned No. 6 Ohio State all on the same afternoon — all of this happening when Miami (Ohio) and Ben Roethlisberger were, at the time, ranked 15th in the country.

“I think this is a great league, and I was thrilled to get the opportunity to coach in this league because of seeing those things happen periodically throughout the league,” Ball State coach Pete Lembo said. “There’s a lot of parity and lots of different teams stepping up and making those games happen. For us right now as a building program, it’s just exciting to be a part of that.”

Now, before we get carried away, let’s make one thing clear: The MAC isn’t exactly a group of giant killers. Not yet, anyway, but they’re not the pushovers they used to be, either.

Overall, the conference is 6-17 against BCS competition this season, and some of those losses — especially by teams in the league’s weaker East Division — haven’t been close. But those six wins tie the MAC with the Pac-12 and Big Ten for the most wins over BCS competition so far this year.

And when you consider that, in the five years leading up to this season, the MAC went just 18-136 against BCS opponents, this year's winning percentage of 26.1 (and a 5-8 record by the West Division) seems like a step in the right direction.

“One thing you saw was when we get those teams in our venue — Central (Michigan) went out there to Iowa, but we were at home against UConn, Northern Illinois played Kansas (at home), Ball State had South Florida at their place — it all becomes equal billing,” Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said. “All of a sudden things are changed. … The playing field is a little bit evened.”

And every win helps on the recruiting trail, where mid-major teams need any advantage they can get when trying to pry players away from the big-conference schools.

“I think when the season’s over and you’re out recruiting and you’re in those battles, having the ability to point out that the Mid-American Conference plays teams from the BCS conferences and has multiple victories over them, that’s going to be very enticing to some young athletes,” Central Michigan coach Dan Enos said. “And, obviously, it will give a lot more credibility to your league.”

Perhaps the MAC’s signature win this year came in Week 1, when Ohio visited Penn State and beat the Nittany Lions 24-14 in State College. Three wins later, the Bobcats are 4-0 for the first time since 1979, are unofficially ranked No. 29 in the latest AP poll (in the "also receiving votes" category) and could be the country’s best hope for a BCS buster this season. But don’t tell them that.

“Our program is not to a point where we can look that far down the road,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “So we’ve got to be prepared, in this case, for UMass, and be on top of our game and try to get a win. . . . We’re so far from being the Boise State of the Midwest that as a team and coaches, we don’t look at it from that angle at all.”

Last season, Ohio lost two regular season conference games and the MAC championship game by a combined seven points. By all accounts, they’re a better team this year. But even so, no win is a given against a team from in the ultra-competitive, upset-minded MAC — just ask Iowa, Connecticut, South Florida, Kansas, Indiana and Penn State.

“Just trying to survive in our conference is a challenge,” Solich said, “and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

Tagged: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Toledo, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Ball State, Ohio, Florida, Kansas, South Florida

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