Illinois Coach Lovie Smith watched his defense get shredded by Western Michigan last weekend, outrushed 287-3 in a 34-10 rout, and afterword described it to reporters as “unsettling.” It might be the perfect word for any Power Five conference coach looking down at his schedule to find a team from the Mid-American Conference, a historically underrated college football league that so far this season appears as dangerous on the field and as sound off as it’s ever been.
The Broncos boast two wins against the Big Ten for the first time in program history. Central Michigan, which visits Virginia (0-3) on Saturday as a 3½ -point favorite, and Toledo are also 3-0. There are two MAC victories over the Big 12 — Central Michigan’s controversial 30-27 win at Oklahoma State and Ohio’s 37-21 victory at Kansas — making this the second season in a row the conference has four wins over Power Five teams. In total, the MAC has 10 wins this season over other conferences in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, one more than the Big 12.
“It’s become the conference no one wants to play,” said Michael Reghi, a play-by-play announcer who has covered the MAC since 1987 for ESPN and the MAC Television Network. “People refer to it as unknown or unheralded, but that’s not the case throughout the college football world when you talk to head coaches of the Power Five schools.”
Indeed, the conference has gained notoriety in the past two decades thanks to programs such as Northern Illinois, with its five consecutive seasons of at least 11 wins from 2010 to 2014, including an appearance in the Orange Bowl. MAC alums who have gone on to NFL stardom such as Ben Roethlisberger, Randy Moss and Antonio Brown speak to the conference’s ability to develop undervalued recruits out of high school.
There are currently 73 MAC alums on NFL rosters. But in the college world, Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher still says his conference “tends to have a chip on our shoulder.”
Founded in 1946, the MAC has long lived in the shadow and footprint of the Big Ten: Eleven of its 12 schools are located in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois or Indiana. The league is clustered in the second tier of major college football, known collectively along with the Sun Belt, Conference USA, American Athletic Conference and Mountain West as the Group of Five. But a history of talented young coaches, marketing moxie and competitive parity have given the MAC both stability and visibility.
The conference’s consistent ability to upset higher-rated conferences is partially rooted in good coaching.
The MAC specializes in taking on Power Five-caliber head coaches when they’re young and inexperienced. Miami of Ohio’s famed “cradle of coaches” produced Hall of Famers Ara Parseghian, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, among others; more recently, Nick Saban, Butch Jones and Urban Meyer all got their first head coaching jobs in their 30s at MAC programs. Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, one of college football’s hottest coaching commodities, was just a pup at 32 when he took the reins in 2013.
The result is quality leadership at a bargain price. To Reghi, that coaching talent is the MAC’s secret weapon.
“These are men who have put together tremendous programs, understood how to recruit and build a recruiting base,” Reghi said. “That’s the draw, for a young coach to be able to get his opportunity. And the MAC has become a springboard.”
The conference has also gained notoriety because of creatively negotiated TV deals. Since 1999, the MAC has agreed to play midweek games televised by ESPN in November for sake of exposure. The crowds for the resulting Tuesday and Wednesday night games are often small and last season’s viewership for Tuesday night games on ESPN2 averaged about 633,000, but it’s Steinbrecher’s chance at a national audience.
“It’s really provided an excellent platform to take a regional conference and make it a national conference,” said Steinbrecher, the league’s commissioner since 2009. “It’s a unique opportunity to be able to play on a night where you’re the only game. No one else has that.”
Last year, the MAC extended its contract with ESPN until the 2026 season, adding 10 years to the original deal and bumping estimated payouts per school to about $840,000, eight times more than the previous contract. That can’t touch the amount of money schools in the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference have at their disposal. But it helps and is a sign of the conference’s health.
The MAC has had eight different conference champions in since 2000, compared to five apiece in the ACC and Southeastern Conference. Western Michigan, which hadn’t won its division since 2000 before claiming a share of the West Division title last season, is flourishing with the right combination of coach and players. This year, the Broncos were picked to win the conference title.
“Part of it has to do with a remarkably level playing field in terms of resources,” Steinbrecher said. “For our teams to be successful, it takes really good head coaches who put together good staffs, who recruit and train well-motivated students who can X and O, who can do all of the things.”
Fleck, a MAC alumnus — he was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois — is the next coach expected to be snatched up by a Power Five school, although he reiterated his dedication to Western Michigan this week.
After going 1-11 in 2013, Fleck led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 records. This season, which began with a road upset of a Northwestern team coming off a 10-3 season and a second-lace finish in the Big Ten West, Fleck has Western Michigan off to its best start in program history.
“The one thing that one game showed — and it’s not all or nothing in one game — but it brought validity to the culture, validity to the process, doing it the right way, the way we’ve built this thing,” Fleck said on a conference call after the Northwestern victory. “It’s amazing, we’re . . . under .500 to be honest with you [in his tenure], we’ve got a long way to go. But we shared a MAC West championship last year, we won a bowl game for the first time, we beat a top 25 team for the first time in program history, we got our first Big Ten win since 2008.
“We’re doing all these nevers and firsts, but that’s also becoming the expectation and the standard here.”
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville
When: 12:30 p.m.
D.C. area TV/radio: CSN/WSPZ-570
First things first: Thanks in part to last weekend’s 13-10 loss at Connecticut, the Cavaliers are underdogs in their own stadium against the Chippewas of the Mid-American Conference, who knocked off then-No. 22 Oklahoma State, 30-27, in a controversial finish on Sept. 10 and are 3-0 for the first time since 2002. The last time Virginia started 0-3 was Al Groh’s last season in Charlottesville in 2009. Cavaliers Coach Bronco Mendenhall said his players’ motivation and attitude hasn’t dipped, but he admitted this slow of a start has been hard on him and his coaching staff.
Here’s the kicker: PK Alex Furbank’s debut as a Virginia Cavalier was the stuff of nightmares. The sophomore walk-on was thrust into the spotlight after starter Dylan Sims suffered a groin injury that took him out of the Connecticut game; Furbank, a former Division III soccer player at Randolph-Macon, missed a 20-yard field goal that would’ve forced overtime at Rentschler Field. Now, Furbank and Sims remain the last two options of a depleted position group that lost two players for a violation of team rules before fall camp started. If Sims isn’t able to play Saturday, Furbank will make his Scott Stadium debut.
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