DETROIT – Darrell Hazell was hired to coach Kent State in 2011. The idea of reaching a BCS bowl out of the Mid-American Conference was implausible enough that he didn't have a bonus clause for such an accomplishment inserted into the contract. To do so is standard in college football. Did you even consider it?
"Actually," Hazell said sheepishly on Friday, "I did not."
Well, he wasn't exactly alone.
MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said it's always been a goal of the conference, and Northern Illinois does have such a bonus in Dave Doeren's contract ("I guess I got lucky my agent thought of it," he joked), but in the 15-year history of the BCS no MAC school has ever threatened to crash the party.
This is generally a lower level league, good for producing plenty of NFL talent and wild shootouts on Tuesday nights, but rarely a super team like we've seen from the Western Athletic Conference (Boise State, Hawaii) and the Mountain West (Texas Christian, Utah.) There have been plenty of early season blowouts, mostly in Big Ten stadiums, through the years.
Now, due to a quirky season, a weak Big East, relaxed access clauses and the play of two nationally ranked, 11-1 teams at Kent State and NIU, the league is on the verge of busting the BCS.
Kent State and NIU play Friday here at Ford Field in the MAC championship game.
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If Kent State wins, it has a legitimate chance at an Orange Bowl bid. The Golden Flashes are currently 17th in the BCS standings and need only to get into the top 16 and finish ahead of an automatic qualifying conference champion, in this case the Big East, whose champion (Louisville) isn't ranked at all. Doing so would knock out a power program, likely Oklahoma, which would spare the world the chance of another ugly Sooners' BCS game performance.
Northern Illinois is ranked 21st in the BCS and would have a tougher time jumping into the top 16, although the school believes a combination of other teams losing this weekend – notably Texas and UCLA – plus a high-profile, nationally televised win over Kent State could propel them up the standings. They'd be 12-1 with their only loss to Iowa by a single point.
"We'd be hard to ignore," Doeren said.
We'll see. Voters are very good at ignoring all sorts of things.
At this point though, why rain on anyone's parade. NIU refuses to accept that it is nothing but a spoiler, that knocking Kent State off would kill the MAC's chance for its biggest day ever and cost the league about $8 million in addition bowl revenue.
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While the MAC won't get the same cut of BCS cash as a bigger conference school, for these athletic departments, which each have about $20 million budgets, that's still a lot of cash. Each league school might get a $500,000 or so cut.
"That goes a long way at a school like ours," said Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen. "We're all pinching pennies and stretching dollars, and while we'll continue to do that, that might relieve some things."
So the truth is pretty much everyone else around the league is rooting for Kent State out of practicality. Even the commissioner, right?
"No, I'm not rooting for anyone," commissioner Steinbrecher said. "I'm rooting for the best team to win."
With all due respect Mr. Commish, are you being truthful? We're talking $8 million here.
"No, I'm not lying," he said with a laugh. "I'm hoping for a really good game, and let the chips fall where they may."
OK, so the MAC thinks it can get its champ in, and the fact this is even a discussion in college football's final weekend is testament to the MAC's great year. The league won eight games against teams from the so-called BCS league. It has seven bowl eligible teams. Play was so interesting the term "MACtion" was not only coined but trademarked by the conference.
The MAC has always been home to great talent. At the Pittsburgh-Green Bay Super bowl two years ago its 15 players were trumped only by the SEC's 18. Now it has some excellent teams. This is a pinnacle.
The Colorado Buffaloes know about misery. Last Saturday's season-ending 42-35 loss to Utah was just another example.
With the Buffs trailing 35-28, Marques Mosley fielded a kickoff at the goal line, found a seam down the sideline and rambled 100 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 35-35 with 8:25 remaining. Colorado, which came into the game with a 1-10 record, had new life.
For 13 seconds, at least.
Utah retaliated with a kickoff return artist of its own. Reggie Dunn, who came into the game holding the NCAA career record for most 100-yard kickoff returns with four, saw a hole open up in front of him and turned on the jets. And just like that, the Utes had the lead again thanks to Dunn's fifth 100-yard kickoff return of his career.
The Buffs entered the game ranked No. 118 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in kickoff coverage. They were unable to move the ball past midfield in their last two possessions.
– Phil Watson
Whether or not anyone thinks the MAC champ (which usually winds up in something such as the GoDaddy.com Bowl) is actually one of the top 10 teams in the country, which making one of the five BCS bowls sort of signifies, is moot. The entire BCS process is a clown show. Bowl directors routinely select teams based on potential television ratings and ticket sales, not on-field performance. Even the automatic bids have been bastardized with conference expansion and championship games.
Georgia Tech (6-6) and Wisconsin (7-5) will both play for automatic bids on Saturday. Rutgers, which Kent State beat 35-23, had a chance to get one on Thursday but lost. Connecticut once made it, got blown out and lost nearly $3 million after falling short of BCS ticket-sale mandates.
It's not like these bowls are as prestigious or elitist as they like to pretend. If Kent State or NIU make the Orange Bowl, here's betting they don't give up 70 points, like Clemson did last January.
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Some big conference fans scream at the idea of the MAC on or after New Year's Day, and the fear is that voters might backlash against the upstarts and sink the champ in the final poll. Maybe those casting ballots should decide to lift them up and give them a chance. If the bowl directors rig the system to set matchups, why not the voters?
"Would we want to line up 12 times in a row [against major conference teams]?" Doeren asked. "Probably not, but give us a game against them one or two times a year and you've got a chance to win."
The MAC's been good for college football. Would it be so bad if college football was good to the MAC for a single day?
"It would be a great accomplishment for the team involved, but it would also be great for the league," Steinbrecher said. "It'd be a great opportunity to put us out on this stage."
It would be a magical moment for the MAC, a proud day for a league full of mostly Midwestern state schools with often working and middle class students looking for a leg up. The MAC never puts on airs. There are no delusions of grandeur. It keeps its athletic departments in line with its universities. The league just is what it is.
"We're just a bunch of kids who love to play no matter who shows up to watch or who's talking about us," NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch said.
If this improbability works out, there could be plenty of people watching and talking, and no coach will ever have a contract without a big bowl bonus in it again.
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