If the top brass in the Mid-American Conference were looking for a dream championship game matchup, those dreams have most likely been fulfilled. If they wanted the best against the best, then they got their wish.
Unbeaten and nationally ranked Northern Illinois, the MAC West Division champion, brings the top offense in the conference to the title game in Detroit. MAC East Division champion Bowling Green sports the top defense in the league. It is strength against strength, at the most basic level.
Behind Heisman Trophy candidate QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois has generated 42.8 points per game. Bowling Green, with an experienced and athletic defensive unit, has limited the opposition to just 13.8 points per game.
There is a huge chasm of difference between those two numbers, so whichever side gives the most will likely end up the loser.
But there is more. Northern Illinois leads the conference in total offense with 542.3 yards an outing. The Falcons were the best defensive team in the league, and one of a half dozen in the nation that held its opponents to under 300 yards per game. Bowling Green allowed just 296.6 yards per game against a myriad of creative offenses.
Peel back another layer on those stats, and you find that the Huskies led the MAC with 318.9 rushing yards per game, while Bowling Green was the conference's best against the run, allowing only 134.8 yards on the ground per game.
The MAC Championship Game will also have a marquee star to showcase in Lynch. In his most recent game, Lynch rushed for 321 yards, breaking his own record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Lynch has been at the helm throughout Northern Illinois' 25 game conference winning streak, and leads them into the title game in pursuit of a third straight league championship.
"We ask a lot of him, and he responds every time," Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey said about Lynch. "He's the recipient of a lot of things, and we ask a lot of guys to do stuff, so we're really pleased. But I will follow that up with saying this, I've said it, and I sound like a broken record, but if he's not in the Heisman conversation, I guess I don't know what a Heisman is or should be, because to me, that's exactly what it is."
No argument on that from Bowling Green head coach Dave Clawson.
"He is another incredible talent," Clawson said. "He certainly is a great player. He does it every single week."
While lacking an outstanding individual talent, Bowling Green has done things by committee -- a very strong committee. Over the past four games, the Falcons have allowed just one touchdown while outscoring the opposition 176-17.
The Falcons are strong enough to give the Huskies a good test. Bowling Green leads the conference in 15 different team statistical categories. And it's not all defensive stuff -- Bowling Green leads the MAC in third down conversion percentage, fewest fumbles lost, yards per completion, time of possession, and fewest turnovers lost. But it is on defense where the Falcons really flex their might, making the top 10 of FBS football in a number of statistical categories, including fourth down defense, first down defense, fumbles recovered, least passing yards allowed, punt return defense, punt returns, red zone defense, scoring defense, team passing efficiency defense, time of possession, and total defense.
The Zips (5-7, 4-4) provided further evidence that they are on the way back after winning four of their last five games, including a season-ending shocker with a 31-29 win over Toledo. The Zips went 1-11 in 2012 in their first season under head coach Terry Bowden, but they have shown dramatic improvement. Bowden brought a hurry-up, spread attack to Akron and it seems to be the key to future success.
The Falcons (9-3, 7-1) move on to the MAC title game after dispatching Buffalo, and doing it the hard way. Bowling Green won 24-7 on the road in the season finale, with its dominant defense holding the Bulls to a season-low 15 yards of rushing. The Falcons have been especially stout lately, allowing one touchdown in the past four games.
GAME PREVIEW: vs. Northern Illinois, MAC Championship game, Friday, Dec. 6 at Ford Field in Detroit. Bowling Green has been exceptional on the defensive side, especially in recent games. Over their final three games, the Falcons held their opponents to a season-low in scoring. They will need an effort on that same level to keep the potent Northern Illinois offense from overwhelming them, like the Huskies have done with just about everyone else.
The Bulls (8-4, 6-2) are disappointed that the dream season they had in the works was spoiled by Bowling Green as the Falcons handed the Bulls a 24-7 loss in the finale. Buffalo has made a very strong case for a decent bowl bid, winning seven straight after losing their first two games to two of the nation's most powerful teams -- Ohio State and Baylor. There will be a long break, which is ample time to let the Bulls regroup after dropping two of the final three games of the season.
The Golden Flashes (4-8, 3-5) did not repeat as MAC East Division champs, but they did manage to win two straight to end the season. Kent State suffered through five straight losses before turning things in the right direction. There are some positives to build on as Kent State moves on.
The Minutemen (1-11, 1-7) closed the season with a six-game losing streak, and they provided numerous examples to indicate they do not yet have the offensive punch to be a competitive team in the MAC. UMass scored more than 14 points just three times this season, and in this era of high-scoring offenses, that leaves a considerable deficit.
The RedHawks (0-12, 0-8) concluded one of the darkest seasons in the history of this proud program with a very lop-sided loss to rival Ball State, by a 55-14 score. The only flicker of excitement around is over the search for a new head coach.
The Bobcats (7-5, 4-4) wrapped up the 2013 regular season by pounding a hapless UMass team 51-23, but that win did little to soothe the sting of the collapse that took place over the final half of the season. Ohio was the pre-season favorite to win the MAC East title, but losses in three of the last four games quickly took the Bobcats out of the race. A fifth straight winning season gives the program some positive momentum, and some thin hopes of landing a bowl game.
The Cardinals (10-2, 7-1) had the misfortune of putting together one of the best seasons in their history, at the same time as MAC West rival Northern Illinois was fielding what was likely its best squad ever. Ball State pounded winless Miami to close the season with a tenth win, and has the league's second-best offensive talent in QB Keith Wenning, so the Cardinals should be headed to an attractive bowl game
The Chippewas (6-6, 5-3) made a long recovery after losing their starting quarterback and all-conference tailback in a season-opening loss to Michigan, but they managed to even their record in the finale, and become bowl eligible for the second consecutive year. A 42-10 blasting of Eastern Michigan to end the season provided a showcase for senior RB Zurlon Tipton, who had seriously injured his ankle in that Michigan game and missed most of the season. Tipton closed out the year with 216 rushing yards on 20 carries, and scored four touchdowns.
The Eagles (2-10, 1-7) closed the 2013 season in very familiar fashion, getting drubbed 42-10 by Central Michigan. Eastern Michigan is 12-48 over the past five seasons, and once again searching for a new head coach who can find some way to bring this long-suffering program out of the doldrums.
The Huskies (12-0, 8-0) have a second straight BCS bowl bid on their minds as they prepare for a fourth straight appearance in the MAC championship game. Northern Illinois completed an undefeated regular season, which included two wins over Big Ten teams, and is the top-ranked, non-BCS school in the polls. Senior QB Jordan Lynch is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and he presents likely the toughest run/pass combination skill set in the country.
GAME PREVIEW: vs. Bowling Green, MAC Championship game, Friday, Dec. 6, at Ford Field in Detroit. The Falcons battled their way into the title game with an impressive defensive performance, and they will use that defense to try and rein in Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch, who rushed for more than 300 yards in the season finale win over Western Michigan. Bowling Green is very stout against the run, so the Lynch-Falcons matchup will likely decide where the MAC trophy ends up.
The Rockets (8-4, 5-3) are hoping that a late-season swoon does not ruin their chances of landing a decent bowl bid, but that loss to a relatively weak Akron team in the season finale has to hurt the resume. If Toledo does manage to secure a bowl bid, the Rockets should have All-MAC RB and 1,000 yard rusher David Fluellen back in the lineup. He missed the season finale with a stress fracture.
The Broncos (1-11, 1-7) ended their troubling season with a 33-14 defeat at the hands of powerful Northern Illinois. The game demonstrated one final time just how wide the gap is between the best of the MAC, and the rebuilding team at Western Michigan. If the passion and energy of first-year head coach P.J. Fleck can translate onto the field, the future should look brighter for the Broncos.
--Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch closed the regular season by rushing for 321 yards, breaking his own NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback in the FBS. Lynch carried the ball 27 times and scored three touchdowns.
--Bowling Green DB/KR Boo Boo Gates has two kick returns for touchdowns, one punt return for a score, two interception returns for touchdowns, and a fumble recovery returned for score in his career. Gates is the first player in Bowling Green history to score touchdowns on returns of kickoffs, punts, interceptions, and fumbles.
--Bowling Green WR Shaun Joplin caught six passes for a career-high 149 yards in the win over Buffalo that clinched the MAC East championship.
--Northern Illinois RB Cameron Stingily had 49 rushing yards in the regular season finale against Western Michigan, and moved past the 1,000 yard mark for the season with 1,007 yards.
--Bowling Green RB Travis Greene had 129 yards rushing in the win over Buffalo that gave the Falcons the MAC East title. It was the eighth 100-yard game of the season for Greene.
--Central Michigan RB back Zurlon Tipton, an All-MAC performer who missed most of the 2013 season with an ankle injury, had 216 rushing yards on 20 carries scored four touchdowns as the Chippewas beat Eastern Michigan to close the season.
--Buffalo LB Khalil Mack had 12 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in the regular season finale against Bowling Green, moving him into a tie for the NCAA record for career TFLs with 75.
--Ohio K Josiah Yazdani hit field goals from30, 24 and 25 yards out to help the Bobcats to a 51-23 win over UMass to end the regular season. In the 12 games on the 2013 schedule, Yazdani did not miss an extra point or a field goal.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The bottom line on Jordan Lynch is this -- he makes you miss. And he makes good players miss. If he played tailback, he would probably be the all-conference tailback. His skill set is just that good." -- Bowling Green head coach Dave Clawson, commenting on Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH THIS WEEK IN THE MAC:
1. In the MAC championship game, Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch gets one last chance to impress the Heisman voters. Lynch, who rushed for a career best 321 yards in the regular season finale, will need to crack a Bowling Green defense that has been especially tough against the run all season. If Lynch is able to run on the Falcons, and lead his team to its 13th straight win, he will have made his case for being considered for the highest honor in college football.
2. The history between Bowling Green and Northern Illinois doesn't tell us much, so the MAC championship game will have to provide the answers. The two teams have met 18 times, with Bowling Green holding a 10-7 edge in the series, but they have played just four times over the last decade. Northern Illinois has won the last three meetings against the Falcons.
3. How will the Bowling Green defense hold up against Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch and that potent Huskies offense? While Lynch and the Huskies have been shredding the opposition for better than 40 points per game and close to 550 yards per game, the Falcons have been increasingly stingy on defense. Bowling Green has allowed only 17 points over its last four games, and just one touchdown. Buffalo got just 15 rushing yards against the Falcons last week, and Eastern Michigan managed only four yards passing. Northern Illinois is a different animal, however, and one that will certainly test Bowling Green's defensive strength.
4. How will the passion and energy of Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck impact recruiting, and the rebuilding project he has underway? After an 11th loss of the season, in the finale against Northern Illinois, Fleck appeared unfazed by his team's struggles. "I don't care what our record is. In this day and age and in this world, everyone worries about the wins and losses," Fleck said. "We get hired to get fired, that's what coaches do. It's being around a group of men that continue to fight. People come down to practice and they think we're the 11-0 team the way we practice. It's truly awesome and I couldn't be prouder to be their football coach."
5. The coaching vacancies at Eastern Michigan and Miami will need to be filled soon, in order to not cost those programs even more in the terms of recruiting. In Ypsilanti, things have been down for so long that a trip to Eastern Michigan has to give even the most ambitious young coach second thoughts. Miami has a ton of history and tradition on its side, but the new coach will find a cupboard that is embarrassingly bare.
--Bowling Green WR Jared Cohen is out indefinitely with a leg injury.
--Bowling Green RB Fred Coppet is suffering from a concussion and his status for the MAC Championship Game against Northern Illinois is uncertain.
--Bowling Green DB Justin Ford is sidelined with a concussion and might not be available for the MAC Championship Game against Northern Illinois
--Bowling Green WR Chris Gallon injured his knee earlier in the season and will not return.
--Bowling Green WR Jermal Hosley suffered a serious knee injury earlier in the season and will not play against Northern Illinois.
--Bowling Green DB Darrell Hunter II is sidelined indefinitely with a wrist injury.
--Bowling Green LB Gabe Martin suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this year.
--Bowling Green RB Jamel Martin is out with an undisclosed injury that could prevent him from playing in the MAC Championship Game.
--Northern Illinois RB Akeem Daniels is sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury.
--Northern Illinois DB Sean Evans has an injured knee and is listed as questionable for the MAC Championship Game against Bowling Green.
--Northern Illinois RB Keith Harris Jr. had a season-ending ankle injury earlier this fall.
--Northern Illinois DB Marckie Hayes is out with a concussion.
--Northern Illinois LB Rasheen Lemon, who has played in just two games this season, is serving a disciplinary suspension of an undisclosed length.
--Northern Illinois OT Tyler Loos was lost for the season with a leg injury that occurred about a month ago.
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