Beware of the mighty MAC – the best little conference in the country

Roosevelt Nix says it hit him on the ride home. He was on a JetBlue flight out of Newark with his Kent State teammates and a bunch of guys started yelling, "Turn the channel!" He quickly jabbed at his armrest console and there was his team, Kent State, beating Rutgers, on the highlights.

"That was something new," he says, laughing.

Very new.

The Golden Flashes beat a ranked team last weekend for the first time ever – the program played its first game in 1920 – shocking unbeaten and 18th-ranked Rutgers 35-23. Kent State has won five straight for the first time since 1940, and its seven wins are fifth-most in school history.

The crazy thing is, Kent State is only one of several surprises in its conference. The unheralded MAC, once a collection of whipping boys for Big Ten powers, has six bowl eligible teams and four one-loss teams (Ohio, Toledo, Northern Illinois and Kent State). A conference virtually ignored by realignment is now the most improved in the nation. By the end of October, MAC teams had 16 wins over non-conference FBS opponents.

"We've got some people that deserve some attention," says commissioner Jon Steinbrecher in an understatement typical of the Midwest.

Those people are everywhere you turn in the MAC. Toledo's head coach, Matt Campbell, is only 32 years old. His record in less than a year at his job is 9-1. (The one loss came on the road against Arizona, which just beat No. 10 USC.) Dri Archer, of Kent State, is second in the nation in all-purpose running. Bowling Green's Chris Jones is tied for tops in the nation with 11½ sacks.

Track Facts
Track Facts

Oregon vs. USC

For most of the last half century, the USC Trojans have been the power in West Coast college football. The numbers are staggering: 37 conference championships (in the Pacific Coast Conference, Athletic Association of Western Universities, Pac-8 and Pac-10) and 11 national championships.

By comparison, the Oregon Ducks are mere neophytes struggling to find daylight underneath the giant shadow cast by the Men of Troy. The Ducks have 11 conference titles, four in the old PCC, six in the Pac-10 and the first Pac-12 title in 2011.

But the Ducks have made a remarkable journey from relative obscurity over the past decade. They played for a national title in 2010, losing to Auburn on a last-second field goal. While the pundits believed this would be the year that USC would set the West Coast football world right, Oregon has just kept on keeping on.

The Trojans were the preseason No. 1 team in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls. But a stumble at Stanford in September cost them the top spot, and now USC prepares to host Oregon on Saturday coming off its second loss of the season, a wild 39-36 defeat at Arizona.

The Ducks, meanwhile, have steamrolled everyone in their path this season. Oregon is 8-0 heading into Saturday's showdown at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Their closest contest was a 43-21 win at Arizona State on Oct. 18, a game in which they led 43-7 at the half before taking their foot off the gas.

The journey for Oregon has taken it to unfamiliar territory. The Ducks are heavy favorites to beat the Trojans. The hunter has become the hunted. USC is in the position of being the upstart trying to knock the champion off its throne.

USC has been on the top of the mountain in terms of West Coast football for a long, long time. But its road has taken some detours. There were the struggles of the 1990s, followed by the dynasty of the Pete Carroll era from 2002-08. But that run was ended by NCAA sanctions from which the Trojans are finally emerging this season.

Oregon has seized the opportunity.

– Phil Watson

See John Elway talk about his Journey to Comfort

And then there's Nix, the diminutive defensive lineman – 5-foot-11, 245 pounds – who is a big part of why the Golden Flashes are 10th in the nation in red zone defense. He went to Kent State because it was the only school that "just didn't care" if he was too small. He, of course, is not as surprised about the MAC as most of the rest of us are.

[Related: New Heisman leader could emerge from Saturday's games]

"Look at any superstar in the NFL," Nix says. "They went to a college nobody ever heard of."

He's got a point. There were 84 MAC players on NFL rosters as of this September. Toledo and Kent State had 18 NFL players between them. And these guys aren't bums: Ben Roethlisberger went to Miami (Ohio), Greg Jennings went to Western Michigan, Michael Turner went to Northern Illinois and Antonio Gates is one of 10 NFLers who went to Kent State. In the 2011 Super Bowl, there were 15 former MAC players.

So it's not really a fluke. The MAC won four of its five bowls last year. And in the last two seasons, Kent State went to the College World Series, Ohio went to the Sweet 16 in the men's basketball tournament, Akron won a men's soccer national title and Toledo won the women's NIT.

"If you look at the trendlines," says Steinbrecher, "you could see some of this was coming."

The secret? Stability.

While the Big Ten has dealt with sanctions and bowl bans, the MAC has been as calm as Lake Michigan in late summer. The league has only lost one team (Temple) to realignment. Programs have been able to invest not only in new facilities – "Almost all our schools have done something," says Steinbrecher – but also in credible leaders.

The MAC has always been the "cradle of coaches." Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian all cut their teeth in the MAC, and more recently Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Brian Kelly. But recently some big-conference coaches have come to the MAC. Frank Solich went from Nebraska to Ohio, Kent State's Darrell Hazell was an assistant at Ohio State and Northern Illinois' Dave Doeren came from the Wisconsin staff. The results this season have included upsets galore: Central Michigan knocked off Iowa, Northern Illinois beat Kansas, Ball State topped South Florida and Western Michigan defeated UConn – all in the same weekend.

There's also stability at quarterback, with MAC teams giving young throwers a chance to make mistakes and develop over four years. Ohio's Tyler Tettleton led the Bobcats to a win at Penn State. Western Michigan's Alex Carder is an NFL prospect. Miami's Zac Dysert has 10,000 career passing yards. Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois ranks sixth nationally in total offense. Terrance Owens (Toledo) and Spencer Keith (Kent State) have been nice surprises.

And a lot of fans actually know who these guys are, thanks in part to the conference's decision to play midweek games. That's a trend now (even in the NFL), but the MAC members were pioneers. So coaches can sell recruits on a guaranteed national audience and frequent nighttime football. "Our conference race plays out on national TV," says Steinbrecher. "It's great theater."

Not only is the "MACtion" great theater for fans (and players watching on JetBlue), recruits are noticing, too. "Now, even more, guys are calling us," Northern Illinois' Doeren told the Chicago Tribune this week. "Some of the teams they thought they were going to are losing, and they want to open [recruiting conversations] back up. There are a lot of doors that are open right now for us in recruiting."

But will doors get slammed in scheduling? It's possible national title contenders will shy away from the MAC in order to get other big-conference schools on their schedules in hopes of boosting playoff consideration in January. Ohio State, for one, is already signing up to play BCS names in far-flung media markets.

Then again, if a big conference school wants to bolster its résumé, a win over a MAC school is more impressive than it's ever been.

More impressive … and more rare.

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