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updated: 9/26/2012 3:46 PM

MAC still felling tall timbers in big conferences

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  • Central Michigan defensive lineman Shafer Johnson celebrates after his team's 32-31 victory over Iowa Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa.

      Central Michigan defensive lineman Shafer Johnson celebrates after his team's 32-31 victory over Iowa Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

Dan Enos lettered four years and started two at quarterback for Michigan State. So he's got an idea of what it means for a team from a mid-major conference to knock off somebody from the power conferences.

"I've coached in the Big Ten. I've played in the Big Ten," said Enos, now in his third year as the head coach at Central Michigan, a Mid-American Conference member. "And when you understand the resources that those (bigger) schools have and the amount of money that they have and the facilities and the recruiting aspect, yeah, it is a big deal."

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There have been plenty of "big deals" around the MAC these days. So many, in fact, that it might be hard in the future for the league's schools to get games against the powers that be in college football.

Just last weekend, MAC teams knocked off four schools from Bowl Championship Series automatic-qualifier conferences. Enos' Chippewas won at Iowa of the Big Ten, 32-31, on a last-second field goal. Northern Illinois knocked off the Big 12's Kansas and coach Charlie Weis, 30-23. Ball State, which a week earlier had won at Indiana of the Big Ten, hosted South Florida of the Big East and won, 31-27. And the Big East's Connecticut lost to Western Michigan, 31-24.

The MAC has also acquitted itself well in other games. Toledo took Arizona to overtime before coming up short, 24-17. Bowling Green opened the year by hanging around current No. 11 Florida before falling 27-14. Eastern Michigan fought on even terms at No. 21 Michigan State last week before going down, 23-7 -- a close call that made Spartans coach Mark Dantonio so angry that he raced through his postgame news conference by spitting out "next question!" seven times in less than a minute.

The MAC has that effect on a lot of big-name teams.

Almost every member of the conference has a page in its media guide devoted to its major upsets. One of the first items in this week's MAC notes highlights Sept. 20, 2003, when MAC teams upended No. 6 Kansas State, No. 9 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Alabama on the same day.

It's a point of pride throughout the 13-team league (Massachusetts becomes a full member in 2013) that Goliaths frequently fall before the MAC's Davids.

"We talk about it all the time," Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn said.

No one is saying the MAC is even remotely close to being on equal footing with the Southeastern Conference, winner of the last six national championships and with four of the top six teams in this week's AP Top 25. But the MAC has sort of elbowed in and found a spot between the bullies which surround it.

"You've got to find your niche," Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said.

One way the MAC does that is to recruit kids passed over by the Big Ten and others.

"If anybody's a competitor you want to play against teams that didn't want you," Cubit said. "I'm the same way as a coach, too. You want to go out there and prove your worth. There's no doubt we use it every time we play teams like that."

Of course, the major conferences know all about the MAC's legacy of shockers. But this is an era when athletic departments are looking for opponents nearby to cut down on expenses and seek out schools that might take a check to bring in a few fans and create some local interest. So the big boys continue to play Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Ohio and Toledo -- and continue to suffer the consequences.

"I don't think this is a new phenomenon that MAC teams have beaten FBS automatic-qualifier teams," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who regularly schedules teams from the surrounding MAC. "Has it happened in bunches like it has this past week or past year? I'm not sure, but it's happened before. There's always a risk. They're well-coached programs and they have good athletes. Any team that goes into playing a MAC school who thinks they're going to beat them automatically, they haven't been prepared real well."

Now this isn't exactly a vintage year for football in the Big Ten and several other big-time leagues, so it's been even easier for the MAC to pick off some of the non-contenders.

Perhaps the best team in the MAC resides in the shadow of a superpower.

Ohio University has an enrollment of just over 17,000 and is nestled in the hills about 65 miles south of the mega-university located up in Columbus. It hired Frank Solich as head coach eight seasons ago after he had a sterling record as Tom Osborne's successor at mighty Nebraska.

Slowly but surely, Solich is building a mini-power in leafy Athens, Ohio, at a place ranked as the top party school in the nation a lot more times than it's been listed among the country's top football teams. The Bobcats are on the cusp of the Top 25 this week, riding a 4-0 start that has already resulted in some publications predicting Ohio might just become the Boise State of the Midwest.

Ohio grabbed a lot of people's attention by going to Happy Valley and handing beleaguered Penn State and new head coach Bill O'Brien a relatively one-sided 24-14 loss in the season opener.

"It was tremendous for our program, within this community, in this state actually and around the country," Solich said. "That game was watched by a lot of people for various reasons. We knew we had an opportunity to showcase our program in a positive manner. And it did come off that way."

It was just another momentous win for the conference.

Akron's Terry Bowden, once upon a time the head coach at Auburn, is the son of legendary former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. He's been around major college football most of his life. Now, in his first year with the Zips, he's surprised just how good the MAC is.

Bowden, whose new team was tied in the fourth quarter at Tennessee before falling 46-27, says it won't be long before all those so-called upsets will become routine happenings.

"I don't know if (MAC teams) have to wait for a once-in-a-decade victory anymore," he said. "Right now, it's a once-in-a-week or a twice-in-a-week victory."

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