DeKALB — There's a lot at stake in Detroit tonight.
A Mid-American Conference title is just one thing No. 19 Northern Illinois (11-1) and No. 18 Kent State (11-1) are playing for in tonight's conference championship game at Ford Field.
The winner will claim the MAC title, which would be the second in a row for the Huskies and the first conference title since 1972 for the Golden Flashes. But whoever is holding up the conference championship trophy following the contest will also have a shot at a coveted BCS bowl berth.
The bowl game NIU or Kent State would probably end up in is the Orange Bowl in south Florida.
"I know our players and their players are really excited about the implications if either team could win, what it would mean to their university from a BCS standpoint," NIU head coach Dave Doeren said. "There's always a lot riding on a championship game, but maybe more in this one than normal for our conference, and that makes it even more fun as a coach preparing for this one."
The 2012 season has been one of the best years for the MAC in recent memory. Four teams have been ranked in the Top 25 at one point in the season, and there have been a number of wins over BCS programs, including the Huskies' 30-23 victory over Kansas on Sept. 22.
It's only the second time in MAC history two ranked teams have met in the title game, with the other occasion being the 2003 game between No. 14 Miami (Ohio) and No. 20 Bowling Green, in which Ben Roethlisberger threw for 440 yards to lead Miami to a 49-27 win.
With all the success the MAC has had this season, it's only fitting the two best teams in the conference are playing for the league title and a possible BCS berth.
"It's been a historic year I think just overall as a conference, the number of BCS wins that we have put together as a league. To crown it off with the best team from that league going to a big game, I think would be right," Doeren said. "We've definitely earned national respect as a conference and it's not like one team had a great year. There's a multitude of teams that have had big wins this year in our league over BCS teams.
"I think if you can win this league, that says a lot about who you are."
Of course, all this BCS talk means nothing if NIU doesn't win.
First, the Huskies have to take care of Kent State's freakish athlete – junior running back Dri Archer, who has 1,337 rushing yards (9.7 yards per carry) and 14 rushing touchdowns, and will line up as a wide receiver as well. Archer has team-highs in receiving yards (458) and touchdown catches (four). His kickoff return average of 38 yards is the highest in the nation, and Archer has taken three kickoffs to the house.
NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch and the offense will also have to deal with a Kent State defense that allows only 23.5 points a game and has taken the ball away 35 times.
In last year's MAC Championship win against Ohio, NIU turned the ball over four times, something Lynch understands can't happen again.
"We made that a pretty tough game," said Lynch, who carried the ball once in the win. "That is probably the best thing Kent does on defense is take it away, so that will be a challenge."
Should NIU win its third MAC title tonight, the team and its fans could be in line for a very exciting weekend in terms of bowl possibilities.
However, if the Huskies can't beat the Golden Flashes, all the BCS talk will go out the window.
"It's a great thing for our program. It's very big for our class and for the whole team, but we still have to take care of business this week," receiver Martel Moore said. "If we don't take care of business, it means nothing for our future."
5 KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Take care of the ball
This can't be emphasized enough. Kent State has done a magnificent job forcing turnovers this season — the Golden Flashes have 35 takeaways and a turnover differential of plus-20. Both totals are second in the nation.
Northern Illinois is third in the MAC in turnover margin at plus-9. The one thing that gets lost about quarterback Jordan Lynch's play is how he's been taking care of the ball this season, having only four interceptions.
2. Know where Archer is, and contain him
Junior running back Dri Archer is Kent State's go-to player. He can beat defenses from the backfield, the slot or on kickoff returns Archer is fourth in the nation with 2,364 all-purpose yards, and him and Lynch are the two most electrifying players in the MAC.
The NIU defense needs to constantly be aware of where he's lined up. But that's the easy part. Containing Archer is a whole different story.
3. Just your average Lynch performance
All season, Lynch has impressed everyone who follows the Huskies. This is the biggest stage of the season and the biggest start of his career.
With what the junior has accomplished this season (4,361 total yards, 39 touchdowns), there's no reason to think he won't keep producing.
Kent State does struggle against the pass at times, and Lynch has proven he can beat teams with his arm.
4. NIU has been there
This will be the Huskies' third time competing at Ford Field. Kent State, on the other hand, hasn't played in a game like this in recent memory. NIU needs to show why its gunning for its second consecutive conference title.
5. Make your own destiny
It's well-known by now, but NIU has a shot to play in a BCS bowl game with a victory tonight.
Sure, other things have to happen, but the toughest part of earning the berth is actually beating the Golden Flashes.