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MAC in position to ride wave of change

Northern Illinois safety Akil Grant (21) and cornerback Randee Drew (18) celebrate after Drew intercepted  Maryland quarterback Scott McBrein to end the game, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003, in DeKalb. Northern Illinois won 20-13 in overtime over No. 15.
Northern Illinois safety Akil Grant (21) and cornerback Randee Drew (18) celebrate after Drew intercepted Maryland quarterback Scott McBrein to end the game, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003, in DeKalb. Northern Illinois won 20-13 in overtime over No. 15.

Fans have been bashing the Bowl Championship Series ever since it began in 1998.

There are yearly fights over who deserves to be in the national championship game, and which teams deserve to be in each BCS bowl.

After this season’s bowl selections, Northern Illinois received the brunt of the criticism. Many people felt the 12-1 Huskies, ranked No. 15 in the final BCS standings, didn’t deserve an Orange Bowl berth.

For NIU and other nonautomatic qualifying teams, the current format of the BCS is certainly much better than what the college football world was like in the pre-BCS era.

Mid-major teams are also much better off than they were from 1998-2005, when there were only four BCS games. In 2006, a fifth BCS bowl was added as the national championship was given its own separate bowl while the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose Bowls remained.

Since then, six non-AQ teams have played in BCS bowl games – Boise State (2006 and 2009), Hawaii (2007), Utah (2008) and TCU (2009 and 2010). Before the BCS expansion, the 2004 Utah team, which beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, was the only non-AQ team to play in a BCS bowl.

In the current system, if a team from one of the five non-AQ conferences (Mid-American Conference, Conference USA, Mountain West, WAC and Sun Belt) finishes in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, or in the top 16 and ahead of a champion from one of the six BCS conferences, it automatically earns a berth in a BCS bowl.

Before the BCS, there was no way a team such as NIU would be playing in a coveted game like the Orange Bowl.

Even the 1984 BYU consensus national championship team had to settle for playing an unranked Michigan squad in the Holiday Bowl.

The MAC had some good teams in the pre-BCS era, such as the 1973 Miami (Ohio) team which went 11-0. That squad was coached by Bill Mallory, who would go on to lead the Huskies to a MAC crown in 1983.

The RedHawks played Florida in the Tangerine Bowl that season. The game was normally played in Orlando, Fla., but Mallory found out from his athletic director that Florida wanted to play at home in Gainesville, Fla.

“I said, ‘I’ll tell you right now, we’re going in we’re going to kick their butt,’ ” Mallory said. “And I said, ‘Our players will be ready to play them.’ ”

Miami went down to Gainesville and came out with a 16-7 win.

For all the flak the BCS has gotten, NIU wouldn’t be playing on New Year’s Day if not for the current system.

“I would argue that the evolution of the BCS has probably been a very positive thing for the Mid-American Conference and several conferences like us,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.

NIU may be the first MAC team to be playing in a BCS game. However, if the current rules were in place, Marshall in 1999 and Miami (Ohio) in 2003 would have earned BCS bids.

“[The BCS]’s done some things. It has provided some access,” Steinbrecher said. “It’s a tough road. It’s a really steep slope you have to climb to get there.”

MAC’s superb year

A record seven MAC teams made bowl games this season.

NIU fans who remember the Huskies’ 10-2 team from 2003 can’t forget that their team didn’t go to a bowl game.

In 2003, the MAC had just two teams play in bowls, and the conference had only one tie-in before the 2001 season.

The league has benefited from the large number of bowl games – there are 35 this season – and additional conference tie-ins. The MAC has agreements with the Famous Idaho Potato, Little Caesar’s Pizza and Bowls and some secondary tie-ins as well.

Steinbrecher credits the additional revenue the MAC gains from the BCS system as one of the reasons MAC teams can participate in more bowl games now. That money often offsets the financial losses teams experience when playing in less popular bowl games. NIU lost more than $150,000 as a result of playing in the 2012 Bowl.

However, the number of teams competing in the bowl season shows just one way the conference has been successful.

Four teams – NIU, Toledo, Ohio and Kent State – have been ranked at one point this season.

When talking about the success of the conference, one thing Steinbrecher and NIU athletic director Jeff Compher point to is the league’s stability. With all of the recent conference realignment, the MAC has remained pretty much the same.

Its only recent departure has been Temple to the Big East, and the Owls were a football-only member.

“For the most part we’re a known commodity and I think people know what they’re going to get from the MAC,” Compher said. “We’ve got great coaches and I think the ADs in this league continue to hire great coaches.”

There is little separation between athletic budgets from school to school, and travel isn’t a problem. Geography isn’t as much of an issue as it is in many conferences and there are still some nice rivalries with the Ohio and Michigan schools.

“I’d say in today’s day and age being a bus league is a pretty good thing,” Steinbrecher said.

More access in the future

Even though it’s become more common, whenever a non-AQ school makes a BCS bowl game, it’s a big story.

That will change in two years, when college football’s new playoff system is put into place. In the new system, the top team from the “Group of Five” (Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt) chosen by a selection committee will receive an automatic bid into one of the six “access bowls.”

Some people have said NIU’s appearance in a game like the Orange Bowl is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

With a new, more mid-major friendly bowl system on the way, maybe that won’t be the case.

“It just gives us another goal to shoot for,” Compher said. “Now we want to be the first team from the other conferences to be able to play for that.”

How they ranked
Northern Illinois became the first MAC program to break into a BCS Bowl game with its Orange Bowl bid against Florida State on Jan. 1. The Huskies boast the highest final BCS poll ranking since Miami was ranked 11th in 2003. Below is a look at how the MAC fared in the final BCS poll.

Year               Team                       Rank
1999              Marshall                  12th
2003              Miami (OH)              11th
2003              Bowling Green         24th
2008              Ball State                 22nd
2012              Northern Illinois       15th
2012              Kent State                25th

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