DETROIT – The Mid-American Conference will have a hard time topping the past 12 months, when Northern Illinois made it to the Orange Bowl and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Still, there’s at least one other way the league can set itself apart in the coming years.
“People say ‘the Mid-American Conference’ – they know who’s in it,” Central Michigan coach Dan Enos said. “Some of these other leagues, you could go around and take a poll, they may not know who’s in what conference.”
The MAC suddenly stands out as a picture of stability in a college football landscape muddled by realignment. No, it won’t be challenging the Southeastern Conference or Big Ten in terms of brand recognition any time soon, but fans of the mid-major conference know exactly what to expect each season – exciting football in a league with plenty of parity and rivalries going back decades.
“We’ve kind of kept our head down and kept plowing ahead, and I’m fortunate and pleased that we have had such stability,” Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said at the conference’s media day Tuesday. “There’s something to be said for that.”
The MAC was founded as a five-school league in 1946, and Ohio is the only charter member still in the league. But Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio joined in 1947, and Toledo, Kent State and Bowling Green entered during the early 1950s.
Central Michigan (1971), Eastern Michigan (1971) and Ball State (1973) have all been with the conference at least four decades, and Northern Illinois was a member from 1975-86 before returning in 1997.
The newest members include Akron (1992), Buffalo (1998) and Massachusetts, which joined as a football-only entry in 2012.
So that’s 13 teams, and almost half have been in the league at least six decades. There is occasional turnover, but not enough to change the basic complexion of the conference, which currently has six schools in Ohio and three in Michigan.
“We look alike in so many ways,” Steinbrecher said. “We’ve been on a nice upward trend here the last few years across a number of different metrics, and the goal is to keep moving in that direction.”
Last season, Northern Illinois went to the Orange Bowl. Then Fisher, the hulking offensive lineman whose stock kept rising as the draft approached, was taken by the Kansas City Chiefs with the top pick.
“If you’re a player, people are going to find you,” Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch said. “Eric Fisher — the guy was a player, and they found him.”
Lynch finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year, and he enters the 2013 season with plenty of hype. The Huskies are trying to become the first team to win three straight MAC titles since Marshall won four in a row from 1997-2000.
But don’t be deceived. Anything can happen in this league. The last nine seasons have included six different champions. Last year’s title game went to double overtime after the previous two were decided in the final seconds.
One area in which the MAC deals with occasional upheaval is in the coaching ranks — a byproduct of the league’s reputation as a proving ground for talented coaches. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke all passed through the MAC earlier in their careers.
Sure enough, the league has three new coaches this season – Paul Haynes at Kent State, Rod Carey at Northern Illinois and P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan. Carey made his debut as the Huskies’ coach in the Orange Bowl because predecessor Dave Doeren had taken the North Carolina State job after the regular season.
That was an odd scenario, but it was the price of success for the MAC, a league that has built a nice tradition while understanding the challenges of competing with other, more prosperous conferences. Now, the rest of college football is in a state of flux – and the MAC moves forward amid minimal drama.
“I think that we have a special league,” said Fleck, who at 32 is the youngest coach in major college football. “I think that we’re kind of off in our little special area over here, and you don’t see everybody either coming after us, or us going after someone else. We understand who we are, but we also love who we are and respect everything that goes on in this conference.”