The MAC football championship will be settled on Friday night in Detroit, when Northern Illinois meets Bowling Green at Ford Field (8 PM ET, ESPN2). It’ s not too much to say this might be the most significant game in the history of this conference, and might not be even too much to call it the best matchup of all the championship games that college football fans have to choose from in this greatest weekend of the year.
Northern Illinois is playing to cap an unbeaten season and to all but clinch a BCS bowl berth. With a win, the Huskies could be looking at a Sugar Bowl date with Alabama, depending on how things fall in the other games around the country. With a loss, NIU is staring at either a return trip to Detroit for the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl, or a vacation to frigid Boise for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, either of which would pit the Huskies against a team from the lower half of a power conference. Those are high stakes.
The Heisman Trophy race stands to be impacted as well. Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch has completed 64 percent of his passes, has a 22/5 TD-INT ratio, he’s rushed for over 1,700 yards and can make his case for an award where all other contenders seem to be shooting themselves in the foot.
At the very least, he needs to be invited to the ceremony. When I was in frigid and windy Dekalb last week for the NIU season finale, a sign in the stands said it all–“You can’t spell Lynch without n-y-c.” No, you can’t, both literally and in the figurative sense conveyed by the sign.
Northern Illinois has beaten a good Iowa team on the road and blown out Purdue–it used to be the lowest rung of the Big Ten could get healthy on the best of the MAC. Those days are gone thanks in no small part to the program built in Dekalb.
So is Friday night just a coronation for Lynch, 1,000-yard-rusher Cameron Stingily and the rest of the Huskies? I don’t think so.
Bowling Green is only allowing 13.8 ppg on defense, the fifth-best in the country. They have a 1,400-yard rusher in Travis Greene. And while quarterback Matt Johnson isn’t in Lynch’s class as a runner and he’s not quite as efficient, the downfield passing game for the Falcons is a little bit better.
With three losses, including a 42-10 blowout loss to Indiana, the Bowling Green resume doesn’t measure up to Northern Illinois. But the Falcons are coming on strong. They closed the year with four straight wins by a combined score of 176-17. Two of those wins came over winning teams, and one of them–the Black Friday finale at Buffalo was a road game with the MAC East title on the line.
The resumes might not be comparable if we were ranking these teams, but if we’re just looking ahead to what’s going to happen on Friday night, I think there’s every reason to expect a heavyweight fight. And while TheSportsNotebook has made a few bad predictions over the years (okay, countless ones), this Bowling Green-Northern Illinois title fight was forecast back in August.
Oddsmakers are being appropriately cautious. Northern Illinois has not played any of the winning teams from the opposite division (including Buffalo and Ohio), and given the resume differential, the line of Huskies (-4) seems pretty short.
There’s no mistaking where my fan support resides in this game–I’m rooting strongly for Northern Illinois. But I picked Bowling Green to win this conference championship at the start of the year, and there’s not a lot of reason to change course, especially given that my spidey-senses are shouting upset as we get set for the Friday night title fight.