Those who complain about how radical conference realignment has been in the last few years ought to consider the Mid-American Conference. The MAC has dealt with realignment on an almost constant basis, and the transition from 2004 to 2005 was no different.
For the second time, Marshall decided to go find greener pastures, this time after spending fewer than ten years in the league. They took Central Florida with them to Conference USA, and UCF had only been with the MAC for three seasons. The departures brought the MAC back down to 12 teams and forced Bowling Green to move back to the Eastern Division.
Things were changing on the field, too. In addition to Marshall's departure, Toledo's dominance of the West was ending, and the next four years would see the rise of new teams to unprecedented heights.
Year 9 -- 2005
For those of you familiar only with the train wreck known as Akron from 2009 to 2012, you may be incredibly surprised to find out that the Zips were actually very competitive in the first years of the 21st century. Akron had winning records and finished in the top half of the East four times in the first eight years of the MAC's divisional era, and that included both 2003 (7-5, 5-3 MAC) and 2004 (6-5, 6-2 MAC). In 2005, the Zips finally put it all together and captured the division championship. Akron was once again 6-5 in the regular season but finished 5-3 in the MAC. They were tied with Miami and Bowling Green for the division title but won the tiebreaker with the help of an early-season victory over Northern Illinois at the Rubber Bowl.
The Huskies recovered well from that loss and dropped only one other conference game all season. NIU finished in a tie for the Western Division title with Toledo but won the tiebreaker thanks to a 35-17 win in a November game at the Glass Bowl. UT would not win so much as a share of a division title again until 2011. NIU's division championship allowed for a chance at redemption in a rematch with Akron at Ford Field in Detroit.
As had so often been the case in the early years of the MAC title game, this contest came down to the final seconds, as both teams milked as much drama out of the game as they possibly could.
Akron started off well and took a 3-0 lead on a Jason Swiger field goal early in the first quarter. Later in that first 15 minutes, Northern Illinois lined up for a field goal attempt of their own, but senior nose guard Kiki Gonzalez blocked Chris Nendick's attempt. Shortly after, Dennis Kennedy rumbled in from three yards out for a touchdown and a 10-0 Zips lead.
The middle of the game belonged to Northern Illinois. Star running back Garrett Wolfe scored early in the second quarter on a one-yard run, then Nendick tied the game with a 21-yard field goal just before halftime. In the third quarter, Wolfe continued to dominate and gave NIU its first lead on an 11-yard run with 5:05 left in the quarter. The Huskies then pushed their lead to 24-10 on a touchdown pass three minutes later.
Akron answered in the fourth quarter with two touchdown runs, but each was followed by Nendick field goals. The first was from 52 yards out, then Nendick nailed a 46 yard attempt with 3;28 left in the game for a 30-24 lead.
The Zips took possession one final time with 1:41 remaining on the clock and 81 yards needed to reach the end zone. With less than 20 seconds left, Akron had reached only the NIU 36, but then destiny stepped in. Zips' quarterback Luke Getsy lofted a long pass to Domenik Hixon, and Hixon cradled the pass in the end zone for a touchdown with just 10 seconds to go. Swiger came in and calmly kicked the extra point, and Akron celebrated a stunning 31-30 victory.
Getsy finished 30-for-50 with 413 yards passing. Wolfe rushed for an amazing 270 yards thanks to 42 carries.
The win helped Akron get the bid to the Motor City Bowl, but the Zips fell in that game 38-31. Akron has not had a winning season since. Western Division co-champion Toledo was invited to the GMAC Bowl, and the Rockets defeated UTEP in that contest, 45-13. Five MAC teams with winning records failed to receive a bowl invitation, including Northern Illinois.
Year 10 -- 2006
In 2006, there was no doubt that the new guard had begun their reign over the MAC. Bowling Green, Miami and Toledo had all slipped to losing records in the conference, while Northern Illinois went just 5-3. Replacing those former behemoths were teams like Kent State and Western Michigan, as well as two brand new division champions.
Ohio and Central Michigan had generally been fodder for other teams in the MAC since the conference adopted the championship game, but now it was their turn. Both teams dominated their respective divisions in 2006. Ohio finished 9-3 in the second year of Frank Solich's tenure with the Bobcats, and that included a 7-1 record in the MAC. The Bobcats finished two games ahead of Kent State and at least four games ahead of everyone else in the division. In the West, Central Michigan faced a tougher slate but managed to pull out eight wins and earned a 7-1 conference mark. That won the division by one game over Western Michigan.
CMU went to Detroit seeking their first MAC title since 1994. Ohio had not won one since 1968.
In what could be seen as a window into the 2013 championship game, the 2006 affair was between the MAC's best offense (Central Michigan) and the MAC's best defense (Ohio). CMU was led by Freshman of the Year Dan LeFevour, and his six-yard touchdown pass was the only scoring of the first quarter.
Ohio evened the score early in the second quarter with a touchdown run, but CMU reclaimed the lead just 1:14 after Ohio's score, when LeFevour threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Damien Linson. A field goal several minutes later allowed the Chippewas to take a 17-7 lead to halftime. An Ohio field goal midway through the third quarter cut the score to 17-10, and that's where it stood until the final 15 minutes.
Just two minutes into the fourth quarter, Ontario Sneed hauled in a short touchdown pass from LeFevour, as Central Michigan took a 24-10 lead that gave them firm control of the game. Later in the quarter, Sneed put the game away when he broke off a championship-game-record 96-yard touchdown run. CMU's defense held for an emphatic 31-10 victory; it was only the third time in the game's ten year history that the winning margin was more than eight points.
LeFevour threw for 314 yards, while Sneed rushed for 130 on just nine carries. Linson caught seven balls for 191 yards, while CMU's defense held Ohio to just 224 total yards. Ohio defensive lineman Jameson Hartke was team MVP with two sacks and four tackles for loss, which totaled 30 yards.
Four of the MAC's five eligible teams went to bowl games following the season. MAC champ CMU stayed home for the Motor City Bowl and defeated Middle Tennessee State 31-14. Runner-up Ohio went to the GMAC Bowl, where the Bobcats fell 28-7 to Southern Mississippi. Northern Illinois lost to TCU 37-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl, while Western Michigan lost 27-24 to Cincinnati in the International Bowl.
Year 11 -- 2007
The MAC added the Temple Owls as a 13th team for the 2007, thus returning the league to imbalanced divisions, and imbalanced schedule, and wacky ways to determine division champions.
Miami and Central Michigan were both the beneficiaries, as the RedHawks won their third Eastern Division title in five years, while the Chippewas won the Western Division for the second consecutive year.
Miami finished 5-2 in the East but actually had a worse record than Bowling Green, as the Falcons played (and won) one more game to finish 6-2. However, because division champion was decided by division record (rather than overall conference record), Miami tied with BGSU and Buffalo for the division crown with 4-2 marks. The RedHawks beat both teams and claimed the tiebreaker for the division title. Meanwhile, the Chippewas' 6-1 MAC recorrd was the league's best, but the division record rule put them in a tie at 4-1 in the West with Ball State. Fortunately, CMU defeated Ball State during the regular season to win the tiebreaker.
Central Michigan's offense was slow to get going, but their defense dominated yet another championship game as the Chippewas walked away with a repeat MAC championship.
A three-yard touchdown pass from Dan LeFevour to Kito Poblah in the first quarter was the only scoring of the first half. In fact, that 7-0 led held until Nathan Parseghian kicked a 38-yard field goal with 6:23 left in the third quarter. CMU answered the Miami score, however. LeFevour thundered his way for a 21-yard touchdown run just 80 seconds after Miami's field goal, and the Chippewas led 14-3 as the two teams headed to the fourth quarter.
Early in the fourth, Ontario Sneed capped an 80-yard drive with a one-yard run for a 21-3 lead. Daniel Raudabaugh then led Miami on a 69-yard march for his team's first (and only) touchdown. Nursing a 21-10 lead, LeFevour calmly guided the Chippewas on another scoring drive, and Sneed scored his second touchdown of the quarter with just 7:10 to play. Down 28-10, Miami would not threaten again. LeFevour scored his second rushing touchdown from 28 yards out for the final 35-10 margin with less than five minutes to play.
LeFevour, who was the first quarterback since Chad Pennington to win back-to-back MAC title games, earned 355 yards of total offense with 185 passing and another 170 rushing. Sneed added 67 rushing yards for the Chippewas, while CMU's defense held Miami to just 52 yards rushing on 25 attempts.
The loss dropped Miami to 6-7 and made the RedHawks ineligible for a bowl game. Central Michigan's win earned the Chippewas another Motor City Bowl spot, but this time, they lost to Purdue in a thrilling 51-48 game. The MAC also lost its other two bowl games, as Ball State fell to Rutgers, 52-30, in the International Bowl, while Tulsa smashed Bowling Green 63-7 in the GMAC Bowl.
Year 12 -- 2008
Central Michigan, two-time defending MAC champions, went into the 2008 season as the heavy favorites to win a third title in a row. Of course, things don't always go as planned. The Chippewas played well enough, as they earned an 8-4 overall record and a 6-2 mark in the MAC. However, those wins could not compete with the freight train known as Ball State. Head coach Brady Hoke and quarterback Nate Davis led the Cardinals to a perfect 12-0 regular season, and BSU rose as high as #12 in the BCS standings. The Cardinals secured the division title in the next-to-last game of the season, with a 31-24 win at Central Michigan.
In the Eastern Division, as two games separated six of the seven teams in the final standings. Buffalo won four of their first six MAC games, however, and held a significant advantage when they traveled to Bowling Green in November for a game with the BGSU Falcons. Win that game, and Buffalo would capture their first division championship. Buffalo fell behind 27-7 in the fourth quarter, but an all-time great comeback sent the game into overtime tied at 27. The Bulls won 40-34 in the second overtime on a walk-off touchdown run by James Starks, and the Bulls punched their ticket to Detroit.
In a battle of first-time championship game participants, both defenses held firm early in the game. Buffalo finally broke through with 1:58 left in the frame when Naaman Roosevelt caught a short touchdown pass from Drew Willy. Ball State finally answered on their fifth possession of the game, midway through the second quarter. Nate Davis drove the Cardinals the length of the field, and MiQuale Lewis ran for a four-yard touchdown to even the score. Ian McGarvey then kicked a field goal as the half expired, and the Cardinals took a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
During the first half of the third quarter, the two teams traded the lead. Buffalo earned a 14-10 edge when Roosevelt caught his second touchdown pass of the game, this time from 39 yards out. Later, Lewis scored another touchdown for the Cardinals, as Ball State reclaimed a 17-14 lead. Buffalo failed to do anything on their next drive, and Ball State immediately threatened to score again.
Then, the Cardinals lost the ability to control the football. Buffalo's Josh Thomas hit Nate Davis, forcing a fumble, and Mike Newton recovered it. He rumbled 92 yards for a touchdown and gave Buffalo the lead at 21-17. Just minutes later, a poor snap resulted in another disaster for BSU. Again in Buffalo territory, the lost snap was picked up by Sherrod Lott, who returned the fumble 74 yards for another touchdown. The shell-shocked Cardinals entered the fourth quarter down 28-17.
Ball State never recovered. Their next two drives ended in a turnover on downs and another lost fumble. After that fourth fumble of the game, Buffalo drove for the game-clinching touchdown, as Roosevelt caught his third touchdown pass for a 35-17 lead. Davis earned BSU's final points with a touchdown pass to Louis Johnson, but by then, it was too late. Buffalo scored their final touchdown on a James Starks run with 2:53 left. Davis threw his only interception of the game in the final minute for Ball State's fifth turnover of the night.
Ball State outgained Buffalo 503-301 behind 351 yards passing from Davis and 131 yards rushing from Lewis, but the Cardinals could not overcome the turnovers. Willy threw for 206 yards, while Starks ran for 81.
Despite winning the MAC title handily, Buffalo was not sent to either Detroit or Mobile for their bowl game. Rather, the Bulls went to Toronto for the International Bowl, where they lost to Connecticut 38-20. Ball State got the trip to Mobile for the GMAC Bowl, and they were the next big victim of Tulsa, as the Golden Hurricane won 45-13. Three other MAC schools went bowling after the 2008 season. Central Michigan went to the Motor City Bowl for the third straight year and lost 24-21 to Florida Atlantic. Northern Illinois lost to Louisiana Tech, 17-14, in the Independence Bowl, while Western Michigan was manhandled 38-14 in the Texas Bowl by Rice. Overall, the MAC went 0-5 to extend their bowl losing streak to 11.
Our final installment in this four-part series...A HUSKIE DYNASTY.
- MAC Championship Game History, Part II: Hello, Detroit!
- MAC Championship Game History, Part I: The Marshall Years
- MAC Championship Game 2013 Preview: Bowling Green vs. No. 14 Northern Illinois
- NIU's Rod Carey Named Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year
- Introducing Chuck Martin, Miami University's New Head Coach