"Well, Who Did You Play?" How To Beat the Strength of Schedule Argument

Mark A. Cunningham

The week of the most important conference championship game in all of college football, Hustle Belt shatters the "strength of schedule" argument.

"Well who did you play?"

I encountered this question, as I have more times than I can count, upon entering a LIDS store in Evansville, Indiana last week on the eve of Thanksgiving.  I had entered the store looking for a new Ball State hat, a ritual of mine when making visits to the Midwest.  I found zero.  What I did find was rows and rows of Indiana, Purdue, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Kentucky hats.  For those unaware of the allegiances of the tri-state area, it's certainly split.  Firstly, basketball is king, and it's not uncommon to find someone wearing the colors of the aforementioned schools.  Certainly with their recent basketball successes there's been an increase in Louisville apparel, though those fans will tell you they've followed the Cardinals since birth.

I inquired to the Hat Punk behind the counter, "Where are you hiding the Ball State hats?"  With the marked indifference that can only be mustered by an individual destined to shell hats for the rest of his existence, he asked, "Who wants a Ball State hat?"

Now, I bleed Cardinal and White.  Readers of previous posts have certainly figured that out by now.  Growing up in a family that has produced dozens of Purdue graduates, that dissention was difficult to navigate.  Nevertheless I was the first in my family to attend Ball State University, graduated in 2005, and thanks to my BSU degree, moved to the beach.  I'm going to tread lightly though, because it's not a contest, but if it were, Hat Punk would be losing.

"Well, I want a Ball State hat."

"Why?"

Son of a....I must stop myself.  Sometimes my mom reads these articles.

"Well I'm a graduate, and it's a good time to be a Ball State fan.  10-2, exciting team, shooting for the first bowl win in school history."

Hat Punk seemed unimpressed.  I knew the next words out of his mouth, because I've heard them since graduation.  I heard them when the Cardinals ran the table in the regular season, going 12-0 in 2008, and the question has been commonplace during this historic season for Ball State.  I was ready for the criticism, a criticism that erodes with every new MAC accomplishment.

"Yeah, well who did they play?"

He was dead in this discussion.  I defend Ball State and the Mid-American Conference fervently.  It reaches the level of obnoxiousness, and I make no apologies.  MAC fans, pay attention.  You've likely heard from Hat Punk before.  Have enough discussions about college football, and it's inevitable.  Respond in the following way, absorb the blank stare, and obliterate your opponent like Jordan Lynch running over Purdue on homecoming.

"I don't know man, who did we play?"

They never know.  The assumption is that if they don't know the name of the competition, it must be inferior competition.  Nobody says you have to be a college football fan, but this fan is the lowest common denominator.  The fan who supports a Notre Dame BCS appearance because, well, it's Notre Dame.

So who did we play?  Well friend, I'll tell you who we played.

Illinois State.  An FCS school, and at least for the 2013 season, an unimpressive one at that.  There's some talent at quarterback though.  Perhaps you've heard of Jared Barnett.  Yes that's the Jared Barnett who transferred from Iowa State, and has a pair of Cyclone wins over nationally ranked Oklahoma State and Texas Tech under his belt.

Army.  Yes the Black Knights are 3-8, and they're bad.  They're also the number one rushing offense in all of college football.

North Texas.  Eight wins, a bowl game on the horizon, and a top 20 rushing defense that yields just 125 yards on the ground.

Toledo.  Yes that's the Toledo that was down just one score to number 5 ranked Missouri in the fourth quarter on September 7th.  The Toledo who beat an Eastern Washington squad that opened their season with a victory over Pac-12 foe Oregon State.  The Toledo who knocked off a Navy team with a pair of BCS AQ wins under their belt.  The Toledo who scored a 28-25 win over MAC East champion Bowling Green on October 26th.  And the Toledo who has David Fluellen, who rushes for north of 123 yards per contest.

Virginia.  Yep, Virginia sucks.  Unfortunately that's the only BCS AQ school we got to play this year, and we destroyed them.  Ball State racked up over 500 yards of total offense in the destruction of the Cavaliers.  Soon we will get more and better cracks at the big boys though.  Ball State gets Iowa in 2014, Northwestern in 2015, and Indiana and Michigan in 2016.

Akron.  Why mention Akron?  Well if I'm to give credit to Michigan for playing potential national championship game entrant Ohio State to within a point, then I'm going to remind you that Akron played the Wolverines to within a score at the Big House.

Northern Illinois.  What don't you already know about the Huskies?  Hustle Belt is covered with the accomplishments of the Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch.  Lynch isn't just a great quarterback in the MAC, he would be a great quarterback in any conference, against any competition.  Northern Illinois won against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium to open the season, then steamrolled Purdue a month later.  Lynch shattered the record for rushing yards in a game for a quarterback then broke his own record, which now sits at 321 yards.  A victory Friday against Bowling Green in the conference championship game and the Huskies are likely headed back to a BCS game for the second consecutive year.

What Hat Punk doesn't know is that we want to play the big conference schools.  All of us do.  The argument we're often encountered with is, "well that's a lose-lose situation for us."  That's called fear.  We're nipping at  your heels as it is.  The country's best athletes are losing interest in historic programs who have run the same offense for 50 years and think "of course they want to go to school here, we're Notre Dame!  We're USC!  We're Texas!"  Slowly but surely, you're losing the battle.  Instead of running until you puke, how about playing on Tuesday in all black unis, trying to break the scoreboard with a high flying offense.  Deny it if you want, that's the direction it's headed.  This year it's Northern Illinois, and it may well be the Huskies time for awhile, but we'll always have a team that brings chaos to the dysfunctional and broken system that is college football.

My cousin was with me at the time.  He's a fantastic student, starting quarterback on his high school football team, and considering Ball State University among other schools. Suffice it to say, it amounted to a successful first recruiting trip.

Hat Punk took the fifth from there, neglecting to provide any further analysis on the schedules played by Mid-American Conference schools.  I would be interested in continuing this discussion further, but he will need to travel to a stone's throw within the Pacific Ocean if that's to happen.

MACtion.

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