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Northern Illinois-Toledo: The MAC's Answer To Utah-TCU

Rivalry is a strange word. It implies a longstanding tradition of getting pissed off by one another, which makes for a good football game. It's a nebulous term that could apply to everyone, especially by athletic departments, that will refer to in-state rivals or division rivals or nonconference rivals. Or maybe it means a trophy is involved, and nobody can just "have" a trophy game. It costs like 50 bucks to have one of those made!

But Toledo-NIU is not a rivalry, at least in the purest college football terms. Toledo has Bowling Green, while NIU really doesn't have anybody to exclusively loathe in the MAC. Their closest geographical antagonists are either WMU and Ball State. There's no fun in either of those directions. So they take the turnpike east and wind up in Toledo, where they seem to get more aggravated over this annual game than any other.

And if you saw the final crucial play of their '09 game, you'd understand:

Understand, of course, that this was a battle of 3-3 and 3-2 teams. A little yawn-tastic. But throughout NIU's return to the MAC since 1999, they've had some great years that were properly thwomped by a loss to Toledo:

2009: Toledo 20, NIU 19
2008: NIU 38, Toledo 7
2007: Toledo 70, NIU 21
2006: Toledo 17, NIU 13
2005: NIU 35, Toledo 17
2004: Toledo 31, NIU 17
2003: Toledo 49, NIU 30
2002: Toledo 33, NIU 30
2001: Toledo 41, NIU 20
2000: Toledo 38, NIU 24
1999: Toledo 44, NIU 14
1998: Toledo 16, NIU 3
1997: Toledo 41, NIU 14

Well, '08 was a bad year for Toledo (save for the win at Michigan), which leaves 2005 as their most impressive win against Toledo ... especially since it happened in the Glass Bowl by double digits. Other than that, history has shown that the Rockets have foiled the Huskies plans for any type of great year.

This is adding up to a great year for Northern Illinois. They have the winning streak. They're destroying everybody in the MAC they're playing. They have the de facto win against a Big Ten team — even though it was Minnesota. Their quarterback Chandler Harnish is healthy, and running back Chad Spann is tanking through whatever defense is placed in front of him. The defense is making opposing quarterbacks look silly and occasionally bruised. They're 7-2 and going to roll through the next visiting team ... right?

Well, Toledo hasn't lost in the MAC either. They also have the prerequisite signature win against the Big Ten — and it's a little better one, against Purdue. In fact, their only road loss was to Boise State. Even though they were murdered by Arizona and surprisingly tripped up by Wyoming at home, everyone else has been baffled by the Rockets' tablespoonfuls of offense and defense. Unfortunately, that offense took a slight downgrade with the broken collarbone of quarterback Austin Dantin, but personally the choice to start the season was a toss-up between him and Terrance Owens, so this basically makes the decision easier. You saw Owens have scintillating numbers against the Eastern Michigan Nacho Lovers. Dantin would've had the same banner day. If you want ... okay, Owens starting instead of Dantin gives UT a 5 percent less chance of winning.

And when you view this game from a large scale, doesn't this have all the makings of a poor man's Utah-TCU? Neither NIU nor Toledo are close to ranked, but the Mountain West had its national day in the sun last weekend with two top-five teams and a legitimate faceoff for BCS credibility. As you saw/read, TCU stole all the attention with a 44-7 smashing of the Utes, so the game didn't go quite as planned. Well, that, and being on CBS College Sports, causing millions of fans to search for that print copy of the channel guide they received three years ago when they first got cable.

With that in mind, is this the biggest MAC regular season game in a while? Are we overstating this too much? We can point to 2003, when GameDay went to the NIU-Bowling Green game (both ranked), and the subsequent week when BG played Miami (again, both ranked). Temple-Ohio was pivotal last year in the other division. Ball State met up with CMU in 2008 when they both had flawless MAC records — and Ball State was 10-0. No, it's probably not the biggest MAC regular season game in a while, upon further reflection, but for either of these teams, it's probably, for both, their biggest game in five years.

The spoils, if you haven't figured it out: the decisive inside track to play in the MAC Championship. NIU hasn't been there since 2005, and Toledo since '04. The way this narrative usually goes, the Rockets will find a way to upset the Huskies and stay perfect in the MAC. Northern Illinois, this hypothetical story unfolds, doesn't win the MAC West, doesn't go to Ford Field for a shot at the championship, but they still get a dinky bowl appearance.

Luckily for the bedtime readers's book club, I'm pretty sure this is a work of fiction. Looking at this game and thinking for about three seconds, "NIU in a close one" immediately comes to mind. The more I think about it, rarely does that conclusion waver from the gut reaction. There's no need to stare at the 8-29 all-time record against the Rockets, fair DeKalbians. Barry Church isn't on the other side of the line to block anything. Because this one's gonna feel right for a change. Guess: NIU 30, Toledo 26