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The Top MAC Stories Of 2011

No question, Bernard Pierce wins MAC Smile of the Year.
No question, Bernard Pierce wins MAC Smile of the Year.

Last year I did a straight ranking of the top 10 stories. We had fun and there was little disagreement. And I'm not going to press my luck by doubling down and doing another one just like it. See, this was our first year at Hustle Belt in which we covered the conference for the ENTIRE calendar year. This site began in August 2010, just in time for football season, but that means we missed all the good stuff from the winter/spring sports.

Now we've been paying attention the entire time. Consider this a slapdash year in review for 2011, hitting the big stories and linking back to what we've done all year.

In terms of how Hustle Belt has changed, we gathered a TON of new writers who've been contributing solid gold nuggets whenever they've had time in their already-busy schedules, and they're all troopers because I can't pay them squat. We also gained further accreditation by joining the MAC Affiliate Network, resulting in access to some of their exclusive video highlights that they just don't disseminate to anybody. (But in fairness, they do give them to us, so they will indeed give them to anybody.)

And our traffic has just kept getting better this year. I think we finally started getting picked up by Google News in the beginning of the calendar year, but I'll credit most of the site improvements to the SB Nation network, who keep throwing in technical improvements and other general tips to the blogging collective as a whole. I know for a fact that the improvements will only keep rolling themselves out. And fortunately the site outages have been minimal and not during big important games.

Because this was our first full year doing the site, we had to keep busy somehow during the summer months, and that's how MACwood Squares was born. If you missed out on this, we counted down each week to a "Hollywood Squares"-style Photoshop of the nine best athletes from each of the schools, and something else for Temple football. They took a ridiculously large amount of time but I had fun doing them and I hope you enjoyed the results.

If you missed 'em, here they are: Akron | Ball State | BGSU | Buffalo | CMU | EMU | Kent State | Miami | NIU | OHIO | Temple | Toledo | WMU

Now for the non-site stories, known in the business as "the actual news." We're taking a big risk here that nothing wacky happens between now and Saturday night, such as Mike Haywood getting into another fight.

Here come the Hustlemen — UMass announces a football-only move to MAC

The rumors were leaked well before, but starting in 2012 the University of Massachusetts will begin playing in the Bowl Subdivision for the first time ever, and they're jumping right into a conference, getting the "Temple deal" to be football-only and play four OOC basketball games against the MAC annually. They'll also play their home games in Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, which is a bit of a commute from the UMass campus, so that's weird.

And we still don't know how the divisions will shake down, so consider that a 2012 story.

WNIT Champs, Baby! Toledo runs the table in consolation tourney

They lost to Eastern Michigan in the MAC Women's Tournament semis, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise for the dangerous Rockets. They bid high and won home games throughout the 64-team, six-round tournament, beating Delaware, Auburn, Alabama, Syracuse, Charlotte and finally USC to claim their first tournament win in school history. Naama Shafir was named MVP and scored 40 points in the title game, which Savage Arena sold out in under 24 hours.

An individual wrestling national championship? Sure, let's include it.

Kent State's Dustin Kilgore pinned Oklahoma State's Clayton Foster, who had been undefeated going into the final, to win the 197-pound division and give KSU its first-ever wrestling championship and the MAC's first individual champ in 12 years.

RedHawk hardware — Andy Miele wins the Hobey Baker Award.

This was the first Hobey won by a "MAC hockey" player since Brian Holzinger (BGSU) in 1995.

Miami also won a national championship in synchronized skating.

Yes, that is a thing.

And then there were actual champeenships.

Akron won the basketball championship as a bit of a surprise team (the 6-seed) but that fortune would come back to get them. Their heavily-favored soccer team was bounced by WMU in the soccer championship, which NIU ended up winning. NIU also took home the football championship, their first in 28 years.

Men's championships:
Baseball: Kent State
Basketball: Akron
Cross country: EMU
Football: NIU
Golf: Kent State
Indoor track/field: Akron
Outdoor track/field: Akron
Soccer: NIU
Swimming/diving: Buffalo
Tennis: Ball State
Wrestling: CMU

Women's championships
Basketball: BGSU
Cross country: Toledo
Field hockey: OHIO
Golf: Kent State
Indoor track/field: EMU
Outdoor track/field: Kent State
Tennis: Akron
Soccer: Toledo
Softball: WMU
Swimming/diving: OHIO
Volleyball: CMU

National tournament doings were a bit neater beyond basketball.

While the basketball teams remain one-bid ponies (not to mention Akron men and BG women were both first-round sacrificial lambs), other sports were much more fortunate.

Volleyball saw a MAC-record four teams play in tournaments, although they all lost in the first round. MAC soccer had two teams reach the tournament, thanks to Akron earning an at-large. NIU made it to the second round and Akron fell in the third round.

In baseball, Kent State almost made it out of the Austin regional as a 3-seed, winning their first two games to advance to the final (including a win over CWS participant Texas) but dropped two games to Texas in the final, ending their run.

And in hockey, Miami won the CCHA Tournament and WMU earned an at-large bid but both were knocked out in the first round.

Football captured the hearts and minds of the country, mostly thanks to bad defense. (a.k.a: #MACtion)

But let's give credit to the offense as well. The MAC had the most consistently fun-to-watch games of the entire year. From Toledo's Tuesday night fireworks displays (a 63-60 loss to NIU followed by a 66-63 win over WMU). Both of these set numerous conference records, including points in a game (129) and they didn't even need overtime. MAC West teams averaged 33.97 points per conference game, which was more prolific than any other FBS conference or division this season.

Other great finishes: Akron lost to CMU 23-22 after trying a 2-point conversion and not doing so well. BGSU and Buffalo both lost games after potential game-tying touchdowns with less than five seconds in the game were followed by missed extra points. Toledo had other exciting games, almost knocking off Ohio State but fell 27-22, then they experienced a review debacle at Syracuse. And even the MAC Championship was pretty sweet.

And the BOWLS.

It began on January 6 when Miami GOT THEIR DAYMN TROPHY with a 35-21 victory over Middle Tennessee State, going from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in one year. Then the success continued with bowl wins in the 2011-12 cycle: OHIO over Utah State in the Idaho Potato Bowl, Temple over Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl, and Toledo topping Air Force in the Military Bowl. WMU did not win theirs, but that's OK: it was the first time the MAC won three bowl games in a single season.

Also, Eastern Michigan isn't one to kick around anymore.

Ron English won the MAC Coach of the Year for getting EMU to a 6-6 mark, meaning for the first time in 16 years they didn't have a losing season. That was big.

Per standard procedure, here are the dadgum coaching changes.

The MAC always gets new coaches, and while this year wasn't as much a stampede out of the conference as usual, it was nevertheless substantial. In basketball, NIU replaced Ricardo Patton with Mark Montgomery. EMU switched Charles Ramsey with Rob Murphy. Kent State, having lost Geno Ford to Bradley, promoted Rob Senderoff. In football, Tim Beckman departed to Illinois and was replaced with Matt Campbell. Akron got rid of Rob Ianello (in transit to his mom's funeral) and after almost a month finally replaced him with perhaps the most recognizable name in football since Frank Solich: Terry Bowden. Weird how that happens. UMass even made a coaching move, replacing Kevin Morris with Charley Molnar.

In hockey, Jeff Blashill took a quick rebuilding job at WMU and parlayed it into an assistant job with the Detroit Red Wings. In response the Broncos went with a splashy hire in the form of ex-NHL head coach Andy Murray.

And there were no head coaching changes in women's basketball, even though Curt Miller and Tricia Cullop were heavily courted by other programs.

Line changes of the highest order — The "MAC hockey" teams will move to new conferences.

With the Big Ten suddenly wanting everything to do with hockey, realignment because even a bigger clusterfracas than football. It was announced that the CCHA was eventually going to be picked apart by vultures and its remnants scattered about the country. A new entity, the National College Hockey Conference, was born and will begin play in 2013 with eight teams including WMU and Miami. Left behind was the struggling BGSU program, who accepted an invitation (along with some lesser CCHA members) to the much-cannibalized WCHA. Got all that? 'Cause I don't.

Hustle Bowl — 15 MAC football alum were on Super Bowl rosters.

By far a record, the Mid-American Conference was well-represented in Super Bowl XLV between nine Green Bay Packers and six Pittsburgh Steelers who previously played in the MAC. Only the SEC had more players in that game, and not by much. Since the Packers had more MAC players, they obviously won the game, and that was the sole reason.

The best viral videos of the year?

In first place is the Stroh Center Rap:

And a deft runner-up is Chad "Stylez" Burns dancing.

Our boys/girls got all grown up. And the professional leagues took notice.

In the NFL Draft, the Jets took Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson in the first round, then the Eagles thought that was a good idea and selected Jaiquawn Jarrett in the following round. Other than Buffalo cornerback Josh Thomas in the fifth to the Cowboys it was all UFAs from there on out.

The MLS SuperDraft (it's SUPER!) pretty much did a land grab of Akron soccer after they won the NCAA championship in 2010. Darlington Nagbe, Perry Kitchen, Zarek Valentin, Kofi Sarkodie and Michael Nanchoff were all taken in the first eight picks. Chris Korb and Anthony Ampaipitakwong were second-round selections.

And then 17 players were taken in the MLB Draft, which can draft up to 1,500 people. Well then.

NIU's Xavier Silas and Miami's Andy Miele were shunned by the NBA Draft/NHL Draft, respectively, but Silas earned a tryout at the 76ers camp and Miele was signed by the Coyotes and was recalled all the way to the big leagues.

Tragedy: An Akron ex-student committed suicide in the football stadium.

We didn't break many stories, if any, but we were seemingly the first non-Twitter source to run with this story.

Rest In Pieces, All-MACcess — MAC offers free live videostreams of home football/basketball games.

This almost warrants its special category in the "way to go and about damn time" subdivision. In previous years the MAC had a paywall behind its free video and it wasn't exactly of the best quality, or so people have told me. I never had the disposable income to drop 50 bucks a year (or whatever it was) on conference-wide football, and they didn't even have a basketball package — you had to go to the individual schools sites and spend as much PER SCHOOL.

It looks like the MAC heard our voices loud and clear and just said "heck, it's not TV quality, we might as well make it free." The Horizon League figured it out before them, so the MAC hoisted free feeds for all 12 schools (and Temple) provided the game is not already on national TV. Sometimes the feeds don't work and occasionally they won't have audio, but a rudimentary camera coupled with the radio broadcast isn't just enough, sometimes it's *better* than what ESPNU offers.

Top story per school

Akron: Basketball beats Kent State in the MAC Championship.
Ball State: Pete Lembo got the football to 6-6 in first year.
Bowling Green: The Stroh Center opens and rap goodness ensues.
Buffalo: In women's basketball, Kourtney Brown won the MAC Player of the Year.
Central Michigan: Wrestling wins the MAC and lands three All-Americans.
Eastern Michigan: Football doesn't have a losing year (6-6) for the first time since 1995.
Kent State: Dustin Kilgore wins an NCAA wrestling championship.
Miami: Hockey wins the CCHA Tournament and Andy Miele brings home the Hobey Baker — both school firsts.
Northern Illinois: Football wins the MAC for the first time since 1983 in a 23-20 win over OHIO.
OHIO: Football wins their first bowl game in history, topping Utah State 24-23.
Temple: Same with OHIO — first bowl victory ever, this one over Wyoming 37-15.
Toledo: Football was great but the WNIT Championship trumps all.
Western Michigan: Hockey sees a resurgence and gets to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years.

Did I miss anything? Was something incorrect/wrongly placed/included? Would you rather me have done a top ten list? Do you just want to call me a petty name? Please do share.