Every MAC team plays four non-conference games, and in 2017, five MAC teams earned a bowl bid. That gives the conference 53 opportunities to prove superiority over other leagues. In the past season, the MAC finished 22-31 in such contests with a 12-30 record against the FBS.
To break this down even further, the MAC fared 4-17 against the Power Five (4-18 if you include Miami OH's loss to Notre Dame) and 8-12 against the rest of the Group of Five. In bowl games, the conference was hit with a 1-4 record, with Ohio's win over UAB standing as the lone triumph. This list will not include any of the five bowl games, because none were decided by fewer than 22 points.
But here are the top 10 MAC non-conference games of the 2017 season:
10. Buffalo 34, Florida Atlantic 31
September 23, 2017
This was probably the MAC's strongest non-conference win of 2017, just nobody knew it on September 23. Florida Atlantic fell to 1-3 with the loss — its last of the entire season.
Buffalo opened the game with two Tyree Jackson touchdown runs, but Devin Singletary and the Owls would turn the tables and change the score to 17-14 by late second quarter.
Buffalo regained a double-digit lead, holding a 27-17 edge after an early-fourth quarter Adam Mitcheson field goal. Florida Atlantic responded with a Singletary touchdown run, but it would be Drew Anderson — Buffalo's backup quarterback who entered in relief of Tyree Jackson after an injury — who would be the hero.
Anderson would eventually set the MAC record for passing yards in a game later this year, but he threw his first career touchdown pass to First Team All-MAC wideout Anthony Johnson with 2:37 to go to just about seal the game. FAU responded with a third Singletary touchdown run, but the Owls' failure to recover the onside kick locked up a win for Lance Leipold and the Bulls.
Buffalo's offense played mistake free and the Bulls were very efficient in the passing game, utilizing a variety of targets. It was the last time Florida Atlantic didn't have an answer for an opponent all season, and this game definitely cracks the top 10 because it was a solid offensive duel and the MAC's best quality win during non-conference play in 2017 (although NIU-Nebraska drew the most headlines because Power Five).
9. Illinois 24, Ball State 21
September 2, 2017
Ball State's kickoff game at Illinois was a back-and-forth battle. Considering both teams would wind up 2-10, they still managed to entertain us with an exciting opener. Illinois led 16-7 at the half, but Ball State scored two third quarter touchdowns to claim a 21-16 advantage.
As Illinois missed a field goal and threw an interception near the back end of the fourth quarter, it appeared the Cardinals could lock the game but the offense began to stall. Illinois took advantage after a 52-yard punt return by Mike Dudek and Lovie Smith kept feeding running back Mike Epstein, who would eventually score the go-ahead touchdown to put the Fighting Illini in front.
Pressed with 2:06 of game clock, Ball State managed to reach Illinois' 30-yard line, but Riley Neal took a costly sack. The Cardinals' game-tying field goal would be a 54-yarder, but the attempt was blocked and Illinois earned its first of just two wins in 2017.
8. Troy 22, Akron 17
September 23, 2017
Akron nearly took down Troy on the road. The Zips trailed 16-3 at halftime, but Thomas Woodson and the offense continued to fight in the game's final half. A missed extra point by the Trojans played in the Zips' favor and Akron was able to capture a 17-16 lead with under six minutes left on touchdowns by Kwadarrius Smith and Warren Ball.
Troy's game-winning drive didn't come without adversity. Brandon Silvers had to complete a pass on a decisive 4th-and-5 from the team's own 40-yard line. But Silvers was money on his crunch time throws, including his go-ahead 23-yard touchdown pass with 1:06 to go.
Akron ended the night throwing an interception at midfield, but the Zips nearly did the improbable and upset a Troy team that would go on to win the Sun Belt and beat the LSU Tigers.
7. Cincinnati 21, Miami (OH) 17
September 16, 2017
This is the type of game that produces a wavy win probability graph. With 4:45 on the clock, Miami's kicker Samuel Sloman booted a 37-yard attempt through the uprights to give the RedHawks a 17-6 lead.
But the two-possession cushion wouldn't be so comfortable after Cincinnati drove down the field in less than two minutes. Hayden Moore completed 6-of-8 passes for 75 yards, with his final throw of the evening landing in his receiver's hands in the end zone.
Miami decided to return the following kickoff, but the RedHawks were stopped at their own 5. Facing a tough field position battle after a delay of game on 3rd-and-2, Gus Ragland's team would need seven yards to seal the game and win the Victory Bell for the first time in over a decade. Backed up at his own 8-yard line, Ragland tossed a pick-six and Cincinnati suddenly found itself ahead 21-17 after failing to score a touchdown for over 57 minutes of game time.
Miami's final drive reached the Cincinnati red zone, but Ragland threw an incompletion on 4th-and-5 at the Bearcats' 20-yard line. Cincinnati managed to pull off the road upset (yes, Miami was favored despite 11-straight losses to the Bearcats) in a thriller, and the RedHawks' 2017 was off to a dreaded 1-2 start after a historic finish to 2016.
6. Boston College 23, Northern Illinois 20
September 1, 2017
It wasn't exactly an instant classic, but it was intriguing throughout. Both defenses performed spectacularly, turning the season opener at Huskie Stadium into a glorified punt-off. Northern Illinois trailed 20-10 to the Eagles but it roared back into the contest under quarterback Ryan Graham. Trailing by a couple possessions, Graham threw a touchdown pass to tight end Shane Wimann and then NIU tied it up with a 21-yard field goal with 14:18 left.
A late 13-play drive by Boston College ate up plenty of clock, and the Eagles iced the cake with a 37-yard field goal from Colton Lichtenberg. Northern Illinois' final possession was very entertaining, as Graham hit Wimann for a 19-yard gain on an improbable 4th-and-7 with the game on the line. Graham's passing would push the Huskies all the way down to the Eagles' 22, but kicker Christian Hagan's 39-yard attempt fell just short of the uprights.
Boston College won the game that featured 17 punts. It was the night the country discovered NIU's stout defense, as the unit finished with 92 tackles. Kyle Pugh had 17, and Bobby Jones IV registered an additional 16, while Sutton Smith finished with five tackles for loss. It would also be Graham's last start of the season, as he was sidelined with a shoulder injury for the majority of the year.
5. San Diego State 34, Northern Illinois 28
September 30, 2017
After taking down Arizona State and Stanford, San Diego State vaulted to #19 in the AP Poll — the kingpin of the Group of Five. Northern Illinois traveled across a few time zones to California, but the Huskies failed to find rhythm on the west coast early in the contest.
Northern Illinois allowed 31 first half points (the team never allowed more in a 2017 regular season game), trailing by 17 points at the break. But the defense wasn't reprehensible for two of those scores — a 96-yard kickoff return and an 83-yard pick six.
The offense finally caught fire in the third quarter when Daniel Santacaterina hooked up with Spencer Tears for an 81-yard touchdown. Northern Illinois' defense took care of business by forcing seven three-and-outs on eight of the Aztecs' second half possessions. Rod Carey's team inched within one possession when Santacaterina's 50-yard pass to Christian Blake set up a Marcus Childers touchdown run.
The team would allow a San Diego State field goal — the only points yielded in the second half — but it earned plenty of opportunities to win the game with a touchdown.
Instead, the interception bug struck. Santacaterina tossed a pick on an under throw to the end zone on first down once the Huskies reached the red zone. This occurred with 4:12 left, but the defense would provide the offense one more opportunity at a victory. This opportunity would be squandered with another interception and the ranked Aztecs would improve to 5-0 after a scare from DeKalb's MAC program.
4. Army 28, Eastern Michigan 27
October 14, 2017
The 2017th year in the Gregorian calendar was not a kind one to Eastern Michigan. The Eagles finished on the wrong side of six straight close contests. But in their loss to a 10-3 Army squad, they were just inches away from victory.
What an ending to Eastern Michigan vs Army! pic.twitter.com/UWC6orLQjq— ArenaFanatic (@previews_review) October 14, 2017
After Brogan Roback connected with Sergio Bailey for the potential game-tying touchdown, head coach Chris Creighton elected to gamble for the win. On the road against a quality team, a two-point attempt isn't a terrible decision. The speed option play that was called looked like it would work too. Roback flipped the ball to Ian Eriksen, who barely got tripped up and flipped right as he dove for the end zone. The junior running back fell just inches short of the goal line and Eastern Michigan would drop a heartbreaker to the Black Knights.
There were consistent touchdowns throughout the afternoon, and no team led by more than seven in West Point. Army pulled ahead on a Darnell Woolfolk run with five minutes left before the Eagles' final touchdown drive. In fact, the last four meaningful possessions of the game all ended in touchdowns. Army's run-heavy drives just take an incredibly long time.
The Black Knights completed 0-of-5 passes for zero yards, but they did post 413 rushing yards on the Eagles' defense. Eastern Michigan ran a more balanced offense but Roback had himself a day with four touchdown passes in the crushing defeat.
3. Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17
September 16, 2017
Although the Cornhuskers finished 4-8, this upset shook the college football world for a day and even resulted in an athletic director firing. Nebraska will enter 2018 with a brand new staff and one primary reason is the Cornhuskers' first-ever loss to a MAC program. In front of nearly 90,000 fans at Memorial Stadium, the Huskies' defense controlled the contest and escaped Lincoln with a four-point statement victory.
Despite the Cornhuskers gaining offensive momentum and reaching the red zone on their first possession, Northern Illinois would shut out the Big Ten foe in the game's opening half. Former All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry made the perfect read on a screen pass and ran back an 87-yard interception to give NIU a 7-0 lead.
The Huskies' defense would score again when outside linebacker Jawuan Johnson returned an interception 25 yards to create a two-possession gap between the midwestern programs.
Thanks to a muffed punt, Nebraska finally gained momentum late in the third quarter and scored on three consecutive drives to lead 17-14 with about 11 minutes to go. Then, Northern Illinois pulled off its best offensive possession of the day. On the first play, Daniel Santacaterina completed a bomb to Christian Blake down the right sideline for 47 yards. Running back Jordan Huff was called upon to finish the drive, and he delivered a 2-yard touchdown run with 8:52 remaining.
Nebraska's final two possessions would result in a turnover on downs in NIU territory and another Tanner Lee interception. The Huskies doused head coach Rod Carey with a Gatorade bath as the fifth-year coach improved to 4-1 against the Big Ten.
The Huskies were outgained 384-213 in yardage but the defense stepped up by forcing key interceptions and fighting hard each time Nebraska entered their territory. Northern Illinois was named the Football Writers Association of America team of the week for its performance in the upset victory.
2. USC 49, Western Michigan 31
September 2, 2017
Ignore the final score. That is not indicative of how close and intense this opening game actually was.
This was Western Michigan's first game following the Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin. Head coach P.J. Fleck was gone alongside program legends Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, but the Broncos expected to compete against a USC team with national championship hopes.
And they gave USC fits for three and a half quarters. USC sprinted down the field with a score in exactly two minutes to kick off the 2017 campaign, so it wasn't a promising defensive start for Tim Lester and company. But with returning running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan leading the offense, Western Michigan struck gold to tie it at 7.
The Broncos' defense forced a three punts in a row, and true freshman quarterback Jon Wassink would lead the team to a 14-7 advantage as the first-time starter plunged into the end zone on a 7-yard run. USC would tie it at 14 right before the half, but Western Michigan would quickly regain a 21-14 lead coming out of the locker room at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Around the middle of the third quarter, Western Michigan achieved its highest point of the afternoon when Sam Beal intercepted Sam Darnold while the team retained a touchdown lead. But the Broncos' failure to extend this lead kept the door ajar, and Darnold's Trojans responded and eventually claimed a 28-21 lead.
As soon as things looked to be getting out of hand, Darius Phillips sprinted past all 11 Trojans on the kickoff return, blazing to the end zone on a 100-yard highlight play to tie it at 28 with 7:54 remaining.
USC gained the advantage back on a rapid possession that concluded in a 37-yard Ronald Jones touchdown run. But Western Michigan's offense wasn't done yet. LeVante Bellamy busted his way for a 48-yard gain to slide the Broncos into the red zone. But penalties and an ineffective passing game forced Western Michigan to settle for a field goal. Josh Grant's 43-yarder made it 35-31 with 4:37 left, but USC quickly scored and then Wassink had his final pass returned by the Trojan defense for another touchdown.
The 18-point result doesn't quite tell the story of how Western Michigan (a bitter 6-6, no bowl finish to the season) nearly took down the eventual Pac-12 champions in Los Angeles. It was an exciting game for nearly 60 minutes of clock-time, and college football fans from around the country were consistently checking scores or trying to find Pac-12 Network streams during the spectacle.
1. Toledo 54, Tulsa 51
September 16, 2017
Back-and-forth offensive shootout? Check.
Comeback element? Check.
Sustained excitement from kickoff to the final horn? Check.
Game-winning field goal? Check.
While everyone's eyes were glued to the first half of the Clemson-Louisville matchup, Toledo and Tulsa were trading punches in one of the best college football games of the season. The two programs combined for 1,227 total yards of offense and 105 points in a dramatic shootout.
Early on, it looked like Tulsa (who surprisingly finished 2-10) would rout Toledo in the Glass Bowl. The Golden Hurricane built a 21-7 lead thanks to a pick six and amped it up to 28-7 on a Shamari Brooks touchdown run with five minutes to go in the first half.
Toledo's offense finally woke up, and the Rockets rattled off the game's next four touchdowns to lead 34-31 toward the end of the third quarter. Tulsa scored a go-ahead touchdown on a D'Angelo Brewer run, but the Golden Hurricane would only lead 37-36, because Toledo blocked the extra point and Josh Teachey ran it back for a two-point conversion.
Trailing 44-36, Logan Woodside would connect with Diontae Johnson for a 49-yard touchdown strike, and Woodside would additionally complete the two-point attempt to knot it up at 44. The Rockets earned their largest lead of the night on their ensuing possession — a one-play drive that ended in a 74-yard Diontae Johnson pass.
Tulsa responded with what it did best all evening — and that was run the ball. The Golden Hurricane chipped away at the clock, converted on fourth down, and finished the drive with a touchdown as just 2:47 remained.
Two 15-yard penalties would advance the final Toledo possession into opponent territory, setting up kicker Jameson Vest with a 33-yard field goal. It sailed right through the uprights, and he sprinted across the field to celebrate the grand finale of an instant classic.
Tulsa featured three runners of 130 yards or more, totaling 433 in the game. Woodside passed for 458 yards and six touchdowns, as Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson combined for 320 and five scores. It was odd that a shootout between two potent offenses would end on a kicker's leg, but that is how Toledo earned its third win and stayed undefeated headed into Miami.