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Why 2016 was the best season in MAC football history

From a Cotton Bowl appearance to a miraculous turnaround to a controversial game-winner, the 2016 MAC football season leaves an insurmountable legacy.

MAC Championship - Western Michigan v Ohio Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The 2016 MAC football season had everything.

It is a year which could arguably be called the most memorable year the conference has ever witnessed. The season was headlined by Western Michigan, headed by PJ Fleck, making the unbelievable run towards the Cotton Bowl, but those four months in 2016 featured some of the best stories the Rust Belt has seen this decade.

Below, we chronicle the journey through 2016, reliving and recalling the moments which made it the greatest MAC season yet.

Rowing the boat to perfection

The oar is the energy you bring to your life. The boat is the sacrifice you are willing to make. The compass is the people you surround yourself with and the direction you’re headed.

Former Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck brought his signature “Row the Boat” mantra to Western Michigan from his hiring on December 17, 2012. But when Fleck’s energy and charisma began translating into wins and national prominence in 2016, “Row the Boat” defined the rise of an entire program. Wooden patterns adorned the uniform, oars were emblazoned on the helmets, and by the end of the season, the three words resonated as a chant throughout the “Eighth Wonder of the World” — AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.

The 2016 Western Michigan Broncos were a team to remember.

Perhaps a rocky start was what the Broncos needed to gather composure before rattling off 13-straight wins — tying the 2003 Miami RedHawks for the winningest team in MAC history. A Week 1 victory over a solid Northwestern team didn’t come easy. With under 3:00 remaining in the game as Western Michigan clung onto a 22-21 lead, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson faked a handoff on a zone read and sprinted toward the pylon. Upon reaching the 1-yard line, Thorson was stripped by outside linebacker Robert Spillane. The loose ball rolled toward the sideline in the end zone, but Broncos cornerback Davontae Ginwright tried to throw it back into live play. Northwestern recovered in the end zone for an apparent touchdown, but Ginwright’s gaffe never happened because he inadvertently stepped out of bounds with possession of the ball. Western Michigan took down Northwestern on the road, 22-21, on that opening weekend in September — the last challenge the Broncos would face for three months.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Western Michigan at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Western Michigan picked apart opponent after opponent on the schedule, faring 2-0 against the Big Ten in non-conference play before dismantling all eight MAC opponents. The Broncos notably snapped a 7-game losing streak to division rival Northern Illinois in the midst of usurping the Huskies’ 6-year throne atop the MAC West. Several weeks later on Black Friday, Western Michigan clinched the division in a packed Waldo Stadium, despite a downpour. During the 55-35 victory, wide receiver Corey Davis (5,278 yards upon graduation) surpassed former Nevada wideout Trevor Insley for college football’s all-time receiving yards leader. Davis rewrote the history books in a spectacular senior season, and he spent his final days in Kalamazoo receiving MAC Offensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American honors.

After downing Toledo, the Broncos qualified for their first conference championship game since 2000 and won the league for the first time since 1988. After skating by Ohio on a Cotton Bowl-clinching interception (more on that later), Western Michigan arrived at bowl season unblemished. Entering bowl season, the only two perfect records in the FBS belonged to AP Poll No. 1 Alabama and No. 12 Western Michigan.

In their first-ever New Year’s Six appearance, the Broncos were tasked with defeating their third Big Ten West team of the year — the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers. The Cotton Bowl atmosphere was surreal, something no Kalamazoo resident could have dreamed of during the team’s 1-11 mark in 2013. The size of Western Michigan’s fanbase in Arlington, TX rivaled that of Wisconsin, and despite the Broncos falling into a 14-0 hole in the first quarter, the energy sustained in the stands and the sidelines throughout the day.

In a goal-line formation in the second quarter, quarterback Zach Terrell juked a Wisconsin defender on a naked bootleg and scored the first Broncos points of the afternoon. Western Michigan scored one more touchdown in its grandest stage in program history, a 4th down lob from Terrell to Davis — who fought through several Badger defensive backs for a contested catch. Although Western Michigan came up short in the 24-16 result, the final connection from Terrell to Davis was the perfect sendoff to their storied careers and a historical season.

Western Michigan (13-1) checked in at No. 15 in the final AP Poll, the highest finish for a MAC program since the 2003 Miami RedHawks ended No. 10.

College GameDay pays a visit to Kalamazoo

Every college fanbase dreams of the bright orange Home Depot van pulling up to campus. The skycams, the sea full of signs, and Lee Corso’s signature mascot head — all of the allure made its way to Kalamazoo for the Broncos’ matchup with Buffalo on November 19. College GameDay’s visit to the sleet-covered Kalamazoo marked the show’s second appearance on a MAC campus, 13 years after broadcasting live from Bowling Green in 2003.

At the conclusion of the broadcast, Corso added a new mascot head to his collection. Sitting next to Western Michigan alum and guest picker Greg Jennings, Corso donned the Buster Bronco headgear, predicting the Broncos to prevail for the 11th time that season. Western Michigan solidified Corso’s prediction and took full advantage of the national spotlight in a 38-0 shutout win over Buffalo.

The controversial miracle

Under college football rules, this play should have never happened. But due to an officiating error, it did. And it was glorious.

On 4th and 13 from the Central Michigan 41, Oklahoma State lined up in shotgun formation and sent full protection around quarterback Mason Rudolph. Rudolph handled the snap, backpedaled several steps, and flung the ball into the air nearly 30 yards, maximizing the object’s hangtime before it sailed out of bounds toward the left sideline.

When the ball hit the ground, Cowboys’ coach Mike Gundy walked toward midfield for the postgame handshake, as the scoreboard at Boone Pickens Stadium read “Final” next to the score of Oklahoma State 27, Central Michigan 24. Meanwhile, the referees huddled and after a short period of discussion, a flag was thrown to signal an intentional grounding penalty on Rudolph.

Calling an intentional grounding was correct, however, the referees incorrectly awarded Central Michigan one untimed down as a result of the penalty. According to Rule 3-2-3 of the rulebook, “The period is not extended if the foul is by the team in possession and the penalty includes loss of down.” Both teams took the field for one final play in Stillwater, one last Hail Mary attempt from the Chippewas’ 49-yard line.

Just like Central Michigan did in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl, quarterback Cooper Rush launched a streak toward six-foot-three receiver Jesse Kroll. Kroll gained separation at the last second, secured the catch. While Cowboys’ cornerback Ramon Richards attempted a game-winning stop, Kroll instantly tossed a lateral to the trailing Corey Willis. At this point, Oklahoma State’s defensive positioning was out of sorts, and Willis just needed to beat cornerback Ashton Lampkin across the entire field in a footrace. When Willis saw a favorable angle, he cut toward the end zone and dove past the plane.

After another long review, the officials claimed Central Michigan prevailed, 30-27, over the No. 22 Cowboys.

Oklahoma State lost, but the Cowboys still put together an impressive season by finishing 10-3, winning the Alamo Bowl in blowout fashion, and checking in at No. 11 in the final AP Poll. Still exasperated about the untimed down, Oklahoma State’s Alamo Bowl rings pettily printed the team’s record as 11-2. (But let’s face it: we all know the truth)

Greatest midseason turnaround in history

Most seasons are left for dead upon reaching the dreaded record of 0-6. The home crowds disappear in exponential fashion, backups assume the starting positions, and sometimes, even coaches are fired. Occasionally, an 0-6 program will see a minor turnaround toward the conclusion of the season, but prior to 2016, not a single 0-6 team completed the impossible task of attaining bowl eligibility.

The Miami RedHawks changed that.

No team in college football history has flipped the switch as quickly as Chuck Martin’s squad did in the coach’s third year at the helm. Heading into the seventh game of the season, an October 15 matchup versus Kent State, the 0-6 RedHawks inserted sophomore Gus Ragland at the starting quarterback position.

During Miami’s next six games, Ragland threw 15 touchdown passes without a single interception, completing 62.4% of passes over the timeframe. Most importantly, Miami finished its 2016 campaign an immaculate 6-0, miraculously qualifying for the postseason.

In the St. Petersburg Bowl, Miami fell 17-16 to Mississippi State (one of 13 teams to play in a bowl game every year of the 2010s). The Bulldogs blocked Miami’s 37-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds of the game, preventing the RedHawks to finish their historical turnaround on a high note.

The Factory flourishes

When it comes to doormats in the FBS, Eastern Michigan served that role better than any other program — until 2016. In the four-year stretch extending from 2012-15, the Eagles never finished a season better than 2-10, faring 7-41 in four long, brutal years. Third-year head coach Chris Creighton spent his first two years in Ypsilanti instilling a new culture in the long-struggling a program, which hadn’t seen a winning season since 1995 and last played a bowl game in 1987.

Eastern Michigan’s Rynearson Stadium rebranded to “The Factory” in 2014 with grey artificial turf, while players wielded blue-collar props such as sledgehammers and wrenches on the sideline and while running out of the tunnel. That workmanlike attitude translated to the field, and the Eagles rattled off seven victories during the 2016 regular season.

With always-confident quarterback Brogan Roback running the offense and the pass-rushing abilities of Pat O’Connor keeping opponents’ quarterbacks in check, Eastern Michigan enjoyed a 4-1 start and finished the campaign at 7-6. Coming off a 1-11 season, it stood as one of the more impressive turnarounds of the decade. Creighton’s Eagles finished the season in international territory with a bid to the third-annual Bahamas Bowl.

Eastern Michigan fell short against Old Dominion, 24-20, to prevent a perfect storybook ending, but the program still demolished several longstanding streaks in one season. While the Eagles are still searching for their first MAC title and bowl victory since 1987, the 2016 season serves as the foundation for their modern success, which includes a 3-0 record against Big Ten teams in the three following seasons.

A Friday night classic in Provo

In the heart of the Wasatch Mountains on the first Friday of October, a raucous crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium awaited a matchup between the BYU Cougars and Toledo Rockets. What unfolded in Provo on that fateful Friday night was chaos at its purest form and one of the most enticing, exhilarating shootouts of the decade.

The Cougars and Rockets combined for 108 total points. Toledo held real estate in the passing game, as quarterback Logan Woodside threw for 505 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, BYU claimed the ground game where running back Jamaal Williams rushed for 286 yards and a school-record five touchdowns. At halftime, the score was tied at a mundane 21-21. Then, the third quarter featured four touchdowns and 31 total points before the ballistic fourth quarter.

BYU and Toledo traded leads five times during the contest’s final 15 minutes. After BYU tied the game with a field goal to cause a 45-45 tie, the Rockets threw a costly interception which removed them from the game’s driver seat. Three plays later, Williams reached the end zone and provided BYU a 52-45 advantage with 3 minutes to spare. But Woodside guided the Rockets 79 yards down the visitor’s field in less than two minutes, converting on a crucial 4th and 4 on the BYU 41. Running back Kareem Hunt capped the drive off with a 7-yard touchdown run, and first-year head coach Jason Candle decided to roll the dice and go for the lead.

The 2-point attempt was a pure disaster from the start. The ball was snapped to an unsuspecting Woodside, and the miscommunication resulted in a costly fumble. The junior quarterback immediately scooped up the ball and improvised by firing a dart to the end zone. Against all odds, tight end Michael Roberts beat 1-on-1 coverage and corralled the go-ahead 2-point conversion.

Unfortunately for Woodside and Co., one minute and 11 seconds remained on the clock for a BYU team that already eclipsed the 50-point mark. A 33-yard pass from Taysom Hill and a 15-yard face mask called on the Rockets positioned BYU in field goal range. Kicker Rhett Almond sunk the 19-yarder as time expired, lifting BYU to a 55-53 victory in a Friday night instant classic.

The Toledo-BYU duel was also famous for a unique occurrence in the announcing booth. Color commentator Mack Brown left the stadium in the middle of the fourth quarter, leaving ESPN play-by-play announcer Adam Amin to finish the game as a solo act in booth. In September 2019, Amin recounted his “Michael Jordan flu game” performance from that night in Provo.

Thrilling finish in Detroit

What’s a great MAC season without a down-to-the-wire MAC Championship? The 2016 MAC Championship showcased a higher-stakes game than most of its predecessors and successors, given that a rare New Year’s Six bowl bid was on the line. Since the American Conference title game pitted a 2-loss Navy and 3-loss Temple, undefeated Western Michigan faced a “win and in” scenario in Detroit to secure the coveted Group of Five NY6 slot.

Except the Ohio Bobcats, hungry for their first MAC title since 1968, didn’t make this the cakewalk the Broncos expected. Since the Broncos’ narrow Week 1 victory over Northwestern, they hadn’t faced a viable challenge. Not one of its 11 opponents between the Wildcats and Bobcats came within 14 points of the Broncos.

Ohio looked destined to be Western Michigan’s next victim, trailing 23-7 at Ford Field at halftime. But Greg Windham and the Bobcats came out with an unstoppable aerial attack in the second half. Windham threw two touchdown passes in the third quarter, reducing Western Michigan’s lead to six points. In the fourth, the teams traded field goals, but Ohio was set up in perfect position to win. Playing with house money, the Bobcats were allotted 1:19 of game clock to go 75 yards and spoil Western Michigan’s perfect season. Windham completed each of his first three passes for 38 yards, navigating Ohio down to the Broncos’ 37.

But on second down, Western Michigan outside linebacker Robert Spillane hovered around the center of the field in zone coverage. Windham saw a window on a slant route, but Spillane jumped the route, intercepted the pass, and sealed Western Michigan’s program-record 13th win and a Cotton Bowl appearance.

A draft to remember

After the MAC’s prolific 2016, the 2017 NFL Draft solidified the conference’s accomplishments. The 2017 draft featured 11 selections from the conference, the most since the same number of players were picked in 2005 — also a MAC-record in the 7-round NFL Draft era.

The first name of the 11 was addressed immediately into the event. With the fifth overall pick, the Tennessee Titans selected college football’s all-time receiving yards leader Corey Davis. His Bronco teammate, Taylor Moton, fell to the Carolina Panthers in the second round at pick No. 64. Then, Ohio DE Tarell Basham, Toledo RB Kareem Hunt (who led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie), and Northern Illinois WR Kenny Golladay (who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2019) all heard their names called in the third round.

The six draft selections in rounds 4-7 were Toledo TE Michael Roberts, Ohio ILB Blair Brown, Toledo DT Treyvon Hester, Western Michigan OLB Keion Adams, Eastern Michigan DE Pat O’Connor, and Buffalo TE Mason Schreck.

This draft confirmed the MAC’s all-around excellence in the 2016 season. It was the culmination of an unforgettable fall which showcased a controversial Hail Mary, an unprecedented midseason turnaround, the shattering of a 29-year drought, and an appearance in the New Year’s Six.

The elephant in the room

There’s an alarming trend in most of these success stories. Western Michigan, Toledo, Central Michigan, Miami (OH), Ohio, and Eastern Michigan all share two things in common from the 2016 season. All six qualified for bowl games. And all six lost bowl games. While this season presented many fond memories and success stories for the conference, it is important to note that the MAC fared 0-6 when it counted most. It is difficult to call a season the “best season” in a conference’s history with that bowl record, but the national spotlight of a seat in the New Year’s Six — combined with the other unique moments listed above — certainly give 2016 the qualifications to fall under the category.

COMING SOON: Part 2 of the series - Why 2003 was the best season in MAC football history