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Why 2003 was the best season in MAC football history

Ben Roethlisberger led Miami into the AP Top 10 and the conference hosted GameDay for the first time during the memorable year.

Miami (Ohio) vs Colorado State University - September 20, 2003 Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images

Three titans reigned the conference. Two of them clashed in the first ranked MAC matchup in 30 years. The other landed among college football’s elite in the top 10. The conference housed one of the best quarterbacks in college football, finished as the only league with a perfect bowl record, and recorded five ranked upsets in non-conference play.

The 2003 campaign was an unforgettable season for Mid-American Conference football, and we relive the moments which made it the best in league history.

A year of Miami magic

The number one qualifier for a great MAC season is a team that stands above the rest. For the MAC to rise to the forefront of national recognition, it needs a team that breaks barriers, upends non-conference competition, and ranks among the nation’s elite in the AP Poll.

The 2003 Miami (OH) RedHawks were that team. Miami’s offense was commanded by arguably the best quarterback in the nation in junior phenom Ben Roethlisberger. “Big Ben” ranked among the top four in the nation in passing yards, completion percentage, passing touchdowns, and passer rating — ranking ninth in Heisman voting that December.

But the RedHawks’ season did not launch off to an ideal start. On Week 1, Iowa’s defense held Miami out of the end zone completely and won in decisive 21-3 fashion. The Hawkeyes were unranked at the time of the meeting but finished the 2003 season No. 8 in the nation with a 10-3 record and 37-17 Outback Bowl win over Florida, proving to be a more-than-worthy opponent for the RedHawks.

Meanwhile, Miami’s early setback would be its final. What transpired next was one of the most impressive streaks in MAC history. In Week 2, the RedHawks remained in Big Ten country for an appointment at Ryan Field to face Northwestern. The Wildcats, which finished .500 in Big Ten play, were no match for Miami. A one-sided 44-14 affair allowed the RedHawks to shake off the rust from Iowa and gain momentum for the long season ahead. Miami rode the wave from the Northwestern victory and ended non-conference play 3-1, surging past Colorado State and Cincinnati in the following two weeks.

Iowa v Miami Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

MAC play arrived, and it resulted in sheer domination by the RedHawks. In their nine games against conference opponents, they won eight of them by 20+ points. Over that nine-game span, Miami faced two ranked opponents, both of them being Bowling Green. The RedHawks throttled the Falcons at the first meeting in Oxford by 23 points and again in the MAC Championship Game by 22 points, proving to be the clear-cut deserving winner of the conference. The triumphant MAC champion earned a bid to Mobile, AL for the GMAC Bowl to square off against Louisville.

Roethlisberger picked apart Louisville with a career day and the RedHawks flourished. A 49-28 win lifted Miami to No. 10 in the nation in the final rankings with a 13-1 record. The 13 victories tied a MAC single-season record — a record still in existence, also held by the 1999 Marshall Thundering Herd and 2016 Western Michigan Broncos.

College GameDay makes its MAC debut

On the morning of October 25, 2003, the center of the college football universe resided in Bowling Green, OH. In ESPN College GameDay’s 11th season of broadcasting its iconic pregame show on college campuses, the program made its first arrival on Mid-American Conference soil.

College GameDay selected a suitable location to host its pregame celebration, as No. 23 Bowling Green played host to No. 12 Northern Illinois in a rare matchup between ranked MAC teams. In fact, at the time of kickoff, it marked the second game in history between ranked MAC opponents, and the first in 30 years.

The Huskies climbed the AP Poll to No. 12 after a 7-0 start which featured non-conference wins over Maryland, Alabama, and Iowa State. Bowling Green hung onto a spot in the rankings at 6-1. The Falcons earned a résumé-boosting victory at Purdue in Week 2, and although they fell to No. 4 Ohio State, they lost in respectable fashion by just seven points at The Horseshoe.

Bowling Green’s fans showed up in droves to the setup, while Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit reviewed the conference’s impressive non-conference showings from the desk. At the conclusion of the broadcast, Herbstreit picked Bowling Green to win while Corso donned the Freida Falcon mascot head, also in support of the home team. Later that afternoon on ESPN2, the Falcons played spoiler to Northern Illinois’ perfect season. Bowling Green defended Doyt-Perry Stadium with a convincing 34-18 win over the Huskies.

Steve Sanders carries the ball Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Led by running back Michael Turner, Northern Illinois only lost one more game for the rest of the season, finishing an impressive 10-2. Due to the lack of MAC bowl tie-ins, the Huskies were not invited to a bowl game. Nonetheless, AP voters recognized their impressive season and rewarded them with 30 votes in the final AP Poll — good for 29th in the nation.

Bowling Green rose to No. 17 in the AP Poll after defeating Northern Illinois. A subsequent bye week allowed the Falcons to rise to No. 15, which remains the highest ranking in program history.

Undefeated in bowl games

The MAC finished a perfect 2-0 during the 2003 postseason. With only 28 bowl games in operation in 2003, only the conference’s two premier teams were invited to college football’s grandest stage. Both Miami (13-1) and Bowling Green (11-3) capitalized on their opportunities by elevating past their opponents in late December.

The second bowl game of the postseason transpired in the MAC champion’s typical postseason destination of Mobile, AL. Miami was greeted by 9-3 Louisville of the C-USA in the GMAC Bowl. In a battle of the red birds separated by roughly 140 miles, the squad from Oxford, OH reigned supreme.

Ben Roethlisberger ended his spectacular college career with a performance for the ages. The junior threw four touchdown passes in the first half of a 376-yard performance, leading the RedHawks to a 49-28 final — the team’s 13th-consecutive victory. Roethlisberger ended the showcase with an announcement of his declaration for the NFL Draft. The high-scoring shootout, frankly, was never a contest. Miami held a 21-0 lead after the first quarter, leaving no questions behind in the dismantling of Louisville.

Bowling Green drew Northwestern in the Motor City Bowl. The Wildcats served as the Falcons’ third Big Ten opponent of the year, and Bowling Green entered the matchup a split 1-1 against the conference. After a sluggish first half in Detroit, Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris caught fire and tore apart the Wildcats defense to finish the year on a high note. After falling in a 17-7 hole in the first minute of the third quarter, Harris delivered a trio of second half touchdown passes to jumpstart Bowling Green’s 20th-ranked scoring offense. With 4:40 left in the game, Harris connected with wide receiver Cole Magner for a go-ahead 3-yard score to put the Falcons in front, 28-24. Bowling Green’s defense rose to the occasion to force a 3-and-out, and Harris sealed the victory with a 24-yard completion in the final two minutes. The Falcons celebrated in the Motor City with their first postseason victory since 1991 and their third in program history.

No other conference in the country finished undefeated in bowl games in 2003, and the feat was not matched again until the Big East swept its competition in the 2006 postseason.

Ranked opponents were no match for MACtion

  • August 28: Northern Illinois 20, #15 Maryland 13 (OT)
  • September 6: Bowling Green 27, #16 Purdue 26
  • September 20: Marshall 27, #6 Kansas State 20
  • September 20: Toledo 35, #9 Pittsburgh 31
  • September 20: Northern Illinois 19, #21 Alabama 16

We’ve never seen the MAC dominate non-conference play the way its teams did in 2003, especially on the day of September 20. On separate five occasions, ranked juggernauts fell victim to the MAC. And it wasn’t just one team doing the heavy lifting, but four separate programs secured Top 25 upsets. Surprisingly, none of these wins were courteous of Miami (OH), which never received an opportunity to battle a ranked non-conference opponent.

Northern Illinois put together one of the most impressive non-conference showings in all of college football by shocking No. 15 Maryland at Huskie Stadium to kick off the season before stunning No. 21 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Huskies registered another win over a team from a BCS AQ (automatic qualifying) conference by defeating Iowa State in between the aforementioned matchups.

Purdue checked into its season opener in West Lafayette with a No. 16 ranking next to its name. But Josh Harris and Bowling Green managed to remove that ranking in an instant. In a back-and-forth non-conference showdown, the Falcons scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:17 remaining, a 32-yard completion from Harris to Charles Sharon. Bowling Green’s 1-point victory over Purdue remained a quality victory through the end of the season as the Boilermakers finished 9-4 and No. 18 in the AP Poll.

Marshall, a MAC member from 1997-2004, stood its ground in late September with a landmark upset over the eventual Big 12 champion. Defeating No. 6 Kansas State was no easy task for teams all season long, but Marshall — after a 1-2 start — managed to accomplish the feat with backup quarterback Graham Gochneaur. Gochneaur threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Jason Rader with three minutes left before successfully converting the 2-point conversion to build a 7-point lead, a lead which sustained until the clock struck zero. Marshall’s 27-20 victory over the Wildcats marked the first AP Top 10 win in program history.

September 20, 2003 is one of the most significant days in MAC history. Not only did NIU shock Alabama and Marshall upset Kansas State, but Toledo defended the Glass Bowl and earned another Top 10 win for the conference. Heisman candidate wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the No. 9 Pitt Panthers paid a visit to Toledo, hoping to secure an undefeated record for a potential BCS title run. Pitt led 31-21 halfway through the fourth quarter, before Toledo turned things sideways. Trinity Dawson sliced the deficit to three points with a 2-yard rushing score in the final seven minutes.

Needing a defensive stop, Toledo tackled Fitzgerald short of the sticks on a 3rd and 2, forcing an Andy Lee punt. With under five minutes to go, first-year starting quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had 87 yards of grass separating him from the biggest victory of his Toledo career. On the monumental drive, Gradkowski commanded the offense 87 yards and completed 9-of-10 passes. On his last attempt, he fired a bullet to the right corner of the end zone to a diving Lance Moore for the game-winning touchdown.

RedHawks and Falcons soar into final AP Poll

Miami’s 13th consecutive win catapulted the RedHawks to a place they hadn’t ventured into since 1977 — the final AP Poll. Miami was rightfully rewarded for its GMAC Bowl victory over Louisville with the No. 10 spot in the rankings, two spots below No. 8 Iowa — the lone blemish on the RedHawks’ near-perfect résumé. Miami remains the only MAC program to finish in the top 10 in the 21st century.

Miami wasn’t alone on college football’s final pedestal. Joining the RedHawks in the rankings was the MAC West champion, Bowling Green, holding reservations on the No. 23 spot in the final poll. Bowling Green boasted an 11-3 record, with all three losses to AP Top 10 teams (Ohio State, Miami (OH) x2), and a victory over No. 18 Purdue.

As mentioned earlier, Northern Illinois was worthy of 30 votes in the final poll due to a 10-2 record, despite the lack of the bowl games. Other notable finishes in the 14-member MAC of 2003 included Toledo at 8-4, Marshall at 8-4, and Akron at 7-5.

Big Ben, Babin draw first round selections

The 2003 college football season officially ends when the senior class and draft-eligible players depart from their respective programs. Following the 2003 season was a fruitful 2004 NFL Draft for the MAC.

In a draft class renowned for a trio of first round franchise quarterbacks, Miami contributed Ben Roethlisberger — the third quarterback selected after Ole Miss’ Eli Manning and NC State’s Philip RIvers. Roethlisberger was selected 11th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise which still employs him as the starting quarterback 16 years later. The draft pick panned out and Roethlisberger instantaneously became a legend in the Steel City, starting in and winning a Super Bowl in his second year out of Miami.

Sixteen picks after Big Ben landed in Pittsburgh, Western Michigan edge rusher Jason Babin found a new home with the Houston Texans as the 27th overall selection. Babin won two MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a Bronco, recording 15 sacks and 94 tackles in the 2003 season. The Western Michigan alum played with nine different NFL teams in a 12-year career, blitzing his way to two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro nod in 2011.

W. Michigan v Michigan Photo by Danny Moloshok/Getty Images

The MAC rounded out the draft with five other picks. Marshall wide receiver Darius Watts landed to the Miami Dolphins in the secound round, Miami offensive tackle Jacob Bell and Northern Illinois running back Michael Turner heard their names called in the fifth round, Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris was selected in the sixth round, and UCF (a MAC member from 2002-04) closed the draft with tight end Michael Gaines warranting a seventh round selection.

This article is the second part of a two-part series. For the first part, see ‘Why 2016 was the best season in MAC football history’.