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Does the MAC continue its 16-year streak of defeating a Big Ten program in 2023?

Analyzing the probability of each MAC vs. Big Ten matchup resulting in MACtion victory.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

On October 14, 2006, Matt Lasher lined up for a 32-yard field goal at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, IL. It’s the moment college kickers simultaneously dream of and dread, depending on the ensuing result of the kick. But under the lights in Big Ten country with five ticks remaining in the clock’s lifespan, Lasher drained his attempt at glory. When those five seconds exhausted shortly thereafter, it became official — the Ohio Bobcats defeated the Illinois Fighting Illini.

What was unknown at the time 17 years ago was that Lasher’s game-winning kick would initiate a prosperous era of MAC football. Every single season since 2006, at least one MAC team has knocked off a Big Ten opponent — excluding the 2020 pandemic year when the MAC and Big Ten exclusively played conference opponents in a chaotic, makeshift scheduling environment.

Last fall, the streak nearly withered away, but on the MAC’s seventh and final opportunity at upending Big Ten competition, the Miami (OH) RedHawks delivered in clutch fashion, escaping Northwestern 17-14 on a go-ahead field goal with 21 seconds remaining. Other recent victorious outcomes for the MAC over Big Ten schools include Bowling Green’s landmark upset at Minnesota in 2021, as well as Eastern Michigan’s three-year stretch from 2017-19 which involved besting Rutgers, Purdue, and Illinois.

This year, the MAC receives eight opportunities, but not all opportunities are created equal. Last season, Miami’s victory over Northwestern did not come with the shock Ohio toppling Penn State or Toledo stunning Ohio State would have, especially considering Northwestern (which finished 1-11) fell at home to an FCS program just one week prior.

When an instance occurs in 16 consecutive years, it becomes a trend. Recent history suggests at least one MAC program can eke out a win over a Big Ten foe this fall, but which matchup will extend the streak? The eight MAC vs. Big Ten games are divided into tiers based on likelihood.

Don’t count on it

Bowling Green @ Michigan

Week 3 - Saturday, Sept. 16, 7:30 pm ET

Bowling Green v UCLA
A monstrous day will be required by Brock Horne and the Bowling Green defense in order to counter Michigan’s juggernaut of a rushing attack.
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

If this piece were written two years ago, Bowling Green’s matchup at Minnesota probably would have qualified for this category. After all, the Falcons were 30.5-point road underdogs heading into that arduous road matchup. The lesson is, never fully count Bowling Green out... but taking out Michigan in the Big House is a tall task.

The Wolverines have claimed the Big Ten crown for two years and counting, qualifying for College Football Playoff appearances in consecutive years under Jim Harbaugh. Michigan remains absolutely stacked with star talent, retaining quarterback J.J. McCarthy as well as the nation’s top running back tandem in Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards — which spearheaded the fifth-best rushing attack in the FBS in 2022. The Wolverines should have no problem dominating in the trenches with two incumbent First Team All-Big Ten selections on the offensive line and several key pieces from a defense which permitted the sixth-fewest yards per game a season ago.

There’s a lot to like about Bowling Green’s linebacking corps led by Darren Anders and Brock Horne, and there’s star potential at the skill positions with Odieu Hiliare and Ta’Ron Keith, who dominated in the receiving game against Toledo last November. But it’s hard to see the Falcons winning either side of this trench warfare, especially without pro-bound star defensive end Karl Brooks. Also, Michigan vs. the MAC has resulted in an average score of 53-9 in the Harbaugh era, including a 63-10 defeat of a 2021 MAC champion Northern Illinois squad, so ugliness may be the expectation for this Week 3 contest.

Buffalo @ Wisconsin

Week 1 - Saturday, Sept. 2, 3:30 pm ET

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Wagner at Buffalo
Marcus Fuqua tied for the FBS lead with seven interceptions last year and will launch his 2023 campaign looking to pick off new Wisconsin QB Tanner Mordecai.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Buffalo’s most recent Big Ten win transpired in 2018, and it wasn’t particularly close. Tyree Jackson and Jaret Patterson obliterated Rutgers in 42-13 fashion to improve the Bulls’ record to 4-0. But this Week 1 contest at Wisconsin in 2023 won’t be nearly as easy.

This will be a highly-anticipated opener in Madison, WI as Luke Fickell debuts as the Badgers’ new frontman after leading Cincinnati to a College Football Playoff appearance, two New Year’s Six bowls, and two conference championships in a prosperous tenure. Wisconsin’s traditional offense may come with a bit of a twist in 2023 after the hiring of North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, an air raid disciple who guided Drake Maye to a breakout 2022 season. The Badgers certainly have the personnel offensively to produce one of the nation’s most explosive attacks this fall, acquiring SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai from the portal after he produced four 360+ yard passing performances in 2022 — including a 379-yard, 9-touchdown masterclass against Houston. If that’s not enough, Braelon Allen will deliver some punches from the backfield after back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons to launch his college career.

In a typical year, you can count on Wisconsin to provide strong offensive line and linebacker play, but zero All-Big Ten players besides Allen return for 2023. So how does Buffalo counter this new-look, new-scheme Badgers’ squad? Cole Snyder returns at quarterback after a solid season where he brought the Bulls back to bowl eligibility and knocked off Georgia Southern to win the Camellia Bowl. Plenty of production is lost from a talented wide receiver corps, so the veteran-led running game may be heavily relied upon in Week 1. Buffalo might trot out the best overall defender in this game in Marcus Fuqua, a hard-hitting safety who led the FBS with seven interceptions last year. But that might not be enough against the definitive Big Ten West betting favorite.

Improbable, but any given Saturday

Northern Illinois @ Nebraska

Week 3 - Saturday, Sept. 16, 7 pm ET

Northern Illinois v Nebraska
Northern Illinois defeated Nebraska, 21-17, in 2017 by setting the tone with a pair of first quarter pick sixes.
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Northern Illinois and Nebraska twice battled in Lincoln over the last decade. The first matchup resulted in a Huskies’ victory and the subsequent firing of Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst. The second matchup was a 44-8 demolition in favor of the Cornhuskers during Rod Carey’s final season in DeKalb. But even after that ugly result in 2019, the sight of Northern Illinois is often dangerous in Big Ten country as the Huskies have won six of their last 13 matchups against the conference dating back to 2009.

The 2022 iteration of NIU football was not the follow-up act to a MAC championship the fanbase hoped for. After winning a litany of one-score games in 2021, the Huskies fared 2-5 in such competitions last fall. But Rocky Lombardi is back as the starting quarterback after only four appearances in 2022, and he is equipped with arguably the best receiver in the conference in Trayvon Rudolph, who posted a 309-yard, 3-touchdown performances in 2021 before missing the entirety of last season with a knee injury. The combination of Antario Brown in the backfield with two All-MAC linemen should provide a complementary ground game, after ranking second in the MAC in rushing yards per game a year ago.

The run defense was okay last year, but the Huskies often struggled on third downs and in passing situations, so those issues must be corrected in 2022. That defense will be tested by first-year head coach Matt Rhule and his offense, headlined by Georgia Tech transfer quarterback Jeff Sims and 900-yard rusher Anthony Grant. Nebraska’s defense had its struggles last year, but a formidable linebacking corps returns with hopes of shutting down Brown and the NIU rushing attack. But given uncertainties which exist on defense for an NIU team fresh off a 3-9 season, combined with volatile results in the passing game, a Nebraska home win feels like the likely result — but NIU could provide some pushback offensively.

Western Michigan @ Iowa

Week 3 - Saturday, Sept. 16, 3:30 pm ET

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 NIU at Western Michigan
Treyson Bourguet is Western Michigan’s projected Week 1 starting quarterback after winning two of his four starts as a freshman.
Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Iowa does not typically score a lot of points, which gives the semblance of vulnerability, but the Hawkeyes have dominated MAC competition as of late. Iowa has rattled off six consecutive wins against the MAC, scoring 30 or more points in five of them, and winning only one by fewer than 23 points in that timeframe.

But there are instances like what happened in Week 1 last year, where the Hawkeyes utilized two safeties and a field goal to skate by an FCS South Dakota State program, 7-3. While the national conversation surrounding Iowa often focuses on an offense which generated the second-fewest yards in the country last year, the defense is an absolute juggernaut — finishing second in both scoring and total defense in 2022. The Hawkeyes made efforts to mitigate the offensive struggles this offseason, luring in former College Football Playoff starting quarterback Cade McNamara through the transfer portal.

While the offense should improve, the defense loses half its starters including NFL caliber talent in Jack Campbell and Riley Moss, but coordinator Phil Parker typically does an outstanding job at reshuffling the unit. The Hawkeyes will be challenged by a Western Michigan squad coming off a 5-7 campaign, but similar to Iowa, the Broncos found a defensive identity last season by surrendering fewer than 15 points in four of their final five outings. Western Michigan must demand more out of its 19 points per game offense in 2023, however, and Iowa isn’t the easiest unit to generate points against. It will be up to Treyson Bourguet and a rather-inexperienced Bronco offense to pierce through a challenging defense enough times to win in a hostile environment in Iowa City. It’s possible, but definitely a tall task.

Favorable conditions could exist

Akron @ Indiana

Week 4 - Saturday, Sept. 23, TBD

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 08 Eastern Michigan at Akron
Alex Adams was a First Team All-MAC selection in 2022 with 855 yards and nine touchdowns in an aerial-based Akron offense.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yes, the Akron Zips are going to be improved for the 2023 season. Year one of the Joe Moorhead era was the same Akron we have known since 2019 on paper. They went to overtime with an FCS school in Week 1 and proceeded to drop its next two contests by a combined score of 115-6. But November Akron was a different story, as the Zips annihilated Northern Illinois 44-12 and nearly knocked off quality Eastern Michigan and Buffalo teams.

What are Akron’s strengths? It’s a Moorhead-led offense, so look no further than the passing attack. DJ Irons has proven the ability to consistently generate 300-yard performances, and he does it with accuracy, boasting a 66.8 completion percentage in 2022. His No. 1 wide receiver Alex Adams might be the MAC’s best-kept secret. Adams strung together four consecutive 100-yard performances during the latter half of last season and is an incredible route runner with a knack for gaining separation way downfield. Throw in Daniel George, who racked up 793 yards last season, and the Zips have a ton going for them in year two under Moorhead. And the defense showed out at times last year, jumping from 122nd in 2021 to 92nd in 2022 in yards allowed per contest.

Indiana finished 4-8 last season without a single comfortable win over FBS competition. Missed overtime field goals by the opposition handed the Hoosiers wins over Western Kentucky and Michigan State, and the team slid past Illinois 23-20 in a back-and-forth Week 1 matchup. Indiana finished 120th in scoring defense and 100th in scoring offense, so Tom Allen must workshop his program on both sides of the ball for a different result in 2023. Since this matchup is Week 4, we’ll have more data points on each team by then, but Akron is shaping up to be worthy competition for this contest in Bloomington.

Central Michigan @ Michigan State

Week 1 - Friday, Sept. 1, 7 pm ET

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Washington State at Central Michigan
Jim McElwain looks to end the Chippewas’ four-game losing streak to Michigan State and earn his first Big Ten victory since taking the Central Michigan job.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Dan LeFevour, Antonio Brown, and Co. taking out Michigan State 29-27 in 2009 may feel like a recent memory, but the reality is the Spartans have absolutely had the Chippewas’ number since, with four consecutive double-digit victories from 2011 to 2018. This Mitten State matchup will be the first attempt the MAC takes at overthrowing the Big Ten in 2023, as it transpires on a Friday night in East Lansing to kick off Week 1.

Michigan State has become a random number generator of a football program as of late. For instance, a 3-9 season was followed by 10-3 from 2016 to 2017. And Mel Tucker transformed the Spartans’ record from 2-5 to 11-2 from 2020 to 2021, before missing a bowl game at 5-7 last year. Michigan State must reconstruct quite a bit on offense as the team recently lost quarterback Payton Thorne and leading receiver Keon Coleman to the transfer portal, in addition to losing Jayden Reed to the draft. Michigan State has skated by with a below-average defense for several years, including during its 11-2 campaign, so it’s of utmost importance to rebuild the offensive identity.

Central Michigan disappointed in 2022 with a 4-8 record after posting the MAC’s best overall record in 2021, but the Chippewas may have found some magic during a competitive November stretch. Two-quarterback systems don’t always fare well in the collegiate ranks, but Central Michigan saw substantial success when rotating Jase Bauer — a pass-first QB with dual-threat capabilities — and Bert Emanuel Jr. — an electrifying runner who posted 293 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a single game last year. Outside of the quarterbacks, the Chippewas replace plenty of production on offense, but there’s a good collection of talent within the defensive front seven. Don’t necessarily expect Central Michigan to handle the Spartans with ease, but it’s a weird, transitory, unpredictable time at Michigan State, and a Friday night surprise may be more likely than it seems if the Chippewas can establish an explosive quarterback-led run game.

Eastern Michigan @ Minnesota

Week 2 - Saturday, Sept. 9, 7:30 pm ET

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Arizona State
Samson Evans, Eastern Michigan’s career leader in rushing touchdowns, made a statement in Tempe last year with 258 rushing yards and one touchdown vs. Arizona State.
Patrick Breen-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Creighton has transformed Eastern Michigan into a program that many non-conference opponents want to put on a blocked caller list. The Eagles strung together three consecutive Big Ten wins from 2017-19 and last September, they recorded the first-ever MAC over Pac-12 regular season victory in history during a road trip to Arizona State.

Minnesota was a program overly reliant on its run game in 2022, but P.J. Fleck’s squad must move on from its dominant running back Mohamed Ibrahim. His replacement, Sean Tyler, is a very familiar face in the Eastern Michigan scouting room as Tyler suited up against the Eagles three times during his days at Western Michigan. Minnesota didn’t typically fire for more than 200 yards through the air last fall, but the team’s MO might need a shift, given Ibrahim’s absence and the presence of an improved receiving corps. On the other side of the ball, the Gophers lose a horde of starters, but they had an excellent foundation to start with, sporting the fourth-ranked scoring defense in 2022 at 13.8 points allowed per game.

Eastern Michigan will counter Minnesota’s revamped defense with a heavy dose of Samson Evans, who posted four 120+ yard rushing games last season, including a 258-yard explosion at Arizona State. The bruiser back is the foundation of the offense, but retaining a starting quarterback in Austin Smith should help, and there is All-MAC talent at both receiver and on the offensive line. Eastern Michigan proved its defensive depth in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and the Eagles must stifle a run-heavy Minnesota — just like Bowling Green did in 2021 — in order to emerge victorious in Big Ten territory yet again.

Your best bet

Toledo @ Illinois

Week 1 - Saturday, Sept. 2, 7:30 pm ET

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Liberty at Toledo
Dequan Finn quarterbacked Toledo to a MAC championship and Boca Raton Bowl victory last December, and returns for 2023.
Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Toledo enters 2023 as definitive MAC favorites, coming off its first conference championship since 2017. The Rockets are equipped with eighth-year head coach Jason Candle and an established veteran quarterback in Dequan Finn, who has proven his abilities as both a dynamic rusher and passer. Four reigning First Team All-MAC selections return to campus, including star lineman Nick Rosi, tackling machine Dallas Gant, and defensive backs Quinyon Mitchell and Maxen Hook — who lead a stacked secondary (returning all five starters) which spearheaded the Rockets’ 12th-ranked passing defense in 2022.

The Rockets lost several components of their potent defensive line from a year ago, but key cogs including Terrance Taylor and Judge Culpepper are expected to elevate their game to replace names like Desjuan Johnson and Jamal Hines. Overall, there’s a lot to like about the defending MAC champions in all facets of the game going into a Week 1 bout with Illinois.

Illinois’ 2022 success was highly contingent on the dominance of its defense, specifically the NFL-caliber talent in the secondary. Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, and Sidney Brown all warranted NFL Draft selections in the event’s first three rounds, and replacing three All-Big Ten stars in one position group could be daunting task. The Fighting Illini also relied heavily upon its Chase Brown-led rushing attack last season, and while Brown is gone, three starters on the line return to pave the way for Reggie Love and Co. on the ground. But if Toledo can bottle up the run game in this one, the Rockets certainly possess the talent in the secondary and at the skill positions to extend the MAC’s streak of defeating at least one Big Ten opponent to 17 seasons.