The 2014 MAC football regular season is in the books. There have been upsets, records, lead changes and general upheaval throughout, which makes this season's title game participants a bit surprising.
They are last season's title game participants.
It's tempting to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but renewed combatants Northern Illinois (10-2, 7-1 MAC) and Bowling Green (7-5, 5-3 MAC) are miles removed from being the same outfits they were a year ago.
Take the defending champion Falcons, for starters. Bowling Green, most notably, saw the departure of head coach Dave Clawson to Wake Forest in the offseason, ushering a new era under offensive-minded coach Dino Babers. While Clawson's tenure led to BGSU becoming known for a suffocating defense, Babers' team has relied on a fast-paced offensive assault while the defense has slipped to a below-average unit in the MAC.
The hero for Clawson's team in the 47-27 championship game victory over NIU will also not take part in this year's contest. Quarterback Matt Johnson appeared to be primed for a huge season after throwing a MAC Championship-record five touchdowns, but a hip injury suffered in the Falcons' season-opener against Western Kentucky sidelined him for the balance of the season.
Northern Illinois, on the other hand, knows all too well about losing a star quarterback. While Jordan Lynch could not lead the Huskies past the Falcons a year ago, his elite offensive production is not easily replaced by this year's NIU squad. Lynch accounted for 47 total touchdowns in his final year with the Huskies, running for an NCAA quarterback record 1,920 yards and finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting. His departure, along with that of 2014 NFL first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward, left Northern Illinois needing to replace a lot of talent to stay competitive.
If this all seems like a lot of information from last year to preview a game taking place this year, it's because those truths prove a point - last season's MAC Championship is effectively useless for predicting this season's.
Without paying any mind to the 2013 season, both of these squads had to be very good in 2014 to put themselves in position to play for the conference title once more.
For Northern Illinois, this year was just another in a long run of consistent success. The Huskies have appeared in the last four MAC Championship games, winning two, and also earned an unheard-of bid to a BCS bowl in 2012. NIU has relied on continuity, with head coach Rod Carey having been on the coaching staff since 2011, a rarity for a successful program in a high-turnover conference.
While this year's Huskies haven't reached the soaring heights of previous years, they have succeeded by being solid in every facet. NIU ranks fifth in the MAC in total and scoring offense and fourth in total and scoring defense. The Huskies have allowed the least sacks in the conference and have produced the third most. They're second in third-down conversion percentage and first in turnover differential.
None of those stats are all that exciting, but excitement is not what got Northern Illinois here. The Huskies may not have had the explosive highlight plays fellow MAC West contenders Toledo and Western Michigan did, but they found a way to be strong enough on both sides of the ball to beat those teams and earn a return trip to Detroit.
Offensively, the Huskies boast a group whose sum is greater than its parts. While NIU hovers near the top of the MAC in most team measures, its offensive individuals are not among the league's brightest stars.
Quarterback Drew Hare had enormous shoes to fill not only from Lynch, but also Chandler Harnish before him, and while the redshirt sophomore hasn't approached the production of either, his efficient, effective work has been emblematic of the Huskies' success. He's thrown 15 touchdowns against just a single interception, and has run for another seven scores on top of that. His 790 yards rushing, though they pale in comparison to his predecessor's stats, are first among MAC quarterbacks. In tandem with senior running back Cameron Stingily (who is just behind him with 779 rushing yards), Hare has led a productive, if not always explosive, Huskies attack.
Helping to ensure that a productive offense is enough for a win will be the NIU defense. The Huskies yielded 24.2 points per game this season, which included holding the top two scoring offenses in the league - Toledo and Western Michigan - to 24 and 21 points, respectively. Individually, defensive end Jason Meehan's seven sacks and defensive back Paris Logan's 15 passes defensed are NIU's most impressive stats, but the Huskies have relied on a team effort to contain some of the more dangerous offenses in the MAC.
And a dangerous offense is exactly what Babers set out to create in Bowling Green in his first year as head coach. When Clawson left for the ACC, the Falcons elected not to rest on their laurels. They set into motion a swift culture change with the hiring of the offensive guru who gleaned experience at Art Briles' Baylor, among other big-time programs.
Babers' first season at the controls has had a few mixed results, but by racking up a 5-0 record against MAC East competition, his Falcons were able to lay claim to a chance at a second straight MAC title. Conventional wisdom suggests Bowling Green's path was made easier by taking part in a MAC East far weaker than the MAC West (a claim buoyed by Bowling Green's 0-3 record against MAC West opposition in 2014), but the Falcons did what they needed to do and are just a win away from another MAC crown.
The greatest worry about hiring a coach so well-versed in offensive strategy was if he would be able to coach up a successful defense, and early returns suggested Babers could not. A staggering 59-31 blowout loss to Western Kentucky in the season opener raised a few concerns that were only magnified by Wisconsin's 68-17 demolishing of the Falcons three weeks later. While the Badgers have a tendency to blow the doors off their opponents, the 644 rushing yards yielded by BG - a Big Ten record - were not encouraging for a fan base accustomed to a strong defensive unit.
While the Falcons defense never quite settled into being a top group - it finished the season at the bottom of the MAC in pass defense, 10th in run defense and 12th in total defense - BG's stoppers grew a bit more effective as the season marched on. The Falcons kept both Toledo and Western Michigan from breaking 30 points and finished the regular season atop the MAC with 27 takeaways. Some of those good feelings evaporated when Bowling Green lost 41-24 at home to now 5-7 Ball State to close the season, but the Falcons defense showed it can have some redeeming qualities.
Bowling Green's main attraction under Babers, its offense, enjoyed a bit more productivity than the defense and finished near the top of the league in key categories (fourth in scoring offense, third in total offense). Running back Travis Greene has performed admirably for the Falcons, leading the team in rushing and averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
The passing game has seen modest success, due in part to Babers' quick-fire strategy, but replacing Johnson after his injury proved challenging. Taking the vast majority of the snaps this season has been sophomore James Knapke, who has earned occasional plaudits (443 yards and three touchdowns against UMass) but also occasional benchings (7-of-24 and 71 yards against Toledo). For better or worse, the Falcons will continue to rely on heavy volume from Knapke (his 423 pass attempts were third in the MAC, and his 243 completions the most), and hope his work can help them win any shootouts their defense might force.
Although both of these title game participants have vastly different looks from their previous year's iterations, the ability to maintain the level of year-to-year success required to attend consecutive title games is a deserved point of pride for both programs. Fans of Bowling Green and Northern Illinois can take the time to appreciate the histories these teams are writing.
But once the ball is kicked Friday in Detroit, history goes out the window. A conference championship is once more at stake.