For fans clamoring for a playoff, the Mid-American Conference is doing it’s best to accommodate.
Four teams -- Temple, Ohio, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois -- are fighting for a spot in the MAC Championship game and all will square off in one way or another during the course of the final two weeks of the regular season.
Ohio and Northern Illinois will play in what will amount to an elimination game this weekend because both teams already have one conference loss. Ohio is chasing undefeated Temple in the East and Northern Illinois is behind unbeaten Central Michigan in the West. Both Ohio and Northern Illinois play the division leaders next week, but only the winner of this weekend’s game will have a shot at a division title.
“Northern Illinois can control their own destiny just like we can,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “It’s just the way the schedule is set up. All four teams have a chance.”
The MAC East has been up for grabs every season since moving to Ford Field in Detroit in 2004. Since then, no team has won back-to-back East titles and every year it seems like a different teams rises up to win the divisional crown. Last season, Buffalo won its first divisional crown and Temple, which at 8-2 is in the midst of its best season since 1979, has never won a MAC division title.
Ohio, on the other hand, won in 2006, but hasn’t finished higher than fourth since. Solich said he knew his team had a chance to win the division title back in the spring and though the Bobcats haven’t stayed as healthy as he would have liked, he has found some unexpected depth.
“It’s not been easy for us,” Solich said. “We’ve won the last five conference games on the road. Five in a row on the road. That was huge. I think it’s a team that’s always believed in itself and we felt we had a chance to be good and we wanted to prove it. They were great in the offseason, they’ve done everything this offseason to make themselves better and give themselves this kind of opportunity. That’s particularly pleasing to me on that end of it. We didn’t just fall into this. They worked extremely hard throughout the course of the entire offseason to get themselves in position to have a chance at things.”
Ohio tripped up against Kent State three weeks ago, but since then have squeaked out three-point wins against Ball State and Buffalo to set up this crucial game against NIU.
The Huskies are one of the best teams Ohio has faced all season. They rank first in the conference in rushing and second in turnovers lost. They also rank first in scoring defense and total defense. Ohio hasn’t been a slouch. It leads the conference in turnovers gained, interceptions, and pass efficiency defense.
“They’re a very hot football team and you can see them playing with energy,” Solich said of Northern Illinois. “They’re definitely believing in themselves and they’re playing hard and they’re playing fast football. So, we’ve got to counter that with great energy ourselves.”
Solich said he’s stressed to his team that seven wins doesn’t guarantee a bowl game in the MAC. The Bobcats have to notch that eighth win not only to give themselves a shot at the postseason, but also a shot at Temple.
Solich said he hasn’t been shy about talking to his players about controlling their own destiny, but at the same time he wants to make sure the Bobcats don’t get ahead of themselves.
“It’s so glaring to everybody that we have a shot to control our own destiny that we talk about it and they’re aware of what they’ve got to do,” Solich said. “You know, seven wins doesn’t guarantee you anything at this point. Other than a winning season, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a bowl trip, it doesn’t guarantee you a spot in our conference championship game. We have to keep going.”