They share the same geographic footprint and some of the same recruits, but nobody would ever mistake MAC football and Big Ten football.
For all the strides the MAC has made over the last several years, there is no shaking the perception it is the little brother to the big and mighty Big Ten. It is a hard label to escape considering the league is a non-automatic qualifying conference, with far fewer dollars, smaller athletic budgets and smaller fan bases.
Still, MAC teams use their games against the Big Ten every year as a measuring stick to see where they stand going into conference play. So far this season, the MAC is 0-5 against the Big Ten, losing by an average of 20 points. Many more measuring sticks will be out this Saturday, with eight MAC vs. Big Ten games on the schedule.
“Our conference needs to prove that we can go out and beat and compete with those teams,” said Kent State coach Doug Martin, whose team lost to Penn State 24-0 last Saturday. “We’ve made dramatic strides here. Our last BCS win was in 2007, but we’ve been much closer in these two (Penn State, Boston College) than we’ve been in the past, so they’re good measuring sticks and they can only make you better.”
The MAC has six wins over Big Ten opponents over the last two years -- two in 2009 and four in 2008. Though only a few have been close this year, MAC coaches believe these games give them a tremendous opportunity for a variety of reasons.
The measuring stick is a part of it. Coaches feel they learn more about their teams -- even in blowouts to Big Ten teams -- than if they were to easily beat a lower-division school.
“Your weak spots are immediately identified. There’s no covering them up against a quality football team like Ohio State,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich, whose team lost to the Buckeyes 43-7 last Saturday. “The good thing about that is you know exactly what you’ve got to work on to get better.”
They also want to give their kids an opportunity to play in the biggest stadiums, in front of the biggest crowds. They want to play them for exposure in recruiting. Some of these games end up on national television, so that is good for exposure as well.
Plus, they provide nice paydays that infuse athletic departmenta with much-needed cash.
“When you look at it through a coach’s eyes, you definitely want to see how you measure up to the likes of a BCS opponent, Big Ten, Big East or whoever it might be,” said Toledo coach Tim Beckman, whose team plays at Purdue on Saturday. “You’re always gauging where you’re working your program to. It’s a way to gauge how you’re recruiting. For the kids' sake it’s a great opportunity to play in a place you look at or you admired as a youngster. It’s a plus-plus for us.”
MAC teams also are vying for some of the same players Big Ten teams are going for, and many of the MAC coaches believe they are having more success in that area than ever before, which has helped them be competitive in some of the most recent games.
“There’s enough players people are going to miss on,” said Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit, whose team lost to Michigan State 38-14 in the opener.
Some MAC teams are more competitive than others, depending on the Big Ten team they are playing. Many times, depth ends up being an issue. Though MAC teams are sometimes able to pluck Big Ten-caliber players, they simply do not have the same talent across their rosters.
“The expectations of the MAC, before it was like no chance and now I think every team that plays a Big Ten team, you feel like you have a chance going into the game,” Cubit said. “The problem is depth. You get a couple guys hurt and all of a sudden your twos are not going to be as good as their twos.”
Two schools, Ball State and Northern Illinois, are playing Big Ten teams on the road on back-to-back weekends, a doubly difficult task to be sure.
“We’ve got to be at our very best and we will be,” said Ball State coach Stan Parrish, whose team plays at Iowa after losing to Purdue 24-13 last week. “The venue there will really help us down the road because playing Purdue and Iowa back to back helps young players grow up.”