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The search for the best conference in 2007 starts with a play-in game between the Sun Belt and Mid-American conferences. Here's my breakdown of that matchup:
The gap at the bottom between the Sun Belt and the rest of college football probably has been as wide as the one at the top between the SEC and the whichever-is-the-next-best-this-season league. It has been that way for a while, but that might change in a few years with North Texas and Florida International making a much bigger effort to become legit. Both UNT and FIU brought in energetic new coaches with deep local ties that should spark recruiting. But that impact won't be felt for at least one or two more seasons.
At this point, though, the league just doesn't have enough athletes to overtake the MAC, a conference coming off a season in which it had a record five players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. The MAC is 10-8 in bowl games over the past seven years, thanks to a style that has consistently turned out NFL quarterbacks.
Harsh as it might sound, the Sun Belt is a league made up of a bunch of teams touting themselves as the Washington Generals of college football. Each Sun Belt squad loads up on BCS heavyweights for big paydays, then hopes to stay healthy enough to make it to conference play. It's an interesting formula, and occasionally one of its better squads will keep things interesting, as Troy did at Florida State last year. However, the MAC guys usually put up a more respectable battle against the BCS heavyweights than the Sun Belt teams.
Last year, the MAC had a bunch of games in which it went toe-to-toe with BCS teams: Toledo lost at Iowa State in triple OT and beat Kansas in double OT; Western Michigan won at Virginia and lost by only eight at FSU; Central Michigan lost by seven to Boston College; Miami (Ohio) lost in OT at Purdue; Akron won at NC State. The Sun Belt's best efforts: Troy losing at FSU by seven; Louisiana-Monroe losing by two at Kansas and at Kentucky; FIU coming within a point at USF and four at Maryland.
In a head-to-head matchup of the leagues, I'll take the projected four best and four worst MAC teams against the Sun Belt because the MAC has more teams. Here are my guesses about those outcomes:
Western Michigan over Troy
Kent State over Florida Atlantic
Toledo over Louisiana Monroe
Miami (Ohio) over Middle Tennessee
Akron over Arkansas State
Louisiana-Lafayette over Eastern Michigan
Temple over Florida International
North Texas over Buffalo
The tally is 6-2 in favor of the MAC.
Overall, the MAC gets the edge over the Sun Belt in 2007, but I do think the margin is narrowing a little. I don't think either league has a top-50 team among its members, but right now the Sun Belt probably has more of the bottom 20 teams in the country.
Final result: The MAC advances past the Sun Belt.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: A Season Inside College Football's No. 1 Recruiting Machine," is on sale now.