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After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”

NIU wins third MAC title in four years, best of Group of Five?

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The Northern Illinois Huskies (11-2) were clearly the best team in the MAC all season and that held true during the MAC Championship Game.

The next question becomes, “Is Northern Illinois the best team among the remaining Group of Five?”

The Huskies dominated the Bowling Green Falcons 51-17 to claim Rod Carey‘s first MAC title as the head coach at Northern Illinois. It’s Northern Illinois’ third title in four years. The lone loss came last year against Bowling Green.

The victory goes beyond another championship and continued dominance within the MAC.

Northern Illinois still has an outside shot at representing the Group of Five with an automatic berth in a New Year’s bowl game. The Huskies were cognizant of their standing and attempted to add some style points with a late touchdown to set a new MAC record.

The Boise State Broncos are currently ranked 22nd overall. However, a loss by Boise State could make Northern Illinois the highest-ranked team from a non-power conference. The Broncos have come up small in big late-season games in prior years, but Boise State faces a 6-6 Fresno State Bulldogs squad in the Mountain West Championship Game Saturday.

A loss by Boise State, and Northern Illinois could once again be playing in a major bowl game. If the Broncos win, the Huskies can take solace in the fact they’re the most dominant team in any conference in college football after five-straight MAC Champoinship Game appearances.

Championship MACtion: NIU attempts to get revenge against Bowling Green

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Last season, the nationally-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies were dreaming of a BCS bowl bid as they entered the MAC Championship Game. Those dreams came crashing down around the Huskies as the Bowling Green Falcons secured a 47-27 upset victory to win their first MAC title since 1992.

Northern Illinois learned its lesson, and the Huskies are taking this year’s meeting in the championship game far more seriously.

The Huskies lead the Falcons 20-10 at halftime. But North Illinois head coach Rod Carey isn’t comfortable with the two-score lead as the team’s went to the locker room for the intermission.

“Both offenses can go at any moment,” Carey told ESPN at the end of the second quarter. “It’s tough. It’s been back-and-forth. It’s going to be a fourth quarter game.”

Both offenses already flashed at points in the first two quarters.

Northern Illinois’ Drew Hare opened the scoring on a five-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown. Hare was also 19-of-30 passing for 127 yards and another touchdown pass.

The scoring toss came late in the first half when the Huskies drove 68 yards in 1:06 before Hare found senior tight end Luke Eakes in the corner of the end zone.

The Falcons’ lone touchdown came on a spectacular catch from wide receiver Gehrig Dieter.  The sophomore rose above the Huskies cornerback with the safety looming to snag a moonshot thrown by Bowling Green quarterback James Knapke for a 41-yard score.

Bowling Green will likely up the tempo and the intensity during the second half. Northern Illinois has a nice lead, and it’s the more talented squad. A sound second-half effort should be enough to earn the school’s third MAC title in four years.

But one can never truly know what to expect during some weekday MACtion.