Before they can get on with the business of beating up on each other, most of the Mid-American Conference football teams have to go pick a fight with a big bully in his own backyard. Whether it is Oklahoma, Michigan or Minnesota, that is not a pleasant thought.
Pardon the MAC coaches if they cry out in the darkness, "Give me Liberty, or give me Tennessee Tech."
Bowling Green plays its highest-ranked opponent ever when the Falcons face the No. 2 Sooners in their opener, while Toledo gets what is arguably the best Golden Gophers team in some time when it takes on No. 23 Minnesota in the Metrodome.
For the MAC, these games offer big paydays, priceless television exposure, and a seductive recruiting tool. There is also the option of winning them, which the MAC has done quite a bit of in recent years.
"When you go play the Big Ten or the Big 12, I think it is an opportunity for your players to see where they stack up against the best," UT head coach Tom Amstutz said. "It lets them test themselves, and it's a test for your program. A good football program wants to be tested and see where they are.
''They want to have the opportunity to play teams like this and then build off of the experience."
The MAC shook up the college football ranks last year when it recorded three wins over nationally ranked teams on the same day. On Sept. 20 last season, Marshall stunned No. 6 Kansas State and Northern Illinois shocked No. 21 Alabama - both on the road in hostile environments, while Toledo beat No. 9 Pittsburgh at home.
Bowling Green had beaten No. 16 Purdue earlier in the year, and Northern Illinois also beat No. 15 Maryland. Amstutz felt like the MAC sent a message with those wins.
"I think when you have that many big victories from our conference - I think that opens some eyes," Amstutz said. "It shows that we are a conference that has players who will play hard and compete. We have coaches in our conference who will come up with a good game plan, no matter who they are playing."
With six games against ranked teams this weekend, the MAC has another opportunity to make some noise. Amstutz said the victories in 2003, especially those on the Sept. 20 date, will make everyone more aware of the MAC's ability to win in adverse situations.
"I think that one weekend in particular raised the perception of our whole league," Amstutz said.
Joe Novak, the head coach at Northern Illinois, said the MAC's success against ranked teams illustrates how the gap has closed between the elite programs and the rest of Division I-A.
"There are some awfully good players out there who aren't going to Michigan or Notre Dame or Maryland," Novak said. "A lot of them end up in the Mid-American Conference, and people around the country know that. We're not going to sneak up on them any more."
Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon, who took his team into Ohio Stadium to face the Buckeyes last year, said the meeting with Oklahoma is too valuable to pass up.
"An opportunity like this comes around only once in a lifetime," Brandon said. "To get a chance to play this kind of a program - without a doubt a top five program in the country for talent, and coaching ability. It will be an extreme test for us to go in there and not only play well, but to pull off a victory."
Brandon said the MAC programs can reap big profits from these high profile games, in non-monetary areas.
"We get the TV exposure, and the notoriety. It helps your program across the board," he said. "We went into Ohio State in front of 110,000 fans and we held our own there [24-17 loss]. We are a quality conference, and we can not only play with some big time teams, but we can beat them."
The Falcons, who finished the 2003 season ranked 23rd in both polls, are 3-0 against the Big 12 and 3-1 against the Big Ten over the last three seasons.
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