When the Big Ten squares off against the MAC in football, the hulking bully down the street still wins most of the fights.
But he has had his nose bloodied a time or two over the years, and both Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr have been dredging up those upsets by the Mid-American Conference as they prepare their teams to meet the MAC in the 2005 season openers.
Carr, who plays host to defending MAC West Division co-champ Northern Illinois tomorrow, said his respect for MAC opponents is not a recent phenomenon, and he has not been one of those who were stunned when Big Ten teams have lost to teams from the lower-profile conference.
"I think the Mid-American Conference was always a breeding ground for outstanding coaches," Carr said, "and if you look back through history, there's always been a lot of upsets or so-called upsets against so-called better opponents. I don't think they've changed. I think certainly today they just get much more publicity because of the technology available out there."
Tressel, whose Buckeyes host defending MAC East Division champ Miami, said the days of the invincible programs in college football are over, and his team takes Miami as seriously as it does Michigan.
"I think college football has evolved," Tressel said, "and there's just lots of good football players on lots of teams in lots of different leagues. Every football team knows how to play the game, and you better understand that you better do the things in the game that it takes to win" no matter who the opponent is.
Carr, who coached in the MAC at Eastern Michigan for the 1976 and 1977 seasons, cited Northern Illinois' recent wins on the road against Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State, and the fact that Huskies' coach Joe Novak was a colleague of his on the staff at Illinois almost 30 years ago. Novak went 1-21 in his first two years at NIU, and has since won a share of three division titles in the past four seasons.
"I know Joe Novak as well as most people, and I don't think anybody in this country's done a better job coaching than Joe has," Carr said. "When you look at what they've accomplished, particularly in the last few years, it's really special when you consider where that program was when he started. So they're an opener that is going to be challenging for us."
Tressel also has a MAC coaching background, having spent time on the staffs at Akron and Miami. He said MAC teams have beaten Big Ten opposition often enough to have everyone's attention.
"If you don't do the things you need to do to win, these guys will beat you," Tressel said. "And that's what we try to focus on - what do we need to do to win the football game against Miami of Ohio, against Michigan, or anyone. I think our guys focus on that and have respect for everyone they play."
Players from both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines echoed those sentiments.
"Miami and some of these other MAC teams have gone into big stadiums and won before, so I don't think they come in here in any kind of awe," Ohio State senior linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "A lot of these guys are trying to make a point that they belong here, so they come ready to give you a game. That's exactly what we expect from Miami."
Michigan senior wide receiver Jason Avant said the main reason the Wolverines have been able to avoid being picked off in their meetings with the MAC is that Michigan does not base its performance and intensity on what the general perception might be. He expects Northern Illinois' best shot.
"You can't take teams lightly in whatever conference they are in. No matter what school we play, when they hear they are playing Michigan, they are going to come and play like they are Miami of Florida, every week," he said. "We expect them to come and play their best, and hopefully we can play our best game as well."
The MAC has a dozen games with the Big Ten this season, and recently locked up more for the future as the college schedule expands to 12 games next year. Tressel said the relationship makes sense on a number of levels for both the Big Ten, which hosts the overwhelming majority of the matchups, and the MAC, which reaps windfalls of cash for visiting places like Michigan Stadium. Win or lose the Huskies take home $525,000 for playing UM.
"It's a good partnership for a lot of reasons - proximity, interest, the fact that it's not a secret to anyone that a lot of this was done from financial reasons," Tressel said. "It's been a pretty good partnership for years because philosophically and academically, we're on the same wavelength and we're in the same regional area."
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