A dogged effort by Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher and a few favorable bounces helped the league this month land a record number of bowl game invitations.
Seven MAC teams will appear in the postseason, a coup that appeared unrealistic until Steinbrecher managed to negotiate several deals and before Northern Illinois creeped onto the doorstep of the BCS.
What follows is a timeline of events over a three-day period from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 that enabled Steinbrecher to find a postseason home for all of the MAC’s bowl eligible teams.
6 p.m.: Steinbrecher scores a deal with the Military Bowl, securing the league’s first nonguaranteed bowl game. He trumpets the get as "huge," as it sets the foundation for the weekend. The organizers of the Dec. 27 game in Washington are promised one of three teams — Bowling Green, Ball State, or Ohio.
10:45 p.m.: In a title game matchup of teams vying for the MAC’s first-ever BCS berth, Northern Illinois outlasts Kent State in two overtimes, prevailing 44-37. This registers as sobering news around the conference, as Kent had the clearer path to a BCS game, which comes with an $8 million windfall to be dispersed to MAC institutions. NIU, which was ranked No. 21 in the previous week’s rankings, will need to jump five spots to land an invitation to what most speculate will be the Orange Bowl.
Afternoon: Some good news and some bad news unfolds out of the Big East: Cincinnati beats Connecticut, denying the Huskies bowl eligibility. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh picks up its sixth win with a triumph at South Florida. More teams with a bowl resume hurt the MAC. Call it a wash.
6 p.m.: Steinbrecher strikes another deal, this time with the Independence Bowl. Its title sponsor, the health and wellness company AdvoCare, has requested the participation of a team from Ohio. Four choices exist: Toledo, Bowling Green, Ohio, or Kent State. The commissioner is also confident he has an agreement in place to send a team to one of the league’s four secondary bowls. Thus, six of the MAC’s seven bowl eligible teams will get to play once more.
"When I went to bed Saturday, I knew we were going to place all of our eight-win teams somewhere, and that was quite frankly a weight off of my shoulders," Steinbrecher said.
The objective Sunday: Hammer out an agreement to get 6-6 Central Michigan a bid.
The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl will choose a MAC representative first among the three games affiliated with the league. GoDaddy.com and Famous Idaho Potato will follow in order. Organizers of Little Caesars have tossed around the idea of pitting two MAC teams against each other in order to make room in the bowl season for all seven of the league teams hoping for postseason play. The scenarios include two matchups not waged in the regular season: Toledo versus Kent State and Bowling Green versus Ball State. Talk of a rematch between Toledo and Bowling Green has been squashed, much to the chagrin of the bowl’s executive director, Ken Hoffman.
"That’s the kind of thing I’d love to do," said Hoffman, a Toledo native and a UT alumnus. "I’m probably not as traditional as other bowl reps."
Word comes down that Louisiana Tech, which posted a 9-3 record, misplayed its cards by not immediately accepting an invitation to the Independence Bowl. Once it became apparent that no other bowls had interest in Louisiana Tech, the school was shut out of the bowl season. Independence had already filled its slate with Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe.
Word begins to circulate by mid afternoon that Northern Illinois is BCS bound. Its win over Kent, packaged with losses by UCLA, Texas, and Nebraska, appears to have bumped NIU into the picture. This is wonderful news for the MAC, and especially for Central Michigan.
The dominoes begin to fall. Little Caesars agrees to switch picks with GoDaddy.com with the understanding it will select first in 2013. GoDaddy.com picks Kent State, which will make its first appearance in a bowl in 40 years, to take on Arkansas State. Little Caesars pulls off a shocker by choosing Central Michigan, placing their trust in the Chippewas’ history of generating a solid following to the game. CMU will face Western Kentucky.
"We have one of the teams we wanted and the first selection next year," Hoffman said.
"It also allowed the MAC to get seven teams to bowl games, so it was very fitting we thought."
Everyone seemed to get their way. The Military Bowl, behind the push of former Bowling Green and current Washington Redskins offensive lineman Kory Lichtensteinger, pitted the Falcons against San Jose State. The Independence Bowl pleased its title sponsor by landing Ohio. Beef ’O’ Brady’s took Ball State and Central Florida. Toledo agreed to play Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, ending a whirlwind weekend in which athletic director Mike O’Brien entertained the possibility of playing in one of six or seven bowls.
"There was so much quality in the league from top to seven that it added to it being a much more confusing situation," O’Brien said. "In the same breath it was extremely positive because the league was really good."
At about 8:45 p.m., official word came down that Northern Illinois earned a berth to the BCS Orange Bowl. The Huskies will take on Florida State in Miami.
At 10:15 p.m. Steinbrecher held a teleconference with the media, boasting of a signature weekend in the history of the conference.
"It was one of those times where everything came together," Steinbrecher said.