There have been some good Mid-American Conference Championship Games in recent years, but Friday’s matchup at Detroit’s Ford field between East champ Kent State (11-1, 8-0) and West champ Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0) is easily the biggest title game in the MAC’s history. In fact, this is just the second time in the 67 years of the MAC that it has had two 11-win teams in the same season. The last was in 2003 when Miami of Ohio and Bowling Green did it – those teams were both ranked when they met in the MAC title game and Miami routed BGSU behind a quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger.
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Where to begin with the story lines for Friday? (From a betting perspective, you have two of the best ATS teams in the nation.) The winner could procure the first BCS bowl in MAC history. In the current BCS standings, Kent State is No. 17 and Northern Illinois No. 21. No Big East team is in the Top 25. That’s important, because under the “Boise State Rule” if any team from a non-BCS conference finishes in the Top 16 of the final standings and is ahead of a major-conference champion, then that non-AQ team automatically qualifies for an at-large BCS bowl berth.
It’s a near-lock no Big East team will get ahead of the MAC champ, so the best scenario for the MAC is for No. 17 Kent State to handle No. 21 Northern Illinois. The Golden Flashes would then need No. 16 UCLA to get throttled by Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. And it would also help to have No. 18 Texas to lose to Kansas State, No. 12 Nebraska lose to Wisconsin and No. 13 Florida State fall to Georgia Tech, but those might not be necessary.
Back in 2008, MAC team Ball State was in position for a potential BCS bowl. The Cardinals were No. 12 in the BCS, which back then earned a non-AQ team an at-large spot. But Ball State was routed by Buffalo in the MAC title game and fell out of the Top 12. Should Kent State win, it probably would head to the Orange Bowl to face those Seminoles (doubting they lose to the Jackets). It also would cost the Big 12 runner-up between Kansas State and Oklahoma or perhaps Clemson a BCS berth. If KSU can’t get into the Top 16, the MAC champ usually returns to Detroit for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Another intriguing story line is that both Kent State’s Darrell Hazell and Northern Illinois’ Dave Doeren are unlikely to be at their respective schools next year with both in demand for bigger jobs. Hazell, a former assistant under Greg Schiano and Jim Tressel, has worked miracles in his two seasons at Kent State. Doeren replaced Jerry Kill when he was hired at Minnesota, and the Huskies have continued to dominate the MAC. Doeren is reportedly a top candidate for the open Purdue job.
Northern Illinois vs. Kent State Betting Storylines
This is by far the best season in Kent State football history. The Golden Flashes have one conference title and bowl game in their history. That came in 1972 when the Flashes finished 6-5-1 under Don James and played in the Tangerine Bowl. The club included future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, current Alabama head coach Nick Saban (defensive back) and current Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel (tight end).
Somehow, this year’s club lost 47-14 at SEC bottom-feeder Kentucky in Week 2 but has had just two games decided by a touchdown or less since then. Kent State doesn’t pass much, ranking No. 115 in the nation. But it’s 11th in rushing offense, and over the past eight games it is averaging 276.2 rushing yards a game. KSU has two 1,000-yard backs in Dri Archer (1,337 yards, a whopping 9.7 yards per carry) and Trayion Durham (1,176 yards). They have combed for 28 rushing scores, and Archer also leads the team in receiving with 30 catches for 458 yards. Defensively, the Flashes are second in the nation with a plus-20 turnover margin and 35 takeaways.
Northern Illinois has been to four straight bowls and has won the MAC West three years running. The Huskies lost a close conference title game to Miami of Ohio two years ago but erased a 20-0 halftime deficit last year to beat Ohio, 23-20. It was the first MAC Championship for Northern Illinois since 1983.
Last year’s Huskies had the MAC’s best offensive player in QB Chandler Harnish, but his replacement has been even better. Jordan Lynch deserves some Heisman love. He is No. 3 nationally in total offense as he has rushed for 1,611 yards and 16 scores while passing for 2,750 yards, 23 touchdowns and just four picks. Lynch has set an NCAA record for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback with 10 and needs 92 yard to break the record for most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback. Lynch is the second player to ever pass for more than 2,500 yards and run for more than 1,500 yards in a season. And in a 31-24 win over Toledo back on Nov. 14, Lynch became the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 400 yards (407) and rush for more than 150 (162). What is scary about Lynch’s season numbers is that he has been pulled in the second half of several games with the result not in doubt.
The Huskies are oh-so-close to being unbeaten. They blew a 17-9 fourth-quarter lead and lost 18-17 to Iowa in Chicago on a late Hawkeyes’ 23-yard touchdown run in the season opener. Lynch did struggle in his first start by going 6-for-16 for 54 yards but did rush for 119.
Northern Illinois vs. Kent State Betting Odds and Trends
On BookMaker, NIU is a six-point favorite with the total at 58. Northern Illinois is 9-2-1 ATS this season and 4-7 “over/under”. Kent State is 10-2 ATS this season and 7-4 O/U.
NIU is 4-1 ATS vs. teams with a winning record. The Huskies are 5-1 ATS in their past six following an ATS win. KSU is 4-0 ATS vs. teams with a winning record. The Flashes have covered a whopping 14 of their past 17 games overall. The under is 4-0 in NIU’s past four neutral-site games. The over is 9-3 in Kent State’s past 12 after a win. NIU has covered the past five meetings, and the under has hit in four of those.
MAC Championship Predictions: Northern Illinois vs. Kent State Picks
NIU has run roughshod over the MAC, winning 16 straight conference games. And while the Kent State defense has looked vulnerable at times, the Huskies’ has been very good. It ranks No. 15 nationally and has allowed a touchdown or less in four of the past six games.
I think the fact that this is old hat for NIU makes a big difference. Meanwhile, Kent State plays in a dome for the first time since 1985. These two teams met last year for the first time since 2008, and NIU rolled, 40-10, holding the Flashes to 70 total yards. It won’t be that lopsided again, but the Huskies cover. And take the over in what should be an entertaining shootout.
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