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MAC hoping to build on banner season

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In the last year, the Mid-American Conference has had a team in the Orange Bowl and a player picked No. 1 in the NFL draft.

Now, for an encore - how about a Heisman Trophy?

That may seem far-fetched, but Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch finished seventh in the voting last season, and he's back to try to lead the Huskies to another banner year.

Northern Illinois played in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, and although the Huskies were beaten soundly, the MAC was celebrating again a short while later when Central Michigan offensive lineman Eric Fisher was the first pick in the draft.

''I think the conference is on the rise, and a lot of great things are happening,'' Lynch said. ''The whole Heisman campaign, Eric Fisher going No. 1 overall. ... I think there's great things going on, and I think the best is yet to come for this conference.''

That remains to be seen. Northern Illinois has a new coach - Rod Carey led the Huskies in their bowl because predecessor Dave Doeren had taken the North Carolina State job. And since the Huskies lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl by three touchdowns, the MAC champion might need an unbeaten record to repeat Northern Illinois' feat of reaching a BCS bowl. Northern Illinois made it despite a loss in the regular season.

As for Lynch's Heisman hopes, he threw for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns last season - while running for 1,815 yards and 19 TDs. Numbers like that - if he can repeat them - will get attention.

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FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) THREE STRAIGHT?: Six teams have won the MAC title in the last nine seasons, and the last three league championship games were down-to-the-wire thrillers. Amid all that apparent parity, Northern Illinois is starting to look like a legitimate dynasty. The Huskies are trying to become the first team to win three straight MAC titles since Marshall won four in a row from 1997-2000.

Including the last two conference title games, Northern Illinois has won 17 straight against MAC opponents. The biggest threat to that streak this year may be a trip to Toledo in November.

As for the Huskies' chances of going undefeated in the regular season, they'll have to win three nonconference road games to do it - against Iowa, Idaho and Purdue.

2) YOUTH IS SERVED: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan's new coach, is the youngest in major college football at age 32. He took that title from Toledo's Matt Campbell, who is exactly one year older.

Fleck is one of three new coaches in the MAC this year. Carey and Kent State's Paul Haynes are the others.

3) FUTURE BOWLS: This is more of an off-field issue, but keep an eye on what the MAC tries to do as college football moves toward a national championship playoff. The new system - plus the seemingly endless talk of conference realignment - has made the bowl schedule beyond this season pretty uncertain.

For example, Detroit Lions are now hosting a bowl at Ford Field. That could spell the end of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which had a relationship with the MAC.

The scramble will be on for this mid-major league to find enough spots for its postseason-eligible teams. A record seven MAC teams played in bowls last year - Northern Illinois, Kent State, Ball State, Toledo, Ohio, Bowling Green and Central Michigan.

This season, the league has three primary bowl agreements and four secondary relationships.

4) IS LYNCH A LOCK ... for the MAC's most valuable player award? He might be. But don't rule out Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton or Toledo running back David Fluellen. Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack made the watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which goes to the nation's best defensive player. Dayonne Nunley anchors Miami of Ohio's secondary.

5) AT THE BOTTOM: Northern Illinois isn't the only team carrying a long streak into this season. Akron is coming off back-to-back 0-8 records in conference play, and the Zips don't play Eastern Michigan, which finished last in the other division in 2012. Akron's best shot at a conference win may be against Massachusetts, and that game is on the road.

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Predicted order of finish:

EAST

1. Bowling Green

2. Ohio

3. Miami

4. Kent State

5. Buffalo

6. Massachusetts

7. Akron

WEST

1. Northern Illinois

2. Ball State

3. Toledo

4. Central Michigan

5. Western Michigan

6. Eastern Michigan

Title game winner: Northern Illinois.

Tagged: Illinois, Michigan, Central Michigan, Toledo, Buffalo, Northern Illinois, Akron, Ohio, Kent State, Jordan Lynch, Eric Fisher

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