A year after what was probably the most successful season in Mid-American Conference history, the MAC could be facing a bit of a reality check in going for an encore.
Emphasis on check.
Expectations may have changed nationally for the MAC, but the bottom line has not. And though MAC programs have proven that college football’s big boys should take these early games seriously, MAC teams are still mostly playing power programs on the road because they have to.
MAC programs still make only about $100,000 annually from the league’s TV deal — barely enough to stay afloat, let alone compete in today’s football arms race. So they supplement their income by hitting the road and playing paycheck games.
Eight MAC teams play BCS conference opponents this weekend, all on the road. Buffalo is making $1 million to play at No. 2 Ohio State. Toledo is getting $800,000 to play at No. 10 Florida. Ohio is making $500,000 to play at No. 9 Louisville.
It’s more than a trend.
“I’ve been on both sides of it,” said Akron coach Terry Bowden, whose team opens at Central Florida and in two weeks plays at Michigan. “When I was at Auburn we’d buy teams in, and I know these games sare a necessary part of life in the Mid-American Conference.
“(At Akron) our record has been poor enough that we can grab a big, million-dollar game in one shot. Some of our better teams in the conference probably have to play two of those games to get the same money we can get for one. They’re winning too much and maybe we’ll get there fairly soon.
“The best part is these games have made the MAC’s reputation as a giant killer. Win or lose, though, that’s the way we pay our bills. It’s a part of how we finance things, but it’s probably our best chance to gain notoriety on a national level.”
Northern Illinois crashing the BCS party last year was great for the MAC, but the primary goal of the league’s 13 coaches is still to win in league play, win a division title and advance to the MAC Championship Game in Detroit. Two years after Toledo played Ohio State and Boise State in a six-day span, the Rockets start this year with two SEC road games, at Florida and at Missouri.
“It’s ambitious, but I truly believe our program is in a place where we can not only enjoy the opportunity but really believe we can go down to SEC country and win football games,” Campbell said. “We know Florida is one of the elite teams in the country and we’ll have to be at our very best. But I’m excited to see where our kids are. They understand the road ahead, and as competitors we’re excited about it.
“It does pay some bills. Being a young coach, that’s out of my realm and not something I know enough about to talk about. But the reality is in our conference you look for opportunities to play in the spotlight, to play the big boys, to measure yourselves and get talked about. We can’t preach to our kids about anything happening on any given Saturday if we don’t live it, and going back several years we have played at Michigan, at Ohio State, at Arizona and now on to Florida and Missouri.”
On Sept. 14, Kent State plays at LSU. The next week, Kent State is at Penn State. By the time play begins, MAC teams will also have played at Michigan (twice), Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Kansas State, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt and Virginia.
Load up the bus. Bring home a Brinks truck.
“What does a perfect schedule look like? Unless you play every game at home and on national TV, I don’t know that there is one,” Campbell said. “The reality is there are great football teams and tough environments all around the country, and all I can control is having our kids ready to play in games I know they’ll be excited about playing.”
Said Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn, whose team opens at Ohio State and at Baylor: “I wouldn’t call it a necessary evil but I think you always try to schedule some of the best competition in the country to see where your program is. To be able to play Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio State in three years, that’s testing our kids and trying to get them ready to chase a bowl game and our other goals in the MAC conference.
“Last year at Georgia, it was 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. Our kids grew up in a hurry. It allows our kids to play against the best competition in the country and see where we’re at as we go back and see if we’re ready to compete and try to win the MAC.”
Kent State faces a daunting September double in trying to replicate last year’s success, but it’s all part of the business. Two years ago, the Flashes got $1.2 million to open at Alabama. With LSU and Penn State this year, they’ll twice play on national TV and play in front of almost 200,000 fans in two weeks.
Kent State will try to do what Ohio did in last year’s season opener, when the Bobcats got $800,000 to play at Penn State — and won the game.
“Honestly, I haven’t given any thought to those games,” first-year Kent State coach Paul Haynes said. “Those are (weeks) away. All of my attention is on our opener, on getting this team better and doing what we have to do to, day by day, to be able to play for championships at the end of the season.
“The business side is the business side. Our business is taking what we think can be a pretty good football team and trying to make it a very good team every week, regardless of money or spotlight or who’s watching. When you win, lots of people are watching.”