MAC sets record with 5 bowl teams

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Associated Press

TOLEDO - The conference that sent Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington to the NFL is setting another milestone.

A record five teams will represent the Mid-American Conference in bowl games this season.

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It's a huge step up for a league that until three seasons ago routinely sent just one team to a bowl. And it's a sign of the wacky college football season in which only 57 teams won enough games to qualify for 56 bowl slots.

Two teams - Clemson and South Carolina - turned down bowl invitations as punishment for brawling during a game, opening the way for the MAC teams.

''It's been an unpredictable year nationally,'' said MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst. ''We're just fortunate to be able to capitalize.''

Conference champion Toledo along with Bowling Green, Marshall, Miami of Ohio and Northern Illinois all will be playing in postseason games.

Much of the momentum toward this was built a year ago when the league had three teams in The Associated Press Top 25 during the season and wins over Alabama, Pittsburgh and Kansas State in just one weekend.

But the conference only got Bowling Green and Miami into bowls, leaving out 10-2 Northern Illinois.

Two other MAC teams with 10 wins - Toledo in 2000 and Miami in 1998 - also have been shut out of the postseason in recent years.

''We've got a little equity built up,'' Chryst said about this year's bowl bonanza.

Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak said it can be tough to recover after being snubbed. ''It can set a program back,'' he said. ''I've got a group of seniors we can never pay back.''

Novak said it's frustrating when conferences such as the Big Ten and Pac-10 have agreements to send seven teams to bowls before the season begins.

Neither of those conferences had enough teams reach six wins, which is required for a bowl appearance. That opened the door for Northern Illinois to take the Pac-10's spot in the Silicon Valley Bowl. The Huskies will play Troy.

The worry among conference coaches, though, is that this season could be an aberration.

Novak fears that if college football adds one more game to create a 12-game schedule, MAC teams ''could be on the outside looking in again.''

Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon said the only way to guarantee a bowl is to win the conference. ''In our league it's crucial that you win the right games,'' he said.

The Falcons beat Kansas and Missouri in 2002 and won nine games but didn't get a bowl bid because they didn't win the MAC title.

A year ago, a loss to Miami in the conference title game could have shut out Bowling Green again. Instead, they were invited to the Motor City Bowl.

''I was really sweating it,'' Brandon said.

This season, two of Bowling Green's three losses were to teams in the MAC West. In past years, that would have knocked them out of a bowl spot. But now the Falcons (8-3) will play Memphis in the GMAC Bowl.

Toledo (9-3) won the MAC title game over Miami and will play Connecticut in the Motor City Bowl, one of two bowls the conference is partnered with along with the GMAC Bowl.

In the other games, Miami (8-4) will take on Iowa State in the Independence Bowl, and Marshall (6-5) plays Cincinnati in the Fort Worth Bowl.

Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien said the conference needs to take advantage of this year's opportunity.

''We've been talking about exposure for the last few years,'' he said. ''This increases our exposure. We realize this a unique year, however, and the conference office is working very hard to get a third bowl game for next year.''

The conference has been working with a group that wants to stage a bowl in Toronto. Getting that done is one of Chryst's top priorities.

''This league deserves the assurance of a third postseason bowl,'' Chryst said.