By Chris Mahr
We’re still nearly three days away from knowing who will face Notre Dame for the 2012 BCS Championship. Yet people are already oozing with anticipation over a potential matchup between the Irish and No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 7 in Miami. (Nevermind that Alabama’s opponent in Saturday’s SEC title game, No. 3 Georgia, presents a serious threat to that narrative.)
That’s all well and good. But it’s worth noting that six days before a potential Irish-Crimson Tide national title game that could conclude an era of college football, the Orange Bowl could mark the start of a new one on the very same field.
There is a very real chance that the winner of Friday’s MAC Championship Game — yes, the MAC — could find itself in the Orange Bowl against the ACC champion.
Cinderella could trump the ugly stepsister-like BCS in unprecedented fashion. Non-AQ teams such as Boise State, Hawaii, TCU and Utah (formerly non-AQ in the case of the latter two) have played their way into the picture before. But none of them emerged from environments quite as humble as the MAC.
Grantland’s Michael Weinreb wrote on Tuesday that a Notre Dame-Alabama clash would be the last “locked-in championship game between two old-time regional powers” that we would see for a while. We are on the verge of the Playoff Era, and the MAC potentially crashing the BCS party couldn’t have come at a better time.
Yes, the infant stages of the FBS playoff will be dominated by teams from AQ conferences. But it’s the principle of the matter that’s really important: Championships will be won on account of games played, not eyeball tests passed.
It’s a format that gives new purpose to those “less sexy” teams. You know, the ones that aren’t as lavishly funded and whose reward for winning 8–10 games in a season is a second-rate bowl played over the Christmas break. They finally have a seat at the table.
Personally, I thought that Cinderella in FBS college football died in August when the WAC announced it won’t compete in football in 2013. How wrong I was. Had I been gifted with the power of forethought, I could have simply flipped the “W” in WAC upside down to find the sport’s next feel-good upstart.
In one locker room at Ford Field on Friday night you’ll find No. 17 Kent State (11–1). Head coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant, spearheads a team with a punishing ground game (10th in the FBS with 241.5 YPG) and a defense that, apart from Oregon (38), has forced more turnovers than anyone in the country (35).
The Golden Flashes’ opponent, No. 21 Northern Illinois (11–1), is just two points from gunning for a perfect season (the Huskies lost to Iowa, 18–17, in their season opener.) A consistent MAC title contender throughout the last decade, NIU scores a lot (40.5 PPG) while not yielding a lot (17.5).
What both teams are gunning for is not just to win. They want to win convincingly enough that the BCS computers would have no choice but to place them firmly in the Top 16, provided that the right teams ahead of them lose on Saturday. (They also have to hope that they end the season ranked ahead of the winner of an AQ conference.)
That’s not the end of it. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, there is a Cinderella story within the MAC Cinderella story.
If you have any interest in the outcome of Friday’s game and are on the fence as to who to root for, pull for Kent State. Not just because it would be easier for the Golden Flashes to crash the BCS party than it would for lower-ranked Northern Illinois. But also because the school has earned it after enduring an ignominious past. On and off the football field.
Kent State football has long been a joke. The 92-year-old program has an embarrassing .394 winning percentage (320–499–28). They’re the team that big-conference opponents frequently schedule for Homecoming or early season warm-ups.
Even at the start of this season, the team was in the news more for its bloopers — running the wrong way on a fumble recovery, tackling itself in the end zone for a safety — than anything else. “Cathartic” is not a strong enough word to describe how inexplicably rising to the BCS would feel to this program.
And not just the program, but the university as a whole.
Forty-two years later, the most common word association with “Kent State” remains “shootings.” The infamy stemming from the 1970 deaths of four students at the hands of the Ohio Army National Guard will never fully subside. But should the Golden Flashes make it to Miami, it’ll give the general public something else to think about upon mention of the school. Which itself is monumental.
College football may be becoming an uncontrollable behemoth, but the potential of the MAC to crash the BCS party in its second-to-last year is proof the sport still has room for the little guys.
I hope that Cinderella gets to dance with Prince Charming. And that the clock doesn’t strike midnight.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Jim O’Connor/US Presswire