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2012 MAC Blogger Roundtable, week 1

August 29, 2012

It’s time for the return of the MAC Blogger Roundtable. Each week one of the bloggers covering the MAC (links are on the right sidebar) poses several questions, to be answered by the others. Leading off this week is the roundtable organizer Tim Riordan of the Buffalo blog, Bull Run. Long-time readers may notice that there are fewer questions this year, plus the power poll is gone.

1) It’s easy to pick out the three or four Mid American conference coaches who sit on hot seats this year. What’s not so easy is to quantify who deserves to be there. In your mind which hot seat resident — Enos, Clawson, Quinn — least deserves the honor? Which coach who is not generally seen as a canidate for the hot seat is most in trouble this season

Let’s start by recapping why each is on the hot seat.

Jeff Quinn took over Buffalo when Turner Gill left for Kansas after the 2009 season. The team was one year removed from a MAC Championship, though in Gill’s last season there they went 5-7 (3-5 MAC). It’s also worth noting that they hardly dominated in their championship season, finishing 5-3 in the conference in a year of super parity in the East Division (six of seven teams finished 5-3, 4-4, or 3-5) and then catching Ball State as the Cardinals began their implosion (after going 12-0 in the 2008 regular season, the MAC Championship game was the beginning of a nine-game losing streak). Quinn, who was a Brian Kelly protege, took over the Bulls in 2010, leading them to a 2-10 season that year and a 3-9 record in 2011. With a 3-21 record against FBS teams, any coach might be on the hot seat, but what has been particularly worrisome to Bulls fans is that Quinn, the former offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and before that at Central Michigan, has struggled to get the offense going, and most fans aren’t optimistic for this fall. Quinn is deservedly on the hot seat.

Dan Enos, a former running backs coach at Michigan State under Mark Dantonio, took over a Central Michigan program that had established itself as the power in the West Division. Under first Brian Kelly and then Butch Jones, the Chippewas had won three of the last four MAC Championships (2006, 2007, 2009), and they did it in a dominating fashion. The 2009 team finished 12-2, with the only losses coming at Arizona and at Boston College, and with a win at Michigan State establishing them as the best team in Michigan. As Butch Jones left to again be Brian Kelly’s successor, this time at Cincinnati, it looked like Mount Pleasant was building a MAC dynasty for the ages. Sure, there were some seniors leaving, including one of the greatest MAC quarterbacks ever (at least, according to the stats), Dan LeFevour, as well as defenders like Frank Zombo and Josh Gordy, but the departures weren’t so heavy that the team couldn’t at least have been over .500 the next year. The Chippewas were going to take a step back in 2010, but they were absolutely not any kind of rebuilding project — more like reloading. Somehow Enos managed to take this juggernaut-in-the-making and break it, going just 4-18 against FBS opponents over the next two years. Enos is deservedly on the hot seat, and probably lucky he hasn’t already been fired.

In 2009, Dave Clawson took over a Bowling Green program that was East Division co-champion in 2007, though on a tie-breaker Miami played in (and lost) the championship game, and the Falcons were demolished by Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl, 63-7. Gregg Brandon was given a three-year contract extension, but on- and off-field issues in 2008 led to his firing that November. On-field problems included a 1-4 home record with losses to Miami and Eastern Michigan, and a collapse against Buffalo after going into the fourth quarter up 27-7, which gave the Bulls the East Division title over the Falcons. Off-field problems included eleven players with legal troubles, including two arrested on drug trafficking charges, and the loss of nine scholarships due to a low NCAA Academic Progress Report. Clawson got things mostly turned around in 2009, despite a tough non-conference schedule, and the team finished 7-6 (6-2 MAC). After that, things didn’t go so well, with the Falcons finishing 2-10 (1-7 MAC) in 2010 and 5-7 (3-5 MAC) in 2011. Given where Bowling Green thinks their program should be, and given the recent success of their rival, Toledo, the heat on Dave  Clawson is understandable, but he’s been far more successful at Bowling Green than Quinn at Buffalo or Enos at Central Michigan.

As for other coaches who might be in trouble, that’s got to be Bill Cubit. In seven seasons at Western Michigan, he’s never won the division, and they’ve finished third in the West the last three years. He’s taken the Broncos to three bowls, but lost all three. This year, with a good senior quarterback in Alex Carder, expectations for the Broncos are sky-high, and if the team falls short, Cubit may find himself in trouble.

2) To expand or not to expand? Temple is gone and were back to 13. Should the MAC bother trying to re even the divisions and if so how? Football only? All Sports? East or West?

I’ve always been opposed to mindless expansion merely for expansion’s sake, which seems to be the approach some conferences are taking. I can see four good reasons for adding teams:

1. To replace departing teams, so as to stay at or above 12 members.

NCAA rules state that a conference needs at least 12 members playing football in two divisions, with a full round robin of play within each division, in order to host a conference championship game. (No, the MAC doesn’t actually follow this rule, because a balanced schedule with 13 teams is impossible, but apparently the NCAA has never complained, and we’ve never had the nightmare scenario of two undefeated teams from the same division.) It seems that this rule was originally put in place to help Division I-AA conferences crown a champion to advance to the playoffs, but it applies to all of Division I. The SEC was the first Division I-A conference to take advantage of this, in 1992, and it immediately added more than a half-million dollars to the revenues of every school in the league. The Big XII formed partly to take advantage of this rule, and held their first championship game in 1996, and the MAC followed suit in 1997, when the return of Marshall and Northern Illinois — both previous conference members — raised the membership to the needed 12.

Today, the MAC has 13 football members — the 12 full members plus Massachusetts — so there’s no need to expand to host a championship game. As for replacing departing teams, the core membership seems to be extremely stable. Buffalo was the most recent full member to join, and this fall will be the Bulls’ 15th season in the conference. For Northern Illinois, it will be their 16th consecutive season, but 28th overall, and this will be Akron’s 21st season. Every other full member has been around for at least 30 years (EMU, Central Michigan, and Ball State joined in the early 1970s), and six schools (Ohio, Miami, Western Michigan, Toledo, Kent State, and Bowling Green) have been continuous members for more than 60 years. The average membership duration for the current full members is more than 45 years. These 12 schools form a geographically compact group of schools with numerous non-athletic similarities: they are all public schools, all at least 90 years old, all with enrollments between 18,000 and 30,000, and seven of them (EMU, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Ball State, Bowling Green, and Kent State) began as normal schools.

In other words, the need to have 12 members to hold a conference championship game, which was probably the driving force behind the expansions of the PAC-12 and the B1G, is not a consideration for the MAC.

2. To raise the conference profile relative to other conferences.

A second consideration driving some conference expansion has been to raise the conference profile. For several years the Mountain West Conference has been picking off the top schools from the WAC. This is partly an issue of one conference trying to move ahead in the overall pecking order, and that worked — over the last couple years most fans would agree that the Mountain West Conference has been the top non-AQ conference, and depending on the measure, possibly also better than the Big East. One of the key reasons for this was the split between BCS automatic qualifying conferences (AQ) and non-AQ conferences.

At this point, the BCS as such will be gone in two years, and there won’t be any conferences moved from non-AQ to AQ (or vice versa) in that time, so expanding in an effort to break in would be useless. Starting with the 2014 season, the BCS will be replaced with a seeded four-team playoff, and given how infrequently MAC teams are even ranked in the top-25, the likelihood of one making it all the way into the top four seems exceedingly low. As to the overall pecking order, the MAC is clearly ahead of the WAC, which is likely to fold after the 2012-13 season, slightly above the Sun Belt, and well below Conference USA and the Mountain West, and it would take more than adding a member or two around the edges to change that.

3. To expand the footprint, and/or to offer more conference games for TV contracts.

TV contracts were the third force behind the recent wave of conference expansions, particularly for the SEC, but also for the B1G and for teams leaving the Big XII. The SEC makes a ton of money from their football television contracts. Adding Missouri and Texas A&M expands the geographic footprint of the conference to include Saint Louis, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. They also add eight in-conference games and four to eight non-conference home games to which the league can offer TV rights. On the other hand, Texas’s plans for the Longhorn Network were a factor in Texas A&M’s desire to leave the Big XII.

Again, this is not really a big factor for the MAC. TV contracts are just not a big enough deal in the conference to drive an expansion.

4. To become geographically dominant in a region.

I touched on this in #2 above, with regard to the poaching of top WAC teams by the Mountain West, although in that case the PAC-12 (and farther west, the Big XII) is the dominant conference. But this is the one legitimate reason I can see for the MAC to expand.

No, I don’t think the MAC has any hope of overtaking the B1G in the midwest. But in the northeast (New York and New England), there’s no dominant conference. Rutgers and Connecticut play in the Big East, Boston College plays in the ACC, Buffalo and Massachusetts play in the MAC, and Army is independent. Syracuse currently plays in the Big East, but is moving to the ACC after 2012. With the continued shift of the Big East to the south and west (in 2013 they will add Houston, SMU, UCF, and Memphis in all sports, plus Boise State and San Diego State in football only) Connecticut is going to have a lot of traveling to do. It’s unlikely, but I can imagine a scenario in which Connecticut, and Army join the MAC for football only, and another northeastern school moves up from FCS, creating a 16-team football conference that would be dominant in the northeast.

3) Which MAC bottom feeder surprises this season and why? Which MAC power chokes and why?

To answer this question, we first have clarify who the “bottom feeders” are and who the powers are.

I’m going to say the bottom feeders are teams that have had three or fewer MAC wins each of the past three years, or two or fewer MAC wins in two of the past three years. I’ll invert that and say the powers have had three or fewer MAC losses each of the past three years, or two or fewer MAC losses in two of the past three years. By that definition, the powers are Ohio, Northern Illinois, and Toledo (also Temple, but they’re gone, and good riddance!) and the bottom feeders are Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Akron, and Buffalo.

By that definition, EMU is the “bottom feeder” most likely to do well this season, but it seems like a lot of people are picking EMU to at least be in contention in the West Division. If you’re looking for a surprise, Akron is the most likely; with three conference wins in the last three years, all it would take for them to surprise people would be a 3-5 conference record. As for power teams choking, although Northern Illinois and Toledo both have significant losses to deal with, I just can’t get behind Ohio as the conference favorite. Solich’s teams always seem to start the season strong and then choke down the stretch, whether in the MAC Championship game (2006, 2009, and 2011) or late in the regular season (2010).

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