MAC Championship Preview

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Championship weekend kicks off in Detroit with the MAC Championship Game Friday night in Detroit. Northern Illinois has now represented the West in seven of the last nine title games while this is just the second appearance for Buffalo.

Here is a look at Friday’s closely-lined championship game in the MAC.

Match-up: Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Buffalo Bulls;
Venue: At Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan
Time/TV: Friday, November 30, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2
Line: Buffalo -3, Over/Under 49
Last Meeting: 2017, at Northern Illinois (-8) 14, Buffalo 13

Buffalo has been the prominent MAC team all season since starting the year 4-0 with notable wins at Temple and at Rutgers. The Bulls started 6-0 in conference play to take a commanding lead in the East but slipped up at Ohio in mid-November before clinching the division title last weekend. At 10-2, it has been the best season record-wise in Buffalo history already and the Bulls will have two more opportunities to add to the win count.

This if the fourth season for Lance Leipold who won six Division III championships in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater and figures to be a candidate to be interviewed for major conference positions in the near future. Buffalo went 5-7 and 2-10 in his first two seasons before reaching 6-6 last year without getting a bowl invite.

Rod Carey took over Northern Illinois for the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2012 season after Dave Doeren was hired at NC State. In six-plus seasons he is 51-29 with the Huskies finishing in the top three in the West every season while this will be his fourth MAC title game, going 1-2 in three straight appearances from 2013 to 2015. A bowl win has eluded Carey, winless in five tries but the program has been a consistent force in the conference.

The Dollar General Bowl in Mobile vs. a Sun Belt team has been the typical landing spot for the MAC Champion though there are not true ranked bowl tie-ins for the MAC. The Camellia, Famous Idaho Potato, Frisco, and Bahamas Bowls are also tied to the MAC with the conference featuring seven bowl-eligible teams including six that are at least 7-5 this year.

West champion Northern Illinois is just 7-5 but the Huskies lost non-conference games to Iowa, Utah, and Florida State, while beating BYU for one of the nation’s most difficult non-conference schedules. The Huskies held this spot despite losing its final two MAC games to slide to 6-2 in league play, falling in single-score games hosting Miami and at Western Michigan in the final two weeks.

Northern Illinois has the top scoring defense in the MAC, allowing just 19.8 points per game while Buffalo was one of the conference’s top offensive teams, posting 35.5 points per game in conference play. These teams didn’t play in the regular season this year but Buffalo did face Eastern Michigan and Toledo in the crossover games for a fairly difficult schedule. Northern Illinois drew Ohio and Miami as both teams faced the second and third place teams from the opposing divisions.

Experienced mobile quarterbacks are on both sides with sophomore Marcus Childers playing significantly last season as a freshman for Northern Illinois. He posted worse numbers across the board this season however despite a similar record for the Huskies. Junior Tyree Jackson threw nearly twice as many touchdown passes this season compared with last season for Buffalo but he also saw major declines in most of his passing numbers compared with last season. At 6’7” Jackson is a difficult matchup for any defense but the Huskies have had great defensive numbers this season.

Only Clemson is allowing fewer yards per carry than Northern Illinois at just 2.6 yards per rush attempt on the season. The Huskies were only out-gained on the ground three times this season and never in MAC play with only Iowa, Florida State, and BYU holding a ground edge in this matchup while in six of eight MAC games Northern Illinois had a rushing edge of at least 96 yards.

Dominating the ground game has been the key to beating Buffalo this season as in the team’s two losses they had a major rushing deficit. In September Army out-gained Buffalo by 178 rushing yards and won 42-13 in Buffalo while in mid-November Ohio out-rushed Buffalo by 280 yards in a 52-17 result that prevented the Bulls from clinching the division at the time.

Despite the 6-2 record Northern Illinois played almost exclusively close games in MAC play with seven of eight games decided by 10 or fewer points in either direction. The only lopsided result was a home win over 2017 MAC Champion Toledo but that game featured nearly identical production but a few big turnovers and special teams plays tilting the scales to the Huskies. Northern Illinois actually has a negative scoring differential on the season despite being 7-5, though they outscored MAC foes by an average of 5.3 points per game.

Buffalo outscored foes by an average of 11.0 points per game overall this season and 10.9 points per game in MAC play. Buffalo scored at least 31 points in nine of ten wins this season while five of seven wins for Northern Illinois came with 26 or fewer points scored by the Huskies as these teams have generally been in contrasting types of contests and whoever dictates the pace could have the advantage.

2017 Meeting: In mid-October Northern Illinois visited Buffalo and took 14-3 lead with a pair of early second quarter touchdown drives led by Marcus Childers who ran for the first score and threw for the second. Buffalo would answer with 10 points before halftime including getting a field goal following a fumble for a one-point game at the break, 14-13. Northern Illinois had 1st-and-goal early in third quarter before a Childers fumble and on the next possession the Huskies missed on a 43-yard field goal. Buffalo got zero points after an 81-yard drive early in the fourth quarter with a missed field goal that could have taken the lead and a few minutes later an interception in Huskies territory also cost the Bulls a chance to get in front. Northern Illinois missed another field goal in the final minutes as the 14-13 edge held after a scoreless second half filled with missed opportunities.

Series History:

-- Northern Illinois is 10-0 S/U in this series since Buffalo joined the FBS ranks with the Huskies 7-3 ATS.

-- Northern Illinois has been favored by at least seven points in every previous meeting as this will be the first time Buffalo has been favored in this series and in eight of the previous 10 meetings Northern Illinois has been favored by 14 or more points.

MAC Championship History:

The MAC Championship has been won by the West representative in eight of the last 12 seasons and Northern Illinois has been six of the previous eight MAC championships, winning the title in 2011, 2012, and 2014, with the last title under current head coach Rod Carey.

MAC Championship History (1997-2017)
Year Matchup Line Score ATS Result
2017 Akron-Toledo Toledo -20.5 (60.5) Toledo 45-28 Underdog-Over
2016 Western Michigan-Ohio Western Michigan -16.5 (58) Western Michigan 29-23 Underdog-Under
2015 NIU-Bowling Green Bowling Green -14 (69) Bowling Green 34-14 Favorite-Under
2014 NIU-Bowling Green NIU -5 (64) NIU 51-17 Favorite-Over
2013 NIU-Bowling Green NIU -3 (58) BG 47-27 Underdog-Over
2012 NIU-Kent State NIU -5 (60) NIU 44-37 (2OT) Favorite-Over
2011 NIU-Ohio NIU -3.5 (71) NIU 23-20 Underdog-Under
2010 NIU-Miami (Ohio) NIU -18.5 (55) Miami (Ohio) 26-21 Underdog-Under
2009 Ohio-C. Michigan C. Michigan -14 (55.5) CMU 20-10 Underdog-Under
2008 Ball State-Buffalo Ball State -15 (63.5) Buffalo 42-24 Underdog-Over
2007 C. Michigan-Miami (Ohio) C. Michigan -3 (63.5) CMU 35-10 Favorite-Under
2006 Ohio-C. Michigan C. Michigan -3 (47) CMU 31-10 Favorite-Under
2005 Akron-NIU NIU -13 (54) Akron 31-30 Underdog-Over
2004 Toledo-Miami (Ohio) Miami (Ohio) -1 (65) Toledo 35-27 Underdog-Under
2003 Bowling Green-Miami (Ohio) Miami (Ohio) -7 (57) Miami (Ohio) 49-27 Favorite-Over
2002 Marshall-Toledo Marshall -3.5 (62.5) Marshall 49-45 Favorite-Over
2001 Toledo-Marshall Marshall -3 (62.5) Toledo 41-36 Underdog-Over
2000 Marshall-W. Michigan W. Michigan -6.5 (52) Marshall 19-14 Underdog-Under
1999 Marshall-W. Michigan Marshall -20.5 (57) Marshall 34-30 Underdog-Over
1998 Marshall-Toledo Marshall -12 (49) Marshall 23-17 Underdog-Under
1997 Marshall-Toledo Marshall -1 (53) Marshall 34-14 Favorite-Under