The Mid-American Conference Championship will feature two ranked competitors for the first since 2003 as the 19th-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies and the 18th-ranked Kent State Golden Flashes head to Ford Field to battle for the league title and possibly a trip to a BCS Bowl.
Kent State is ranked 17th in the most recent BCS standings, while NIU occupies the 21st slot in the poll. BCS rules guarantee a spot in a BCS bowl to conference champions from non-automatic qualifying conferences if it finished in the top 12 in the final BCS standings.
However, if a conference champion outranks a conference champion from a BCS league, it only needs to rank in the top 16 to earn a BCS bowl bid. After a flurry of upsets last week, this became the case this season as none of the programs from the Big East are currently present in the polls. Depending on results from around the country, the MAC could send a team to a BCS bowl for the first time in conference history.
Northern Illinois has certainly made a case for itself. The defending league champions came up short in their season opener and lost to Iowa by one point at Soldier Field. Since then, it has been nothing but checks in the win column. The Huskies have won 11 straight games since their bout with Iowa by an average of 25.1 points per contest, making them the only team in the FBS with 20 wins in their last 21 appearances. NIU also has the longest current conference winning streak in the country with 16 consecutive wins over MAC rivals. Coach Dave Doeren's career record is 22-4 as he nears the conclusion of his second year. If NIU picks up one more victory, it will set a school record for wins in a season. This will be the school's third straight appearance in the MAC Championship.
Kent State has followed a similar path, as it comes in on a 10-game winning streak. The Golden Flashes shattered a 90-year program record for victories on their way to an 11-1 record. Coach Darrell Hazell took over the program following a 5-7 finish in 2010. After he guided the team to the same record in his first year, Kent State was not expected to be competing for the league title this season. KSU had the biggest turnaround in the FBS in terms of wins after going unbeaten in MAC play during the regular season for the first time in school history. It also picked up a win over a ranked opponent for the first time in school history with a 35-23 decision at Rutgers The team will be playing in a bowl game for just the third time in school history and for the first time since 1972.
This will be the 24th meeting between these schools. NIU has won nine of the last 10 to claim a commanding 16-7 edge in the all-time series. The Huskies coasted to a 40-10 victory when they squared off in DeKalb last season.
NIU has excelled on offense due to the stellar play of Jordan Lynch. The junior signal caller is the most productive duel threat quarterback in the FBS. In the regular season finale, Lynch set an NCAA record for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback which led his season total to 1,611 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground, leaving him just 92 yards shy of breaking the record for most rushing yards in a season by a QB.
Lynch is not just a scrambler. He has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 2,750 passing yards with 23 touchdowns to only four interceptions. Marten Moore can testify to Lynch's passing skills. The senior wideout finished the regular season with 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns on 67 receptions, all-career highs. Tommylee Lewis has also been effective in the passing game with 40 catches for 475 yards and five scores.
KSU will have to shut down a late bloomer in NIU's offense as well. Junior tailback Akeem Daniels had a career day in the season finale with 112 yards and four TDs on 12 carries. His own coach spoke highly of his performance.
"Akeem is a warrior. He wanted this.He wanted to be the guy all year and he wanted it last year," said Doeren. " (Daniels) got an opportunity and he ran with it last week. I thought he was really patient. I thought he ran through contact. He didn't get in there and look for the big play. I mean, to me a four-yard run is a good run. You know it doesn't have to be the 50-yard touchdown. If you are patient like that, eventually that is what they become. That is what he was last week. Really proud of him because he is a great pass protector for us. He catches the ball well out of the backfield. He's versatile in our empty package, and now he is a good downhill tailback."
NIU was one of the top teams in the conference on the defensive side of the ball as well. The Huskies ranked second in the MAC in scoring defense and third in total defense with allowed averages of 17.5 points and 364.8 yards of total offense per contest.
Alan Baxter and Sean Progar both registered 8.5 sacks to spearhead a pass rush that made 34 sacks to rank second in the league.
However, the Huskies may not have faced an offense with a player as talented as Dri Archer. The Golden Flashes' junior tailback is the biggest home run threat in the nation and the only other candidate for the MAC Player of the Year besides Lynch. Archer is gaining 9.7 yards per carry, which is the highest single-season average this century. The elusive and speedy rusher finished the regular season with 1,337 yards and 14 touchdowns on 138 carries. Archer has certainly drawn the attention of his upcoming opponent.
"He's quite shifty, but he's a very quick back. He's going to be the main emphasis this week," said NIU's senior linebacker Victor Jacques. "We're always going to know where he's at on the field to make sure he's kept in check. He's a great football player, but I feel confident with our defense."
The Huskies will also have to stop Archer in the passing game as he leads the team with 458 yards and four TDs on 30 receptions. He is also the nations leading kick returner with 573 yards and three TDs on 15 returns.
If Archer was not enough to worry about, his teammate Trayion Durham effectively complements him with a power running style. Durham racked up 1,176 yards and 14 TDs on 236 carries.
Spencer Keith will be under center for the Golden Flashes. The senior QB has provided leadership as the team's signal caller, but he has been struggling down the stretch. Keith was picked off four times in the final three games after only throwing three interceptions in the first nine contests. He still finished with 1.674 yards 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions on 151-of-264 passing.
The Golden Flashes are not quite as limiting as their opponent with allowed averages of 409.9 yards and 23.5 points per outing. However, Kent State forced 35 turnovers to finish second in the nation in turnover ratio (+20). The defensive unit was very good against the run, as it ranked 23rd in the FBS and second in the MAC with 128 rushing yards allowed per game.
Senior LB Luke Batton anchored the defense with 119 total stops, two interceptions, and one fumble return for a score. Junior DB Luke Wollet has made an impact all year long as well to finish with 99 tackles, four interceptions, and one fumble return for six points.
Despite all it has accomplished this season, Kent State is not satisfied with just a trip to Detroit.
"When the clock hit zero, it was all about Northern Illinois," said senior Kent State linebacker C.J. Malauulu.