Looking at the non-conference schedule for Ohio State this year, it is easy to pencil in a couple of wins when the Buckeyes take on Northern Illinois and Western Michigan in back-to-back weeks. Ohio State is the defending national champs and returns pretty much everybody this year, so they should be able to dominate these two MAC foes easily, right? Well it isn't quite that easy.
Ohio State is perfect against MAC schools in their history, and has rarely been tested. It's easy to see why. There is the obvious talent gap between the Buckeyes and the MAC schools they play, which contributes to what often turns into a large margin of victory for Ohio State. In six of the last eight meetings with MAC schools, the Buckeyes have won by 30 points or more. Only three times have the Buckeyes failed to win by at least double digits. In 2003 they beat Bowling Green 24-17, the following year Mike Nugent helped the Buckeyes sneak by Marshall (who has moved on to Conference USA) 24-21, and in 2011 Ohio State held off Toledo 27-22 during Luke Fickell's second game in charge. The 22 points the Buckeyes allowed Toledo to score in that game marked the most Ohio State has ever given up to a MAC school.
While the Buckeyes won't necessarily have to be on upset alert against Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, they should at least get a couple games that are more competitive than against previous MAC opponents. Both teams return a ton of talent after having very successful seasons in 2014, and both have young coaches who could be positioning themselves for consideration for power conference head coaching jobs with another strong season in the books. It wouldn't be surprising to see the November 18th meeting between the two schools decide who heads to the MAC Championship Game in Detroit as the representative of the MAC West.
Over the past five years Northern Illinois has been the class of the MAC, appearing in the MAC Championship Game in each of those years, compiling a 3-2 record in those appearances. Many thought last year might be a down year for the Huskies with the loss of all-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch to graduation. Early on it looked as if those concerns were valid, but after starting the season as the third quarterback on the depth chart, Drew Hare stepped up to help Northern Illinois to a 11-3 season.
After just two season in charge in DeKalb, Rod Carey has amassed a 23-5 record, and looks to be following in the footsteps of his two predecessors. Jerry Kill was hired as Minnesota's head coach following a three-year stint as head coach of the Huskies. After Kill, Dave Doeren also posted a 23-5 record in his two seasons as Northern Illinois head coach, leading the Huskies to an Orange Bowl berth before heading off to coach North Carolina State. With what Carey is doing for the Huskies, it looks like only a matter of time before a power conference team makes him their head coach too.
What might be most impressive about Carey's record so far with Northern Illinois is that he is 3-0 against the Big Ten. In his first game as head coach, Northern Illinois squeaked out a 30-27 victory against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, and followed that up with a blowout 55-24 win at Purdue nearly a month later. Last year the Huskies made the trip to Evanston and sent Northwestern fans home unhappy by upending the Wildcats 23-15. Sure those Big Ten teams Northern Illinois have beaten lately aren't on the level that Ohio State is, but it has do wonders for the program's confidence knowing they can go on the road and take down power conference teams.
Northern Illinois should be able to come out of the gates strong this year since they have a lot more certainty at quarterback than they did prior to last season. Drew Hare is very smart with the football, throwing 18 touchdowns and only two interceptions, but he also has the ability to run the football, as he ran for 927 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Hare should also get a boost with the return of wide receiver Tommylee Lewis, who missed all but two games due to injury last year after catching 86 passes in 2013.
While Northern Illinois is in the midst of five straight double-digit win seasons, Western Michigan is just a couple years removed from a season where they posted double-digit losses. The Broncos might not have the recent history that the Huskies do, but that doesn't make P.J. Fleck's team any less dangerous. After going 1-11 in his first season in charge in Kalamazoo, Fleck's team made huge strides last year, posting a 8-5 record, and earning just the fifth bowl bid in school history.
The Broncos might be even better this year, as they return their quarterback, running back, and top two wide receivers from last year's team. The biggest star from last year's much improved team was freshman running back Jarvion Franklin, who rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns. The offense wasn't all about Franklin though, as quarterback Zach Terrell threw for 3,443 yards and 26 touchdowns, while limiting his mistakes to only 10 interceptions. The recipients of most of Terrell's passes were receivers Corey Davis, who snagged 78 passes for 1,408 yards, and Daniel Braverman, who caught 86 balls for 996 yards.
The massive turnaround by Fleck and company almost saw Western Michigan end Northern Illinois' run of MAC West titles, as the Broncos held a 21-7 lead in the regular season finale at Northern Illinois before the Huskies mounted a comeback to earn a 31-21 victory. While many laughed at the "row your boat" slogan that Fleck coined for his team, it clearly is working. Not only is Western Michigan making improvements on the field, but they are doing work on the recruiting trail too, accumulating the best recruiting class in the conference. At just 34 years old, Fleck is already opening some eyes with the work he has done during his short time with Western Michigan, and much like Carey, he could soon be destined for a major conference head coaching position.
One big thing Western Michigan doesn't have that Northern Illinois does is the recent success against major conference competition. Western Michigan lost their last 13 games against Big Ten schools but the Broncos are getting closer. In their first game under Fleck in 2013, Western Michigan played Michigan State; tight for the most of the game, but eventually falling to the Spartans 26-13 in East Lansing. Last year's season opener once again saw the Broncos go on the road and put together a game effort before eventually falling to another Big Ten foe, losing at Purdue 43-34.
Ohio State will be heavy favorites in these two MAC games, but they can't assume that they will just show up and dominate, even with the large talent gap between teams. If anything, at least Northern Illinois and Western Michigan should be able to give the Buckeyes a little bit more of a challenge than Kent State did last year, or Miami (Ohio) did in 2012. Who knows, these two schools might even provide a little more of a game for the Buckeyes than when Ohio State opens up their Big Ten schedule at Indiana.