We're off to the hinterlands of major-college football! Off to the mid-majors, where coaches pull down, on average, about as much as a good periodontist. Off to the MAC and the WAC and Conference USA--the land of small stadiums and large grudges, where just because you're bowl-eligible doesn't mean you're going to a bowl. So eager for exposure are these Division I-A have-nots that when television commands them to kick it off on a school night, they ask, "What time?" � Last week, for the second time this season, ESPN aired games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. How does it feel to go a month without playing on a Saturday ( Louisville)? What's it like to suit up on three Tuesdays ( Toledo)? How does it feel to miss two days of school on the road, then arrive back on campus at 5 a.m., sore and bleary-eyed, to be told by your coaches that you'd better make it to all your classes that day if you know what's good for you? To find the answers to these and other questions, we embarked on a four-day, four-game college football odyssey. (And with Fresno State up 35-0 on visiting Hawaii last Friday night, photographer Al Tielemans and I ducked out to a high school game, too.) We were on seven flights for a total of 16 hours. We chatted up sideline reporters, graded mascots (TCU's scaly Super Frog gives small children bad dreams, I fear) and mingled with tailgaters from eight schools. (When I urge you to check out the cabooses at Louisville, I'm talking about the antique train cars outside the stadium--not the glutes on the cheerleaders.) We were treated to inspired music (the Northern Illinois band performed numbers from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and heard the winningest coach in D-I history deliver one of his signature utterances. During his postgame press conference on Night 3 of our odyssey, Bobby Bowden dropped a "dadgummit," providing a grace note to an otherwise ugly evening.
NOV. 9: TOLEDO AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS
IF IT'S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE THE MAC
"On the one hand," Northern Illinois student Aaris Berry complains, while tailgating with fellow members of Sigma Alpha Mu, "we've got the university president taking out an ad in the school paper, telling us the team needs us to be at the game. On the other hand we've got professors scheduling quizzes during night classes, making sure we don't go."
"A lot of kids are blowing off classes anyway," adds frat brother Marquis Naylor. "I mean, this is Toledo."
What we have stumbled upon is an overlooked border war: Ohio State-- Michigan writ small. Visitors approaching DeKalb, Ill., from the south on Route 38 are greeted with signs that read, ROCKETS FANS GO HOME and TUCK FOLEDO.
Posted on the marquee outside the Best Western is CONGRATULATIONS COACH NOVAK ON YOUR 100TH GAME. Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak is one of the good guys in his sport. If he weren't, he would've gotten fired after his teams lost 23 straight from 1996 through '98. But then-president John La Tourette liked the way he handled the adversity, saw encouraging signs and left him alone. Last season the Huskies were the toast of the mid-majors, opening with wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. They started 7-0, enjoying a giddy ride to No. 12 in the AP poll, before dropping two of their next four games, including one at Toledo. Against the Rockets the year before, NIU was seemingly on its way to a win that would sew up the MAC West title. The Huskies had already given Novak a Gatorade shower when, on third-and-forever with 41 seconds left, Toledo scored on a jailbreak screen to win 33-30.
It is known as the Rocket Whammy: Novak is 0-7 against his b�te noir. But he likes his chances this year. The Rockets are coming off an election-night loss to Miami ( Ohio), and NIU is undefeated in the conference; with a win the Huskies can clinch their division and guarantee themselves a berth in either the Motor City Bowl or the GMAC Bowl. Of course, at 7-2 overall and needing only six wins to be bowl-eligible, the Huskies will go to a postseason game win or lose tonight, right?
Please. This is the MAC, not the SEC. Unless the GPS systems malfunction in their rental cars, the guys in the butt-ugly bowl blazers don't come around these parts. Three times in the last six years the MAC had a team with 10 wins that didn't get an invite. "It's frustrating," says Novak, with a sigh. "We really have no margin for error."
The same could be said when he faces Toledo. Things are looking good for Northern Illinois in the second quarter when wideout Shatone Powers snares a deflected ball in the back of the end zone to put the Huskies up 17-7. Yet slowly, inexorably, the whammy exerts itself. Toledo coach Tom Amstutz goes for it on fourth-and-one from his own 39 and converts. That gamble leads to a touchdown. As the Rockets pull away in the second half--they will win 31-17--I am standing on the Toledo sideline with MAC commissioner Rick Chryst. He speaks of a day when MAC football games will no longer go up against, say, The Rebel Billionaire on Tuesday nights. Starting in '06, he says, changes in the BCS will give MAC teams and other ambitious mid-majors broader access to the lucrative bowls. "I believe I'm going to see a MAC team kick it off on New Year's Day," he says. "I really believe that."