Toledo, Buffalo Face Toughest MAC Non-Con Schedule
By Clyde Hughes
The non-conference schedule usually is the proving grounds for many Mid-American Conference schools looking to earn brownie points with national pollsters. Some, like Northern Illinois last season, earned enough to get invited to a big-money BCS contest last season.
Other games may not look as winnable on paper, but provide a nice payday for teams and their athletic departments.
Which MAC teams are playing the type of schedule that could earn them national rankings? Any number of teams can make an argument for the toughest schedule.
Toledo can lay claim as much as any team for toughest Mid-American Conference preconference schedule. Toledo opens at Florida on Aug. 31, which is ranked as high as No. 4 in some preseason polls. The Rockets follow that by visiting former Toledo coach Gary Pinkel at Missouri the following week.
It's supposed "breather" game, but won't be much of one — Toledo plays its first home contest against Eastern Washington. Eastern Washington has made it to the national semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs the last two seasons and finished the FCS ranked No. 4 in 2012. It's the highest-ranked FCS school a MAC team will play this year.
Toledo finishes its non-conference slate at home against 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl participant Navy.
Buffalo also should get attention for its opening schedule. The Bulls travel to The Horseshoe to take on Ohio State on Aug. 31 and then make the trek to Waco, Texas, to battle Baylor. Ohio State is ranked in the Top Five in nearly every preseason poll and Baylor, which played in the Holiday Bowl last year, shows up between No. 15 and No. 20.
Like Toledo, Buffalo's home opener against Stony Brook will be no cakewalk. Stony Brook finished as one of the better teams in FCS play, finishing No. 12 in its final poll. The Bulls round out its non-conference schedule at home against regional rival UConn.
Then there's UMass, which didn't give their Minutemen a break after going 1-11 last year. UMass opens at Rose Bowl participant Wisconsin, which is ranked in most preseason polls. After playing at home against Maine, the Minutemen travel to Kansas State, which played in the Fiesta Bowl last season.
The Minutemen return home to take SEC's Vanderbilt, which is ranked in a number if preseason polls and played in the Music City Bowl last season.
On the flipside, while Ohio opens on the road against likely Top 10 opponent Louisville on the road, the Bobcats get three straight winnable home against North Texas on Sept. 7, Marshall on Sept. 14 and Austin Peay on Sept. 21.
Ball State opens with Illinois State, which finished the season ranked No. 9 in the FCS poll, but then gets Army at home before traveling to play North Texas. The Cardinals wrap up its non-conference slate on the road against a Virginia squad that usually is decent.
Northern Illinois does not play a ranked team but does take on two Big Ten teams — Iowa and Purdue — on the road. The Huskies' other two non-conference games include a road contest against Idaho on Sept. 14 and at home tilt against FCS Eastern Illinois (No. 25 in FCS in 2012) on Sept. 21.
Most of the Mid-American Conference teams play what is called "Goldilocks" schedules — not too hard, but not too soft either.
Bowling Green, for example, opens at home Aug. 29 against a traditionally strong Tulsa team, travels to Indiana, a team normally at the bottom of the Big Ten standing, but usually tough against MAC schools, before going home for a winnable contest at Murray State. In October, the Falcons get a non-conference road tilt against SEC and 2012 participant Mississippi State.
Kent State's schedule falls into the "Goldilocks" category as well. It opens against Liberty before playing in one of the toughest environments in the nation: Baton Rouge, La., and LSU. The Golden Flashes follow that with a trip to Penn State and then finish the non-conference slate against South Alabama.
The MAC also continues its unofficial MAC-Big Ten Challenge this season. Ten Big Ten teams — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin appear on MAC schedules — all home games for the Big Ten, of course.
Iowa (Northern Illinois and Western Michigan), Michigan (Central Michigan and Akron) and Penn State (Eastern Michigan and Kent) will get a double dose of MACtion in the pre-conference season. That makes a total of 13 games where MAC will play the Big Ten. Only Minnesota and Nebraska missed out on the MAC-Big Ten funfest this year.