Why the MAC's streak against the B1G will continue in 2019
It happens every year, and it’s going to happen again in 2019. The MAC will upend the Big Ten at least once.
On the surface, it is a bit confounding. This isn’t college basketball, after all, where upsets are commonplace and the 3-pointer is an equalizer. Smaller programs aren’t supposed to beat the big boys (which is why the Power Five programs pay so much for the Group of Five programs to play in their stadium).
But in the case of the MAC and the Big Ten, the underdog always seems to pull one out. The MAC has won at least one game against a Big Ten squad in 13 straight seasons. It has taken down the B1G 29 times since Ohio beat Illinois in 2006.
Sometimes, these “upsets” make sense. Like in 2018, when Buffalo was the second-best team in the MAC and absolutely ripped Rutgers 42-13. But other times, they are a bit unexpected. Northwestern, which went 8-1 in the Big Ten and won the West, couldn’t beat an Akron team that went 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the MAC.
I guess it’s no surprise that Northwestern and Purdue were too scared to schedule any MAC teams this season. (Just kidding, I know these schedules are made years in advance.)
Anyways, the Big Ten and MAC match up 10 times in 2019. Here are the five most-likeliest upsets:
1. Eastern Michigan at Illinois (Sep. 14) — It will be interesting to see what the line is in this one. If it were in the opening week of the season, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it within three points. There are a lot of things working in the Eagles’ favor that make this my most likely upset pick. For one, Eastern Michigan has won two straight against the Big Ten, taking down Purdue on a last-second field goal last year and defeating Rutgers in 2017. Mostly, though, I like Eastern Michigan because it is a program on the rise, thanks to its head coach Chris Creighton. There may not be a coach in the country who can maximize a program’s potential like Creighton as Eastern Michigan is the least desirable job in the MAC, according to Athlon Sports. If Creighton can win seven games for the third time in four years, he may be headed to a Power Five school. Maybe like Illinois?
2. Ball State vs. Indiana (Aug. 31) — This is technically a home game for Ball State, even though it will be played in Indianapolis. Given the way this series has gone, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see the Cardinals upset the Hoosiers in the season opener. Ball State won three straight against the Hoosiers from 2008-12. And since 2011, Indiana is 3-3 against the MAC. The Hoosiers will definitely be favored with a ton of talent like Stevie Scott and Nick Westbrook back on offense, but the Cardinals are due for a breakthrough. Full disclosure, I covered Ball State for three seasons, and the program has fallen on hard times with no bowl appearances since 2013. Head coach Mike Neu is on the hot seat and coaching in his hometown of Indianapolis may be what he needs to get going. Look out for Drew Plitt, too. The Ball State quarterback may make some mistakes, but he is fearless and won’t be intimidated. There is something to playing an in-state rival, as Ball State somehow lost by just a touchdown against CPF-bound Notre Dame last eason.
3. Akron over Illinois (Aug. 31) — Akron hadn’t beaten a Big Ten team since 1894 (a span of 124 years!) when it knocked off Northwestern last season. So why not two in a row? Yes, Akron has a new head coach in Tom Arth, but Kato Nelson has already started parts of the last two seasons at quarterback, giving the Zips some experience where it matters most. And Illinois, well… what is there to say? It hasn’t exactly looked great against the last two years against MAC programs, beating Ball State and Kent State (two of the worst MAC programs in the last few years) by a combined 10 points in 2017 and 2018, respectively. While Lovie Smith is a very good coach, he has won nine games in three years and now looks to be starting a true freshman at quarterback (though Isaiah Williams looks like he will be a good player). Even with 17 starters back, it’s hard to have much confidence in the Illini.
4. Western Michigan at Michigan State (Sep. 7) —Winning in East Lansing will not be easy, but Western Michigan is one of the most experienced teams in the country and has the firepower to do it. The Broncos may have the best offense in the MAC this season as Jon Wassink is one of the league’s top quarterbacks, and LeVante Bellamy is one of the top running backs. Also, this is a revenge game for Western Michigan as its top wide receiver from last season, Jayden Reed, transferred in the offseason to Michigan State.
5. Northern Illinois over Nebraska (Sep. 14) —While Nebraska is going to be vastly improved this season and has a decent chance at making the Big Ten title game, the Huskers would be wise not to look ahead of the Huskies. And after NIU won 21-17 in Lincoln in 2017 (and took home $820K), Nebraska surely will be ready. But NIU, though unspectacular at times, is a consistently solid program. It lost its head coach to Temple, but it has its starting quarterback Marcus Childers and top four rushers back. Remember in 2015 when NIU lost by just a touchdown against No. 1 Ohio State? The Huskies are always a threat.