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Why the MAC works as a football conference -- and for UB

ESPN play-by-play man Michael Reghi has worked Mid-American Conference games for 30 years and can rattle off thrilling MAC moments as if he’s calling a desperation, two-minute drive.

“Right off the top, there was the game in the early 2000s, Marshall at Akron,” Reghi said. “Byron Leftwich broke his leg and came back in the fourth quarter. He’d throw a pass, complete it, and his O-linemen would carry him up to the ball so he could snap it again. He was playing that final drive on sheer heart.”

“A couple of years ago Dri Archer was the all-purpose star for Kent State,” Reghi said. “He had a phenomenal day against Bowling Green in 2012. He had a kick return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, and took a quick slant to the end zone for a touchdown.”

“The guy who might be the best receiver in the NFL right now is Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh. I can think of many great games he played for Central Michigan.”

“When Ben Roethlisberger was a senior at Miami,” Reghi recalled, “I did a game on Halloween weekend in Yager Stadium when he knocked off Marshall, which was unbeaten and in the top 20.”

Few fans have Reghi’s encyclopedic grasp of famous MAC moments.

1 Sep 2001: Byron Leftwich of the Marshall Herd runs with the ball during the game against the Florida Gators at Florida Field in Gainesville, Florida. Florida won 49-14. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Eliot Schechter/Allsport

Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich played one of the more memorable games in MAC history. (Allsport)

There’s the dichotomy for the Midwestern conference to which the University at Buffalo belongs.

The MAC produces fun football entertainment. A small fraction of college football fans care about it in comparison with the top-25 programs in the country. Which perspective do you care to embrace?

“Many people would say I’m not going to spend time watching any game other than the top-name teams,” said national analyst Phil Steele, who produces what is considered “the bible” of college football preseason magazines. “But the reason I like the MAC is the traditions. The MAC has been around a long time. A lot of its teams have been together a long time. . . . You don’t have the athletes of the Power 5 conferences, size and speed, but it’s good football.”

“I love the MAC,” said former Bills linebacker Ray Bentley, who broadcasts college football games. “I think it’s great football to watch. You get a lot of competitive games. There are outstanding rivalries. Don’t tell them it ain’t the big time. They approach it like it is. You’ll see NFL talents every weekend on MAC fields.”

Here’s a sprawling look at the state of MAC football as it embarks on its 71st season.

Group of 5

The MAC widely is viewed as No. 8 out of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.

There’s no definitive ranking of football conferences, as there is for college basketball. The Power 5 conferences (the Southeastern, Big Ten, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast and Big 12) dominate the sport. The “Group of 5” − the American Athletic, the Mountain West, the MAC, Conference USA and the Sun Belt – operate deep in their shadow.

The AAC (which includes UConn, Memphis and Houston) currently is the clear No. 6 among conferences. The Mountain West and the MAC are in competition for Nos. 7 and 8. In 2015, the MAC actually was No. 7 according to the website RealtimeRPI.com and by the Group of 5’s own complex playoff revenue distribution system.

However, in terms of head-to-head competition, attendance, TV revenue and NFL prospects, the Mountain West annually is ahead of the MAC.

“You go back a few years ago, and the MAC was always nine or 10,” said Steele. “Now I have the MAC above the C-USA, because they lost a lot to the American Conference.”

IOWA CITY, IOWA- AUGUST 31: General view as fans settle in to watch the match-up between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Northern Illinois Huskies during the first quarter on August 31, 2013 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Northern Illinois won 30-27. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

The MAC's Northern Illinois upended Iowa in this August, 2013 encounter but the crowd size at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City captures one of the disparities between the Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference. (Getty Images)

In the grand scheme, the Group of 5 all are in roughly the same boat. The Mountain West is in the shadow of the Pac-12. The MAC is in the shadow of the Big Ten. The AAC is a geographically wacky league in the shadow of the ACC and Big 12.
The Power 5 schools get roughly $20 million to $30 million a year in television revenue. The Group of 5 schools get $2 million a year or less. That disparity is never going to change.

The near future

Quick: Name four schools in the 12-team Conference USA. How about six in the 12-team AAC? You’re a big-time fan if you can do it.

Conference realignment has run amok the past decade, but the MAC has been the most stable Group of 5 conference. All 12 current members have been in the MAC since 1998, when UB joined.

What about the near future? The Big 12 is considering expansion, perhaps by two schools, and might decide by Christmas. That would cause a ripple. The AAC, if it loses a school or two, could pursue Northern Illinois, which has appeared in six straight MAC title games.

But another big conference reshuffling isn’t likely to happen until the early 2020s. All of the Power 5 broadcast rights deals will expire over a four-year period starting in 2023. The current College Football Playoff contract runs through 2025.

There has been speculation the Power 5s all eventually will expand to mega 16-team leagues. That would have a huge impact on the MAC and UB. But do the richest college programs – the Alabamas, Ohio States and Florida States of the world – really want to divide their giant financial pie more ways? That doesn’t seem likely. No one knows for sure what will happen, but a consolidation of the biggest powers might make more financial sense.

UB still building

Toledo and Bowling Green, separated by 25 miles, play for the I-75 Trophy. Akron and Kent State, 10 miles apart, play for the Wagon Wheel. Central Michigan and Western Michigan play for the Victory Cannon.

UB fans don’t have a natural MAC rival to fire them up.

However, UB has just two winning seasons in 17 years in the MAC.

Allen Greene, new athletic director for UB, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

UB Athletic Director Allen Greene says the Bulls will develop MAC football rivalries as they become consistently competitive. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“When you’re not incredibly competitive, it’s hard to develop a rivalry,” admits UB athletic director Allen Greene. “Why is the Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry so good? They’re always ranked. In terms of football, as we become more competitive, it’s going to enhance our rivalries. The games mean more.”

Most of the MAC schools are roughly the size of UB – 20,000 to 30,000 students. All are state schools. All have similar athletic budgets – about $7 million in expenses for football. The MAC is the most geographically sensible FBS conference in the nation.

In terms of academics, UB and Miami Ohio rank at the top of the MAC, with UB’s research pedigree making it the only MAC school in the 62-member Association of American Universities.

“I love the stability in the age of conference realignment,” Greene said. “I think we’re very fortunate to have a lot of like-minded universities. There are some outliers. I think we’re an outlier a little in terms of geography. Northern Illinois is a little bit of an outlier. One of our advantages is we’re an AAU institution. The others in the MAC are not. But that said, given where our athletics program is, we’re very much in line with our peers in the MAC from an athletics perspective.”

Some UB fans would love it see it angle for a spot in the AAC. But UB is in no financial position to move up at this still-young stage of its athletic development.

[The top MAC players currently in the NFL]

Its athletic budget was $29.5 million as of 2014-15. The budgets of the AAC schools are roughly $47 million. The AAC generates a little more revenue than the MAC. But where would UB get another $12 million-plus a year for athletics? The New York State Legislature isn’t coughing it up. UB President Satish K. Tripathi talks about UB athletics eventually pulling more of its financial weight, not bankrolling a 40 percent or more increase in athletics spending.

Greene says the focus is getting more competitive in the MAC.

“The next three to five years, sure, we want to be a leader in the conference,” Greene said. “We want to dominate in areas. But you don’t just dominate. It’s about hiring the right coaches, working with them, making sure they’re recruiting the right student athletes, giving them the resources to be successful and working on the process to make sure we’re getting better. When we do that, the sky’s the limit. We’ve got more potential to blow this thing out of the water than any other school in the league.”

“What makes sense for us?” Greene said. “The MAC makes sense for us. There’s some thought about what would it take for us to move up. No. 1, you’ve got to be attractive. That includes fan exposure and fan engagement. If people don’t come to the games, then that immediately takes you out of being an attraction. It goes hand in hand. The fans out there who suggest we should move up, those people better be at the game.”

ESPN MACtion

Akron coach Terry Bowden joked last year that the MAC should get creative with promotions for mid-week night games in November.

“I’m gonna suggest a mannequin game,” Bowden said. “Bring a mannequin, and you get in free. If we get 10,000 that gives us 20,000 in the stands.”

BOISE, ID - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Terry Bowden of the Akron Zips address the crowd following a bowl victory at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl between the Utah State Aggies and the Akron Zips on December 22, 2015 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho. Akron won the game 23-21. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)

Akron coach Terry Bowden acknowledges that attendance for the Mid-American Conference's mid-week ESPN games is small potatoes. But what the conference loses in the seats it gains in overall exposure. (Getty Images)

The MAC has been playing mid-week night games in November on ESPN since 1999. It’s great for exposure and recruiting but tough on the fans, who much prefer Saturday games.

The MAC ranks last among the 10 conferences in average paid attendance, at 15,316. UB ranked fourth in the MAC with an average of 18,457, despite the fact the Bulls were only 5-7.

For the first three or four home games the past three seasons, the number of bodies in the stands at UB Stadium were pretty close to the paid total. For the last two or three, it’s considerably less, and that’s consistent with the rest of the MAC.

“You make up for the attendance with the national exposure,” said Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck. “That’s the tradeoff. When people don’t have football, they have us. We’re kind of your savior through the week to get your football fix.”

The MAC’s TV deal is looking better and better since it was signed in 2014 because it gives the league security. The deal runs through 2026 and pays a reported $800,000 to $840,000 a year to each of its schools. Conference USA just struck a deal this year for roughly $200,000 per school, according to the Virginia Pilot. The AAC gets a reported $2 million per school, the Mountain West about $1.6 million.

MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher doesn’t use the night games as an attendance excuse.

“Is that one of the issues, yes,” he said. “But to blame it on that when you’re talking about one or two home games, no. We need to continue to work on getting our students and our fan base out. Get our folks to engage.”

UB has done that by running pre-game concerts, which have been well received. The Bulls have averaged 20,532 in attendance the past three years. The average for the three-year period prior was 14,727.

But it’s worth repeating: Given two winning seasons out of 17, UB needs to win more games to build and sustain a bigger fan base.

“I think 20,000 fans for a college football game in Western New York is a really good crowd,” says Jim Kubiak, the former St. Francis High and Navy star.

“I think as a result of the success of the basketball program the past two years, there’s more discussion of UB athletics overall in our community,” Greene said. “That has an impact on football and all the sports. There’s a different feeling in the air. We’ve proven over the past two years we can win championships in many sports. We’re raising the profile. But it takes time.”

QB’s worth watching

Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl champion of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is the greatest quarterback and player produced by the MAC. He’s the atypical MAC QB in that he has prototypical size, at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds.
Most MAC QBs are a tad undersized. Yet eight different MAC teams over the past two years had a QB who produced at least 3,000 yards or 24 TDs.

UB Bulls QB Joe Licata at UB Pro day at the Ralph Wilson Field House on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Joe Licata at UB Pro Day (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

UB product Joe Licata is a perfect example. Any MAC fan who watched Licata the past four years saw a guy who efficiently ran the offense, read defenses, knew where to go with the ball and delivered passes on time and in rhythm.

“You can’t get 12 great players on one team always in the MAC, but you can get a great quarterback and ride him,” said Akron coach Terry Bowden. “They have come along and made some great teams. We’ve had great, great quarterbacks step into the league. That position makes a big difference for your team.”

Licata was fun to watch. The same went last year for Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson, Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell and Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. Ditto for past MAC QBs like Chad Pennington, Bruce Gradkowski, Jordan Lynch, Charlie Batch and Charlie Frye. Those players have allowed wide-open offenses to proliferate, as in most of the nation’s conferences. Northern Illinois beat Toledo, 63-60, in a non-overtime game in 2011. Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Toledo all ranked among the top 30 in offense last year.

“Quarterback is the one position where I think the measureables are least important,” said Miami Ohio coach Chuck Martin. “There has been an incredible amount of quarterbacks come through the MAC.”

DEKALB, IL - OCTOBER 26: Jordan Lynch #6 of the Northern Illinois Huskies runs for a touchdown against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Brigham Field on October 26, 2013 in DeKalb, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jordan Lynch (Getty Images)

“That’s one area where the big FBS programs sort of miss,” Kubiak said. “They have personnel manuals that say our quarterback is going to be 6-4, 230 pounds, and they pick guys who fit that profile.”

To a large degree, finding undervalued but outstanding players is what has kept the MAC going so long.
UB’s greatest player, Khalil Mack, had just one other scholarship offer coming out of high school in Florida.

“Our culture runs this way,” said Western Michigan’s Fleck, who’s likely to be the next MAC coach to move to a Power 5 program, joining the likes of MAC coaching alumni Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

“I’m a 5-9 guy from the South Side of Chicago who ran a 4.8 40 and played in the NFL. I was the youngest head football coach. My back’s been against the wall my entire career. I’m the king of the toos. Too small, too short, too slow, too young.

"Those are the same type of players I recruit. I just want guys who are going to get it done. If you can play, you can play. It doesn’t necessarily matter what your height is.”

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More from our college football preview:

MAC Attack: The conference's best NFL players at each position

How Leipold is molding UB for quick and lasting success

UB Season Preview: Tyree Jackson & young recruits put pizzazz into Bulls program

Sizing up UB's schedule: Who to watch on the other sideline & which team should win

UB position-by-position preview (all installments linked here)

UB Preview: Tyree Jackson brings the excitement to Bulls offense

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