July 23 was MAC Media Day up in Detroit. For people like me, fans of college football teams who don’t get everything handed to them, it’s a great event that means it’s almost time to play some ball. Coaches, players, the commissioner — everyone’s on hand, and everyone’s happy — after all, everyone is 0-0 at this point in the season!
One of the very first things they hand you when you walk in the door is the preseason poll results from a survey of media members who cover the conference to get the idea of who we can expect to compete for the titles. Toledo and Bowling Green both fared rather well — second place in their respective divisions. Ohio was picked to win the East, while Northern Illinois was chosen to win the West, along with the MAC Championship.
No surprise, really — those same Northern Illinois Huskies won the title two years running, and punched their ticket to the Orange Bowl last year, becoming the first MAC school to play in the BCS. Sure, the result didn’t go the team’s way, but it was a great year for the Huskies, and the team brought back nearly everybody, including quarterback Jordan Lynch.
The funny thing about the Huskies is that, despite its success, the team’s missing an important component of a college football team: a rival. Dekalb, Ill. is the furthest west school in the MAC, and the closest other team is Ball State, located in Muncie, Ind. — a four and a half hour drive. The only other Division I schools in the state are Illinois and Northwestern, both out of the Big Ten. The Huskies could realistically beat both of them, which is why they’ll never schedule a game.
There is one team, though, that the Huskies like to consider their rival. The opponent doesn’t know it, but they’re the focus of the white-hot hate of NIU alumni across the state: Toledo.
For good reason, too — in recent history, the Rockets and Huskies game decided the MAC West. In 2007, Toledo drilled NIU 70-29. In 2005, the Huskies walked into the Glass Bowl in a nationally televised game and hung a 35-17 loss on a UT team, to again win the West and play for the title. In fact, the last time the Rockets played for the conference title, they had to beat Northern Illinois to do it. In 2004, a 31-17 win in DeKalb set up for a 7-1 tie atop the division, giving the Rockets the tiebreaker.
With that in mind, I took my opportunity at MAC Media Day. I had the chance to interview Toledo Head Coach Matt Campbell, QB Terrance Owens, RB David Fluellen and Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch. And I found the time to ask them one question: “Why not put a piece of hardware between these two schools and make it official?”
Sure, Rockets fans might scoff — we’re focused on Bowling Green after all. Those filthy Falcons have been a thorn in our side for too long! Except that the Rockets have won the Battle of I-75 Trophy two years running (which looks nice next to the Peace Pipe, which shall remain in that trophy case FOR ALL ETERNITY). It’s an excellent rivalry, but it’s been a while since it’s held any weight in the season proper. Plus, lots of schools have multiple rivalries. Just look at the schools up north. They have a Michigan MAC trophy for whoever has the better head-to-head record amongst the menage-a-trois of Eastern, Central and Western Michigan. If they can untangle that web, then clearly we can simply circle another date on our calendar. It used to be like that for Marshall before it turned tail and left the conference. Why not direct that venom west instead?
Everyone I talked to at MAC Media Day seemed to be receptive to the idea. I don’t know if there’s a catchy name for it, or what kind of trophy you’d make. A Hucket? A Roskie? Toledo has a mascot named “Rocksy.” Maybe we give her a wolf’s head and she has to cheer for whoever wins that year? Someone will figure it out. I’m just saying that NIU fans have been putting the Rockets in their crosshairs for years. It’s time to return the favor.