It is true that the Mid-American Conference season has not yet begun for the Bowling Green Falcons and the Northern Illinois Huskies.
It is just as true that Group of Five teams which get roughed up in September settle into a comfortable rhythm as soon as familiar conference opponents return to the landscape in October.
Yet, in 2016, it is extremely hard to think that either Bowling Green or Northern Illinois will be able to do what they’ve done for a very long time in college football terms: Win a division.
The last time Bowling Green failed to win the MAC East: 2012. The last time NIU failed to win the MAC West: 2009. That’s nine straight division titles between the two programs (3 for the Falcons, 6 for the Huskies), an uncommon portrait of sustained excellence in a sport with profound roster and coaching turnover. Really good MAC coaches (think Urban Meyer as the best example for Bowling Green, and Jerry Kill for NIU) don’t stay in the MAC very long. They move up the ladder, forcing successors to carry the baton. If programs are good enough and lucky enough, they’ll find a good replacement, but it’s hardly an automatic. It’s impressive — highly impressive — that these schools, especially NIU, have remained on the mountaintop as long as they have. They’ve contested each of the past three MAC Championship Game showdowns at Ford Field in Detroit.
Yes, the MAC season hasn’t officially begun, but it’s hard to think MACTION will carry either Bowling Green or NIU to the Motor City this season. Non-conference play in 2016 has clipped the Falcons’ wings and left the Huskies’ hind legs hobbling.
Precisely because conference play can introduce a new dynamic, it’s still a little early — and unfair — to say these programs are doomed for the next two to three years. However, the idea that BGSU and NIU are in huge trouble for 2016 does not seem to be an unwarranted observation.
When Ohio State hung 77 points on Bowling Green in its opener, everyone naturally thought, “Oh, so Ohio State’s really good.” The thought wasn’t inaccurate, but the point was that all eyes were fastened to the Buckeyes. Even though Bowling Green had won the MAC in 2015, all anyone was concerned about was the ability of Ohio State to incorporate a lot of young players into its gameday operation.
This past Saturday, it became apparent just how troubled the 2016 Falcons are.
They gave up 77 points again… this time to Memphis.
Reminder: These Tigers do not have Paxton Lynch throwing footballs for them. Justin Fuente is not guiding their offense. No offense to first-year coach Mike Norvell, but it’s hard to look at that 77-3 pasting administered by Memphis as a commentary on how good the Tigers are. (Their moment comes when they face Ole Miss, a team they beat a year ago.)
That 74-point thrashing is a sign that the Falcons — unwanted members of the Double-77 Club in college football this year — are not very good. First-year coach Mike Jinks must start from scratch in his attempt to re-create the winning culture which has permeated the Bowling Green program for most of this century. Problems are too pervasive — impossible to be reduced to one position or one area of performance — for Bowling Green to claim that it can rebound relatively quickly.
It’s similar in DeKalb, Illinois, only with an alarming twist.
NIU coach Rod Carey has done well as the head Huskie. He has sustained the program’s winning ways. He has continued to frustrate rival Toledo to no end. He has done a lot better than many other men who have been asked to take a good thing and not screw it up.
Three seasons. A 31-9 record. Three division titles. One conference title. Three bowl trips. That’s pretty damn good.
The problem: Carey did what he did with Dave Doeren’s recruits. Carey’s first two seasons produced a 23-5 record. In 2015 — his third season on the job — Carey went 8-6.
No college sports fan needs any explanation about the third year of a coach’s tenure. It’s when a coach is expected to put his own stamp on a program. A marked downturn — even with another division title — after years of larger successes is a sign of concern. Noticeable improvement after years of stagnation show that a coach is authoring a turnaround.
Given that Carey’s 2016 team is 0-4, with losses to Wyoming (which fell to longtime MAC doormat Eastern Michigan on Friday) and FCS-based Western Illinois, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Carey made great use of Doeren’s players in his first two seasons, and is now losing control.
The coming MAC season will show if he can begin to get it back. Completion of that restoration attempt might have to wait until 2017. Colleague Alex Kolodziej has followed the NIU program this season — his commentary can shed more light on the subject.
Beyond the MAC itself, Group of Five programs which have tasted success in recent years are discovering how hard it is to remain the big dog in a conference.
Louisiana-Lafayette ruled the Sun Belt for a few years. Now, the Ragin’ Cajuns are losing to Tulane.
Western Kentucky won Conference USA last year. Saturday, the Hilltoppers were topped by Vanderbilt at home.
Temple won the AAC East last year but has stumbled out of the gates this year.
It’s hard to remain great. Bowling Green and Northern Illinois — seemingly immune to precipitous drop-offs the past several years — are remembering the full truth of that statement in 2016.