Throwback Thursday: A Season of MACtion

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Recent Throwback Thursdays at The Open Man have followed a five-year pattern, chronicling milestones in a nice, symmetrical order: There was the 25-year anniversary of the 1993 season; last week’s ode to 1998 chaos (and you can make the Dec. 5, 1998 project reality with a subscription to The Open Man on Patreon!); and that means 2003 is today’s obvious choice.

But what about 2003 specifically? Your Humble Author already tackled the woeful Heisman Trophy misfire of that season. I could go into the debacle that was the Bowl Championship Series. Oklahoma went to the title game after getting obliterated in the Big 12 Championship Game, then laid an egg against LSU to give Nick Saban his first championship — which was also the last officially split championship awarded in college football.

But that’s no fun. No, our 2003 Throwback Thursday turns its attention away from where Nick Saban was, and instead focuses on where he is now. Or, at least, that provides a starting point for our story.

NCAA sanctions, the departure of Gene Stallings and the bizarre Mike DuBose-Bob Bockrath saga sent Alabama football into a tumultuous period at the turn of the millennium. But the return of a veteran roster, and going to the wire with the No. 1 team in the nation, Oklahoma, sparked some chatter in September 2003 that perhaps the Crimson Tide was back.

What happened on Sept. 20 of that campaign was not the triumphant return of Alabama to prominence, but rather continued the unofficial coming-out party for a program that has remained among the sport’s most consistent over the past 15 years.

Northern Illinois’ win at Bryant-Denny Stadium marked the Huskies’ second upset of a nationally ranked, power-conference opponent in the regular season’s first month. Power-back Michael Turner commanded national attention with games of 156 yards rushing at ‘Bama, and a 90/41 showing in an upset of the ACC’s Maryland Terrapins.

A non-BCS league representative had never represented in one of the BCS bowls through the first half-decade of the system, but victories over Maryland and Alabama sparked serious discussion of the Huskies doing just that.

It didn’t happen for the BCS outsiders until one season later when undefeated Utah played a Walt Harris-coached Pitt (ewwww) in the Fiesta Bowl. Northern Illinois did not land its moment in the BCS sun until 2012 when Jordan Lynch powered the Huskies to the Orange Bowl — the rematch of which highlights NIU’s masochistic 2018 schedule.

However, the 2003 season set the course for the non-BCS conferences as a whole, while establishing the Mid-American Conference on a national stage in general. 

I won’t call 2003 the beginning of MACtion, nor a definitive starting point for the conference’s overall success. After all, the MAC produced one of only five non-BCS Heisman finalists in the last 20 years six years prior, with Marshall’s Randy Moss registering 2017-caliber receiving numbers in 1997.  Two years later, the MAC carried the banner for outsiders to get a crack at the BCS when Marshall again gained national attention during its undefeated season. 

I vividly remember CBS Evening News’ feature on the ’99 Thundering Herd — in large part because, living west of the Rockies, this was about as much exposure as I had to Marshall football. 

It’s not necessarily demonstrated in the above clip, but the Herd’s undefeated run and dreams of BCS inclusion were regarded with a sort of quaintness at the time. Marshall was just a few years removed from having piled up national championships as a Div. I-AA powerhouse, and for the program to flourish so immediately upon moving up to Div. I-A may have made it easier dismissing the MAC as little more competition than the lower subdivision. 

Marshall was denied a BCS bowl bid, and for a second straight year, the undefeated outsider was denied even a bowl game opportunity against one of the power conferences. Fellow non-BCS BYU provided the ceremonial butt to be kicked against Marshall in 1999, just as it had Tulane in 1998. 

Still, the MAC moved into the new millennium having gained some national attention. In the years that followed, the energy that came to be called MACtion first struck me watching the 2001 and 2002 edition of the MAC Championship Game. 

The 2001 game aired on Nov. 30, the day after my birthday. My friends planned a celebratory night out, which began with Keystone Lights in my dorm room. Marshall-Toledo was on as background noise, and little else, as the Thundering Herd built a 23-0 first-quarter lead. 

But as our toasts continued and the game progressed, the Rockets chipped, chipped, chipped away. A huge third quarter made the MAC Championship Game a game. We didn’t venture out to the designated house party until after the final horn, when Toledo won, 41-36, snapping a run of four consecutive MAC titles for Marshall. 

The 2002 MAC Championship came a week later, coinciding with both Finals Week and a horrible cold that forced me to trade my cheap, domestic beer for store-brand cough syrup. Being glued to my apartment couch wasn’t such a bad thing that Saturday night, as Byron Leftwich engineered a game-winning drive that for me, ranks among the top 10 or so remarkable moments in this sport I ever witnessed in real-time.

Toledo beating Marshall in 2001 and taking the Herd to the wire in 2002 signaled a shift for the Mid-American Conference. No longer was it collectively just a step ahead of Div. I-AA, and the nation got that message loud-and-clear come 2003. 

Almost nine months after I stayed on the couch for Leftwich’s legendary performance in the MAC Championship, I sat on the same cushion in the same apartment alongside a friend from the DC area — a friend, who along with preseason pollsters, declared Maryland a viable national championship contender — to see another harrowing finish courtesy of the MAC. 

For this night, the Mid-American Conference rules over the ACC! 

As it turned out, it wasn’t just that August night on which the MAC ruled the ACC in 2003. ACC champion Florida State was topped by Miami twice at season’s end: First, the rival Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl, then by the MAC champion RedHawks in the final Associated Press Top 25. 

Yes, the best of the MAC finished ranked No. 10. The ACC champion finished ranked No. 11. 

Miami closed the 2003 campaign with the nation’s longest winning streak, 13 games, rebounding from a Week 1 loss to a Top 10-ranked Iowa bunch. Ben Roethlisberger finished in the top 10 of Heisman balloting with more than 4,000 yards passing and 33 touchdowns ahead of the bowl game, and Miami sat just on the periphery of BCS inclusion. Much like Tulane and Marshall in 1998 and 1999, though, Miami did not get a postseason shot at the power brokers; the RedHawks drew Conference USA’s Louisville in the GMAC Bowl. 

Coincidentally, Louisville filled the BYU role with back-to-back bowl matchups against the top non-BCS exclusion in both 2003 and 2004, facing Boise State in the next year’s Liberty Bowl. And Boise State, which finished 2003 at 13-1, drew TCU in that season’s Fort Worth Bowl. Seems like something of a trend. 

The MAC did get one final crack at the power conferences, however, with Bowling Green besting Northwestern in the Motor City Bowl. Falcons quarterback Josh Harris scored three of his 27 passing touchdowns, and one of his 13 rushing touchdowns, in a 28-24 BGSU win. 

In the vein of Charlie Ward during the 1993 season, or Shaun King in 1998, Josh Harris demonstrated the full capacity of what a dual-threat quarterback could do in an era when the style wasn’t commonplace. And the nation began paying attention. Before the bowl game, Bowling Green hosted College Gameday — the last time ESPN’s flagship program went into MACtion Country until visiting Western Michigan during the Broncos’ Cotton Bowl-bound 2016. 

By virtue of knocking off Northwestern, the MAC bookended 2003 with wins over the ACC and Big Ten, adding Northern Illinois’ defeat of SEC for a nice trifecta. The Mid-American accomplished more than enough to plant its flag on the college football landscape. …Uh, even if 10-2 Northern Illinois wasn’t in a bowl game. 

Don’t let anyone tell you there are too many bowl games today; at least no eligible 10-2 qualifiers are being snubbed.