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November 19, 2008

Big day for one of the little guys

The Mid-American Conference offices in Cleveland are busy these days, and there's an electric atmosphere that hasn't been seen for a few seasons.

MAC officials are fielding phone calls and credential requests from BCS bowls. Certain league players are must-see prospects for pro scouts. One team already has won 10 games, and two others could match that benchmark. And tonight's nationally televised game between Ball State (10-0) and Central Michigan (8-2) in Mount Pleasant, Mich., is shaping up to be one of the top games in MAC history.

"I think it's going to be a classic," said Joe Novak, who coached at league member Northern Illinois from 1996-2007 and played for Bo Schembechler at league member Miami University in the '60s. "The buildup to it is. Let's hope the game is that good, too. That's a game that comes around every five, six, seven, eight years or so."

Ball State is hoping to become the first MAC team since Marshall in 1999 to finish undefeated. Central Michigan is seeking its third consecutive MAC title, something only two other programs have done. Western Michigan (9-2) is hoping to be a spoiler when it takes its shot at Ball State next week.

Those three teams in the West Division are a combined 27-4 overall and 18-1 in the league. Western Michigan's 38-28 loss to Central Michigan is the only league defeat between them.

"It will probably go down as our second-best season behind that '03 season," MAC commissioner Rick Chryst said. "This has all the hallmarks of that year in terms of depth and in terms of players people recognize."

The 2003 season featured two ranked teams at the end of the season No. 10 Miami (13-1) and No. 23 Bowling Green (11-3). Northern Illinois (10-2) spent two months in the polls before falling out in November. That season was the only time the MAC has had three teams with at least 10 wins.

The league had two first-round picks Miami quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Western Michigan defensive end Jason Babin after that season for the first time in league history. A third star that season, Northern Illinois tailback Michael Turner, is the NFL's third-leading rusher this season.

MAC quarterbacks were all the rage at the start of the decade when Roethlisberger, Akron's Charlie Frye and Marshall's Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich garnered attention for the league in nationally televised midweek games. Tonight's game will feature similar star power, starting at quarterback.

NFL scouts definitely have noticed Ball State's Nate Davis. But Davis hasn't been the most productive quarterback in the MAC. That would be Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, who was named the league's freshman of the year in 2006 and the league's offensive player of the year in 2007. Last season, LeFevour became the second quarterback in history joining former Texas star Vince Young to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Florida's Tim Tebow is the only other major-college quarterback in NCAA history who has rushed for 20 touchdowns and passed for 20 touchdowns in a single season.

LeFevour passed for 360 yards and five touchdowns in last season's 58-38 win at Ball State, but he's not getting caught up in the quarterback matchup.

"I don't look at it like that," LeFevour said. "It's not like Nate and I will be on the field at the same time."

Thanks to LeFevour, Davis and Western Michigan's Tim Hiller - who leads the MAC in passing - the conference has three fresh programs in the title mix. Miami is the nation's Cradle of Coaches, with Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Schembechler, among others, having coached there. Toledo has played in a league-high 10 bowl games. Northern Illinois, Toledo and Bowling Green have enjoyed the spotlight in recent seasons.

Central Michigan and Ball State have brought new blood to the top of the league standings. Before winning the 2006 and '07 titles, Central had suffered through nine losing seasons in 11 years. Ball State had no winning seasons and one winless season between 1997 and 2006.

Ball State coach Brady Hoke, who was a Michigan assistant when he was hired after the 2003 season, has helped the Cardinals turn the corner. Central Michigan's Butch Jones, who was an assistant to Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia when he was hired before the 2007 season, continued the rebuilding job started by Brian Kelly, who now is at Cincinnati.

The programs' turnarounds have surprised some colleagues.

"Brady's taken it a little farther than I thought he would," said Novak, who has followed the MAC from Southport, N.C., since his retirement after last season. "Central was good the last couple of years I was there, but I didn't see them being this elite.

"I'll throw Western Michigan in there, too. All three have upped the skill level for the league and for where they were four or five years ago."

Tonight's stakes are as high as they've been in the MAC in a long time. Ball State is aiming for its first trip to the MAC Championship Game and clinging to hope for a BCS bid. Central Michigan is looking to join Miami (1973-75) and Marshall (1997-2001) as the only league schools to win at least three consecutive conference titles.

"There's a buzz around campus. Everyone is talking in class," Central Michigan defensive end Nick Bellore said. "We all know it. It's another game, but it's more than that. There are a lot of implications."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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