MAC Gaining Football Notoriety
Like that nervous kid with acne who stands in the corner at your party sipping a wine cooler and trying to gain the courage to slip out of his anti-social slumber, the Mid-American Conference was once just an afterthought in the gigantic fraternity party that is national college football.
Not only has that kid finally come out of the corner, he's dancing with your girlfriend.
The MAC has quietly gained respectability over the years, aided mostly by Marshall's success on the national stage, and is now starting to receive dividends for the conference.
Another bowl game has been added, the GMAC Bowl (formerly the Mobile Alabama Bowl), to go along with the Motor City Bowl, which the MAC has participated in since 1997. This season the top seed from the MAC will head to the GMAC Bowl to take on the second selection from Conference USA.
The Motor City Bowl, which has always taken the first selection from the MAC, agreed to take the second selection this season in an effort to promote the new GMAC Bowl tie-in.
Last year, Toledo beat the Penn State Nittany Lions in their own den; this season a couple of MAC teams will have the opportunity to pull off a similar upset in week one.
Marshall will head to Gainsville to take on the nation's number one team, the Florida Gators, in a nationally televised game on ESPN2 Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Michigan will host Miami (OH) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Once again, Marshall has been selected by most of the national media as the team to beat in the MAC.
The Thundering Herd have captured the MAC title each of the last four seasons and could be even stronger this time around now that quarterback Byron Leftwich has a year of experience. In his first year starting, Leftwich threw for 3,358 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Leftwich, however, may have a problem finding a place to throw the ball. Marshall's top four receivers from last season have all since departed, leaving him with an inexperienced group of targets.
The Herd's running game remains suspect. Last year they finished ninth in the MAC in rushing.
Expect the Herd to ride on Leftwich's strong arm and a solid defense headed by linebacker Max Yates on their way to another MAC East title.
Toledo and Western Michigan will fight it out in the MAC West for the chance to take on Marshall in the MAC championship game, hosted by the West winner.
Only five teams in Division I-A had better records than the Toledo Rockets last year, who were just barely left out of the top 25. The Rockets went 10-1 last season; their lone loss came to Western Michigan costing them the West title.
Toledo set a school record with 400 points last year, and is returning 16 starters, including running back Chester Taylor. Taylor ran for an average of 5.9 yards per carry last year and scored 19 touchdowns.
Quarterbacking for the Rockets is senior Tavares Bolden, who threw for 12 touchdowns and only had four interceptions last season. Bolden will have more chances to throw the ball in new coach Tom Amstutz's offense.
Western Michigan are the defending West champions but may have a hard time repeating that feat. The Broncos lost two major players in running back - and league MVP - Robert Sanford and all-time receiving leader Steve Neal.
The Broncos defense, however, will be there to pick up the slack should the offense sputter out of the gates. Western Michigan had the nation's ninth-rated defense last season, and is returning eight starters.
Senior quarterback Jeff Welsh will be at the helm again. Welsh threw for 16 touchdowns last season but put up 12 interceptions as well.
Neither Western Michigan nor Toledo will face Marshall during the regular season in 2001, but they will face each other in Toledo on Nov. 9. The winner of that match-up will likely win the West and host Marshall in the MAC championship game.