MOBILE, Ala. – Dave Doeren absorbs as much of the college football bowl season as he can. The Northern Illinois coach watches games for professional purpose and personal pleasure. He watches to see how coaches react to situations and manage the clock, and because, at his core, he just loves football.
Over the past three weeks, trends developed. Doeren noticed one hit particularly close to his program. For a league that rarely gets national respect, the Mid-American Conference's current 3-1 mark this bowl season has put meaning to a regular season that tied a record with five bowl teams.
Northern Illinois could further improve the MAC's bowl season at 8 p.m. today when it plays Sun Belt champion Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. In a game lacking tangible meaning in other areas – the Huskies already have a double-digit win season and, most importantly, their first MAC title since 1983 – Doeren said there's plenty at stake in the MAC context.
"We know, as the champion of our conference, our job here is to win," Doeren said. "We also know that we're playing another conference champion, so it's going to be a heck of a game. But, you know me, we didn't come down here not to do what we're supposed to do. As much as it's a fun trip, it's definitely about winning the game.
"We're very proud of our 3-1 record, and we obviously want to make it 4-1."
Doeren isn't the only one who tracked the bowl season. NIU senior quarterback Chandler Harnish said he watched intently, knowing the significance of a quality bowl record for the MAC.
Harnish said he believes some MAC teams are respected nationally, but that changes when it comes to the conference's overall quality. So he rooted for Toledo and Western Michigan and Ohio, just as they likely will cheer NIU tonight.
"You feel for those teams because you play against them, and you know what they go through because we go through the same things," Harnish said. "We don't have the best athletes, we don't have the facilities, we don't have the fans, we don't have the financial support, we don't have anything compared to some of those bigger programs. They have everything that's given to them, and that's the chip on our shoulder that we have."
Today's matchup largely developed because its creators wanted to establish a "championship" between two conference champions. Doeren said Arkansas State mirrors his team, and that's true on and off the field. Both come from conferences that go unmentioned in national discussions.
NIU athletic director Jeff Compher said the Huskies know they're representing the MAC, and he knows how important that is. He remembers past years, when the league hasn't performed well, and all the skepticism that existed. This year has been a break from that norm, and he hopes it continues.
"I think we're on the rise, and I think people are starting to notice us," Compher said. "Unfortunately, they do keep score as to how conferences have done, and a few years ago we didn't do very well. We had to answer questions about that, so I'd much rather answer questions about why we're doing well."