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Iowa fans remember exactly what Jordan Lynch did to the Hawkeyes at Soldier Field in 2012.

Lynch took the snap in shotgun with an empty backfield facing third down with 8 yards to go in the third quarter. Without any hesitation, the Husky quarterback tucked the ball, slid between his right tackle and guard, and bolted down the right side of the field.

Seventy-three yards and a missed shoestring-tackle later, Lynch galloped into the end zone, giving Northern Illinois a 17-9 lead. Hawkeye Nation sat stunned, although their team did rally for a victory. The rest of the college football world was somewhat mesmerized.

Lynch became the face of the Mid-American Conference last season. He led Northern Illinois to the Orange Bowl after that season-opening loss to the Hawkeyes, marking the first time a team from the MAC played in a BCS Bowl. His name was in the Heisman conversation, finishing seventh in the voting.

The conference itself had one of its more successful campaigns during the 2012-13 season. Seven MAC teams went bowling, which was the same number as the Big Ten and one and two more than the ACC and Big East — two BCS conferences.

Some college football pundits raved about the conference last season, saying it was on the rise.

Others thought differently and said last year was nothing more than an anomaly, pointing to the 2-5 bowl record in 2012.

There are arguments for both sides, of course. Teams such as Florida State — which thumped Lynch and the Huskies in last season’s Orange Bowl — show the MAC still has a long ways to go. Teams such as Michigan, though, might think twice before sleeping on a team such as Akron.

“Their kids came in here like most Mid-American Conference schools are going to come in here to win the football game and play to win the football game,” Michigan football coach Brady Hoke said after escaping Sept. 14 with a 28-24 win over the Zips. “They coached it that way, they played it that way. They did a nice job.”

The case for whether the MAC is a new threat to throw a wrench into college football, as we know it, is up for debate. Western Michigan’s arrival in Iowa City has allowed The Daily Iowan to analyze the hot-button question: Can the MAC be considered a football conference on the rise?

The case for the MAC is unquestionably improving— and was always legitimate in its own right — in the college-football landscape.

To provide evidence to the claim, here are a few of just the most recent accomplishments of the conference:

In the past five years, 12 MAC players were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, including last year’s No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher, who dominated defensive ends and anchored a Central Michigan offense that averaged 6.2 yards a play in 2012 (and defeated Iowa, 32-31, on Sept. 22 in Kinnick).

The MAC won 16 games against nonconference Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 2012. This year, the conference has won six, which is well ahead of its pace a season ago.

“Believe it or not, [MAC teams] played really good football,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I’ve been saying that for a while. There are a lot of really good players in the MAC.

“In the Super Bowl a couple years ago, when Green Bay played Pittsburgh, I think it was. I can’t remember how many MAC players were in that Super Bowl. So they played great football … It’s just kind of the nature of that conference. They’ve had a lot of good guys.”

Ferentz referred to Super Bowl XLV, in which the Packers defeated the Steelers, 31-25. In the game, six starters hailed from MAC schools. Those starters included All-Pro quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, five-time Pro Bowler James Harrison, and two-time Pro Bowler Greg Jennings.

The NFL is keeping an eye on the conference, too. Josh Norris, a senior draft writer for Rotoworld and NBC Sports, said that the conference is playing its way into relevancy by competing in big games and sending players to the next level.

“I think if Michigan had lost to Akron, people would have said it was a bigger upset than Appalachian State,” Norris said. “...There are so many talented players at the high school levels that those recruits are getting picked up by MAC schools. I think they’re overlooked in high school, and they just emerge in the conference... I think I can go through each team in the MAC and name at least one player that’s a draft pick, a fringe draft pick, or will get picked up to join an NFL camp.”

 Iowa, despite being heavily favored this week against Western Michigan, won’t overlook its opponent. Iowa’s only loss this season came against Northern Illinois, the defending MAC champions.

Western Michigan is 2-0 against Iowa, winning in both 2000 and 2007 in Kinnick Stadium. If the Broncos can pull off the upset this week, it will mark the third-straight loss for Iowa against MAC opponents.

“Western Michigan will get the same attention [as any other opponent],” Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis said. “They played two Big Ten teams already, and they played them well. They’re very competitive and very talented. We’re going to treat every team the same.”

The case against the MAC, though flourishing last season, might not have established the conference as a legitimate contender just yet.

MAC teams were a mere 4-36 against Big Ten teams over the past decade — and that’s not including the 1-8 mark against the conference this year (the lone victory is Northern Illinois over Iowa).

Moreover, MAC teams remain winless (0-9) against the Associated Press’s top 25 this year.

Records don’t show everything, but a closer look shows how far behind the conference is from being consistent contenders with Bowl Championship Subdivision teams. In the nine losses to ranked teams this season, MAC schools have lost by an average of 30 points.

What players and coaches have said after these games are often similar in wording but still speak the truth. Those teams are plain better than those who are from the MAC. The winning teams execute their plans much more efficiently and with purpose.

“I felt as if they had the personnel of a team that had a great team last year,” Les Miles said after his No. 6 LSU team topped Kent State, 45-13, earlier this year. “We did what we were supposed to do. We rushed for 300 yards. We threw for 270 on offense with 55 snaps. We gave up 248 yards on defense and played pretty well at times.”

Even Iowa, despite not being able to crack the code that is Western Michigan, maintains a 16-4 record against MAC teams.

Moving forward

Three weeks into the season, Northern Illinois remains the only undefeated MAC squad.

Week Four will be the last chance for the MAC to establish its credibility against big-conference foes. Western Michigan visits Iowa, Penn State hosts Kent State, Vanderbilt travels to Massachusetts, and Miami (Ohio) plays Cincinnati at home.

Fifteenth-ranked Michigan barely escaped in a home game against Akron on Sept. 14. The Zips had a chance to win the game on the final play, but quarterback Kyle Pohl threw an incompletion in the end zone, sealing the Wolverines’ 28-24 victory.

Michigan’s narrow victory caught the attention of several Big Ten teams, including the Hawkeyes, who haven’t exactly had much success against the MAC recently.

Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock doesn’t care which conference the opponent is in. The first-year starter is wise to do so, considering the MAC’s rise to legitimacy in the college landscape.

“I never look at what conference a team is,” Rudock said. “I look at who’s playing us and make sure they’re the most important thing to us right now. Western Michigan is all that is on our minds right now, and that’s what we have to focus on.

“You have to be very direct with that. When you’re looking ahead or saying who are these guys? The fact is, these are the most important guys, the ones you’re playing.”

DI pregame editor Ben Ross contributed to this story.

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