It didn't take long for Jerry Kill and his staff to size up the relationship between the Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference. Kill's first game at Northern Illinois, his debut as a Division I head coach, was in a Big Ten stadium, and it didn't exactly take his best Vince Lombardi impression to get his team ready.
As defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys remembers it, the Huskies were at an emotional boil before that 2008 season opener.
"Those kids had a chip on their shoulder. Because [the conferences are] so close together, you hear all the time about the Big Ten," Claeys said. "You turn on ESPN, the Big Ten is on at 11 every Saturday morning. There's a Big Ten Network. They're on the news. The newspapers write about the Big Ten schools. So you didn't have to remind those kids who they were about to play."
And who were they about to play? Ooh, awkward. The Huskies were headed to the Metrodome, where they led the Gophers into the final minute, before Duane Bennett salvaged victory with 22 seconds left, scoring a 1-yard plunge on fourth down. It was a difficult loss for Kill, but reinforced a valuable lesson that he's repeated more than once this week at his new school: MAC schools can definitely beat their Big Ten neighbors.
"There are a lot of good football teams, all over the country. And there's a lot of them in the MAC," said Kill, who avenged that loss to Minnesota two years later, then took over the Gophers program last season. "If you're a good coach, you teach those kids, hey, you can win anywhere."
It's happened more and more, too. Ohio's victory over Penn State in the season opener made 2012 the sixth consecutive season that a MAC school has upset a Big Ten school, and six more matchups remain this year, including Saturday's visit to TCF Bank Stadium by Western Michigan. And while the Big Ten owns a cumulative .850 winning percentage against its neighbor -- the Gophers are 27-4-1 all-time, with all four losses coming since 2000 -- it's increasingly evident that nobody is immune to MAC misfortune.
(Well, OK, maybe Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 20-0 against MAC members.)
"I always stressed to the players that, being the underdog, to be there in the fourth quarter and give yourself a chance to win the game -- we went into every game believing we had a chance to win," said Tim Beckman, the Illinois coach who was hired away from Toledo, where he beat Purdue and came within 17 yards of beating the Buckeyes. "I think our players respected the Big Ten at Toledo, but we also believed we could play with them."
That's because most MAC players believe they should be playing for those schools, Claeys said.
"Every one of those kids got [recruiting] letters, [and] took campus visits to Big Ten schools. Then all of a sudden, at the very end they get told they're not good enough. And so they go to a MAC school," Claeys said. "That's what you're dealing with. You have to deal with a team of kids who want to prove they're good enough to play there. So they play a lot crisper, and they play with an edge."
That's what the Gophers expect Saturday from the Broncos, a team more than capable of winning. It's also why MAC schools make such good opponents for Big Ten members -- they're relatively local, they're available and they're good. Western Michigan will take home $750,000 for Saturday's game and, if the Gophers aren't careful, a victory, too.
"If you're not prepared to play, you'll go home with a loss. That's what you want, not [an opponent] that, no matter how you play, you're going to beat them," Claeys said. "If you don't play well when you play a MAC school, they'll make you pay, and that's good for your football team. It makes you get better. If we don't play well on Saturday, I guarantee we won't win."
The difference in the conferences, Kill said, is depth. While MAC schools are talented enough to win their annual non-conference matchups, they are less prepared to face Big Ten intensity for two months in a row.
Big Ten fans have long regarded the MAC as, in effect, their little brother -- familiar, perhaps entertaining, but non-threatening. Coaches don't feel that way, in part because an increasing number of them got their start in the Mid-American. Even powerhouses Michigan (Brady Hoke, whose head coaching career began at Ball State) and Ohio State (Urban Meyer, who started out at Bowling Green) have endorsed the conference often called "The Cradle of Coaches." And the Big Ten has hired MAC officials to referee its games.
It's a natural relationship, Kill said, since the conferences mostly overlap.
"I guess you could say it's Midwest football," he said. "And people around here want to see Midwest football."