By Jim Naveau
COLUMBUS — Big Ten football players might underestimate Mid-American Conference teams but Big Ten football coaches never will.
This week’s example comes from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
When Meyer talked about the Buckeyes’ game against Northern Illinois today, he said he remembered taking a 7-hour bus ride from Bowling Green to play the Huskies on their home field when he coached in the MAC. And the only amenity on the return trip was a meal of cold chicken from KFC for the players.
According to Google maps, the trip from Bowling Green to DeKalb, Ill., takes less than five hours.
Maybe after 30 years of road trips, the details of that journey are hazy. Or maybe it’s just what Big Ten coaches instinctively do when it comes to playing MAC schools. Everything becomes a little bigger, a little better, a little more difficult when they talk about a MAC opponent.
Big Ten football teams have played MAC teams 310 times and won 261 of those games, a winning percentage of .841. But no Big Ten coach ever wants to be part of the 16 percent.
The MAC lands a punch often enough that teams should be wary. But coaches still worry that their players won’t take MAC opponents seriously enough.
Wins like Toledo taking down Arkansas in an SEC-MAC game and Bowling Green’s win over Maryland last Saturday are reminders the MAC doesn’t always play the role of little brother against power conference teams.
Ohio State has never lost a football game to a MAC team unless you want to count losing to Akron in the 1890s, almost a half-century before the MAC existed.
The No. 1-ranked Buckeyes have enough talent that the end of that streak on Saturday seems improbable. But Northern Illinois is far from an average MAC football program. And that’s no exaggeration.
The Huskies have gone to bowl games the last seven years. They’ve played in the Mid-American Conference championship game the last five years and have won three MAC titles in the last four years. They made it all the way to the Orange Bowl in 2010.
They have won 11, 11, 12, 12, and 11 games the last five seasons. They’ve won four games and lost three against Big Ten teams since 2010 and have three wins over the Big Ten in the last two seasons.
Northern Illinois has scored 38 and 57 points in wins over UNLV and Murray State this season. Its quarterback Drew Hare is averaging 359 yards a game passing and its running game is solid.
Those are impressive numbers. But this is still a game Ohio State should win. And could win easily.
The Buckeyes can’t be happy with the way they played in a 38-0 win over Hawaii last Saturday that was much closer than expected before they scored three touchdowns in the final 9:07 of the game. They’ll be ready to play today.
Also, a closer look at which Big Ten teams Northern Illinois has beaten since 2010 is another indicator OSU should be the pick in this game.
Since 2010, Northern Illinois has gone 4-3 against the Big Ten, with the four wins coming over Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota.
In that same time frame against those same four Big Ten teams, Ohio State has won eight times and lost once. The only loss was in the tumultuous 2011 season when Purdue blocked an extra point late to send the game into overtime, where the Boilermakers won 26-23.
This is only the second time Ohio State and Northern Illinois have played. The first time was in 2006, when like this year, OSU came in ranked No. 1 and Northern Illinois arrived with hopes of pulling an upset.
Ohio State won 35-12 that season. This year might not be a whole lot different.
The prediction: Ohio State 31, Northern Illinois 14.
Reach Jim Naveau at (567) 242-0414 or follow him on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.