More than MAC title on line for NIU, Kent St.

DETROIT – Jordan Lynch has stood on the sideline at Ford Field for the past two Mid-American Conference championship games, hoping that by the end of his Northern Illinois playing career, his role would shift from observer to active participant.

When he moves to center stage tonight when the No. 19-ranked Huskies defend their MAC title against No. 18 Kent State at Ford Field, Lynch will do so in a week when the two programs have moved into the national conversation, making tonight’s MAC title game much more than a conference championship.

With both teams holding 11-1 records and both ranked in the BCS standings, a victory could propel NIU or Kent State into a BCS bowl berth, bringing big-time attention and bucks to a pair of schools that compete in states where bigger programs grab most of the attention.

Given the stakes, some may attach pressure to Lynch and his teammates to earn their 21st win in their past 22 games. But Lynch – the NIU quarterback who has had a Heisman Trophy campaign designed for him in the midst of a breakout season – would have it no other way.

“It’s a dream come true being in a game like this,” Lynch said Thursday. “Ever since I’ve been little, I’ve always thought about the big game, so it should be fun.”

Although the Huskies would need more help to reach a BCS bowl berth than would Kent State, which holds down the No. 17 spot in the BCS standings, breaking into the top 16 isn’t out of the realm of possibility for NIU.

It’s a conversation Huskies coach Dave Doeren hasn’t been afraid to have with his team, providing even more motivation for a team playing in its third straight MAC championship game.

“It’s something we all talk about – putting our program on the map,” Doeren said. “Getting into a game like that would certainly help.”

It has already bolstered interest in today’s MAC Championship Game, which often is considered an also-ran on a weekend when bigger and more prominent conferences also decide league championships.

But with both title game participants ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2003 and with a possible BCS berth awaiting tonight’s winner, the MAC finds itself on the kind of national stage its players relish playing.

“We feel like we deserve some respect out there, and I feel like we’re gaining it,” said Lynch, who needs only 92 more rushing yards to break the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback.

“The MAC’s not to be overlooked. Anytime we get a chance to play on national TV and when we’re in that spotlight, playing under the lights against [BCS] teams, we’re going to put our ‘A’ game out there because we feel like we can play on those teams and we got overlooked coming out of high school.”

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