USA Today // Randy Sartin

Werner's Whits: Must-watch MAC-tion?

Illini fans should watch mid-week MAC-tion to get a better look at Illinois football coaching candidates

The Mid-American Conference doesn't always display great football. RealTimeRPI.com currently ranks the MAC as the eighth-best of the 11 FBS conferences, when including independents. But the MAC is really strong in one area: visibility. For years, the MAC has hosted midweek games during November -- providing football-starved TV viewers some kind of gridiron action between Monday night NFL and Saturday morning college football. In recent years, more conferences and even the NFL have hopped on the midweek bandwagon. But #MACtion still survives.

And this is a heck of a month for Illini fans to get their fill of MACtion. Of course, a coaching search seems imminent for Illinois. Former MACtion participant Tim Beckman, who came from Toledo, was dismissed a week before the season following the preliminary findings of an external investigation into abuse of players. Former MACtion head coach Bill Cubit, the Illini interim, could be a candidate but would have to end the season on one heck of an uptick to do so as Illinois (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) has lost three straight and may not be favored in another game.

The MAC provides at least three intriguing candidates for Illinois: Bowling Green's Dino Babers, Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck andToledo's Matt Campbell -- and some think Northern Illinois' Rod Carey belongs in that discussion as well, but I don't think he's nearly as strong a candidate as predecessors Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren -- and they all play each other this month, starting tonight. Set your calendars, or DVRs, and get to know these coaches better.

Babers and Bowling Green seem destined for a second-straight MAC Championhip Game appearance. The MAC East is bad, and they've dominated. The Falcons (6-2, 4-0 MAC) -- who also defeated Maryland and Purdue and lost to No. 15 Memphis by three -- have a three-game lead on both Buffalo and Kent State due to a tiebreaker, so Ohio (who is two games back and plays at BG on Wednesday) is really the only threat. The Falcons run Babers' spread, high-paced offense that he adopted during his time as an assistant under Art Briles at Baylor. The Falcons currently lead the country in passing offense and rank eighth in scoring offense. That's two places his offenses has succeeded with another coach's recruits (Eastern Illinois). Babers tops my Illini Coaching Hot List and probably will until the day Mike Thomas makes a decision. He's had past interest in the job and fits many criteria Illinois is looking for (an exciting identity, well-spoken coach, success at lower levels) even if he has questions (can he recruit Big Ten linemen and how strong a staff can he assemble)?

Bowling Green's remaining schedule: Wed., Nov. 2 vs. Ohio; Wed., Nov. 11 at Western Michigan; Tues., Nov. 17 at Toledo; Tues., Nov. 24 at Ball State.

Matt Campbell and Toledo are the favorites in the West. But to do so, the Rockets (7-0, 4-0) have to finally jump over their biggest hurdle: Northern Illinois. Toledo has lost five straight to NIU, which has made the last five MAC title games. Toledo is the most balanced team in the MAC. It has the second-best scoring offense (37.0 ppg) and by far the best scoring defense (16.3 ppg). But the Rockets will have to earn their first MAC Championship Game appearance since 2004. They play the top four teams in the MAC this month, starting tonight against the Huskies. Campbell is on the fast track to a head coaching job, and if he coached at any other program, he'd be a leading candidate for the Illinois job. But after firing his former Toledo boss and predecessor, Illinois likely won't go back to the Rockets' well -- and Campbell may not have interest in Illinois.

Toledo's remaining schedule: Tues., Nov. 3 vs. NIU; Tues., Nov. 10 at Central Michigan; Tues., Nov. 17 at Bowling Green; Fri., Nov. 27 vs. Western Michigan.

P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan are the wild card in the West. Fleck has recruited a lot of talent to Western Michigan, whose Class of 2016 currently ranks 16 spots ahead of Illinois, but that talent is still young. Still, Fleck's crew is "rowing the boat" -- as he likes to say, all...the...time -- after starting the season 1-3. The Broncos have a dangerous, balanced offense. Their defense has been a bit suspect but has improved recently. With four tough opponents left, including the top three MAC teams, winning the West will be tough for WMU. But if Fleck pulls it off, he'll be in line for a much bigger job and a much higher salary. Given his ability to recruit talent to Kalamazoo, he could be a major player in the Illinois search.

Western Michigan's remaining schedule: Thurs., Nov. 5 vs. Ball State; Wed., Nov. 11 vs. Bowling Green; Wed., Nov. 18 at NIU; Fri., Nov. 27 at Toledo.

I understand there is a section of the fan base that stigmatizes the MAC. Heck, some people in the industry stigmatize the MAC. Look, I think you can find good coaches at all levels: NFL coaches, other power-five coaches, power-five coordinators, group-of-five head coaches, FCS coaches, etc. The MAC just tends to be a training ground for lower-level Big Ten teams, because 1) Most of those coaches are working up the ladder and the Big Ten is the next logical step, 2) The coaches recruit the Midwest, and 3) MAC coaches don't make a lot of money, so they're usually really willing to jump to a Big Ten salary. There are a lot of examples at MAC coaches who worked in the Big Ten or high-level programs (Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Urban Meyer, Jerry Kill and Gary Pinkel). There are a lot of examples of MAC coaches who failed at the higher levels (Al Golden, Brady Hoke, Turner Gill, to name a few). Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas has had both success (Brian Kelly and Butch Jones) and failure (Beckman) hiring from the MAC. Maybe he'll dip away from the MAC pool. But he shouldn't just ignore jumping back in either.

Catch the #MACtion.


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