A shakeup occured in the Mid-American Conference's West division on October 20th that could have registered on the Richter scale around the 9.0 range. The unbeaten and 23rd-ranked Toledo Rockets fell prey to the Cardinals of Ball State by a score of 24-20, while the Western Michigan Broncos were dumped by Northern Illinois, 20-12.
Although the two events may not have been too eye-popping on seperate weekends, to have happened on the same weekend is something that nobody would have expected.
"In this league anybody can beat you," Marshall coach Bob Pruett said after beating CMU, 42-21.
Toledo had previously held the top spot in the division and was trailed by Western Michigan by only one game. It was a run-of-the-mill year in the conference up until then, considering these two teams represented their division in the MAC title game twice apiece in the past four years.
"Nobody ever said those guys were going to be in the MAC championship game," said Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich after the Central Michigan game. "Predictions are predictions, that's the only thing they are. You've got to win games to make it there."
Both teams went on fateful road trips this weekend that - by the numbers - puts the West division in the hands of two perrenial runners-up: Ball State and Northern Illinois. The BSU Cardinals and Northern Illinois Huskies are somewhat in control of their own respective destinies, considering none of the teams that remain on their division schedules are named Western or Toledo, but are all winnable games.
Ball State has four remaining games, but only two of those games will include opponents that go toward MAC title game eligibility. Although at 2-4 and only playing 10 games this year, the Cards will have to win three of the four games to be bowl eligible.
Northern Illinois at 3-4 needs to win out and begins at Central Michigan - who lost to Marshall 42-21 - and face 1-5 Eastern Michigan in DeKalb. The one factor that gives Northern such a position is the fact that they close the season with Ball State at home.
There is even the potential that Central Michigan -at 0-1 in the West - is in the chase due to the fact that they play both NIU and BSU in the coming weeks, along with Western Michigan. Winning all three games, and with a little luck, they could potentially get a date with the East champ in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
MAC West Division Standings as of 10-21-01:
1. Ball State - 2-0 MAC W, 2-4 Overall
2. Toledo - 2-1 MAC W, 5-1 Overall
3. Northern Illinois - 1-1 MAC W, 3-4 Overall
4. Western Michigan - 1-1 MAC W 4-3 Overall
5. Central Michigan - 0-1 MAC W, 2-4 Overall
6. Eastern Michigan - 0-2 MAC W, 1-5 Overall
Having five teams numerically in contention this late in the season is a cause for plenty of speculation and scenario-building. The East is down to roughly three, although the decisive game may be played on November 10 when east unbeatens Marshall and Miami square off. Maybe the most important game remaining in the west may be Western Michigan's trip to Toledo on November 6th. The winner of that game all but eliminates the other team from contention, but gives the team that beat them on that remarkable day in October a real advantage.
The events of October 20th by no means eliminate Toledo nor Western Michigan from the title chase, but victories this weekend by both teams would have for all intents and purposes put the deciding divisional matchup in the Glass Bowl, where the Rockets and Broncs would duke it out to see who hosts the big game, but has now blown the race as open as it was at the beginning of the season.
"Anybody can beat you on any given day. You've got to go out and play," Marshall coach Bob Pruett summed up.
There is a lot of football to be played yet and the scenarios die-hard fans love to mull over are still extensive, but one thing is for certain: A whole lot of attention is about to be poured on to the teams who compete in the division we can now call........."The Wild, Wild West"