Odds are the New Years Six bowl spot reserved for the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion was destined to go to the champion of the American Athletic Conference, be it Houston, Temple or maybe even South Florida. That became even more likely to be the case with Toledo (9-2, 6-2 MAC) being knocked off the radar Friday afternoon by Western Michigan (7-5, 6-2 MAC). Western Michigan’s 35-30 victory over the Rockets awards the MAC West Division to Northern Illinois. The Huskies will now face Bowling Green in the MAC Championship Game in Detroit next week.
Toledo and Western Michigan exchanged the lead five times, but Western Michigan never trailed after taking a 25-21 lead into halftime. Earlier in the second quarter, the Broncos quickly answered Toledo’s go-ahead touchdown run by Kareem Hunt when Corey Davis blazed down the field with a 76-yard touchdown reception from Zach Terrell. Terrell and Davis hooked up again later in the second quarter to give Western Michigan a 25-21 lead with just over a minute to play in the half.
The Broncos opened the second half with a nine-play drive ending with a Jamauri Bogan touchdown run for a double-digit lead, 32-21. Toledo fought back and managed to pull within five points late in the fourth quarter as the game went bonkers. A quick three-play, 75-yard drive by Toledo ended with Phillip Ely tossing a 35-yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson, but a two-point conversion was no good and the Broncos recovered the onside kick and took a knee for the final two plays as the clock expired on Toledo’s New Years Six dreams.
Western Michigan, Toledo and Northern Illinois all finished the season with 6-2 records in MAC play, but Northern Illinois won head-to-head matchups with both Toledo and Western Michigan. That came into play to send NIU back to the MAC Championship Game for a sixth straight season. NIU’s sixth straight appearance in the MAC Championship Game ties a record for consecutive appearances previously established by Marshall, now a member of Conference USA. Marshall played in the first six MAC Championship Games between 1997 and 2002. For the third straight season, NIU will face Bowling Green, who had already locked up the East Division. The two schools have split the past two meetings, first with the Falcons upsetting the No. 16 Huskies in 2013 and knocking them out of the BCS picture. NIU picked up revenge last season by blowing out Bowling Green, 51-17. The stakes, however, appear to be lower than they could have been with Toledo in the game.
It is not likely the MAC champion will sniff the New Years Six this year. That appears to be the American Athletic Conference’s spot this season, after it was given to Boise State of the Mountain West Conference last season. Houston topping Navy could be the new favorite. The 11-1 Cougars will host either Temple or South Florida in the AAC Championship Game next Saturday. Regardless of who wins the AAC, it is a strong likelihood that conference champ will be playing in the New Years Six, although nothing will be certain until the College Football Playoff selection committee has its say. Toledo was the only MAC team to be ranked by the committee this season, but with the Rockets stumbling, the MAC should be on the outside looking in this season.