While conference title games in the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are getting much of the attention this week, two non-Big Six leagues also are holding their championship games.
In the MAC, surprising Miami of Ohio (8-4) meets Northern Illinois (10-2) in Detroit. In Conference USA, the only league that has its title game at a non-neutral site, SMU (7-5) plays at UCF (9-3).
NIU heads into the MAC game on a nine-game winning streak. The Huskies are aiming for their first MAC title since 1983. Miami last won the title in 2003, when Ben Roethlisberger was the RedHawks' quarterback.
While NIU entered the season as the preseason favorite in the MAC West, Miami was expected to finish at or near the bottom in the MAC East. The RedHawks finished 1-11 last season, coach Mike Haywood's first at the school. But a much-improved defense has led to a seven-win improvement this season, the best mark in the nation. In addition, their six-win improvement in MAC play was the greatest one-season turnaround in the league's six-year history.
Miami was 4-0 on the road in MAC play and allowed 90.7 fewer yards and 15.5 fewer points per game this season than last. But that defense will get a stiff test from NIU's offense, by far the most productive in the league this season.
The Huskies average 452.0 yards per game, which is 17th in the nation. A powerful rushing attack led by senior TB Chad Spann is the team's centerpiece. NIU averages 279.2 rushing yards per game, which is seventh nationally. Spann has rushed for 1,239 yards and 20 touchdowns; he has 39 TDs in the past two seasons. Senior quarterback Chandler Harnish and his freshman backup, Jordan Lynch, are solid complementary running threats.
NIU has scored at least 31 points in every game but one during its current winning streak; in that one, the Huskies scored 28. In the past three games, NIU is averaging 65.0 points and has given up 54 total.
"If we can make it a 60-minute game and it's close in the end, our guys believe that they can win in any game that they're in in the fourth quarter," Haywood said.
In C-USA, UCF is playing host to the title game for the third time in six seasons; the Knights were 1-1 in those games, playing Tulsa both times. SMU is making its first appearance in the title game.
As with the MAC, one team in the C-USA game was expected to be there (UCF) while the other is a surprise.
SMU is in its third season under coach June Jones, and he has turned the Mustangs around quickly. SMU was 1-11 in his first season, then made huge strides in finishing 8-5 last season, including a Hawaii Bowl rout of Nevada.
"We're overmatched - [UCF] is a pretty good football team - but we've been overmatched before," Jones said. "Our kids will play hard and hopefully make enough plays to win."
UCF comes in having won seven of its past eight, while the Mustangs come in 3-3 in their past six. But the Mustangs' explosive passing attack gives them a puncher's chance. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron has thrown 18 of his 28 TD passes and just three of his 10 picks in the Mustangs' seven victories. He has to be sharp if the Mustangs are to pull the upset.
"[Padron] makes good decisions and doesn't hold on to it long, and obviously in that offense, they got receivers," UCF coach George O'Leary said.
UCF won the C-USA title in 2007. SMU is looking for its first league title since 1984, when it shared the Southwest Conference title with Houston.
Best matchup: SMU wide receivers vs. UCF secondary. Not surprisingly, considering June Jones is coach, SMU is 20th in the nation in passing offense. Still, four teams in C-USA attempted more passes than the Mustangs, who have the league's leading rusher in Zach Line. Still, expect Jones to try to go deep often against UCF's secondary. Senior WR Aldrick Robinson averages 20.7 yards per catch and UCF has shown some susceptibility to deep routes. UCF is No. 2 in pass defense and No. 1 in pass efficiency defense in the league, but the Knights have given up 20 TD passes.
Player on the spot: Miami of Ohio RB Thomas Merriweather. The RedHawks likely have lost starting QB Zac Dysert for the season with a lacerated spleen, so redshirt freshman Austin Boucher will be making just his third career start. It's obvious coaches won't want to overload Boucher, which means Merriweather, a senior, needs to produce. Merriweather has just four 100-yard games in his career - but two of them have come since Dysert was injured. He must produce again Friday night if Miami is to have any shot at keeping the MAC title game close.
Numbers game: Louisiana Tech senior WR Phillip Livas has tied an NCAA record for most career returns for a touchdown. Livas has a combined eight punt and kickoff return TDs in his career, tying him with five others: Colorado's Cliff Branch (1970-71), Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers (1970-72), Kentucky's Derek Abney (2000-03), Hawaii's Chad Owens (2001-04) and Clemson's C.J. Spiller (2006-09). Meanwhile, New Mexico State junior WR Taveon Rogers set an NCAA single-season record last week with 1,410 kickoff-return yards. That mark could last all of one week, as Utah State sophomore RB Kerwynn Williams needs just 124 yards to pass Rogers.
What they're saying
"Last week, I asked [the players] how many of them had won or played for a conference championship, and only about 10 out of 100 raised their hands. They realized that it's an opportunity that may not happen again in their playing careers. We're excited about the chance." - SMU's Jones, on playing for the C-USA title
"I thought this was a place that had great potential and great future as far as what could be done." - UCF's O'Leary, on his thoughts about the program when he took over in 2004
"I'd like to play at home. I'd like to play them all at home. You're talking to a guy that's been on the road forever. I feel like Willie Nelson - on the road again." - Northern Illinois' Kill, on whether he likes the neutral site for the MAC title game
"I don't think anyone has won there for the last 35 years." - Utah State coach Gary Andersen, on playing at Boise State, which has a 31-game home winning streak
"They know about it. I talked about it. I told them, 'If we win, we go to a bowl game.' They have been on the internet and in the newspapers and know if we win we will go. They do not know which one and neither do I. The most important thing is we have to win this game. They know you have to win to go, so we do not talk about it past that." - Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill, whose team must win at Florida International on Saturday to become bowl-eligible
Etc.: North Texas hired Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney, a former head coach at Iowa State, to replace Todd Dodge as coach. ... Arkansas State (which fired Steve Roberts) and Louisiana-Lafayette (Rickey Bustle) are the other Sun Belt schools looking for new coaches. ... Ball State (Stan Parrish) and Kent State (Doug Martin) are the MAC schools looking for new coaches. ... Tulsa junior WR Damaris Johnson has 2,302 all-purpose yards this season, making him just the third FBS player - joining Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams (2003-05) and Central Michigan WR Antonio Brown (2007-09) - with three 2,000-yard seasons in a career. Johnson has 7,470 career all-purpose yards; he is just 294 yards away from tying the NCAA career mark held by former Western Michigan RB Brandon West (7,764 yards, from 2006-09). ... Western Kentucky junior RB Bobby Rainey has 1,649 rushing yards this season, a total that leads the nation. ... Boise State and Nevada already have won at least 10 games this season and Hawaii is one win away, meaning the WAC could have three 10-wins teams for the first time since 1994, when BYU, Colorado State and Utah finished with 10 victories. ... UCF has returned five interceptions for touchdowns this season, which is a school and C-USA record. The NCAA record is seven, by Tennessee in 1971. ... Florida Atlantic will play its final game at Lockhart Stadium this week; the Owls will open an on-campus stadium next fall. And North Texas played its final game at Fouts Field last week. UNT also opens a new on-campus stadium next fall. ... Boise State is 39-0 at home in WAC play and has a 31-game home winning streak. The Broncos play host to Utah State this week. Utah State is looking for its first five-win season since 2000. ... Arkansas State broke the school record for total offense with 4,841 yards. The Red Wolves also set school records for first downs, passing first downs, pass completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offensive plays. ... Hawaii senior RB Alex Green rushed for a school-record 327 yards (on just 19 carries) in last week's 59-24 win at New Mexico State. He is the first Hawaii player to rush for 1,000 yards since 1992. ... Florida International (6-5) has set a school record for wins in a season. ... East Carolina senior WR Dwayne Harris set school single-season marks for receptions (93) and receiving yards (1,055). ... Troy coach Larry Blakeney is going for his 160th career victory this week. ... Boise State is trying to win at least a share of its seventh WAC title in the past nine seasons. ... Hawaii senior WR Greg Salas has 1,581 receiving yards, and with two games left, he is on a pace to break the school and WAC record of 1,713 set by Ashley Lelie in 2001. Salas also needs just eight receptions to break Davone Bess' school single-season record of 108 set in 2007.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.