Ohio’s No. 22 in the Associated Press poll and No. 24 in the BCS rankings. Toledo’s was left on the brink of this week’s Top 25. Northern Illinois, which might be the best of the three, is starting to gather votes. The Mid-American Conference is flexing some muscle at the national level.
None of this comes as news to UB coach Jeff Quinn. His Bulls played Ohio three weeks ago, Northern Illinois two weeks ago and complete a grueling conference stretch with Toledo this Saturday afternoon at UB Stadium.
A recent Sports Illustrated story examined whether Ohio could become the next Boise State. What makes that doubtful is the MAC’s overall strength as witnessed by Toledo and Northern Illinois’s ability to sustain despite significant graduation losses.
The top four teams in the MAC (include Kent State) are a combined 27-3 with all three losses coming to BCS automatic qualifiers. Competition is keen.
“We see it week in and week out,” Quinn said at Tuesday’s weekly news conference. “There are some very talented players. There are a lot of very good players that play the game of football coming out of high school in this country. The reason why this conference continuously gets better each and every year is because there’s a lot of talent out there.
“There’s opportunities for schools to attract kids, come in and play, play early, play some of the big schools, and that’s what these kids want to do, they want to play. And a lot of times your best option is to take an opportunity to go to a Mid-American Conference school where you can get in and play.”
The conference also is steeped in tradition, from its quarterback history (Chad Pennington, Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, for three) to its coaching tree.
“There’s a lot of talent in this league and a lot of quality coaches [who have moved on],” Quinn said. “You look at Brian Kelly [Notre Dame], and Butch Jones [Cincinnati] and Urban Meyer [Ohio State], Nick Saban [Alabama], some of the best coaches in the country have come through there.”
Ohio’s the first MAC school to crack the BCS rankings since Ball State in 2008 (UB’s championship year). Both Miami and Northern Illinois cracked the BCS chart in 2003, with Miami, guided by Roethlisberger, rising as high as 11th.
The Bulls are slowly working their way back to health. Branden Oliver (knee) and Alex Neutz (chest) dressed but did not play against Pitt Saturday. Brandon Murie has been bothered by a sore ankle, although he was on kick returns against the Panthers.
“They’re all better and we fully anticipate all three of those guys being involved in the game plan this week and hopefully give us some play out on that field against Toledo,” Quinn said.
Wide receiver Fred Lee (wrist) could be back sooner than first anticipated although Quinn said he’s not yet 100 percent. Safety Witney Sherry also is expected back after missing the Pitt game.
The Bulls utilized a West Coast-type passing offense against Pitt, with quarterback Alex Zordich letting go with shorter throws. Part of that was due to the Neutz injury that took UB’s best receiver out of the equation. Part of it was helping Zordich get on track.
“We wanted to get Alex Zordich in some rhythm,” Quinn said.
“I think it suits him better from that standpoint. We need to do a better job of protecting him sometimes, and he’s got to have some faith and confidence, too, in those guys up front, maybe sit in there for an extra second or so. He’s so confident in his ability to scramble sometimes it’s nice just to take an extra split-second to hold in there before something else develops a little deeper downfield.”
Toledo middle linebacker Dan Molls leads the country in tackles with 102 — 39 more than any teammate.
“They do a nice job protecting him,” Quinn said. “They have a very solid front four and they keep him free.”
Toledo’s 7-1 for the first time since 2001. … UB Punter Tyler Grassman is 87th and last among the punters ranked in the Division I stats with a 34.63-yard average while the Bulls are tied for 116th in turnover margin at minus-1.57 a game. … Toledo running back David Fluellen (Lockport) is up to 16th nationally with 119.13 rushing yards per game. He torched No. 21 Cincinnati for 161 Saturday.