College football is a world of haves and have-nots.
The haves, the BCS conferences, get automatic berths in the biggest bowl games, get the most exposure, the most money and all of the advantages. The mid-majors are on the outside looking in, and one of those conferences is the Mid-American Conference, or the MAC.
Don't overlook some of these teams as you make your 2011 college football picks, though, because there's always at least a few very strong teams from the MAC to keep an eye on.
The 2010 MAC football season was pretty phenomenal for a few different reasons. For one thing, the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks had a season literally unlike any other in the history of college football. They became the first program to ever go from losing 10 games or more in one season, to winning 10 games or more in the next.
They went just 1-11 in 2009, and then, in a shocker to everyone outside the team, finished 10-4 and won the conference and a bowl game in 2010 on top of that.
Miami (Ohio) played Northern Illinois in last year's MAC conference championship game, and the Huskies from Northern Illinois had a Top 10 ranking. The RedHawks won a close game 26-21 though, which helped propel them to that 10-win season and that remarkable accomplishment that no other college football team in the history of the game has ever had.
It was quite the ride, and it actually led to some upheaval, as head coach Mike Haywood got a job offer at a bigger school (Pitt). Haywood, though, has already been ousted from that position, after only two weeks, due to a domestic violence charge.
In his place at the RedHawks helm is one of his former defensive coaches, Lance Guidry. Guidry will plan on building off last year's amazing momentum and making Miami (Ohio) a force to be reckoned with in the MAC.
Will they be the 2011 college football picks favorites for the conference?
They could, but they'll be dealing with the Huskies from Northern Illinois yet again. They also have a new head coach, as former coach Jerry Kill moved on to Minnesota. In his place is Dave Doeren, the former defensive coordinator from Wisconsin who hopes to bring some of that big-school, BCS power and mojo to Northern Illinois.
There were even more coaching moves in the MAC besides that. The University of Miami, not the RedHawks from Ohio in the MAC, was so impressed with the turnaround job that Al Golden did at Temple University that they made him their new head coach.
Temple finished 8-4 on the year last season, and new head coach Steve Addazio brings in lofty expectations of his own. He was on Urban Meyer's staff at Florida, and is another major conference coach who wants to invigorate a mid-major football program.
The MAC is deep at the top though, and with 13 total teams spread across two divisions, there are lots of programs which could emerge in 2011 as a late college football pick's choice to win a bunch of games and make some noise.
In addition to Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Temple, there is also Toledo, Ohio and Western Michigan, amongst others.
Toledo managed to go 7-1 in conference play last year, putting them in the running for the conference championship. However, it only went 8-5 overall. Part of that was because the Rockets made a pretty bold out-of-conference schedule, facing schools like Arizona and Boise State, both of whom crushed them.
Head coach Tim Beckman, though, is now in his third year and is hoping to get his team even farther ahead, even it takes some harsh trial by fire in those bad losses.
The Ohio Bobcats under Frank Solich also did very well within the conference, finishing 6-2, while also only sporting an overall 8-5 record. They had some tough games on their schedule as well, including a road game at Ohio State, where they were blown out.
With a conference heavy at the top like the MAC, sometimes you also get a conference that is heavy at the bottom.
Last year, there weren't very many teams right in the middle of the pack. Instead, you were mostly either very good and in contention for the conference championship, or very bad and completely out of the running. As it was, Ball State finished 4-8, Central Michigan finished 3-9, Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green and Buffalo all finished at 2-10 and Akron finished at just 1-11.
So just like the whole world of college football, with haves and have-nots, the MAC is very much divided.
But from year to year, as Miami (Ohio) showed, any team can make a huge leap. Part of the problem with that is that then the star, hotshot coach typically moves on to a bigger program for more money at a BCS school, and the program sometimes has to start from scratch again.
It's a somewhat vicious cycle for teams in the MAC, where success doesn't always breed more success, but could breed the end of an era and the need to start anew yet again.
So which teams from the MAC should you be keeping an eye on 2011?
Miami (Ohio) could certainly be another very strong team again, and Northern Illinois might be the favorites amongst those making college football picks as to who will win the conference.
But there are any number of good programs which could sprout up given the right conditions, and the powers that be in the big BCS schools better watch out if they let their guards down with a MAC team on the schedule.
Find out my 2011 college football predictions for the highly touted SEC.