DETROIT — The Mid-American Conference championship game this year has a lot more at stake than usual.
It's a showcase for two Top 25 teams on long winning streaks – and there may even be BCS implications.
When No. 18 Kent State takes on No. 19 Northern Illinois on Friday night at Ford Field, it will be the first time two MAC teams in the Top 25 have faced each other since Ben Roethlisberger was playing in the conference. The winner could end up in the Orange Bowl, which would be unheard of for either program.
Kent State coach Darrell Hazell is trying not to look ahead too far, but his counterpart is soaking up the hype.
"It gives you a chance to potentially do what Boise (State) did a number of years ago when they beat Oklahoma," Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. "Not that we could pull off the same feat, but we would try, and I think that's what we want. We want that opportunity."
The Huskies (11-1) would have an outside shot at a BCS bowl bid if they win Friday, but Kent State (11-1) would be in even better position.
Under BCS rules, if a champion from a conference without an automatic bid, such as the MAC, ranks in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and is ranked higher than a champion from one of the AQ leagues, such as the Big East, the non-AQ champ is guaranteed a spot in the BCS.
Big East-leading Rutgers wasn't ranked in last week's BCS standings. Kent State was 17th and could move up with a victory. UCLA is 16th and has to play Stanford in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night.
"I'll leave that for the experts to decide," Hazell said. "I think it adds a little flavor that both teams are in the Top 25, but we'll worry about where we go bowl-wise after Friday night."
The last time two MAC teams in the Top 25 played each other was when Roethlisberger and Miami of Ohio beat Bowling Green in the 2003 conference title game, according to STATS LLC. And these two teams are rolling.
Northern Illinois has won 11 games in a row, Kent State 10 straight. Both went unbeaten in MAC play while winning their divisions, and this title game could bring some welcome publicity to the league.
"It's well-deserved and well-earned attention," said Jon Steinbrecher, the conference commissioner. "I think it's a reflection of the depth and strength of the league."
Northern Illinois is 21st in the BCS standings and would need more of a jump to reach the top 16 than Kent State, but Doeren is happy to contemplate the possibility.
"Quite honestly, I think it helps us, because we know if we really want to even be in a conversation like that, we have to win," Doeren said. "That just kind of puts fuel on the fire, in my opinion."
The Huskies blew a fourth-quarter lead in an 18-17 loss to Iowa to open the season, and they haven't lost since.
"We consider ourselves the best team in the state," said quarterback Jordan Lynch, a potential shot at Illinois and Northwestern, two Big Ten programs.
This is the Huskies' third straight trip to the MAC title game. They won last year on a last-second field goal.
Kent State is one of only two teams to beat Rutgers so far this season. The Golden Flashes went 5-7 last year, but they won four of their last five, setting the stage for this season's resurgence.
Kent State's most recent bowl appearance was 40 years ago in the Tangerine Bowl, so it's fair to say the fan base is fired up for this week's game.
"I got an email today with a guy that's put a blue `K' on his tooth," Hazell said earlier this week. "You talk about 106 players in the locker room and 25 coaches, changed the country, how they think about Kent State, Kent State football."
Running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham have both surpassed 1,100 yards rushing this year for the Golden Flashes. Northern Illinois relies heavily on Lynch, who has thrown for 2,750 yards and 23 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He's also run for 1,611 yards.
The Northern Illinois athletic department's website is touting Lynch as a Heisman Trophy candidate. That might be a reach, but the idea of a MAC team playing in a major bowl is suddenly very real.
"We've got two great teams that don't like to lose," Archer said. "So it's going to be a good game."