Even if you’re a die-hard college football fan, you probably don’t care too much about the MAC. Mid-American Conference football shows up on the nation’s collective radar only a few times per season– in a matchup with a BCS program, when an undefeated record is on the line, when bowl season rolls around.
It’s no surprise. When it comes to taking on the rest of the FBS, there’s a considerable talent gap. Aside from the occasional surprise like last year’s Central Michigan over Michigan State or Al Golden’s 2009 Temple Owls, the MAC resides in its own little-publicized world. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good football being played. Among its constituent teams, the level of competition is high. The games are hard-fought. And the wintry Midwestern weather makes for some epic outcomes.
All of which makes what Mike Haywood accomplished this year absolutely incredible.
Last season, the Miami Redhawks were 1-11. They were the worst team in the FBS in turnover margin, had the second worst rushing attack, were outscored (on average) 34-15, and surrendered a whopping 377 yards per game. They were last in the MAC in 5 major statistical categories, and of the 120 FBS teams, ranked 100th or worse in 10 categories.
The team’s lone win was a 7-point edging of Toledo, which had a losing record of its own. In short, Miami was one of the very worst FBS teams.
On Friday night, the Redhawks consummated the biggest turnaround in college football by beating #25 Northern Illinois 26-21. The win earned Miami the MAC title, a 9-4 record, and a guaranteed trip to one of the better mid-level bowl games. In the span of one year, head coach Mike Haywood turned a 1-win team into a champion.
Think about the magnitude of the transformation. An increase of 8 wins. A winning percentage that went from .083 to .692. It boggles the mind to think that any team, on any level, could achieve that kind of success in such a short time frame.
And this was no fluke. Though the Redhawks still struggled against their better opponents, they mauled Temple, destroyed the Mountain West’s Colorado State, and finished with a flourish: by beating up on a heavily-favored Huskies team.
It’s difficult to overstate how lopsided the MAC Championship game was coming in. NIU was undefeated in conference play, beat one Big Ten team (Minnesota), and barely lost to another (Illinois). The Huskies were favored by more than 17 points; more or less anyone who was following MAC football expected this to be a blowout in NIU’s favor.
In fact, Miami wasn’t even supposed to be there– an unlikely upset opened the door when Kent State (5-7, 4-4) knocked off MAC East leader Ohio (8-4, 6-2). But the Redhawks certainly made the most of their opportunity. Miami did get a lucky break– a tipped ball on fourth-and-20 late in the game. But the win itself was well-earned. The Redhawks outplayed Northern Illinois, and if not for a blocked PAT, a blocked field goal, and failed fake field goal attempt, Miami would have been playing the fourth quarter with a lead.
Oxford, Ohio locals and Miami fans everywhere can thank Haywood. His intensity, strategy, and sheer force of will turned this program around in a way that seemed impossible a few months ago. How did he do it?
In a word, defense.
That’s a bit ironic when you consider the man’s history. Michael Haywood was a wide receiver for Notre Dame, and his coaching resume includes a list of jobs on the offensive side of the ball. His latest gig before coming to Oxford was working as Charlie Weis’ offensive coordinator in South Bend.
If anything was to change at Miami, one might have expected it to be the offense, but the team’s 2010 numbers are similar to those from 2009′s rugged campaign.
The stop unit, on the other hand, was revitalized. Look at the statistical improvement (per game actuals):
|Category||2009 Rank||2009 Actual||2010 Rank||2010 Actual|
|Pass Efficiency Defense||87||136.28||28||114.94|
|Tackles For Loss||94||4.92||8||7.5|
As the numbers indicate, this was an end-to-end makeover, from the line to the secondary. The team’s aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage was one of the most obvious changes, and it showed up in the unit’s ability to stop its opponents in the backfield. The other major change was Miami’s ability to stop the run. Making opposing offenses one-dimensional helped the Redhawks control the flow of the game.
Of course, the offense did make a couple of key adjustments. Miami’s turnover margin went from the worst in the country at -2.00 to the nation’s 23rd best at +0.58. And under Haywood’s tutelage, Miami’s QBs posted an overall efficiency rating of 129.3. That ranked 57th, and was miles better than 2009′s 104th-ranked 112.42.
When you look at the numbers, what Haywood was able to do comes into focus. His improvements were drastic: fewer mistakes, more accuracy, and a much stouter D. If you want to know the recipe for football success, it’s right here for the taking.
The upside is that Miami football has enjoyed an almost unprecedented revival. The downside is that with kind of performance, the coach will almost certainly be snapped up by a bigger and wealthier program. Regardless of whether Haywood stays in Oxford or pursues another position elsewhere, his 2010 will go down in MAC history as one of the best seasons any coach has ever had.
You may not have followed along as it was happening. But now that it’s in the books, take a moment to appreciate how amazing his performance was. If I had a Coach of the Year vote, I know where it would go.