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'Everything is magnified': MAC embraces nation's shortest season, because it's better than no season

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Half a season is better than no season.

But the six-game Mid-American Conference football slate, starting Nov. 4, will present its challenges. For starters, the margin for error will be slim, if not nonexistent.

"This is going to be a great life lesson. There are no do-overs," said Jim McElwain, head coach at Central Michigan, who added he's been studying the dynamics of Major League Baseball's shortened 60-game season. "You don't get that tune-up game.

"We don't get an opportunity to mess up, I guess, is a good way to say it.

"Everything is magnified."

Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain

The MAC on Friday brought back the football season, after initially postponing it until the spring on Aug. 8. The MAC was the first Football Bowl Subdivision conference to pull the plug, and the last to reverse course. 

MAC teams were allowed to begin practicing Monday, and Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan wasted no time, while Western Michigan remained in "training" mode. Camps will be more high-octane and hard-hitting than normal, leading right into such a short season.

More: 'It could all change tomorrow': Inside 49 days of purgatory for MAC

The six-game schedule is the shortest in the country, with the Pac-12 next at seven. The MAC will have one crossover — perhaps Week 1, though the schedule hasn't been announced yet — and then five in-division games. There are no nonconference "buy" games, staples that typically help fund mid-major athletic departments and also get them good competition to build off. Not this year, with COVID-19 still raging.

"It's totally different," said Tim Lester, head coach at Western Michigan. "It's all perspective. You can either complain that they took half your season, or you can think about that you get a chance to play six games when last week we were playing zero.

"At the end, there's still gonna be a MAC champion."

More than one MAC coach referred to this season as a "free" season, because the NCAA is allowing an extra year of eligibility for all athletes affected by COVID-19.

On the front end, that provides freshmen another year of growth — Central Michigan has decided to grayshirt 14 freshmen. On the back end, seniors get an extra shot at glory, if they opt to take the extra year.

"It's a great opportunity for all our guys to play and get better in the best way," Lester said. "But there's nothing that makes a football player better than Saturday reps."

Those Saturday reps will start Nov. 4, a weekday. The first three weeks will be all midweek games, for TV purposes (the MAC is aligned with ESPN). The last three likely will be weekend games.

The championship game will be Dec. 18 or 19, and possibly at Detroit's Ford Field, with the Lions out of town.

The winner of that game should get a bowl game, though who knows how that shakes out. The NCAA is pondering the idea of eliminating a win requirement for bowl-eligibility, given all the shortened schedules. That's another wrinkle in a season full of them.

For better or for worse, though, most agree — it's better than nothing.

"We've been talking about that, even for the spring, and we continue to talk about it for the fall," said Chris Creighton, head coach at Eastern Michigan. "It's an interesting dynamic. It's more of a sprint than a marathon, when you're talking six (games) versus 12-plus and all that.

"I think some things will be different about it for sure, but it's how you prepare and all those things. The routine of that will be the same."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984