When it comes to success on the field, there is no comparison between the SEC and MAC. The SEC reigns supreme as the best conference in the nation, boasting five consecutive national champions. While the SEC is dusting the confetti of its shoulders from Auburn’s national title this season, the MAC has yet to place a team in a BCS game or even threaten for a national championship.
Despite the gap in BCS success, the two conferences play a key role in deciding the outcome of Super Bowl 45. The SEC is annually one of the top pipelines of talent to the NFL, supplying key contributors on both teams – Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward (Georgia), Mike Wallace (Ole Miss), Maurkice Pouncey (Florida) and Green Bay’s Chad Clifton and Scott Wells (Tennessee).
While the SEC and the other five BCS conferences garner the most national attention on Saturdays, the MAC goes largely ignored and underappreciated for its recent production of talent to the NFL. The conference is represented by 15 former players in Sunday’s game, with several expected to make key contributions. The only conference with more players in the Super Bowl than the MAC? The SEC with 18.
The SEC can lay claim to the most former players in the Super Bowl, but the game’s most important player represents the MAC. Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 10,000 yards in three seasons at Miami (Ohio), while leading the RedHawks to a 13-1 record in 2003. Roethlisberger was barely on the recruiting radar for most BCS schools, largely due to playing only one season at quarterback at Findlay High School. Roethlisberger was selected No. 11 overall by Pittsburgh in the 2004 draft and already owns two Super Bowl rings. With a win Sunday, Roethlisberger will become only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to win three Lombardi trophies.
Roethlisberger isn’t the only MAC connection on the quarterback depth chart in Pittsburgh. Although Marshall has moved to Conference USA, Byron Leftwich spent his career in the MAC, taking over the starting job after Chad Pennington finished his eligibility. Charlie Batch is the Steelers No. 3 quarterback, throwing for 7,592 in four seasons at Eastern Michigan.
Out of the 15 MAC players in Sunday’s game, only two were first-round selections – Roethlisberger and Leftwich. Although the MAC may not produce a first-rounder on a yearly basis, the 15 players in the Super Bowl shows that hard work and coaching can makeup a lot of ground in the NFL. The MAC isn’t going to lure the four or five-star recruits that the SEC can. However, as the 15 players in the Super Bowl indicates, the conference has found a niche by finding diamonds in the rough and developing them into significant contributors for the NFL.
The 15 players in Super Bowl 45 who spent their collegiate career in the MAC
Atari Bigby, S, UCF*
Diyral Briggs, LB, Bowling Green
Tom Crabtree, TE, Miami (Ohio)
Josh Gordy, CB, Central Michigan
Cullen Jenkins, Central Michigan
Greg Jennings, Western Michigan
T.J. Lang, Eastern Michigan
James Starks, Buffalo
Frank Zombo, Central Michigan
Charlie Batch, QB, Eastern Michigan
Antonio Brown, WR, Central Michigan
James Harrison, LB, Kent State
Byron Leftwich, QB, Marshall*
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (Ohio)
Shaun Suisham, K, Bowling Green
* Bigby and Leftwich played their careers in the MAC, before UCF and Marshall moved to Conference USA
A look at some of the other key players from the MAC in Super Bowl 45
WR Antonio Brown, Central Michigan – Round 6, No. 195 overall
Brown is one of the feel-good stories of Super Bowl 45. The Miami native walked on at Central Michigan, but finished his career with 305 receptions – second-most in MAC history – in three seasons. The Steelers have a deep group of receivers, which limited Brown’s playing time this season. However, the rookie made the most of his opportunities, returning a kickoff for a touchdown against Tennessee and making clutch catches against Baltimore and the Jets in the playoffs.
LB James Harrison, Kent State – Undrafted
Harrison’s road to stardom in the NFL was nearly derailed early in his career. After going undrafted, the Steelers took interest in Harrison, but assigned him to the practice squad. Pittsburgh was unsure of Harrison’s abilities in his first two seasons, releasing him three times. The Steelers weren’t the only team that nearly missed on Harrison. AFC North rival Baltimore signed Harrison in 2003, but eventually released him, opening the door for another shot in Pittsburgh.
Despite lacking ideal height for a prototypical NFL linebacker, Harrison emerged into one of the league’s top defensive players. He claimed the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in four consecutive seasons. Harrison also provided one of the top moments in Super Bowl history, returning a Kurt Warner interception 100 yards for a touchdown.