- Associated Press - Thursday, December 2, 2010

DETROIT (AP) - How’s this for a little spice for the MAC championship game? No. 24 Northern Illinois is back in the rankings for the first time since 2003 and Miami of Ohio has engineered the biggest turnaround in college football this season.

The two teams play Friday night at Ford Field in Detroit. Northern Illinois star running back Chad Spann said the ranking is a big deal.

“It’s definitely great for the program and the future of the program,” Spann said. “The recruits see that kind of stuff and it definitely interests them.”

The Huskies (10-2, 8-0 MAC) can also beef up their resume for prospects by claiming their first Mid-American Conference title since 1983.

“Our goal since Day 1 was to get to Detroit to have the opportunity to win the MAC championship,” Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said. “Our job is to finish the race.”

The RedHawks (8-4, 7-1) have other plans.

Miami of Ohio won eight games after earning only one last season. Win No. 9 will probably require the RedHawks to slow down NIU’s Spann-led running game and control the ball with their own running back, Thomas Merriweather, and standout receiver Armand Robinson.

Northern Illinois is ranked seventh in the country with 279 yards rushing a game. Spann is averaging 103-plus yards on the ground to join a list of standout running backs at Northern Illinois, where Michael Turner, Garrett Wolfe and LeShon Johnson made their mark before playing in the NFL.

“To have my name mentioned with them is a great honor,” Spann said.

Huskies quarterback Chandler Harnish prevents defenses from focusing too much on Spann.

Miami of Ohio’s strength, however, is stopping the run, allowing just under 124 yards rushing to rank 24th in the country.

The RedHawks will be well rested when they roll into the Motor City. They’ve been getting to bed much earlier than most of their peers to be prepared for 6 a.m. practices this season.

“If you had to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, I don’t think you’d be out either,” Miami of Ohio coach Michael Haywood said. “It has really worked out well for us.”

Haywood said a lot of players missed practices last season because afternoon classes kept them off the field when he went 1-11 in his debut with the RedHawks.

“We’ve only had two players have to take a test in a morning to miss a practice as opposed to 45 to 50 last year,” Haywood said.

The RedHawks will be tested in the MAC title game and if they pass it, they’ll win their first title since 2005.

A championship is at stake, but the results of the game may not affect the bowl picture for either program. Both teams are headed to the postseason, filling two of the conference’s three spots in the Caesars Pizza, GoDaddy.com or Humanitarian Bowl.

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