DETROIT (AP) For Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, this is a rubber match of sorts.
Unless they both make it back here next year, of course.
The Mid-American Conference championship game Friday night will have a familiar feel, with the Huskies and Falcons squaring off for the third straight season. Bowling Green won 47-27 in 2013, and last year it was NIU taking the title in a 51-17 rout. This is the sixth consecutive appearance by Northern Illinois in the MAC title game.
''That's a home game for them,'' Bowling Green coach Dino Babers joked. ''They know their hotel, they can get around the street without their GPSs. I mean, that's not fair to the other schools in the West (Division). We want to go there so much that we don't have to use our GPSs either.''
This was supposed to be the year Northern Illinois fell short. Toledo was the preseason favorite in the West, and the Rockets spent time in the Top 25, but when the teams faced each other in early November, NIU came away with a 32-27 victory on the road.
Toledo still had a chance to wrap up a spot in the title game, but the Rockets lost at home last week to Western Michigan, creating a four-way tie for first place in the division. The tiebreaker went to NIU (8-4).
''It's one of those things where your fate isn't in your hands and it's always rough,'' NIU coach Rod Carey said. ''I will tell you this: This team's earned the right to be there, with everything that we've gone through.''
Babers pointed out that the game isn't a rubber match for him, since he wasn't the coach two years ago when Bowling Green won. He was at the helm last season, when the Falcons lost to a Northern Illinois team that set a MAC title game scoring record.
Bowling Green (9-3) lost only once in MAC play this year, at home against Toledo.
Here are a few things to watch when NIU and Bowling Green renew acquaintances:
Carey said this week that freshman Tommy Fiedler will start at quarterback for NIU against Bowling Green. Fiedler has played only one game for the Huskies, going 9 of 17 for 113 yards in a loss to Ohio last week. NIU lost quarterback Drew Hare to a leg injury during the game against Toledo. Freshman Ryan Graham replaced him, and now the Huskies will go with Fiedler.
NIU ran 100 plays from scrimmage in last year's title game, and this figures to be another up-tempo affair. The winning team has scored at least 44 points in each of the past three MAC championship games.
JOHNSON IS BACK
Matt Johnson threw for five touchdowns in Bowling Green's victory in the 2013 title game. He missed last year's because of a hip injury, but now he's healthy - and having a spectacular season. Johnson has thrown for 4,465 yards this year, with 41 touchdowns and six interceptions.
''It was a broken hip. There was no guarantee ... that I could come back,'' Johnson said. ''I had to learn how to walk again.''
ON THE GROUND
Both teams come into the game with 1,000-yard rushers. Bowling Green's Travis Greene has run for 1,036 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, while Northern Illinois' Joel Bouagnon has rushed for 1,212 yards and 18 TDs.
Both teams had tough games prior to the conference season. Northern Illinois played at Ohio State and kept it close, losing 20-13. Bowling Green earned two victories on the road against the Big Ten, beating Maryland and Purdue.