DETROIT — For six straight seasons, Northern Illinois has played in the Mid-American Conference championship game. The Huskies haven’t always won, but they’ve always made it there, no matter how strong a challenge they’ve faced from others in their division.
This year it’s Western Michigan that looks ready to provide the sternest test. The Broncos were overwhelming favorites to win the conference in the preseason media poll, although WMU coach P.J. Fleck was quick to steer attention back toward Northern Illinois.
“We have a team in the West that’s won six straight championships and they don’t get picked. You got to be kidding me. They’ve won six straight,” Fleck said. “I don’t understand that.”
Western Michigan went 8-5 last season and returns quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis. WMU lost only two conference games in 2015 — against Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, the two teams who played for the MAC title.
NIU has won the conference three times during its streak of six title-game appearances. Bowling Green beat the Huskies for the championship last season and in 2013. In fact, Bowling Green is working on its own streak of three trips to the title game in Detroit.
Western Michigan hasn’t played in the MAC championship game since 2000 and hasn’t won the conference since 1988. Fleck has been WMU’s coach for three seasons, and the Broncos improved quickly after going 1-11 in 2013.
East: Bowling Green finished two points ahead of Ohio in the preseason poll, and the teams play at Ohio on Oct. 8. Bowling Green must replace star quarterback Matt Johnson, and its schedule also includes road games against Northern Illinois and Toledo.
West: The key game in this division could come the same day as in the East. Western Michigan hosts Northern Illinois on Oct. 8. The Huskies reached the title game last year despite an injury to quarterback Drew Hare. Toledo and Central Michigan round out a foursome that actually finished tied for the division title last season.
CMU plays WMU, NIU and Toledo in October, meaning the league race could take several turns before Halloween.
Shawun Lurry, DB, Northern Illinois. Third-team All-American had nine interceptions a season ago.
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan. Caught 90 passes for 1,436 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo. Rushed for 973 yards in only nine games in 2015 after running for 1,631 the previous season.
Cooper Rush, QB, Central Michigan. Completed 66 percent of his passes last year for 3,848 yards with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Austin Valdez, LB, Bowling Green. Had 144 tackles and two interceptions in 2015.
Joel Bouagnon, RB, Northern Illinois. Rushed for 1,285 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Jason Candle, Toledo. Took over as coach of the Rockets after Matt Campbell went to Iowa State. Toledo was favored to unseat Northern Illinois in the West last year but couldn’t do it.
Mike Jinks, Bowling Green. The former Texas Tech assistant is now the coach of the defending MAC champions.
Mike Neu, Ball State. The Cardinals are trying to bounce back from a 3-9 season, and they hired one of their former players as coach. Neu played quarterback at Ball State from 1990-93.
On the hot seat
Paul Haynes, Kent State. The Golden Flashes lost only one starter on offense, and this is the fourth season in charge for Haynes, who has gone 9-26 so far at Kent State.
East: Ohio takes advantage of a more favorable schedule than Bowling Green and returns to the MAC title game for the first time since 2011.
West: Western Michigan ends Northern Illinois’ run in the division and wins the league championship, cementing Fleck’s status as a young coach on the rise.
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister. AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org