WESTERN OHIO -- They say Ohio State vs. Michigan is a football tradition like no other.
In Ohio high school football, that tradition rests in the 10-team Midwest Athletic Conference, a league of smaller-school powerhouses just north of the Miami Valley that continues to dominate its peers.
During a blustery Thanksgiving weekend in Ohio usually dominated by holiday shopping -- and football -- it's worth taking a look at the MAC.
Richland County was rightfully proud to have two football teams -- Mansfield Senior and Lucas -- playing in state championship games in 2019.
We love high school football in north central Ohio. But the most recent Ohio football state title from our area came from Galion in 1985 -- 36 years ago.
The OHSAA football playoff path is rugged, a title that will require six playoff wins this year. One of those games comes Friday night at Mansfield's Arlin Field when Division I powers Upper Arlington (14-0) and Lakewood St. Edward (12-1) square off.
But when it comes to small schools, the path to Ohio high school football glory continues to run through western Ohio and the Midwest Athletic Conference.
Formed in 1973, the MAC has produced 37 state football championship teams and 143 overall state title winners in all sports.
It has a chance to add even more state football titles this season with three MAC teams playing in the state semifinals Saturday night in three different divisions.
In Division V, Versailles (13-1) plays Canal Winchester Harvest Prep (10-2) on Saturday night in London at Bowlus Field.
In Division VI, Coldwater (12-2) takes on West Jefferson (13-1) at Piqua Alexander Stadium.
In Division VII, Maria Stein Marion Local (14-0) meets Bascom Hopewell-Loudon (13-1) at Lima Spartan Stadium. It was the Flyers who defeated Lucas in the state title game two years ago.
There are those who will tell you winning a MAC football title is harder than winning a state title
As evidence, what do Versailles and Coldwater have in common?
As MAC members, they both lost to Marion Local. The Flyers beat the Tigers, 19-17, in week three and the Cavaliers, 24-21, in week eight, finishing the regular season unbeaten and claiming an outright MAC title.
In the postseason, Marion Local has rolled over its four opponents by a combined score of 144-14, posting wins of 41-0, 42-6, 34-0 and 27-8. The latest win, in the regional title game, was against MAC foe St. Henry, a team the Flyers defeated, 20-7, during the regular season.
In its playoff lifetime, Marion Local has a postseason record of 88-12.
Since starting the postseason this year, leaving the tough MAC world behind, Versailles and Coldwater have been untouchable, winning eight games by a total of 314-77.
Even lesser MAC teams impose their will in the playoffs. Anna, which was 6th in the MAC this season with a 4-6 regular-season record, won two playoff games before losing in the regional semifinals. Fort Recovery, eighth in the MAC with a 3-7 record, also won a playoff game.
The wealth has been spread in the MAC over the years. With the exception of Parkway High School, every school currently in the league has won a state football title.
The list includes Marion Local (11 state championships, tied with Cleveland St. Ignatius for the most in Ohio history), Coldwater (seven), St. Henry (six), Delphos St. John's (six), Minster (three), Fort Recovery (one), New Bremen (one) and Anna (one).
In 2014, MAC teams earned three of the seven OHSAA titles — Marion Local, Coldwater, and Minster. Six times since 2012, MAC teams have won at least two OHSAA state titles.
It's not that these MAC teams are monoliths, irresistible borgs. Conference teams have had different coaches, different players. The common denominator is football fundamentals, winning, proud communities -- and continuing the league tradition.
“Every year's different, every team's different. They have their own strengths and weaknesses and identities and personalities,” Marion Local coach Tim Goodwin told the Findlay Courier this week.
“This is the 2021 team, this isn't any of those past teams. We've had a really outstanding year so far. We've been really gritty, I would say, and just found some ways to hang in there and win some really close games against really good teams.”
The MAC reputation also precedes its playoff appearances. Just ask Allen East coach Joel Billings, whose team beat Anna last weekend, but now faces Coldwater.
“Coldwater is really talented especially in those skilled spots. They have a couple of guys with exceptional size and speed and overall it is a MAC school. They fly to the ball. They block until the whistle," Billings told the Lima News.
Preble Shawnee had its best season in school history, posting a 13-0 record, until Versailles blanked the Arrows, 28-0, last weekend.
“We couldn’t match up physically with them,” Preble Shawnee coach Dave Maddox told the Dayton Daily News. “They’re big and powerful and they won up front, and that’s basically where the game was won.”