Conference Preview 2023: MAC

By Simon Carroll

A team-by-team analysis of the MAC, the season ahead and final standings predictions.


1. Toledo Rockets

2022: 9-5 (5-3)

Jason Candle has never had a losing season at Toledo. In 2022, the Rockets won the MAC for the second time under his tutelage, putting up fifty points three times. They were far more dominant than their record suggested, and this year could be Candle’s best one yet in North Ohio.

Optimism springs from the sheer number of returning starters, particularly on offense – which was already the best in the league. Quarterback Dequan Finn is back after throwing for 2,067 yards and 18 TD’s (2 INT’s) in just seven games. He’ll be working behind a revamped o-line and some elite weapons in field stretcher Jerjuan Newton and dynamic slot weapon Devin Maddox. This unit might eclipse 50 points even more frequently in 2023.

If you think they’re stacked on offense, just wait until you see the other side of the ball. Toledo have six, maybe seven names with a legitimate chance of receiving all-conference honors. Whilst difficult to single out a position group, perhaps the secondary is the most potent, with Quinyon Mitchell, Maxen Hook and Nate Bauer recording 255 tackles, 28 pass breakups and five interceptions (all Mitchell!) between them last year.

Prediction: 10-2 (8-0): There are some good teams in the MAC. There always are. But I don’t know if we’ve ever seen one as complete as Toledo are this season. I’ve given them two out of conference losses just to check myself, but they could make a huge statement against Illinois in week 1. Regardless, they are heavy favourites to be conference champs once again.

2. Eastern Michigan Eagles

2022: 9-4 (5-3)

Since taking over back in 2014, Chris Creighton has done an excellent job of transforming Eastern Michigan from conference cannon-fodder to MAC challengers. Last year EMU pushed Toledo hard but ultimately fell short, although 9 wins and a successful bowl trip (both for the first time in 35 years) is a season for the Eagles to be proud of.

Taking the next step won’t be easy when you’re in the same division as the Rockets. But Eastern Michigan are probably the ‘best of the rest in the West’; and it’s the run game that gives them that status. Samson Evans returns to the backfield after putting up 1,166 yards last campaign. The power back is complemented by the nifty Jaylon Jackson, who is a threat through the air and on special teams. Despite losing their starting QB, Austin Smith does have some experience (winning 3 games last year) – and he has an influx of talent from the JuCo ranks to throw to.

There’ll be some flux on defense. Long time DC Neal Neathery retires, and is replaced by LB coach Ben Needham. The good news is this defense was pretty stingy down the stretch, and seven starters return. Linebackers Joe Sparacio and Chase Kline are standouts, with corner Kempton Shine offering some ball skills in the secondary (12 pbu’s and 1 pick in 2022).

Prediction: 10-2 (7-1): The Eagles are an excellently coached football team who know how to game plan. And whilst they don’t have the horses to run with Toledo, they should be able to maintain their status as a MAC heavyweight. Creighton knows how to win on the road, and it will stand EMU in good stead with a big trip to DeKalb on October 21st.

3. Northern Illinois Huskies

2022: 3-9 (2-6)

2022 saw a bit of a fall from grace for the Huskies after winning the MAC the previous year. Just three wins all season and two in the conference confirmed NIU as something of a yo-yo team, with up and down seasons each campaign so far under head coach Thomas Hammock. Last year this program was beset by injury, and I foresee an upturn in fortunes in 2023.

Rocky Lombardi returns! The blonde bomber led the Huskies to the MAC title two years ago, but completed just 50 passes last term after battling injury. Him being back immediately elevates this offense, and in Trayvon Rudolph he has one of the best receivers in the conference to work with. Sitting behind a strong o-line and with Antario Brown in the backfield, Lombardi and this offense should bounce back nicely.

There’s good news on defense too. They’re strong on the defensive front and in the secondary; names to keep an eye out for are Devonte O’Malley & James Ester (DT), Raishein Thomas (EDGE) and CJ Brown (S). The Huskies also add Cam’ron Dabney at corner from Kansas, who figures to get plenty of playing time. This unit shipped 44 points to Akron in last year’s season finale – they look in a far better position as the new season comes into sight.

Prediction: 6-6 (5-3): Maybe not the bounce-back that people in DeKalb were hoping for – you can thank a tricky schedule for that. Pulling Ohio from the East, taking a trip to Toledo, and hosting good travellers EMU gives NIU some work to do to earn a ticket to the postseason. But – if healthy – this team has the talent to get there.

4. Ball State Cardinals

2022: 5-7 (3-5)

After a sluggish start to his tenure in Muncie, Mike Neu has elevated this Ball State football program, peaking with the conference win and national ranking in 2020, and somewhat maintaining those higher standards. Hovering around the .500 mark, the Cardinals are primed to fight for a bowl game in 2023 – and maybe make some noise in the MAC too.

There’s some hurdles to overcome on offense. After finding the successor to Drew Plitt in John Paddock, they have subsequently lost him again as he transfers to Illinois. Their starting QB will be Layne Hatcher, who heads over from Texas State. Hatcher showed some moments in San Marcos, but Ball State’s offense will likely run through Marquez Cooper. The diminutive ball carrier comes in from Kent State, where he racked up 2,500 yards and 24 TD’s the last two years. Keep an eye out for tight end Tanner Koziol, who might make a big leap his sophomore year.

Ball State have produced some elite defensive backs the last two years, with both Bryce Cosby and Nic Jones heading to the NFL. This season sees a whole new cast on the back end, with only Loren Strickland (Indiana transfer) with any significant experience. They look better up front, with a defensive line that is undersized but highly athletic. Tavion Woodward figures to be their biggest sack threat in 2023. This unit waned at the end of last season, so Neu and his coaching staff have placed an emphasis on depth.

Prediction: 6-6 (4-4): This is not an easy schedule – back to back trips to SEC country (Kentucky, Georgia) to start the year, and then a conference schedule that delivers three tough road trips. That said, Ball State aren’t just here to make up the numbers; they can compete. If they can get to their bye week breaking even, they’ve got a great shot at making it to a bowl game.

5. Central Michigan Chippewas

2022: 4-8 (3-5)

2022 represented Jim McElwain’s worst season in Mount Pleasant to date. Winning just four games, the Chippewas were both unlucky and uncompetitive, losing to Ball State and Western Michigan by three points combined, but also being manhandled by three scores against EMU, Bowling Green and Toledo.

I’m not particularly confident of improvement in 2023. Held to less than 20 points in half their games, just four starters return on offense – which I guess is a good thing. Jase Bauer looks set to win the QB1 job in what is a very young and inexperienced quarterback room. At the very least he should be better protected by a revamped o-line, who might also help mitigate for the loss of running back Lew Nicholls (now with the Green Bay Packers). Marion Lukes steps into the backfield, and there is excitement about his potential.

Things look much more rosy on defense. Two veteran run stuffers on the defensive interior in Robi Stuart and Jacques Bristol set the tone for this unit, which looks to erase ground games in the MAC. Linebackers Kyle Moretti and Justin Whiteside are thumpers too. There’s more concern in the secondary and how CMU will fare against some of the more adventurous offenses in the conference, but at the very least there is experience throughout this starting lineup.

Prediction: 3-9 (2-6): It’s difficult to imagine Central Michigan taking positive steps forward in 2023, even if some of the problems of last year have been fixed. Seven road trips look set to deliver just one win, and on this toughest of schedules having your bye week in mid-November is a killer. CMU face four teams off their own byes to round out the slate. This season looks like it’s going to be one to forget for the Chips.

6. Western Michigan Broncos

2022: 5-7 (4-4)

It’s a new era in Kalamazoo. Out goes head coach Tim Lester, who had managed to avoid a losing record every year until 2022, when the Broncos dipped to 5-7. Standards appear to be higher than that in Western Michigan, and they’ve turned to Lance Taylor to get them over the hump. Taylor, the only Native American head coach in college football, has never held the top job before, but brings a wealth of NFL and CFB experience, including stints with Notre Dame and an impressive one year cameo as OC at Louisville last season.

It’s fair to say he’s got his work cut out on offense. This passing game was truly woeful in 2022 – the team eclipsing 23 points just twice, one of which was against New Hampshire. QB was a turnstile, but this year Taylor has been decisive, bringing in Hayden Wolff who impressed at Old Dominion last season. Wolff has very little talent to work with – the Broncos are hoping Sacred Heart transfer Kenny Womack brings all of his production with him (1,234 receiving yards in 2022).

Taylor retained defensive coordinator Lou Esposito, who begins his 7th year as DC and his 10th at Waldo Stadium. There are bright spots of talent on this side of the ball; Keni-H Lovely is an experienced, productive corner who registered 4 picks in 2022, and Marshawn Kneeland (EDGE) has 8 sacks and 20 tfl’s in his WMU career and should kick on. Aside from that, this unit returns just two starters and is short of depth. It won’t take much by the way of injury to see a drop-off in performance.

Prediction: 2-10 (1-7): This is a tough situation to walk into for a new head coach. Three P5 teams on the road out of conference, and difficult tests in the MAC leave me pessimistic when looking for wins on this schedule. Installing a culture and laying the foundations for future success may be the measuring stick in year one for Lance Taylor.


1. Ohio Bobcats

2022: 10-4 (7-1)

Tim Albin deserves the utmost credit for re-establishing the momentum that previous head coach Frank Solich built in Athens. After stepping up from OC in 2021 to replace the legendary Solich who retired due to ill-health, Albin took his lumps in the first year, going 3-9. But bouncing back to ten wins last year, earning a place in the MAC Championship Game, and then beating Wyoming to win the Arizona Bowl game was mighty impressive.

Expect that trend to continue this season. Ohio returns nine starters from one of the best offenses in the conference, and look set to best their numbers from 2022 (32 points, 420 yards per game). In QB Kurtis Rourke, RB Sieh Bangura and WR’s Sam Wiglusz and Jacoby Jones, the Bobcats might have the best offensive quartet of any Group of Five conference, let alone the MAC. Working behind an experienced o-line, it’s hard to find fault with this unit.

Talking of experience; Ohio’s defense looks set to improve too, with six seniors pencilled in as starters. The stars of the show are undoubtedly LB duo Bryce Houston and Keye Thompson, who have 348 tackles between them in their Bobcat careers. Keep an eye out for Holy Cross transfer Walter Reynolds, who had 10 picks for the Crusaders last year. This defense got hot down the stretch in 2022, and should more than pick up where they left off.

Prediction: 10-2 (8-0): Avoiding Toledo on the schedule, Ohio’s toughest conference game looks to be when they welcome Miami (OH) on October 28. Get through that unscathed and they have a shot of going undefeated in the MAC – and facing the Rockets in a tantalising championship game. That would be one not to be missed! An intriguing trip to San Diego State in Week 0 should be one for people to circle on their calendars…

2. Miami (Ohio) RedHawks

2022: 6-7 (4-4)

2023 will be head coach Chuck Martin’s tenth year at the helm of the RedHawks. And it might represent the best opportunity yet for this program to make a run at the conference, which Martin led Miami to four years ago. Whilst the competition (in the shape of Ohio and Toledo particularly) is fierce, there is plenty to be optimistic about at Yager Stadium.

Despite an inexperienced roster that was beset by injury, this program made a bowl game last year. Expect improvement across the board as the RedHawks return sixteen starters in 2023. Who lines up under center is debatable; Brett Gabbert returns for his senior year after dipping his toe in the transfer portal, but he only was able to suit up four times in 2022 as he couldn’t stay on the field. Dual threat QB Aveon Smith and Colorado transfer Maddox Kopp will challenge him to start – and they’ll have tight end Jack Coldiron and wide receiver Miles Marshall to work with, both of whom should make leaps this year.

There is no more experienced unit in the MAC than Miami’s defense. They are LOADED in the front seven, with Brian Ugwu and Corey Suttle (transferring in from Iowa State) a dangerous pass rushing duo, and Matthew Salopek a thumping linebacker (236 tackles the last two seasons). The secondary took a hit when Nolan Johnson left for Old Dominion after just 12 months with the team, but overall this defense will ambitiously be looking to hold opponents to under 20 points a game.

Prediction: 8-4 (6-2): Save for brutal back to back games against Toledo & Ohio, the RedHawks should feel very confident about every game they have on the schedule this year. The unusual MAC TV calendar sees them play back to back Wednesday night games in November, both at home. But the big draw is the Friday night ‘Miami derby’ in Week 1 – could Martin and his staff spring a surprise against the Hurricanes to kick off the season?

3. Bowling Green Falcons

2022: 6-7 (5-3)

On the whole, Bowling Green know how to hire head coaches. Urban Meyer, Dave Clawson and Dino Babers all came to Doyt Perry as unknowns and impressed, leaving to make their mark on Power 5 programs. Scot Loeffler intends to be the next name on that list, and after engineering something of a turnaround with the Falcons, will hope to take the next step. Can he improve on the 6 wins from 2022 – this program’s most wins since 2015?

They’re leaving no stone unturned to make that target a reality. Connor Bazelak might be the most intriguing transfer into the MAC conference this year – the former Missouri and Indiana starter has struggled to keep the interceptions down at the P5 level, but there’s no denying he has a big arm and brings plenty of leadership to a group short of starting experience. His biggest weapon will be senior receiver Odieu Hiliare, who racked up 750 yards in 9 starts last year. But don’t sleep on flex TE Harold Fannin, who flashed as a freshman and is primed to break out. Working behind a competent o-line, Bazelak should sign off his college career with a bang.

Loeffler decided to make a change at DC, bringing in Sammy Lawanson and promoting LB coach Steven Morrison to share duties. This unit had an impressive 38 sacks in 2022, but was porous on the back end, allowing 38+ points six times. There’s a lot of change up front, and repeating those sack totals might be a big ask – although they have added four transfers in the front seven to mitigate some of the losses. The secondary is still a big question mark, and Falcons fans should buckle up for some high scoring shootouts. Linebacker Darren Anders is probably the star of the show, racking up 200 tackles in the last three seasons.

Prediction: 6-6 (5-3): Trying to decipher which side of the win-loss column Bowling Green will fall in some of these games is tricky. I foresee a lot of high scoring affairs, particularly towards the end of the year against Ball State and Toledo. How they fare at Buffalo on October 14 will likely determine whether they go to back-to-back bowl games.

4. Buffalo Bulls

2022: 7-6 5-3)

Buffalo blew hot and cold in Maurice Linguist’s second season in charge last year – falling to an 0-3 start (one to FCS Holy Cross) before reeling off five wins, including an impressive victory against Toledo. Next came three disappointing losses before two victories capped their season – winning the Camellia Bowl against Georgia Southern. A strong recruiter, Linguist will hope to see more consistency as he begins to shape this UB program in his own image.

There are high hopes on offense. Cole Snyder might be the best QB nobody really knows about; the New York native transferred in from Rutgers last year and hit the ground running, posting 3,000 yards and a TD:INT ratio of 18:8. I expect him to be even better this year, although the receiving corps may take a step back with the losses of Justin Marshall, Quian Williams and Jamari Gassett. A diverse backfield will help carry the load, with trio Ron Cook, Mike Washington and Al-Jay Henderson all returning – they had a combined 1,642 rushing yards last year.

The defense took a hit when DC Brandon Bailey left late for Georgia Southern. In just one year, Bailey was recognised for impressive improvement with this unit. He’s replaced by Robert Wright, who has to contend with losing more than half the starters from last year. Luckily they still have star linebacker Shaun Dolac, who registered 147 tackles in his first year as a starter (2nd most in the FBS). Intriguingly, the Bulls may have the best Special Teams units in school history this year, with Alex McNulty (K) and Anthony Venneri (P) both one of the best at their respective positions.

Prediction: 5-7 (3-5): A brutal end to the schedule that sees Buffalo take on maybe the four best programs in the MAC has me a little negative when it comes to the win-loss record, even if the program is on the right track. As mentioned earlier, the Buffalo-Bowling Green tilt may decide which one of these programs goes bowling at the end of the year. 

5. Akron Zips

2022: 2-10 (1-7)

Joe Moorhead’s shot at redemption didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, winning just two years in his debut season with the Zips. Outside of a surprising rout of Northern Illinois on the road, the only team Akron beat in 2022 was against Saint Francis (PA) – in overtime. Expectations at Akron are as low as they get in the FBS – the school hasn’t won more than two games the last four seasons. But more will be expected of Moorhead in year two.

There is hope that things will begin to turn in 2023. The defense in particular got better as last season progressed – and have worked the transfer portal hard to improve the talent level this offseason. A totally revamped secondary sees four new faces likely in line to start, with bodies coming in from Pitt, Duke, WVU and South Carolina. There are serious depth concerns on the defensive line with five starters all departing. A lack of pressure on the QB will see this defense tested through the air.

Offensively, this coaching staff is banking on an improved o-line easing concerns at the skill positions. I’m not sure how much stock to put into that notion – there is certainly more experience up front, but I struggle to see how that makes quarterback DJ Irons more accurate or explosive. He does have some weapons to work with, particularly ‘big slot’ receiver Alex Adams. But a poor run game last year doesn’t fill you with confidence that this unit can improve in the stats column across the board.

Prediction: 2-10 (1-7): Winning the Wagon Wheel Trophy by beating Kent State – at home on a Wednesday night – is likely going to be the only highlight of what looks to be another dour season in Akron. 

6. Kent State Golden Flashes

2022: 5-7 (4-4)

North East Ohio doesn’t have much to celebrate when it comes to College Football. If you think things are depressing in Akron, spare a thought for Kent State – a school that regularly propped up the MAC went 22-10 in the last four years of the Sean Lewis era. Then along comes Coach Prime and poaches Lewis to be OC for Colorado, and The Golden Flashes may be back to square one.

In comes the 39 year old Kenni Burns, who has no coordinator expeirence, let alone head coach roles on his resume. Burns’ background is on offense, and he’ll need every modicum of his expertise to overcome the loss of EVERY SINGLE STARTER on this unit. Purdue transfer Michael Alaimo looks set to replace Collin Schlee at quarterback, who left for UCLA. The passing game is a big unknown, with very little returning at receiver – expect this offense to be primarily run based, with Xavier Williams the star on this unit.

The other side of the ball is almost as concerning – four starters return, and the whole unit has been rebuilt with transfers. Expect most, if not all of them to eventually become key contributors, including Tyler Baylor (Maryland), Marcus Winfield (Delaware State), Mattheus Carroll (Virginia Tech), Devin Nicholson (Missouri), Khali Saunders (Purdue), CJ Harris (Arkansas State), DJ Miller (Iowa State) and Jalani Williams (Missouri). That is simply too much turnover to handle.

Prediction: 1-11 (0-8): The mass exodus when Sean Lewis bolted for Boulder has left new head coach Kenni Burns with an insurmountable task on his hands. Memories of Dustin Crum and the modest heights that Lewis achieved with this program still burn bright, but this year should be totally written off. Can they find some cohesion and get a win at Akron on November 1st?

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