Conference Preview 2021: MAC
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the Mid-American Conference, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Western Michigan Broncos
MACtion is a real thing; the Mid-American Conference has carved out a niche following for itself with some entertaining football and often a televised game every Thursday night. Having been around for 75 years it’s unsurprising to learn that despite being from the group of five this conference has had it’s modest share of successful programs, and 2021 could be the best year yet.
Most of that optimism springs from the West division, where three teams will fight to get to the championship game. Under Tim Lester, Western Michigan are one of those teams; after a strong start last season the Broncos dropped their last two games, the final day a division decider against Ball State with the Cardinals edging it by just three points. With 19 starters returning, Lester will be confident of making a run at the conference title, last brought back to Kalamazoo by PJ Fleck in 2016.
There’s a bit of change on offense with coordinator Jake Moreland leaving for The Jets, but this unit is extremely talented, both through the air and on the ground. Kaleb Eleby is one of the best QB’s in the conference, perhaps the group of five, and has so many playmakers to work with it will be harder to fail than to succeed – Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall are joined by Chattanooga transfer Bryce Nunnley to form a dangerous trio of pass catchers, whilst La’Darius Jefferson went for over 5.6 clicks per carry last year and will be a dynamic force on the ground. Behind a stout o-line, there’s very little fault to be found on this offense.
A contradictory unit in 2020, the Broncos defense created big plays and did admirably against the run, but still allowed 400 yards and 34 points a game across the season. They are strongest in the trenches, racking up 19 sacks in six games, and those numbers should improve; star linemen Ralph Holley and Ali Fayed are both back and creators of chaos. They lose some talent in the back seven, and MLB Corvin Moment has a big job replacing tackling machine Treshaun Hayward, who went to Arizona in the transfer window. This is a defense with a solid floor and a high ceiling – it will be interesting to see the strides they make this year under Lou Esposito.
The top three programs in the West each play one home and one away game against the other two, making the schedule as tight as you can imagine. Getting off to a quick start might be tricky with San Jose State and trips to MIchigan and Pitt in the first four games, but once they get into conference play they should be firing on all cylinders, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the MAC.
Prediction: 9-3, Division Winners, MAC Champions
2. Ball State Cardinals
After four losing seasons in a row, Ball State head coach Mike Neu was well and truly on the hot seat heading into 2020. With the heat on he delivered and more, dropping the first game to Miami (OH) before running the table thereout, winning the West, beating Buffalo in the Championship Game and taking down then ranked #22 San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. The Cardinals finished the year ranked 23rd in the nation, only the second time they’ve received an AP ranking in their history. If anything, the talent level has increased heading into 2021…
Defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton was on the shortlist for the Broyles award after a season where the Cardinals defense improved drastically and became one of the best in the conference. Allowing just 25.8 points per game and racking up a ridiculous 17 takeaways, this ‘bend don’t break’ defense consistently flipped the field with game changing plays. Ten starters return to this unit in 2021, and in Brandon Martin, Christian Albright and Jaylin Thomas they have the best linebacking corps in the MAC.
There are question marks at key positions on offense; Lead rusher Caleb Huntley departs and Tye Evans takes the reins,who has just 400 yards in ten games in his Cardinal career. That inexperience is matched at receiver, where Justin Ball and Yo’Heinz Tyler are bonafide weapons but the depth behind them is thin. There are no concerns about the abilities of quarterback Drew Plitt, and providing he stays healthy the passing attack should be able to go toe to toe with any in the conference, including Western Michigan. It is ominous that this unit showed improvement through 2020, and Neu believes they’ll be even better this year.
Much like Western Michigan, Ball State have a tough out of conference schedule to start the year, with a trip to Happy Valley the glamour tie of the year for the Cardinal. But this team have an unfriendly streak early on that could make back to back division titles tough – on the road against a good Wyoming team, before coming home to play Toledo and Army back to back, and then off to Kalamazoo to face the Broncos. If they come through that stretch unscathed, then they will be in the box seat for another MAC championship game
3. Toledo Rockets
Toledo may come in third on this preview, but it’s not because of a lack of talent. The Rockets were two field goals away from an undefeated season last year, a phenomenal bounce-back by head coach Jason Candle from an injury-riddled 2019. Entering his fifth year, Candle will be looking to emulate the success he achieved in 2017 and bring the conference trophy back to the Glass Bowl.
Bringing back all but one starter in 2021, The Rockets have one of the most experienced and deep rosters in the MAC. The only position they don’t return the starter in is at quarterback, and there is a three-way battle to replace the retired Eli Peters under center. Carter Bradley stepped in for two games last year when Peters was injured and has the inside track, but Dequan Finn and Georgia Tech transfer Tucker Gleason are challenging. Everywhere else on this roster is loaded, with Bryant Koback a potential 1,000 yard rusher, and transfers Matthew Landers (WR, Georgia) and Vitaliy Gurman (OG, Edinboro) both likely starters.
The Rockets have been flimsy on defense in recent history, but last year saw them give up just 24.3 points per game, their best effort since 2015. Maybe that’s what happens when you have THREE co-defensive coordinators running the unit, or maybe the stats are skewed due to the shortened season, but confidence in Toledo is high that they can be even better this time round. They should be confident too – Desjuan Johnson and Penn State transfer Judge Culpepper are behemoths on the line, linebacker Dyontae Johnson will earn conference honours this year, and the secondary has two playmakers in corner Samuel Womack and safety Tycen Anderson.
The only way to split Toledo, Western Michigan and Ball State is the schedule, and Toledo’s looks the hardest; they have to go to Ohio in their cross-conference schedule, have Ball State on the road, and their game against Western Michigan is the last in a run of eight before the bye week. Out of conference they line up two P5 teams, one they could beat at home (Colorado State) and one they can’t away (Notre Dame). Despite this, they’ll be in the mix come the end of November.
4. Central Michigan Chippewas
The hiring of Jim McElwain in 2019 produced instant results, the former Gators HC leading the Chippewas to the MAC West title in his first year in charge. It’s hard to tell if a 3-3 record in 2020 is a regression or just a COVID anomaly, but a MAC head coach getting paid $1.6m a year is going to need to be at least competing for a spot in the conference championship game on a regular basis to earn his salary.
Benign a former QB himself, McElwain will want much more consistency from the quarterback position in 2021. To be fair, they were 3-1 last year when Daniel Richardson went down, and he looks set to start ahead of Washington transfer Tyler Pape. He has a hell of a lot of weapons to work with – the receiving corps is deep, with Kalil Pimpleton set to be one of the MAC’s finest after moonlighting as an emergency QB last year, and JaCorey Sullivan backing him up. But it’s the ground game that returns all three contributors that should be the bread and butter of this offense, and don’t be surprised to see Kobe Lewis, Darius Bracy and Lew Nichols put up 2,000 yards between them.
Last year saw them vulnerable when defending the pass but they have plenty of pieces returning to improve. Furthermore, McElwain hasn’t been shy in adding transfers to the unit, with LB Marcel Lewis looking to be an instant starter at WILL. With no particular position group of note standing out, it will be up to first year OC Kevin Barbay to make the sum greater than its parts, although Troy Hairston (DE), Troy Brown (LB) and Dishon McNary (CB) all can be game changers on their day.
The Chips might have well been considered in the same stratosphere as the big three in this division if it wasn’t for two things; a lack of experience under center, and a positively ugly schedule that sees them pull three of the best teams from the West, play Toledo the week after a tough trip to Ohio, and get both Ball State and Western Michigan on the road. Throw in certain defeats to SEC opponents in Starkville and Baton Rouge, and McElwain may have to readjust his targets from challengers to winning record and a bowl game.
5. Eastern Michigan Eagles
I don’t think Chris Creighton gets the credit he deserves for the job he has done at Ypsilanti. Disregarding the first two years where he was gutting the program, Eastern Michigan are 27-30 in his last five seasons and have been to three bowl games (EMU have been to five bowls in their entire history). For those that don’t know, the Eagles have a long history, but not a good one. They have only ever won the MAC once, back in 1987. Having them close to parity speaks volumes about Creighton’s aptitude, and even in a 2-4 season in 2020 only Toledo beat them handily.
They’re a lot better than last year’s win column suggests, but are they good enough to compete in such a tough division? Probably not, but progress is the name of the game, and on offense they look set to take step forward. Preston Hutchinson returns under center, a capable dink and dunk QB who maintained pleasing stats through tough conditions. His ceiling may be limited, and so Creighton will have a decision to make if transfer Ben Bryant (Cincinnati) looks like an upgrade. No less than four transfers have come in at receiver and give the position some depth, but outside of maybe Hassan Beydoun it’s far from a star studded group. Balancing that out would be Thomas Odukoya, who could be the best tight end in the conference.
If the offense is projecting gradual improvement, the defense might have a big jump; not that hard when you consider the unit struggled to stop the run but also couldn’t get after the quarterback in 2020. That is a combination for disaster, but there is much more depth on this side of the football this season. Once again, Creighton has been aggressive in the transfer portal, bulking out the roster with five new faces, but it’s a lot of similar faces that start. Defensive End Turan Rush (great name) will be tasked with improving the sack totals, Myrick Terry leads the linebackers, and Alvinoski LaFleur should stand out as the hybrid LB/SS.
Three winnable non-conference games gives EMU a great shot at a fast start, which is crucial if they are to get six wins; after their bye week they have a brutal run of four games that includes Toledo, Ohio, Western Michigan and Central Michigan, so things could turn ugly down the stretch. We’ll see the promised improvement from this Eagles team, but in such a tough division their standing will likely be unchanged.
6. Northern Illinois Huskies
2020 was tough for second year head coach Thomas Hammock in DeKalb. After being appointed late in the offseason the previous year, he watched as many of the star players on his roster entered the transfer portal at the end of the 2019 campaign. Unsurprisingly they paid the price, going winless in a year that already produced it’s fair share of difficulties. Having played and coached for the Huskies prior, this program is close to Hammock’s heart, and he’ll want to get things back on track as soon as possible.
It won’t be easy in this division. Northern Illinois quite simply has a lack of talent compared to the competition. That being said, their defense has ten starters returning and has much more gametime experience than twelve months ago. Third year coordinator Derrick Jackson will look at his secondary as a group that has the potential to affect, and maybe even change games; corner Jordan Gandy showed promise last year, whilst freshman safety Devin Lafayette has been touted as a future star. After a year off, former VAndy and UCF edge rusher Jalen Pinkney transfers in, and looks to help DT James Ester solidify the trenches up front.
A big name acquisition via the transfer portal on offense turned heads when former Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi arrived at Huskie Stadium this offseason. He did little in East Lansing to live up to his borderline 4 star status as a recruit, but at the very least he brings some valued experience at a higher level to this program. If he continues to have problems with turnovers then Hammock could turn to freshman Ethan Hampton, who they are high on. The surrounding cast on offense has some ability, not least the running back tandem of Harrison Waylee and Clint Ratkovich, but it’s receiver Tyrice Richie who is going to be Lombardi’s best friend in their pursuit of a couple of wins this year.
Speaking of which; the schedule could be a lot worse. Sure, they’ll be underdogs most of the year, but winnable games at home to Maine, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green in the space of four weeks could give them some momentum. This program has hit the reset button, and if it’s on an upward curve the trajectory is a rather gentle incline. At the very least they should avoid the ignominy of back to back winless seasons.
1. Kent State Golden Flashes
It has been almost fifty years since Kent State won the MAC title, and 2021 may prove to be the Flashes’ best chance of breaking that drought. Head coach Sean Lewis enters his fourth season at the helm, coming off the back of a much-shortened 2020 where his team went 3-1. A final game defeat to Buffalo denied Kent State a spot in the title game, something Lewis will be looking to avenge this year.
Behind the arm of superstar quarterback Dustin Crum, this Flashes offense is prolific. In the last three games of last year, this unit averaged 57.3 points a game, and Crum was the architect. 12 TD’s against just 2 interceptions show he’s not just a reckless gunslinger, but an accurate and deadly passer who can carve any defense open. Despite losing some weapons this offseason, Lewis has bolstered the ranks by going back to his previous employers Syracuse and pinching receiver Nykeim Johnson and TE Aaron Hackett. Alongside Ja’Shaun Poke it is a stellar group for Crum to target as they look to torch the MAC once again.
Maybe the reason why Kent State can go one step further in 2021 is because of their ascending defense; DC Tom Kaufmann has his most talented unit in the four years he’s been at Dix Stadium, and they hope to improve upon some underwhelming stats from 12 months ago. Lewis brings in four transfers to bolster the defensive line after being susceptible against the run last year, but nose tackle CJ West will be expected to be the leader of this front. Other names to look out for include corner Elvis Hines and linebacker Mandela Lawrence-Burke. They’re still far from an elite defense, but they should be much improved this year.
There’s four teams on this side of the conference that have a reasonable shot at the title game and results at home to Buffalo and on the road at Western Michigan & Ohio in October will be crucial if Kent State is going to be top of the pile. A final game matchup against Miami (OH) is also tricky. The out of conference schedule might bring in some much-needed money but will be light on wins (at Texas A&M, Iowa and Maryland), but the Golden Flashes can turn any game into a shootout – and with their firepower i’m not sure many in the MAC can keep up with them.
Prediction: 8-4, Division Winners
2. Ohio Bobcats
2020 proved to be legendary head coach Frank Solich’s final year in charge at Peden Stadium; in an impressive 16 seasons at Ohio he compiled a 115-82 record, won five bowl games and had just two losing seasons – both of which were in his first four years. Beyond the Bobcats he also had a spell at his Alma Mater Nebraska where he went 58-19, and was fired after a 9-3 season – the Cornhuskers would bite your hand off for that kind of season now. Suffice to say Solich’s retirement was an emotional moment in Athens, and his presence on the sidelines will be sorely missed.
Longtime offensive coordinator Tim Albin gets a promotion and is now in charge of a team ready to compete for a MAC championship. This offense has some serious talent at its disposal, headlined by lead back De’Montre Tuggle, who will be one of the leading rushers in the conference this season after racking up 400 yards and 6 TD’s in just three games in 2020. Whichever QB wins the starting job between Armani Rogers and Kurtis Rourke (the favourite) will have two elite weapons to target too, with receiver Isiah Cox and tight end Ryan Luerhman. They might also have one of the better o-lines in the East with three starters returning and Virginia Tech transfer TJ Jackson starting on the blind side.
Whilst their offense won’t be as explosive as Kent State’s, their defense will be much more dangerous. Interior lineman Kai Cesar is a name to watch out for this year – he’ll be relied upon to help improve the run defense, and a good season could have NFL scouts circling. Whilst yet to command starting reps, mike linebacker Cannon Blauser (great name) has turned heads since spring and could make a name for himself in 2021. A solid but unspectacular secondary has some interesting true freshmen in the rotation, but is likely the weakness of the defense, putting more pressure on the defensive front to crank up the pressure on the backfield.
Peden Stadium is something of a fortress, with The Bobcats going 65-25 during Solich’s tenure. That bodes well for Albin and this program, who have their toughest conference games at home; both Miami (OH) and Kent State from the East, and Toledo and Central Michigan from the West. They also have a chance of victory over a P5 team in week one as they host Syracuse. Playing the offensive powerhouse Kent State a week after travelling to Buffalo is tricky, but there’s every reason for optimism that Ohio can win their first MAC championship since 1968.
3. Miami (Ohio) RedHawks
In a very competitive division in a very competitive conference, third in the East could very well be first; the RedHawks come off the back of a 2-1 season under Chuck Martin, a year removed from winning the MAC title in 2019. Last year they were the only team to beat eventual champions Ball State, and only a fool would write off their chances as Martin heads into his eighth season in charge at Yager Stadium.
Quarterback Brett Gabbert is in no danger of dislodging Ben Roethlisberger as the legend of this football program, but a tiny sample size of games last year offers encouraging numbers; as a freshman he threw for 11 TD’s and 8 interceptions – in 2020 he threw for four scores in two games with zero picks, despite an injury suffered in week 1. If the QB develops at the same trajectory then he should be one of the MAC’s best, and with AJ Mayer backing him up they’re as experienced and deep at quarterback than any other team in the conference. Much like Ohio and Kent State, they have talent at the skill positions, particularly at receiver where Jack Sorenson is ready to put himself in the shop window for NFL scouts. A handy running game with Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton will give this unit a good balance.
A defense that was already susceptible to the pass in 2020 lost it’s best player in Manny Rugamba this offseason. Sterling Weatherford becomes the leader of the secondary that failed to get off the field when the front seven had put them in a great spot on third downs, and they’ll be expecting improvement this year. The strength of this unit remains up front, where Ben Kimpler, Dominique Robinson and Kameron Butler provide one of the best pass-rushing trios in the conference. Three games isn’t a great body of work to judge where this defense was last year, but in terms of personnel the RedHawks should be competitive.
Miami has the toughest conference schedule of any team in the East, having to travel to likely challengers Kent State, Ball State and Ohio, as well as playing Buffalo the week after The Bobcats, with the Bulls coming off a bye. With probably just one non-conference win on the schedule they look set to just miss out on a MAC title game unless they catch a few breaks, but they’re not out of their depth in this division – far from it.
4. Buffalo Bulls
Last year’s title game representatives from the East, Buffalo will have a tough time matching those achievements in 2021. You can thank the University of Kansas for that – firing Les Miles following sexual misconduct allegations, The Jayhawks hired UB’s head coach Lance Leipold as his replacement. The Bulls program was thrown into disarray, hiring new HC Maurice ‘Mo’ Linguist IN MAY. Eleven players entered the transfer portal – the majority following Leipold to Kansas – and Linguist has brought in his own staff. With no spring practice to install two new schemes and with a roster raided of talent, success will be measured on a different scale at UB Stadium this year.
Linguist was a leftfield hire; his star was certainly ascending through a career predominantly coaching secondaries, but he hasn’t been a coordinator before – he was hired by Michigan to be one this year before Buffalo made him their new HC. His stint as DB coach in upstate New York in 2012/13 is his only link to the program, and it feels like an understandably hasty hire considering the circumstances. If defense is his forte he has some work to do; this unit has been one of the best in the conference the last two years, but they return only six starters and star men Eddie Wilson and Ronald McGee absconded to Lawrence, leaving their d-line woefully thin. Linguist’s experience coaching the back end will be put to the test as more talent to the transfer portal, but they do have some young unproven talent to coach up.
An offense that went through explosive running back Jarret Patterson last year will look to the next crop of players to carry the load whilst embracing a new scheme. New OC Shane Montgomery is familiar with the MAC after being head coach at Miami (OH) from 2005-08. A renowned quarterback coach, ‘Monty’ has an established trio to work with, with Kyle Vantrease the presumed starter after leading the Bulls last year. Promising stats should bode well, but how quickly Vantrease – who played punter for UB in 2018 – acclimatises to the new offense will determine if this team has a shot at a bowl game this season.
The schedule is favourable for their pursuit; two winnable non-conference games (Wagner, at Old Dominion), and home games against Bowling Green and Northern Illinois should both bulk up the W column too. After that it’s a lot less pretty with some of the tougher MAC teams on the slate, but if Linguist can get this team to steal a couple of close ones then they have an outside shot.
5. Akron Zips
Being a head coach at Akron is a thankless task; the last head coach to leave Summa Field with a winning record was Jim Dennison (80-62-2, 1973-85), and for current incumbent Tom Arth it’s proving no easier than the other five coaches since then. With a 1-17 record over two years, the job ahead of Arth in a conference that is getting more and more competitive is a daunting one.
At the very least, the Zips will have consistent leadership, with both of Arth’s coordinators returning for their third years. Looking for positives on offense, their complete offensive line returns in 2021. That bodes well for the quarterback, with two experienced starters battling it out for the job; Kato Nelson was under center in 2019, but shoulder surgery saw him miss 2020, where Zach Gibson took the reins. He looked every inch the freshman and Nelson should resume duties in 2021 providing he’s back up to full fitness. A strong passing game is imperative considering star running back Teon Dollard is suspended from the team after being charged with carrying a concealed weapon back in March. Putting points on the board could be a serious problem for this offense.
How beneficial is it to bring back 18 starters when the same personnel ranked nearly last in all major categories on both sides of the ball last year? That’s a bigger question on defense, which will have more experience under their belts but needs significant improvement if the Zips are going to be more competitive in 2021. They have a couple of pieces to build around in linebackers Bubba Arslanian and Brandon Bischof, as well as corner AJ Watts – yet finding talent to fit around them might be difficult. Just one transfer comes in, former Michigan State Spartan Jeslord Boateng, who had limited snaps in 2019. The only way is up for this unit, but it’s a steep hill – and they’re stood a the bottom of it.
Despite the pessimism, there’s winnable games on this schedule, particularly if the growth expected materialises. I count Bryant, at Bowling Green and a non-conference game against Temple as ones The Zips will be circling as potential victories. The rest of the conference path is a treacherous one, but throw in a crazy game or two here and there and it’s not unreasonable to expect that Arth gets twice the amount of wins this season than he achieved in the last two combined.
6. Bowling Green Falcons
From 1991 to 2015, Bowling Green Football was GOOD. Coaches Gary Blackney, Urban Meyer, Gregg Brandon, Dave Clawson and Dino Babers presided over a combined 125-75 record, with four MAC titles and 10 bowl games in 25 years. It took the hire of Mike Jinks to destroy all of that in the space of three years. Current head coach Scot Loeffler – born 2 hours away in Barberton, Ohio – has inherited a program on it’s knees, and enters his third season with a huge project ahead of him and little in the way of progress during his tenure so far.
The Falcons’ athletic department have promised to remain patient with Loeffler as he rebuilds, which is a good thing considering they hit rock bottom in 2020 and 2021 doesn’t forecast things to get much better. The head coach has a history of coaching quarterbacks, which will help an unsettled position – senior Matt McDonald is the presumed starter but had surgery in the offseason and only began throwing again in June. His competition comes in the mould of former Syracuse walkon Drew Gunther, another name that missed Spring practice through injury. If they’re smart, this coaching team will prioritise the run game, with Terion Stewart averaging 8 yards a carry on limited totes last year and freshman Jaison Patterson turning heads in preseason.
If you remove their game against Akron last year, The Falcons defense gave up a whopping 524 yards per game and an average of 48.5 points – they didn’t hold a single offense to less than thirty the whole year. Defensive back coach Eric Lewis is promoted to coordinator after the retirement of Brian VanGorder, and might have the toughest job in football this year. The good news is they return seven starters, which includes star linebacker Darren Anders. They will be optimistic from improvement up front, with edge rusher Karl Brooks primed for a breakout year and nose tackle Ali Saad transferring in from Minnesota. On the back end, too much pressure might be put on the incoming Davon Ferguson, who comes over from Kansas and switches from safety to corner.
Bowling Green has wisely added two FCS schools to their early schedule, and whilst their current state guarantees nothing, it does give them a chance to improve morale ahead of a tough conference slate. Hosting Akron in October likely is their only source of a victory in the MAC, but if the powers that be are true to their word then this year’s record won’t be used as a barometer for progress at Doyt Perry Stadium.
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.