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Mike’s MAC Season Preview – Heck Yeah, We Get A Full Season

<p>Freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert stiff-arms a Northern Illinois defender on Oct. 19 at Yager Stadium.</p>

Freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert stiff-arms a Northern Illinois defender on Oct. 19 at Yager Stadium.

Mid-American Conference (MAC) football is finally back and that only means one thing.

Wait–a snappy column looking through the MAC Preseason Media Poll as well as each individual team? That sounds pretty good. 

And there’s going to be a column every week during conference play as well? Oh, you do spoil me. 

Now, with me running out of words to waste…

MAC East

Kent State (MAC Preseason Poll results: 112 points, 11 first place votes)

It’s pretty difficult to judge these teams based on last season, but the Golden Flashes came out top in the East, and Dustin Crum is a big part of the reason why. 

The quarterback is on the watchlist for the Maxwell Award (the best all-around college football player in the nation, chosen by a panel of both media and coaches) and is looking to continue his great form in 2021. 

Crum produced career highs in both completion percentage and yards per attempt last season, including an excellent 22-of-25, 348 yard, three touchdown performance against Akron in a 69-35 win. 

Starting the season by visiting College Station to play preseason No. 6 Texas A&M won’t be easy, but they’ll hope to make up for it with their somewhat-easier run in conference play. 

Look for the Flashes to clinch or even put an exclamation point on a MAC East championship in the last game of the season at home against the RedHawks on Nov. 27.

Ohio (96 points, two first place votes)

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The good for the Bobcats: Kurtis Rourke, the freshman and the second member of a dynasty of Rourkes at the QB position in Athens, had a solid year at the starting position in 2020. The offense wasn’t put in his hands much in wins over Akron and Bowling Green as running back De’Montre Tuggle led a prolific rushing attack, but he’s done alright when he’s had the chance to throw it – having yet to throw an interception so far in his career.

The bad, or at least uncertainty, lies in the fact that longtime head coach Frank Solich is gone. Tim Albin, the former assistant, will know the system – but the expectations of a hungry fanbase, judging him (fairly or not) off his predecessor, threatens to be a weight over his neck if he can’t hit the ground running.

Miami (94 points, five first place votes)

This RedHawks team seemed like a bit of a mystery to me last season and it threatens to be again in 2021. There’s a lot of promise in the quarterback room, as the battle between Brett Gabbert and AJ Mayer looks set to run through another 3 seasons, given Mayer’s competence in stepping in after Gabbert’s injury last season and their shared status as sophomores (thanks to the NCAA not counting last season against player eligibility).

In the running game, the RedHawks should have more than enough competence in the form of the returning senior Jaylon Bester and redshirt sophomore Tyre Shelton, who both missed last season due to injury. Fellow redshirt sophomore Davion Johnson could also look to build off last season, but his limited touches doesn’t give all that much to build from.

The last bit of optimism comes in the form of the return of sixth-year receiver Jack Sorenson. Apparently, I must have had a nightmare or something about him, as I was seriously under the impression that he had already left, but his return is important for the RedHawks passing game given his status as team leader in receiving yards in all 3 games last season. 

Starting the season with the Victory Bell game in Cincinnati is going to be a difficult task (especially since with a win, UC would extend its win streak to 15 games and tie the all-time series). Ball State’s continued solidity will definitely pose a hurdle in midseason, but a good run of winnable games to end out of conference play and start MAC play should provide a nice foundation for another run to bowl eligibility.

Buffalo (93 points, four first place votes)

In a sane world, losing one of the best rushers in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) college football would be quite a major hole to fill for Buffalo.

Too bad we’re in the wacky timeline, and as Jaret Patterson leaves for the NFL, up steps Kevin Marks, the second-best rusher in the MAC (behind Patterson).

Losing a guy who rushed for over a thousand yards in six games last season (and who also scored eight touchdowns in a game) will definitely hamper the Bulls a bit. Marks will need to step into more of a starting role after primarily serving as a backup and 3rd-down back last season, but he should be more than capable of doing that. Kyle Vantrease also returns at the quarterback position, having started all seven games last year. Wide receiver Antonio Nunn also leaving for the NFL will require another wideout to step up.

The Bulls don’t exactly have it easy in their division schedule, though. Starting their conference slate off with Western Michigan and ending it with a conference championship rematch against reigning champions Ball State is going to be pretty difficult. It remains to be seen how much momentum they can carry off an out of conference schedule that isn’t quite as difficult as some others in the MAC.

Akron (39 points)

Bowling Green (28 points)

There’s not much to be said for either of these two teams. They were in a cat-fight at the bottom of the East last season (with Akron getting its first win in like a million games over a winless BGSU) and look just as likely to do the same this season. 

There should be winnable games for both teams in the form of Bryant for Akron and Murray State for BGSU, but both of these teams are underdogs in every other game this season (with BGSU holding the slight advantage in the projection for their head-to-head matchup). I really hope these guys can prove me wrong and get at least, like, three wins. They need it.

MAC West

Ball State (114 points, 11 first place votes)

The reigning champions are returning their most important pieces in quarterback Drew Plitt and receiver Justin Hall, and I simply can’t find a reason to bet against them winning the West again. They will have two serious tests in their cross-divisional games (facing Miami and Buffalo) as well as the three Michigan teams which can really provide any kind of game at any point. Head coach Mike Neu will definitely be looking to christen his new contract extension with yet another title. The media believes he can, as  the Cardinals are also picked to win the MAC Championship in December.

Toledo (104 points, seven first place votes)

The Rockets will be feeling pretty alright at this point – not great, but not all that bad either. Their schedule is pretty straightforward, facing FCS Norfolk State, Colorado State, and still-famously-bad-UMass out of conference (in addition to Notre Dame), as well as playing both BGSU and Akron, with Ohio being their other East division opponent. They return both quarterbacks who performed well in a 2-QB system last year in Eli Peters and Carter Bradley, though their rushing game still leaves some to be desired. Another top-of-the-conference recruiting class means we could see some freshmen making plays as well.

Western Michigan (103 points, four first place votes)

If you’re going to watch any MAC team consistently throughout this season, the Broncos are probably the pick of the bunch for high-scoring, exciting football. They averaged over 40 points per game in 2020, and gave up almost 35 (though these numbers are slightly inflated by a 58-13 win over Akron) and sophomore Kaleb Eleby is almost certain to provide excitement from the QB position. Their defense might need to shape up for them to make a serious run and challenge for the division title – but whatever happens, they’re certain to have some fun games for the neutrals.

Central Michigan (68 points)

I don’t think I can tell you anything solid about this team.

Their quarterback play could improve after a shaky start for freshman Daniel Richardson,though we’ll have to wait a few games to see against a similar calibre of opponent, with the Chippewas playing both Missouri and LSU out of conference. Really, in every facet of the game, Central Michigan was volatile throughout 2020. 

All of their top 5 receivers averaged more than 10 yards a catch, and I’d put my bet on them continuing to take shots downfield, even at the expense of Richardson and his backup Ty Brock. They’ll face a pretty front-loaded schedule in conference play, starting by visiting both Oxford and Athens before returning home to face Toledo, so the Chips will need to start hot if they want a chance at an outside run to Detroit.

Eastern Michigan (44 points)

Like the Broncos, Eastern Michigan is going to need a major offensive overhaul this season, but it’s not entirely certain that they’ll get it. Junior quarterback Preston Hutchinson is the lightning rod for quite a lot of the offense. He led the team in rushing for two of last season’s six games and put up two games with over 300 passing yards,  but he might have to work against the defense, which per Bill Connely’s S&P+ is the third worst in all of FBS. With the offensive talent on display in the rest of the West division, it’s not hard to see why the Eagles might struggle, but put them in a high-scoring track meet and they certainly have the pieces to push teams to the very end.

Northern Illinois (29 points)

These guys went winless last season for a reason. It’s a tough league, the MAC, and a schedule loaded with teams from the (arguably tougher) West didn’t make things easier. But, there should be room for growth this season. 

Senior quarterback Ross Bowers will be sure to lead the line on offense for them again, while some solid performances from underclassmen last season will only push them to another level this season, especially with the extra year of eligibility on the cards. I have no doubt in my mind that these guys won’t be winless again – that was a fluke of the wacky 2020 season – but I don’t especially see them making waves, though.

That was probably way too many words, and I’ll be sure to have some more words next month, after everything has changed beyond recognition and all that I’ve said here is wrong.

vesteymj@miamioh.edu

@VesteyTMS

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