The Mid-American Conference out of conference scheduling model is a tricky one. On the one hand, you need to play the payday games to fund the athletics budget. On the other hand, you want to hit that magic six win mark to give yourself the opportunity for a postseason appearance (though seven or eight takes you off the bubble). Then there’s the unicorns: the FBS P5 schools that you have the opportunity of upsetting. If you’re lucky, they’ll venture into MAC territory. More likely than not, you’re doing it on the road.
This season there are 48 out of conference football games ranging from the biggest of the big to the smallest of the small. We rank them all, and tell you why you should care. Perhaps most importantly, we give each contest a (Jeremy) Guy Factor. The Guy Factor is an extremely scientific, very precise, exceptionally accurate measurement of the amount of MACtion each game is set to produce. If we anticipate a blowout game against an FCS bottom-feeder? One Guy. An expected shootout that is primed for overtime or other tomfoolery? Five Guys. Let the countdown continue...
12. Miami @ Iowa (9/3)
Iowa is a special friend of the MAC as nearly every year at least one MAC member suits it up against the Hawkeyes. And surprisingly enough, recently at least, it hasn’t been a disaster. In 2014, the Ball State Cardinals lost by four in a winnable game. 2013 saw the Hawkeyes drop a season opener to NIU by three. 2012 saw two MAC opponents, a one-point win over NIU and a one-point loss to Central Michigan. So suffice to say, Miami can make a game out of this if things go well for the RedHawks. Experts say this is Iowa’s year to surprise, but Miami is poised for good things as well.
11. Ohio @ Kansas (9/10)
Here’s the thing about Kansas, they are P5 in name only. 0-12 last year and just nine wins since 2011 and they make me want to worry less about Big 12 expansion and more about Kansas relegation. For Kansas’ sake, I would hope the Big 12 doesn’t pluck a MAC school, because I am not certain Kansas would be competitive in the MAC as a full member themselves. Regardless of their ineptitude, it’s still a P5 scalp to hang on the wall in Athens, one that Frank Solich and company are in the driver’s seat to grab.
10. Western Michigan @ Illinois (9/17)
For Western Michigan, this is one of two B1G contests on their schedule, and an argument could be made it’s the most winnable of the bunch. Illinois has been a middling B1G opponent for the better part of a decade, but Illini fans are hopeful with the addition of Lovie Smith to the head coach headset instead of Bill Cubit. Western fans would say that’s probably an upgrade. Of course, as a Bears fan, I’ll guaran-damn-tee you that he’ll get less out of more like pretty much every year he was in Chicago. So it’s not the marquee matchup for Western (see #2) but it’s the next step for the Broncos to prove that they are more than recruiting hype and oars.
9. Bowling Green @ Ohio State (9/3)
On paper it would be easy to write off BG as completely overwhelmed and in the beatdown lane. But it is all that hard to believe that Ohio State would struggle to get it going in Week 1? Whether Toledo in 2011, Buffalo in 2013, or Northern Illinois in 2015, Ohio State has sometimes had trouble meeting the Vegas number against the MAC if not outright running the risk of an upset. BG is talented enough to hang with the Buckeyes offensively, especially given just three returning defensive starters for OSU and the addition of Greg Schiano to the DC role (as a co-DC, but an addition all the same). Throw in some in-state rivalry and a feeling to cram it down the big school down the road’s throat, and the potential for MACtion is high.
8. Toledo @ BYU (9/30)
BYU is the great unknown of the 2016 season, which is both a a positive and a negative, given that Toledo doesn’t venture to Provo for their Friday night contest until the end of September. The plus is that Toledo will know what to expect and have game film to fall back on. The bad is BYU will likely have worked out most of the kinks of transitioning to a new scheme and staff on both sides of the ball.
7. Miami @ Cincinnati (9/24)
Last year, a 37-33 win for Cincy, was an edge of the seat back and forth affair with 8 lead changes. Is that something you might be interested in? The good news for Cincy is Gunner Kiel is back, but everyone he threw it to, or at least the top six receiving targets, are all gone. For the RedHawks and their fans, and Bearcats fans to if we are being honest, this is a bragging rights game of the highest order and last year showed that this is what I like to call “MUST WATCH”.
6. Kent State @ Alabama (9/24)
Part of me wanted to rank this game #48, but my hopeful optimism and boundless love of MACtion wouldn’t allow me to assume the worst. Think of the what if?! Sure, under Saban the Crimson Tide are 26-1 against non-conference opponents, but I choose to look at the one. If Louisiana-Monroe can do it, then damn it, so can the Golden Flashes. But it’s going to require 5 Guys worth of MACtion. Fake punts, flea fickers, fumblerooskis, bring ‘em all out.
5. Fresno State @ Toledo (9/17)
The last time these two met, 55-54 was the outcome in double overtime. Last year’s Fresno State team was disappointing by all practical measures, finishing 3-9. This year there’s new coordinators in place, but to call this anything other than a winnable road game for Toledo would be understating the obvious.
4. Ohio @ Tennessee (9/17)
Tennessee as a program is a curious case study of the rise and fall of upper echelon programs and the fan reaction to that ebb and flow. In many respects, how Butch Jones has built his program in Knoxville is the PJ Fleck model on a grander stage. Recruiting stars may not win you games, but get enough of the people who garner a bunch of them on your roster and good things happen. UT is a favorite for the SEC East this season, and are an exceptionally talented team. But strange things happen to SEC programs who may feel like their opponent is a bit beneath them.
3. Kent State @ Penn State (9/3)
Can we talk for just a second about Kent State’s schedule? Two winnable games, two stretches. That’s the way to do it. 2-2 likely, and needing a .500 record in conference play to get to bowl eligibility. Smart move, Kent State. The reasons why their Penn State showdown ranks higher than Alabama is predicated on it being the first game of the season and Penn State not being basically the gold standard for college football success for the last decade or so. So, there’s that.
2. Western Michigan @ Northwestern (9/3)
If championships and games were won on signing day, then Western Michigan would be undefeated and need some new trophy cases in Kalamazoo. Grumblers amongst the MAC teams not named Western Michigan will say things like “hype”, “bluster”, and “less with more” to point out that championships and games don’t correlate to national letters of intent. In Northwestern, Western has the chance to announce to the conference that the chest thumping and preseason lauding is for real. With a win, the Broncos can lay claim that the championship for the MAC West may no longer run solely through Dekalb. Lose this one and the narrative about Western being all hype starts anew.
1. Akron @ Wisconsin (9/10)
There are a select few people who cover the MAC that believe this is the year of the Zip. Count me among the faithful, as I selected Akron to win the MAC East crown and go on to a MAC Championship as well. This game isn’t a must win for that to be true, but it is an opportunity to make a large splash on a large stage against a large opponent. This early afternoon game, always a good ingredient for an upset, comes a week after Wisconsin opens their season against LSU in Green Bay. Downer alert, anyone? It’s likely a pipe dream, but I’ll be watching. I recommend you do the same.