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Ye Olde Roundtable: It’s Bowl Season!

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The Hustle Belt writers discuss bowl matchups and postseason coach firings/hirings in this week’s roundtable.

James H, Jimenez

How would you assess Akron in its decision to fire head coach Terry Bowden?

James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): A long time coming. Throughout the season, it felt like the team was more or less in the process of moving on from him and really, it’s a change Akron needed to undergo. The ceiling under Bowden was very clearly a 6-6 record with a possible appearance, outside of last year’s outlier MAC Championship appearance of course. The timing feels bad given that 2017 MAC Championship Game, but Akron has done the rebuilding it started with Bowden’s hiring. Now they have to begin being a consistent competitor.

Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): I don’t agree with it. I would have given Bowden another season. This is the same coach who brought the program to its second and third bowl games in program history, and those games were as recent as 2015 and 2017. In 2015, he won the program’s first bowl by upsetting Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Last year, Bowden’s Zips somehow emerged on top of the MAC East, although completely outmatched in the MAC title game. Yes, his career winning percentage is just a hair above 40%, but he’s done more with Akron than any other coach in the modern era. He even upset a current-top 25 team this year on the road, so why not just give him another year to see if the Zips bounce back?

Dave Drury (@DDrury86): I mean… I can’t blame them. A 35-52 record in seven seasons isn’t great and Akron hasn’t really progressed all that much, with the exception of 2015. Sure, last season they lucked into the MAC Championship game after Ohio collapsed late in the season (again!) and made a bowl game… but they got blown out in both the MACCG and the Boca Raton Bowl (a 50-3 loss to FAU) and were still just a 7-7 team. In his seven years in Ohio, Akron only finished above .500 once, in 2015, so do I agree with it? Yeah, I guess so… it’s not like the Zips were headed in the right direction.

Is Jim McElwain the right hire at Central Michigan?

Jimenez: The more I’ve thought about it, the more the McElwain hire has made sense. Central Michigan had to make a splash if they were going to fire John Bonamego so quickly in the midst of a rebuild, and boy did they make a splash. McElwain has Midwestern roots and lots of Michigan background. He’s also a known offensive guru who has a clear passion for recruiting. McElwain is on a very cheap contract as well, so it’s a coup for a program like CMU... as long as everything goes right. CMU needed someone with a résumé for quick turnarounds and championship experience as a head coach. And after replacing a first-time HC, those are things McElwain has in spades.

Helwick: Absolutely. This is a home run hire. There’s a common misconception that Jim McElwain was a failure at Florida, and that’s simply not true. With the Gators, McElwain became the first coach in SEC history to reach the SEC title game in each of his first two years — and those were his only complete seasons with the program! He compiled records of 22-12 (.647) overall, a remarkable 16-6 in the SEC, and 1-1 in bowl games. Florida was ranked 25th and 14th in the final AP Poll in his full seasons.

Although the offense never found a groove after Will Grier departed from the program, I thought McElwain deserved a longer stay in Gainesville. He was fired at 3-4 in 2017 for losing by a combined three points to LSU and Texas A&M, losing by 16 to Michigan, and getting blown out of the water by Georgia. Central Michigan is very lucky a coach who succeeded at a tough job was available for hiring, and I’m interested to see if he’d like to make Mt. Pleasant a permanent destination (à la Frank Solich) or use it as a stepping stone to move back up to the Power Five ranks.

Drury: I’m not sure. I was never a fan of his when he was at Colorado State or Florida, but you can’t argue with his record at either school. I think the Chips could have benefitted from a better recruiting coach or a more offensive-minded coach as CMU was ranked 128th out of 130 teams in scoring this year (only Rutgers and UTSA scored fewer points than the Chips). However, hiring former P5 coaches has usually worked out well for MAC squads. And, for the sake of my argument, let’s just forget about what just happened with Terry Bowden…

What’s your favorite and least favorite bowl matchup involving the MAC? Also, suggest your favorite possible MAC bowl matchup that we missed out on.

Jimenez: UAB vs. NIU is going to be a slobberknocker and I am so excited to watch that game unfold. NIU is due for a bowl win sometime soon and this will be a fairly good opportunity to do so against a team who is virtually their mirror image. WMU vs. BYU, on the other hand, has “yuck” all over it. I was really hoping EMU would get a Quick Lane Bowl so that fans could finally see their Eagles in the postseason for the first time in person, but it wasn’t meant to be. EMU vs. Georgia Tech or Minnesota would have been interesting.

Helwick: Northern Illinois-UAB is the best matchup, although it may be the lowest scoring. It’s one of just three bowl games between two conference champions (Orange, Rose), so it has that interesting element to it as well. NIU’s recent track record in bowl games hasn’t been great, and UAB has never won one in program history, so something’s got to give. The worst MAC bowl game is Western Michigan and BYU on the blue turf. Outside of the Broncos’ senior night win over NIU, they absolutely stumbled to finish the season, and the Cougars have been extremely consistent as well. That Famous Idaho Potato Bowl sounds like a game with about 30 total points and eight total turnovers.

We really missed out on a MAC vs. Power Six bowl for the first time since 2014. I would have loved to see the MAC go up against a weaker Big Ten team such as Minnesota in the Quick Lane, or a talented American Conference squad. A potential Houston-Ohio matchup in the Frisco Bowl sounds like the 59-56 shootout we all deserve.

Drury: I really like the UAB-NIU match up. I think that will be a great defensive battle between two of the best G5 teams this season. Buffalo and Troy is another really solid pairing that will probably feature a bit more offense and will be really fun to watch. I would have liked to see one of the top MAC schools (Buffalo, NIU, or Toledo) take on one of the Mountain West’s top schools. Like a NIU-Utah State game or Boise-Buffalo contest but, alas, we’ll make do playing C-USA and the Sun Belt.

The MAC, 1-10 in last two bowl seasons, opens up as Vegas favorites in five of six bowls. How likely do you think five wins is for the conference this December?

Jimenez: It will be rough. The MAC has five favorites, yes, but they’re all within a score or less, so it’s honestly very hard to tell how they’re going to do. I’d be happy with a 3-3 record after getting one win in the last two postseasons, much less a 5-1 one.

Helwick: Don’t count it. For one, I can’t believe 7-5 Eastern Michigan is favored over 9-3 Georgia Southern, when Eastern Michigan already struggled with a talented triple option team this year in Army. And given that I drove out to Mobile last year to watch a 7.5-point favorite Toledo fail to score a point in the Dollar General Bowl, I can promise you that at least one of these favorites will let you down. Anything more than two bowl wins for the MAC is progress.

Drury: Sadly, I think that’s unlikely. I would say all the games are kind of toss-up games but EMU is, somehow, most likely to win. I think the MAC gets three wins this year though, just don’t ask me which games.

Are Tyree Jackson and Sutton Smith your choices for conference players of the year? And would you vote any MAC players as All-Americans?

Jimenez: The voters got those names right for individual awards across all categories. As for All-Americans, I’d give Sutton Smith, NIU OL Max Scharping, Buffalo WR Anthony Johnson and CMU defensive end Mike Danna votes.

Helwick: Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith should be an All-American on every ballot. Anyone who left him off clearly didn’t watch him play because his pass rushing abilities are second to none. However, he’s the only MAC player I voted as an All-American on my FWAA ballot. I did consider Akron CB Alvin Davis who had a fantastic start to the season and Buffalo ILB Khalil Hodge, but that’s about it for All-Americans.

Sutton Smith was definitely deserving as MAC Defensive Player of the Year, but I would have given Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke the MAC Offensive Player of the Year. Rourke really developed as a passer this year, boosting his completion percentage up to 61.3%, and he’s easily the best mobile quarterback in the conference with 816 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Jackson does have an excellent cannon arm, and given Buffalo’s record, he’s a solid pick for the honor too.

Drury: Yes. Their stats and team’s records say it all. The Bulls relied on Jackson’s arm all season long and, with the help of Anthony Johnson, were able to easily take the East. For NIU, they have such a bipolar offense that they relied heavily on their D and Smith really was the anchor to them. I mean, 15 sacks and 24.5 TFL?? That’s insane.

As for other All-Americans, Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson or Bowling Green’s Scott Miller are good bets along with NIU’s Max Scharping.

After undefeated UCF was snubbed from the playoff for winning 25-straight, what’s your solution to fixing the glaring issue that G5 teams can’t compete for CFP championships?

Jimenez: At this point, you can only do two things: tear it all down (unlikely) or guarantee a G5 spot via expansion of the current playoff (more likely), which comes with its own set of problems.

Helwick: UCF claiming what is now a valid national championship last season was a step in the right direction for playoff expansion. And after getting left out for the second-straight year and after one of the longest winning streaks in college football history, it’s clear the system is broken. And with one of the Power Five conferences always complaining about it’s champion getting snubbed (2017 and 2018 Ohio State), I propose this simple solution: 8 teams, 5 Power Five champions, 1 guaranteed Group of Five champion, and two at-large bids.

My only issue with this is how to rework the bowl system, because bowl games are college football’s greatest gift to mankind and not to be messed with.

Drury: Most people might want to expand to an 8-team playoff but I have always been a proponent of a 16-team one, like FCS uses. That way you can have all 10 conference champions (including the G5!!!) and have six at-large bids to appease the P5 bias/Notre Dame fans. It’s the “fairest” way to do it in my mind and doesn’t add too many extra games (just two extra games for the finalists). But that’s just me.