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Ranking the 2018 MAC Bowls by Degree of Difficulty

After years of struggling in bowl season, could 2018 be the return of the MAC?

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Ohio vs Troy Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

One win, ten losses.

Bowl games have not been kind to the MAC in the past two postseasons, but perhaps 2018 is a brighter year. MAC teams open as favorites in five of six bowl games, although not a single one of these lines is greater than five points. The one MAC underdog is 14-point underdog Western Michigan, which will travel northwest to battle BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

MAC champion Northern Illinois, runner-up Buffalo, Toledo, Eastern Michigan, and Ohio all open up as slim favorites over fellow Group of Five opponents. Several potential wins are on the table, so here are the MAC bowls from hardest-to-win to the lowest hanging fruit.

6. (Hardest) Western Michigan vs. BYU

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — Friday, December 21, 4:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Spread: BYU (-14)

Western Michigan limped to the finish line in 2018, losing three of its last four games. With a 27-point home loss to Toledo, a 45-point home loss to Ohio, and an upset loss at Ball State, it appeared the Broncos could be excluded from the postseason at 6-6 once again. Instead, Western Michigan delivered a season-altering performance on senior night at Waldo Stadium, knocking off the soon-to-be MAC champion Northern Illinois, 28-21. But outside of NIU, the remainder of Western Michigan’s wins came from a midseason six-game win streak against primarily inferior competition. Four of the Broncos’ seven wins were against teams with three or fewer victories, including Delaware State of the FCS.

BYU, one of three independent programs in a bowl game, may present a tough challenge out west. For one, the Potato Bowl hasn’t been friendly to the MAC, as MAC teams have dropped four of their last five appearances in the event. One of those losses includes Western Michigan, which was defeated by Air Force, 38-24, in the 2014 edition.

This year’s Cougars were a rather inconsistent team but showed flashes of decency at times. BYU jumped into the rankings by upsetting a top-10 Wisconsin team in Madison — a team we later found out was ridiculously overrated by its preseason standing. Kalani Sitake’s Cougars recorded one additional Power Five win on the road, knocking off Arizona in Tucson to kick off the season. BYU lost to plenty of tough competition, ranging from the uncompetitive games (a 28-point loss to Washington, a 25-point loss to Utah State) to the near-upsets over ranked competition (two yards away from beating Boise State, a blown 20-point second half lead to Utah).

But most interestingly, one of the two Cougars’ losses occurred at the hands of NIU, the Broncos’ strongest victory. BYU only scored six points against the Huskies’ relentless defense, a defense which Western Michigan strung three 75+ yard touchdown drives on.

The 14-point spread seems a little excessive for two teams that demonstrated many inconsistencies throughout the season. A lot of the spread may be due to the MAC’s struggles out west and the conference’s recent track record in bowl games.

5. Eastern Michigan vs. Georgia Southern

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl — Saturday, December 15, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Spread: Eastern Michigan (-3.5)

I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect Eastern Michigan to be favored in this “Eagle Bowl” at all. While Eastern Michigan is an improved program that continues to play every opponent down-to-the-wire, Georgia Southern doesn’t seem like the best matchup for them. Georgia Southern is the second triple option offense Chris Creighton’s team will have encountered this season, and things didn’t go too well the first time.

Army handed Eastern Michigan its only two-possession loss of the year, rushing for 289 yards and surprisingly passing for 126 on the Eagles’ defense. Every time Eastern Michigan sold out on the run game, Kelvin Hopkins Jr. found wide open targets down the field, and Army was able to adapt to a style of play that is uncharacteristic to it.

Georgia Southern finished 9-3, earning a statement top-25 win over its bitter rival Appalachian State. But the Eagles showed plenty of weaknesses in a blowout loss to Louisiana-Monroe and a two-touchdown home loss to Troy. Georgia Southern only finished ninth in rushing yards per game this year, well below triple option titans like Georgia Tech and the three service academies. These Eagles also finished third-to-last in passing with 82.8 yards per game. Thus, Eastern Michigan’s primary defensive weapon, its secondary, will be neutralized by an ineffective passing game.

This game should be relatively evenly-matched, and it will come down to if Eastern Michigan can put a plug on the triple option and force turnovers this time around.

4. Northern Illinois vs. UAB

Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl — Tuesday, December 18, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Northern Illinois (-1)

Northern Illinois would like to forget its last appearance in the Boca Raton Bowl. The Huskies, coincidentally in their last MAC title year, were run out of the state by a 13-1 Marshall team that day, 52-23. In fact, NIU would like to forget all of its bowl games in recent memory, as the Huskies have fallen in five-straight.

But this year’s a new year, and just like 2014, it’s MAC champion NIU versus the C-USA champion. Don’t expect too many points in this game. Both teams bring in some of the FBS’s most forceful pass rushes. Northern Illinois ranks first nationally in sacks, while UAB checks in at number four. Both conference champions field top 20 run defenses, while the Blazers exhibit a top 20 pass defense.

UAB has recorded three shutouts this year, allowing just 17.3 points per game, while the Huskies yield a respectable 21.5 per contest. In a low scoring game, all it may take is two touchdowns to ice it. The Blazers’ offense may be operated by backup quarterback Tyler Johnston, who led the team to victory Saturday, or typical starter A.J. Erdely, who suffered a shoulder injury several weeks ago. But offense isn’t really either team’s strong suit.

Northern Illinois’ passing game demonstrated its best performance in years to come back from a 19-point deficit and win the MAC Championship Game, but that success must be sustained in order to record its first 9-win season since 2014.

3. Buffalo vs. Troy

Dollar General Bowl — Saturday, December 22, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Spread: Buffalo (-4)

The MAC runner-up’s season didn’t end the way it planned. Buffalo’s 9-1 record was tainted by a 52-17 loss to Ohio, and then the Bulls blew a 19-point advantage in the MAC title game. Now, the Bulls can respond by defeating one of the Sun Belt heavyweights in Mobile, AL in their first bowl game since 2013.

Buffalo has never won a bowl game before in two tries, while Troy has triumphed in two consecutive bowl seasons, including a 2016 Dollar General Bowl victory over Ohio.

Buffalo will trot out MAC Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Tyree Jackson, in hopes of earning its biggest win in program history. Meanwhile, Troy will play backup quarterback Sawyer Smith because starter Kaleb Barker went down with a season-ending injury after winning five-straight games for the Trojans.

Just like every bowl bound team in the Sun Belt this season, with the possible exception of Appalachian State, Troy has been incredibly inconsistent. The Trojans lost their first game after Barker’s injury to Liberty. And in the penultimate game of the year, they sneaked out a 12-7 home win over perennial cellar dweller Texas State. Buffalo’s offense (28th in points per game) has been much more potent than Troy’s 59th scoring offense. The Trojans field a decent defense, but the Bulls have looked like the better of the two teams all year long.

But this seems like a very similar comparison to Toledo and Appalachian State in last year’s Dollar General Bowl, and we all know how that ended.

2. Toledo vs. FIU

Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl — Friday, December 21, 12:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Spread: Toledo (-4.5)

Welcome back to bowl season, Toledo. Hopefully, your stay goes much better this time around. The Rockets were sent out of the country, along with FIU to compete in the only current international bowl game in Nassau. Although the Rockets’ defense has been porous at times this year, Toledo still possesses one of the nation’s best offenses in the post-Logan Woodside era.

Toledo is one of 12 FBS programs to average over 40 points per game this year, and the Rockets shattered the 45-point barrier in all seven victories this year. However, when the Rockets loses, they lose. Four of Toledo’s five losses this year came by 14 points or greater, and they trailed by 25 in their only one possession loss (Eastern Michigan).

The opponent will be FIU, a team that has taken major strides in two seasons under former North Carolina head coach Butch Davis. FIU currently owns a better record than Toledo at 8-4, with losses to Indiana, Miami (FL), Florida Atlantic (by 35 points), and Marshall. The 8-win Panthers were decimated in their bowl game a year ago, 28-3, by a feisty Temple defense. This year, the way to beat FIU seems to be by outscoring its offense.

FIU tied for 30th in points per contest with 34.6 per game. The Panthers’ offense frequently exploded against inferior teams, and six of their eight wins come against teams with 4-8 records or worse. They share a common opponent in Miami (FL), a team FIU played within two touchdowns on the road, while Toledo lost by 25 at home.

However, the Rockets’ strong finish to the season should show in the Bahamas in two weeks.

1. (Easiest) Ohio vs. San Diego State

DXL Frisco Bowl — Wednesday, December 19, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Spread: Ohio (-3)

San Diego State scored more than 28 points twice this season and only once in regulation. To counter the Aztecs, Ohio has one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. The Bobcats, the only MAC team to win a bowl in the last two seasons, scored 30 points in nine out of 12 contests. After a lackluster 3-3 start, the sleeping dragon that is Frank Solich’s offense woke up and wreaked havoc. Ohio averaged 48.2 points per game and fared 5-1 over the latter half of the season. The Bobcats demolished MAC East champion Buffalo to the tune of 52-17, sitting one win away from an appearance in Detroit.

The Bobcats have a major offensive advantage over the Aztecs, while San Diego State fields a rock-solid defense. Ohio’s defense has been serviceable at times, limiting opponents to under 20 points in four of its final six outings.

While Ohio was reaching its full potential during the final stretch, San Diego State was hitting rock bottom. At 7-5, the Aztecs already have clinched their worst record since 2014, failing to reach double-digit wins for the first time since that season. San Diego State sat on the fringe of the AP Poll after a 6-1 start with wins over Arizona State and Boise State. But a loss to Nevada launched an unfortunate stretch for the perennial Mountain West frontrunner. San Diego State dropped three-consecutive games to finish 2018, including stunning upset losses to UNLV and Hawaii.

San Diego State was Running Back U over the past few years with Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny manning the backfield. Now, the team sits at 73rd in the FBS in rushing yards per game, while Nathan Rourke, A.J. Ouellette and Ohio’s speed option attack is eighth. This should be your highest confidence pick out of MAC teams in your bowl mania picks.