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Predicting the likelihood of every potential MAC upset over the Power 5

In the CFP era, the MAC averages four upsets over the Power 5 per year. What will happen in 2018?

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Kansas Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

One of the reasons we crave college football this time of year is the thrill we experience during an upset. With 130 teams and counting, there is an enormous gap between the Alabamas and the Texas States of the country. Thus, this lack of parity between the blue bloods and the bottom feeders can create exciting scenarios when they clash on gamedays.

The Mid-American Conference is full of underdogs — one of the reasons the conference has generated so much appeal for the casual college football fan lately. Although the conference couldn’t top Florida State or Wisconsin in BCS/New Year’s Six bowls on the big stage, the MAC usually ends the non-conference slate with a few Power Five wins, especially over middling and mediocre Big Ten programs.

Last summer, we ranked MAC colleges’ most impressive Power Five victories, dating back to 2013, when the Big East folded and the term “Power Five” began gaining ground. Here is an exhaustive list of all MAC victories over the P5 in the College Football Playoff era, dating back to 2014:

MAC Power 5 Wins in CFP Era

Year Winner Score Loser Score Conference
Year Winner Score Loser Score Conference
2014 Central Michigan 38 Purdue 17 Big Ten
2014 Northern Illinois 23 Northwestern 15 Big Ten
2014 Bowling Green 45 Indiana 42 Big Ten
2014 Akron 21 Pittsburgh 10 ACC
2015 Bowling Green 48 Maryland 27 Big Ten
2015 Toledo 16 Arkansas 12 SEC
2015 Toledo 30 Iowa State 23 Big 12
2015 Bowling Green 35 Purdue 28 Big Ten
2016 Western Michigan 22 Northwestern 21 Big Ten
2016 Central Michigan 30 Oklahoma State 27 Big 12
2016 Ohio 37 Kansas 21 Big 12
2016 Western Michigan 34 Illinois 10 Big Ten
2017 Eastern Michigan 16 Rutgers 13 Big Ten
2017 Central Michigan 45 Kansas 27 Big 12
2017 Ohio 42 Kansas 30 Big 12
2017 Northern Illinois 21 Nebraska 17 Big Ten

The MAC has produced exactly four Power Five wins per year over the course of four seasons.

Including Ball State’s September date with Notre Dame, the conference has 23 chances to sneak out an upset victory over a Power Five school. According to ESPN’s FPI, the MAC team is currently the underdog in all 23 matchups, ranging from Ohio’s 43.5% chance to knock down Virginia in Charlottesville to Kent State’s measly 0.4% dream of edging out Penn State in front of over 100,000 spectators.

Despite the MAC’s lack of success in out-of-conference play when it comes to bowl season, I’d find it hard to believe the conference finishes 0-fer in the out-of-conference slate this season. Although some of the percentages are accurate, the ESPN FPI seems to sell a lot of Group of Five teams short. I created several tiers and attached my predictions, ranking the upsets from most likely to impossible.

Probability of MAC Power 5 Wins in 2018

MAC Team Power 5 Team Classification Steve's % Chance FPI % Chance
MAC Team Power 5 Team Classification Steve's % Chance FPI % Chance
Central Michigan Kansas Home 68% 39.1%
Buffalo Rutgers Road 59% 25.2%
Ohio Virginia Road 55% 43.5%
Western Michigan Syracuse Home 44% 42.3%
Miami (OH) Minnesota Road 40% 21.2%
Bowling Green Maryland Home 36% 20.9%
Central Michigan Kentucky Road 30% 11.3%
Kent State Illinois Road 25% 6.4%
Toledo Miami (FL) Home 22% 13.7%
Northern Illinois Utah Home 21% 27.8%
Northern Illinois Iowa Road 18% 12.4%
Eastern Michigan Purdue Road 15% 8.2%
Bowling Green Georgia Tech Road 13% 5.0%
Ball State Indiana Road 12% 7.0%
Akron Nebraska Road 10% 7.7%
Northern Illinois Florida State Road 9% 8.9%
Western Michigan Michigan Road 7% 5.3%
Akron Iowa State Road 6% 5.7%
Akron Northwestern Road 6% 4.8%
Bowling Green Oregon Road 4% 3.0%
Central Michigan Michigan State Road 3% 1.6%
Ball State Notre Dame Road 1% 0.6%
Kent State Penn State Road 0% 0.4%

Tier 1: The Should-Be Favorites

It just seems odd to see Kansas favored against any FBS team. The Jayhawks have recruited well under David Beaty and the program can’t go any further downhill than the conglomerate 3-33 result over the last three seasons. But we’ve seen this story before: Kansas was favored by a field goal against the Chippewas in Lawrence last fall, and Shane Morris and his crew wrecked the Jayhawks by 18 points.

This year’s battle is in Mount Pleasant, and Central Michigan — who has qualified for the postseason in four-straight years — deserves a better chance than 39.1% of tackling the notoriously horrendous Power Five foe.

Also, Rutgers owning about a 75% chance to beat the Buffalo Bulls is outlandishly high. The Scarlet Knights struggled against a 5-7 Eagles team in Piscataway last September, and the 2018 Bulls have a handful of returning talent. Tyree Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and Khalil Hodge will be three of the most talented players on the field and the Bulls’ potent offense shouldn’t much problem scoring on Rutgers’ inconsistent defense.

Lastly, Ohio’s 43.5% odds of beating Virginia rank the highest out of all MAC-P5 matchups. But as we saw in the Military Bowl last year, Virginia isn’t necessarily that superior to the Group of Five, if at all. The Cavaliers shocked the nation by dominating Boise State early on in 2017, but normalcy resumed once the Navy Midshipmen thrashed Virginia 49-7 on national television.

Frank Solich’s Bobcats were voted favorites to win the MAC at media day, and with a strong running attack led by an option quarterback, it seems destined that Ohio can replicate what Navy did to the Cavaliers, even if the game takes place in Charlottesville.


Tier 2: It Wouldn’t Be Surprising

This tier primarily includes games against weaker Power Five teams — the ones that typically are feasted on by Alabamas, Ohio States, and Clemsons right after non-conference season ends. The chance of the MAC teams winning these contests should range from 30-40%.

Western Michigan has lost plenty of talent since P.J. Fleck sailed to Minnesota, but the Broncos may have a decent chance of taking down Syracuse. The Orange upset Clemson in the Carrier Dome last October, but the struggling program hasn’t visited bowl season since 2013. The game’s location at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo is a factor that also plays in the Broncos’ favor.

Miami (OH) plays many of its opponents close, but Chuck Martin is 5-17 in one possession games. The RedHawks have gone down to the wire with talented programs including Mississippi State in recent years, but are often unable to break through the wall. Minnesota struggled during Fleck’s initial season last year, and a veteran Miami team could potentially whack the Gophers down into their holes in Minnesota.

Bowling Green’s non-conference outings have been pathetic in recent years. A 77-10 loss to Ohio State, a 77-3 loss to Memphis, and an FCS loss to South Dakota State are just three of the valleys the Falcons have fallen into in the Mike Jinks era. But Bowling Green looked much smoother at the end of 2017, especially with Jarret Doege developing at quarterback. Hosting Maryland, a team under chaos right now after the temporary removal of head coach D.J. Durkin, could result in a victory for the orange and brown. After all, the Falcons crushed the Terps by three touchdowns just three years ago.

Lastly, Central Michigan checks in as the only team ranked in both of my top tiers. Kentucky is usually a winnable game for most G5 programs, and Eastern Michigan was one possession away from upsetting the Wildcats in 2017. Although Kentucky has moved on from the days of 2-10 and 3-9, Central Michigan could sneak out and upset — and nobody would be too astonished.


Tier 3: Technically Possible

This tier encapsulates any upset that should have a 10-25% chance of occurring.

Games in this tier include:

  • Kent State-Illinois
  • Toledo-Miami (FL)
  • Northern Illinois-Utah
  • Northern Illinois-Iowa
  • Eastern Michigan-Purdue
  • Bowling Green-Georgia Tech
  • Ball State-Indiana
  • Akron-Nebraska

These are your Toledo-Arkansas or Northern Illinois-Nebraska upsets. Before the season, they seemed highly unlikely but the MAC teams were able to stave off decent Power Five programs on the road.

However, two home games are listed in this tier. The Miami-Toledo series enters its second year after the Rockets provided a first half scare to the Hurricanes last September. Although it returns to the Glass Bowl, Logan Woodside won’t be taking snaps for Toledo, making this an intensely difficult but still doable game for the Rockets.

Northern Illinois’ non-conference “Schedule of Death” strikes twice in this tier. The Huskies travel to the always-interesting Kinnick Stadium to play Iowa, but they also get to host the Utah Utes. I’d project NIU to have about a 20% chance of taking each game, as Sutton Smith and the Huskies remained competitive in most of their out-of-conference contests last fall.

Lastly, Kent State makes an appearance on this list. Although the Golden Flashes have strung together five subpar seasons in a row, the Illinois Fighting Illini have struggled as much as any Power Five team outside of Kansas in recent years. Sean Lewis’ new team could potentially surprise us in this one, as a 2-10 Ball State team was a possession from defeating the Illini last September.

The other games on the list include unlikely victories, such as Bowling Green topping Georgia Tech and Akron edging out Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers. Eastern Michigan-Purdue and Ball State-Indiana are other MAC-Big Ten matchups that round out Tier 3.


Tier 4: Not Happening

Once in a blue moon, these upsets occur. Since 2014, Central Michigan’s iconic road upset over an Oklahoma State team with playoff aspirations is the only game that fits in this category.

There are usually about 1-3 of these upsets in college football each season. Events such as Troy wrecking the mood in Death Valley or Western Michigan’s near-upset of USC would have been classified here in the 2017 preseason.

In 2018, the MAC games that fall in this tier are:

  • Northern Illinois-Florida State
  • Western Michigan-Michigan
  • Akron-Iowa State
  • Akron-Northwestern
  • Bowling Green-Oregon
  • Central Michigan-Michigan State

This will be NIU’s hardest opponent on the “Schedule of Death.” Even though Florida State finished 7-6 last year with some regrettable losses, Willie Taggart should bring the program back to at least nine wins in his first season, especially with a healthy Deondre Francois.

Michigan’s only MAC loss in history was falling to a 3-9 Toledo team in 2008. The Wolverines would probably have to play worse than last year’s 8-5 team in order for Western Michigan to escape the Big House with a “W.” However, WMU always shows up for these caliber games — Tim Lester’s crew brought the intensity to both USC and Michigan State last September.

Akron’s 2017 MAC East title was very out of the ordinary. The Zips stepped it up in MAC play, but their performance against Penn State and Iowa State in non-conference was very concerning. This year, it doesn’t get easier for Terry Bowden’s team, which faces Nebraska and very talented Iowa State and Northwestern squads. All three games will be away from InfoCision Stadium, and the Zips will very likely enter conference play at 1-3 again.

Oregon isn’t a typical non-conference opponent for MAC schools, and Bowling Green will travel across the country to collect a paycheck at Eugene and try to compete with the Ducks. Oregon is no longer the dynasty it was several years back, but the Ducks still field plenty of great talent (and vibrant uniforms) — which will be tough for the Falcons to overcome at Autzen Stadium.

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have actually lost to the Chippewas in East Lansing before. Dan LeFevour led Central Michigan to a 29-27 victory over the Spartans nine years ago, but Michigan State has evolved into a much stronger and more consistent program since that landmark upset. The Chippewas finished 8-5 last year but the team must adjust to an exodus of talent on defense, causing the Spartans to become even more likely to win this early-season battle.


Tier 5: Nope

The Ball State football Cardinals are not beating Notre Dame in South Bend, even if the basketball Cardinals pulled off the same effort earlier this year.

Kent State is not beating Penn State in Happy Valley.

Notre Dame and Penn State are potential playoff suitors with some of the best recruits in the nation. Ball State and Kent State are rebuilding football programs, striving to make it back to bowl season for the first time since 2013 and 2012, respectively. These upsets will not happen.

Sorry if that seems negative, but even fandom has some limits at times.