The 2018 Mid-American Conference season officially kicks off with Ball State attempting to bring down FCS opponent Central Connecticut State on Thursday evening. Throughout the next 14 weekends (and weekdays), the 12 programs will compete for conference bragging rights, All-Americans, and chances to “Fly the Flag.”
Nine of the veteran Hustle Belt writers put on their Nostradamus caps and predict the events which transpire from now until January.
1. Who ends up in Detroit for the MAC Championship Game and who wins the crown?
Alan Rucker (@AlanRucker): Ohio and CMU, Ohio wins a nail-biter.
James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): I’ve got Toledo and Buffalo getting to Detroit. The more research I do on Buffalo, the more I’m convinced the Bulls can really make a great run in the wide open East. Toledo will be a bit much to handle though.
Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): Ohio defeats Northern Illinois in Detroit. Toledo seemed due last year after a decade without a MAC title, and I think it’s time for Frank Solich and the Bobcats to break the 50-year streak behind Nathan Rourke and a talented offense.
James Snyder (@morefball): The safe picks are probably NIU and Ohio, which means they are the least likely teams to make it.
Dave Drury (@DDrury86): Ohio and NIU - NIU sneaks away with it, just like in 2011.
Jordan Rinard (@JordanRinard): I’m not entirely sold on UB, so I’ll go with Ohio and WMU. Western has more experience in that spot and should win.
Spencer Roberts (@tallmidget09): Ohio vs. Western Michigan. I think the West will be a tight race as usual, but Ohio will get its revenge from the 2016 MAC Championship.
Kenneth Bailey (@michexposures): Buffalo vs. Central Michigan, with Central winning the crown.
Randy Carpenter (@randycarp): Ohio and Central Michigan with the Bobcats as champs.
2. What non-bowl MAC team from 2017 makes a leap and which 2017 bowl participant takes a tumble?
Rucker: Ball State takes a leap, Akron falls. This is wild fandom. I don’t care.
Jimenez: Buffalo and WMU should recover and make a bowl. Last season was an anomaly in the bowl picture. Akron is the safe bet to stumble, but I could also see Miami struggle.
Helwick: Not only will Buffalo improve upon its 6-6 record and contend for a bowl — the Bulls should earn nine wins and potentially challenge Ohio for the MAC East with a healthy Tyree Jackson at quarterback. I’m still shocked Akron won the MAC East last year despite unimpressive finishes in nearly every metric. Reality will settle in and the Zips slide back into a 3-5 win program.
Snyder: Buffalo, again a safe pick, while I would not be shocked if Akron is home.
Drury: Buffalo takes a leap and Akron tumbles.
Rinard: Miami should take a step forward after a humbling 2017. Akron’s roster doesn’t lead me to believe that they’ll return to a bowl this year.
Roberts: Western Michigan and Buffalo will make bowls this year easily. Only Akron will lose bowl eligibility I’ll bet.
Bailey: Eastern Michigan takes a leap and NIU takes a tumble.
Carpenter: Bowling Green takes small leap and Akron tumbles.
3. What is/are the biggest upset(s) you expect to see over Power 5 foes in this year’s non-conference slate?
Rucker: Bowling Green over Maryland, but with all that program is going through it’s not that impressive in reality.
Jimenez: CMU over Kansas is damn near a given and the Chippewas have a decent chance vs. Kentucky too. Buffalo should beat Rutgers handily. Ohio over Virginia, NIU over Iowa and WMU over Syracuse could be some potentially fun picks.
Helwick: The FPI doesn’t consider a single MAC team a “favorite” over Power 5. But I don’t consider Central Michigan beating Kansas, Ohio beating Virginia, and Rutgers beating Buffalo upsets. I think Miami (OH) defeats Minnesota this year in a battle of teams coming off of disappointing 5-7 seasons.
Snyder: I just think Ball State knocks off Indiana, I don’t know why.
Drury: NIU over Iowa, CMU over Kentucky (is that a big upset? probably not), and Miami over the Fighting Flecks of Minnesota.
Rinard: CMU over Kansas and NIU over Iowa are the most likely upsets. Miami over Minnesota isn’t out of the realm of possibility either.
Roberts: I bet Western upsets Syracuse with the help of home-field advantage. CMU over Kansas is not an upset if Central wins, but I could see the Chippewas beating Kentucky too. Buffalo over Rutgers seems likely too. Last one is Toledo over Miami (FL), just for fun.
Bailey: Biggest upset - Toledo beating Miami.
Carpenter: Bowling Green over Maryland (program in shambles).
4. Does the MAC finish with any All-Americans? Is there any player that could garner Heisman votes like Jordan Lynch (2013) or Nate Davis (2008)?
Rucker: Negative for both.
Jimenez: No for the Heisman, but there will be several award finalists in my opinion. Anthony Johnson already made the preseason All-American squad, so I expect him to be selected once again. Nathan Rourke, Khalil Hodge, Sutton Smith and Cody Thompson could also get some looks.
Helwick: As a consensus All-American and the FBS’s reigning sack leader, I see no reason why Sutton Smith wouldn’t earn back-to-back All-American selections. His mobility and footwork when blowing by linemen is unmatched. Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson could potentially sneak in as an All-American from one of the five major selectors — it would be a given if he played in the Power 5. There will be no Heisman votes in this conference, however.
Snyder: Heisman votes, no, but Anthony Johnson or Khalil Hodge in Buffalo could, along with Sutton Smith in DeKalb, make the All-American list.
Drury: Sutton Smith, baby! Not for Heisman but he could be an All-American if his stats are anything like last year’s.
Rinard: Sutton Smith is the safest bet for All-American, though a better statistical year for James Gardner could elevate him to that level. No Heisman contenders this year.
Roberts: No serious Heisman candidates, but watch Ohio’s Nathan Rourke and one WMU offensive lineman, each on the 2nd/3rd team All-American team.
Bailey: Eastern Michigan finishes with Maxx Crosby as an All-American. No Heisman votes. The Heisman has become the best quarterback or running back on the championship team.
Carpenter: Max Scharping, NIU as All-American-Honorable Mention. No Heisman candidates...
5. Which coaches, if any, land Power 5 jobs this offseason? And which coaches are on alert for getting canned?
Rucker: Frank Solich if he wants one, but Jason Candle is most likely for a Power 5 job. For the latter question, Mike Jinks and unless my Ball State prediction happens, Mike Neu.
Jimenez: Jason Candle absolutely has to be the #1 candidate to leave. The Toledo coaching pipeline is way too strong. As for candidates in danger, there’s too many coaches that are new. I’d say Rod Carey or Chuck Martin are the likeliest to get a boot.
Helwick: Without Logan Woodside, I think Toledo takes a slight step back this year. Jason Candle is young and has done a tremendous job at inheriting the program from Matt Campbell, but I think Power 5 programs want to see a greater sample size from him first. Year three will be a crucial one for Mike Jinks and Mike Neu, and if Bowling Green and Ball State fail to improve, I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one of them go.
Snyder: Candle to a P5, and I don’t see anyone canned.
Drury: Promotions: Jason Candle if Toledo does well again. Firings: NIU’s Rod Carey (he’s always in danger of losing his job with NIU fans), BSU’s Mike Neu, and, depending how bad they do, BGSU’s Mike Jinks.
Rinard: Obviously, Jason Candle and Tim Lester will be attractive options for teams if they have strong seasons. Bad years for Mike Neu and Rod Carey could put them on the hot seat.
Roberts: Frank Solich will make the leap to P5 with a huge offer from Northwestern. Rod Carey (I love chaos) and Sean Lewis get the boot.
Bailey: If Eastern Michigan’s defense improves, I could see its defensive coordinator Neal Neathery taking the leap to a coaching gig.
Carpenter: Frank Solich could get one more time in the spotlight at a Power 5. Ball State’s Neu seems on the shakiest ground. Bowling Green won’t fire Jinks with 2 years left on his contract. However, he could be the the answer to this question next year if Falcons struggle again.