The manner in which the 2019 MAC football season has unraveled is best described as unpredictable. Ball State and Kent State are shedding their perennial doormat status and leading their respective divisions. Conference favorite Ohio already matched its loss total from each of the past two seasons with a 2-4 start. Bowling Green shocked Toledo for the first time since 2009, despite entering Doyt-Perry Stadium as 4-touchdown underdogs. Normalcy isn’t an option this year in the MAC, and here is how each team has lived up to expectations through six or seven games.
Akron Zips (0-6, 0-2 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: F
The post-Terry Bowden era is off to a horrendous start, as Akron remains one of three winless teams in the country. Of those winless teams, which include Rice and New Mexico State, the Zips are the worst. Akron lost 37-29 to UMass, a program which has lost by 25 or more points to Rutgers, an FCS team, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, FIU, and Louisiana Tech. The Zips scored one single field goal in a 39-point loss to Illinois — usually a beatable Big Ten foe for MAC teams. And in their last outing, they reiterated the same scoring output in a 26-3 home loss to Kent State.
Only Rutgers trails Akron in points per game, and the Zips field the worst rushing offense in the country at 58.3 yards per contest. And due to the offense’s inability to establish the run, 3-and-outs have become a common occurrence. Additionally, only Syracuse and Old Dominion have yielded more sacks than the Zips’ offensive line thus far. Akron hasn’t come particularly close to a win and it may not get there in Tom Arth’s first season.
Ball State Cardinals (3-3, 2-0 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: A-
In a division that was prepared for a four-team race between Northern Illinois, Toledo, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan, it’s the Cardinals who hoist the only undefeated conference record in the middle of October. Ball State sang its song of emergence when it stormed into DeKalb and overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to take down the defending MAC champions. The 27-20 result was the Cardinals’ first win over Northern Illinois since the 2008 — the Brady Hoke team which started 12-0.
But the Cardinals weren’t finished. Their 3-game road trip ended with an exclamation point after another second half comeback, erasing a 23-14 hole to upend Eastern Michigan. Quarterback Drew Plitt is 14th in the country in passing yards and running back Caleb Huntley ranks 22nd nationally in the rushing department. The offensive pieces are in place and the defense soars miles above the unit which allowed 54.6 points per game over a 5-game stretch just two seasons ago. All three of Ball State’s losses — Indiana by 10, Florida Atlantic by 10, and NC State by 11 — are fairly excusable for a rebuilding team.
Bowling Green Falcons (2-4, 1-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: B-
Halfway through 2019, Bowling Green is one win short of matching its 2018 total, and the good news is Akron still lies ahead on the schedule. Sometimes the Scot Loeffler-coached Falcons look better than the previous Mike Jinks squads, but they have been shut out in two uninspiring performances this year at Kansas State and Notre Dame.
There are two reasons Bowling Green earns a B- for a midseason grade despite four blowout losses. One, the Falcons demolished an FCS team. Each of the three previous years, Bowling Green defeated its FCS foe by one possession, so the 46-3 win over Morgan State was a promising start to the Loeffler era. But more importantly, the Falcons finally ended the drought with their hated rival. Bowling Green stifled Toledo’s typically threatening offense in 20-7 fashion, winning the Battle of I-75 Trophy for the first time since it replaced the Peace Pipe. Not many upsets in 2019 will be greater than the 26.5-point spread the Falcons surmounted. Now that Bowling Green displayed unearthed potential against the MAC West favorite, especially on the defensive side, the expectations should rise moving forward.
Buffalo Bulls (2-4, 0-2 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: C+
Just like Bowling Green, Buffalo is difficult to judge, because while the Bulls have fallen below expectations this year with a 2-4 start, they have a very high quality win. In fact, Buffalo’s 38-22 upset over Temple is by far the best non-conference win the MAC earned this season, and the Owls remain on the fringe of the AP Poll despite the unanticipated result at UB Stadium.
Buffalo also led by a field goal at halftime in Happy Valley in its Week 2 matchup against currently No. 7 Penn State. But outside of its appointments with Power Six programs from the state of Pennsylvania, Buffalo has been a shell of its 2018 self. The Bulls lost 35-14 to Liberty and 34-20 to Miami (OH). And it seems we’d be talking about a different trajectory for the program in 2019 if Buffalo didn’t miss an extra point in overtime against Ohio in Week 6, leading to a 21-20 loss. The Bulls knew growing pains would hit after the loss of Tyree Jackson and its entire receiving corps. But the offense still features one of the best running back tandems in the country in Jaret Patterson (116.5 yards from scrimmage per game) and Kevin Marks (92.2). Both running backs are situated in the top 35 in rushing yards in the entire FBS.
Central Michigan Chippewas (4-3, 2-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: A
Jim McElwain has already worked his magic in Mount Pleasant, quadrupling Central Michigan’s previous win total with five games remaining on the regular season schedule. The rebuild has been rapid, and bowl season appears to be a likely destination in a follow-up act to a 1-11 season. Running back Jonathan Ward is producing 7.4 yards per carry and is back to his 2017 ways. Tennessee/Houston transfer quarterback Quinten Dormady has completed 63 percent of passes and thrown five touchdowns in three starts, and is shaping up to be the permanent starter after the suspension of David Moore.
The Chippewas’ best two performances of the year include one win and one loss. Central Michigan came within one possession of upsetting Miami (FL) in the 305, limiting the Hurricanes to just 17 points in the near-shocker. But McElwain’s squad was victorious in their next great performance, a 42-16 thrashing of Eastern Michigan. Excluding an understandable 61-0 loss to Wisconsin (the Badgers have recorded four shutouts this year), Central Michigan is only allowing 23.2 points per matchup despite heavy turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
Eastern Michigan Eagles (3-3, 0-2 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: C
On the bright side, Eastern Michigan is no longer the perennial punching bag of the MAC. The Eagles are a legitimate program and have been since Chris Creighton led them to their first bowl game in 29 years during the 2016 season.
That being said, the Eagles are one of three winless teams in MAC play, losing to Central Michigan by 26 and Ball State despite entering both battles as the favorite. Eastern Michigan is responsible for the only Power Five win the MAC earned this season by besting Illinois, 34-31, on a game-winning Chad Ryland field goal — marking the third-straight season the Eagles have downed a Big Ten opponent. But, Eastern Michigan required a miracle punt block and return to survive Central Connecticut of the FCS, and the offense has declined in production week by week. Bowl season is very much in play for the Eagles, but they can’t afford more 4-turnover performances like the one that transpired at The Factory versus Ball State.
Kent State Golden Flashes (3-3, 2-0 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: A
Raise your hand if you had Kent State as one of the last two remaining unbeaten teams in conference play. The Golden Flashes are 3-0 this year when NOT playing teams currently in the AP Top 20. Kent State’s brutal non-conference schedule featured Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin, and despite the three losses, the Golden Flashes learned plenty from playing some of the nation’s best programs scattered across the country.
Kent State remained within 10 points of the Sun Devils at halftime on Week 1 and within 14 points of Auburn at halftime several weeks later. These impressive benchmarks in Sean Lewis’ second season later translated to wins when facing Bowling Green and Akron. The Golden Flashes recorded a program-best 750 yards against the Falcons and put up 62 points in the MAC East matchup — their highest output since 2004. Against Akron, the defense shined by limiting the Zips to three points on the road, and the Wagon Wheel is back in Kent for the first time in five years because of the domination. Kent State hasn’t produced more than four wins since 2012, but this team is still in contention for the MAC East halfway through the season. Lewis’ culture shift is already on full display in Northeast Ohio.
Miami (OH) RedHawks (2-4, 1-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: B-
Under Chuck Martin, Miami is one of the most consistent teams in the MAC. The RedHawks usually start seasons rough, but work their way back to .500 as the final stretch approaches. Miami can’t be too disappointed with faring 1-3 in the non-conference slate, considering it faced three currently-ranked opponents — Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Iowa.
The 14-point win over Buffalo, sparked by a pick-six return by Mike Brown, is easily the strongest performance by the RedHawks this season. The team stumbled in Kalamazoo against a solid Western Michigan offense, although the 38-16 final score was not indicative of how close the RedHawks kept the game for the majority of the afternoon. In the 2-4 start, true freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert has shown flashes of potential, displaying great deep ball mechanics and throwing two touchdowns against Iowa, but he’s still a project in development. Due to difficult scheduling, there’s still a lot to learn about this RedHawks team — which was projected to finish second in the MAC East — and much will unravel in looming games against Northern Illinois, Kent State, and Ohio.
Northern Illinois Huskies (2-4, 1-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: D+
Northern Illinois remains the gold standard of the MAC. The Huskies appeared in six-straight conference championship games to start the decade and made a grand re-entrance back to Detroit last December, upsetting Buffalo and claiming their fourth MAC title since 2011.
But a 2-4 start with its first loss to Ball State since 2008 (by blowing a 14-point lead, nonetheless) is not how NIU is expected to follow up a MAC championship. The Huskies lost a generational talent in defensive end Sutton Smith and lost star middle linebacker Kyle Pugh for the remainder of the season due to injury, but NIU still exhibits First Team All-MAC talent on defense in Antonio Jones-Davis. Still, the Huskies suffered a brutal 44-8 loss to a beatable Nebraska team and failed to take down Vanderbilt, which was later eviscerated 34-10 by UNLV. However, NIU is finally trending upward after rebounding with a 39-36 victory in Athens over Ohio, winning on a clock-expiring field goal by John Richardson.
Cal transfer QB Ross Bowers helped open up the passing game and running back Tre Harbison rushed for 259 yards and five touchdowns in his last two games. If the offense sustains this level of play, the Huskies could sneak up and throw themselves right back into contention in a wide open MAC West.
Ohio Bobcats (2-4, 1-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: D-
In back-to-back years, the Ohio Bobcats have been appointed the chosen ones, the preseason MAC favorites. After all, it’s been 51 years since Ohio last claimed the throne of the conference, despite the sustained success of Frank Solich’s teams. Fresh off back-to-back 9-4 seasons, Ohio already recorded loss number four, and this season has been an outright disaster.
The non-conference schedule featured FBS opponents Pitt, Marshall, and Louisiana. Prior to the season, 3-0 seemed like a possibility given the explosiveness of the Nathan Rourke-led offense, but instead, the Bobcats failed to notch a single win in those matchups. Ohio was out-dueled 33-31 by a Marshall team that’s since struggled to establish an offense and got blasted by 20 points at home to Louisiana. A missed overtime extra point by Buffalo allowed the Bobcats to start 1-0 in the conference, but they were unable to build on that win in Athens. Instead, Northern Illinois piled on the Bobcats’ 114th-ranked yards per game defense and beat them 39-36. The defense has been a major issue for Solich and crew this year, as Ohio is third-to-last in the FBS at forcing turnovers and tied with Akron in the statistic.
Toledo Rockets (4-2, 1-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: B
Toledo was probably zoning in on an A- grade, but then it lost 20-7 to Bowling Green. The Falcons were uncompetitive in the majority of their games this year and entered the matchup allowing over 50 points per game to FBS teams.
Somehow Toledo, with one of the best running attacks in the country, posted seven points — one lone touchdown — against the rival Falcons. It’s a completely inexcusable loss for a conference championship contender and the MAC equivalent of Oregon losing to Oregon State. Putting that loss aside, Toledo’s season has been solid. Defensively, the Rockets are much improved, especially in the secondary. Toledo’s defense came through in the clutch by stopping a Hail Mary at the goal line to beat Colorado State, picking off BYU to set up a game-winning touchdown, and sacking Western Michigan in the red zone to thwart a tying score — all in consecutive weeks in the midst of a 4-game win streak.
The Rockets may still very well be the best team in the MAC West, and the 31-24 win over primary challenger Western Michigan is a valid assessment of that. Bryant Koback is a machine out of the backfield for the nation’s 13th-ranked rushing offense, and the running game stays versatile with mobile quarterback Mitchell Guadagni and another powerful tailback Shakif Seymour. Whatever happened at Doyt-Perry Stadium is probably an outlier performance, but head coach Jason Candle and Toledo cannot afford to let that stunning loss beat them twice.
Western Michigan Broncos (4-3, 2-1 MAC)
2019 Midseason Grade: B
Western Michigan’s offense is top-tier in this conference. Quarterback Jon Wassink may be the best quarterback in the MAC, and he’s fifth in the FBS with 1,906 passing yards. Running back LeVante Bellamy is fourth in the country in rushing (behind Chuba Hubbard, J.K. Dobbins, and Jonathan Taylor) with 764 yards and one of five halfbacks with 10 rushing touchdowns. Bellamy has struck with breakaway runs on numerous occasions, scoring on runs of 35 yards or greater seven times this season.
The Broncos have notched three losses due to the unpredictability of the defense. Western Michigan’s defense delivered solid outings in triumphs over Central Michigan, Miami (OH), and Georgia State. But in losses to Syracuse and Michigan State — not particularly offensively-adept teams — the unit allowed over 500 yards and 50 points. Western Michigan played Toledo within a touchdown on the road in its only slip-up in conference play. The P.J. Fleck era seems like a long time time ago in Kalamazoo, but with a manageable schedule approaching and loads of senior talent, this year is shaping up to be the best of the Tim Lester era.