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Ye Olde Roundtable: Non-Conference Takeaways

Our panel of Hustle Belt writers provides opinions on the most surprising aspects of non-conference season and who the contenders are in the MAC.

James H, Jimenez

The MAC’s non-conference season is nearly over. What team has surprised you most and which breakout player has impressed you so far?

James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): Western Michigan has been a really surprising team for me this season. All we heard in the offseason was the chaos surrounding the transfers of wide receivers (which is still happening!) and the attempt to make D’Wayne Eskridge a two-way player. Yet, they’re one of the top teams in the MAC at 3-2, and have looked good in every win thus far, proving themselves a disciplined team who has gelled as the season has gone on. In terms of breakout players, Joey Banks, the Buffalo safety, has been playing out of his gourd so far. It’s hard for a safety to out up the numbers he has so far, and yet he’s doing so with regularity.

Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): Ohio faced lofty expectations again, and I’m shocked that the Bobcats are 1-3. While going 4-0 against Pitt, Marshall, and Louisiana is tough, it certainly seemed on the table heading into the season. But the Bobcats were never really close in two of those games, and that level of play is not what I expect from a Frank Solich-led team. The breakout players in the MAC that have impressed me both play for Western Michigan. Offensively, tight end Giovanni Ricci may be the best at his position in the country — he leads all TEs in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Defensively, Broncos’ middle linebacker Treshaun Hayward moved up to the depth chart and has recorded four consecutive games with 10+ tackles, functioning as the team’s top defender.

Dave Drury (@DDrury86): Eastern Michigan has certainly surprised me. They just aren’t the same Eagle team we’re used to. It’s not just that they’re 3-1 and beat Illinois. This team just doesn’t give up… and those close games are finally going their way. The way they beat Central Connecticut and Illinois shows there’s no quit in them… and that makes them a very dangerous team come MAC play.

Keith Gregorski (@keith_gregorski): Eastern Michigan. I thought with the loss of Maxx Crosby and company, EMU would struggle but they’ve done well at 3-1. My MAC West player so far is QB Mike Glass III, which is probably not a surprise to EMU fans. Glass really is managing the offense well-it’s a different team without him. If I could have one do-over in our top 25 MAC players of 2019, Glass would make the list. MAC East Player, Joey Banks, safety, Buffalo.

Zack VanNieuwenhze (@thevannzee): Northern Illinois has surprised me. For all the hate the Rod Carey got, he had the Huskies as a pretty consistent program and now here we are with them at 1-3. Their season has mirrored Ohio’s with losses to good teams but I’m not sure they are as talented and they play in the tougher MAC West where they will need to figure it out fast to stay with the Toledo’s, Eastern’s and Western’s in conference.

Break out player, Giovanni Ricci the tight end from Western Michigan. He’s a former wide receiver and it shows. They are shallow at receiver depth out in Kalamazoo so he’s going to get a lot of targets. A real play-maker.

Out of all non-conference games the MAC has played this season, which result still baffles you the most?

Jimenez: Buffalo vs. Temple. What the hell, man? No way they should have been in that game, considering their other results.

Helwick: Seriously, what happened on September 21, 2019 in the 3:30 ET time slot? Buffalo absolutely annihilated Temple. The final score says 38-22, but the Bulls led 38-10 in the fourth. Temple hasn’t missed a beat otherwise and Buffalo has dropped games to Liberty and Miami (OH). Central Michigan playing Miami (FL) down to the final possession in a 17-12 final also happened in that time slot too...

Drury: Buffalo rolling Temple. After Liberty handled the Bulls easily, Buffalo came out and looked so good against Rod Carey’s new team. It was never even close. And then, the very next week, they regressed and got rocked by Miami. It was just such a shock that they had no problems with the Owls but have struggled every other week.

Gregorski: I had to go back and watch the Liberty vs. Buffalo game because I didn’t expect the Bulls to lose 35-17 against an 0-2 Liberty team. When I watched game, turns out Liberty had a good game plan and executed it well. Turns out Liberty has a WR named Antonio Gandy-Golden who is a beast: 6’4”, 220 pounds. This guy is on the Senior Bowl watch list for a reason, catching eight passes for 174 yards and two TDs vs. the Bulls.

VanNieuwenhze: Central Connecticut State at Eastern Michigan. Coming into that game Eastern had perhaps the MAC’s most impressive resume after beating an FBS school in Coastal Carolina, playing Kentucky close enough, and upsetting Illinois the week before. Then they get a FCS school at home and it takes a tremendous play to win? Yes, there was a weather delay. Yes, CCSU is now 3-1 and likely wins their conference this year but for a team that I think has a real shot at making Detroit, I’m baffled that the Blue Devils could hang around.

Four-to-five games in, it can still be difficult to tell how good some MAC teams are this year. Which team in the conference is toughest to read at the moment?

Jimenez: NIU. They’re under new management, many of the better players graduated, and the schedule has been super tough. So in that sense, they should look pretty bad. But, they have a tendency to look really good in MAC season. I don’t particularly get that vibe this year with the Huskies after five weeks, which is somewhere I haven’t been in awhile. They’ve been a strange mixed bag of a team which doesn’t seem to have any identity right now. They’ve got the talent and the pedigree to succeed; they’re defending champs after all. I just can’t get a great read on how they’ll project moving forward.

Helwick: Honestly, over half the MAC teams can be viable answers to this question. But I have no idea how good Miami (OH) is. The RedHawks took care of business against Buffalo with 21 unanswered in the third quarter to clinch a 34-20 victory. That’s a solid win, but are they MAC East contenders? It’s hard to find out when they’ve played Ohio State, Iowa, and Cincinnati in non-conference matchups (all ranked in final 2018 AP Poll, combined 12-1 record in 2019).

Drury: NIU for sure. With their non-conference schedule, I’m not sure if they’re going to roll through the MAC or be marginal. The defense has looked shaky but played well at times and the offense has had moments where they’ve looked real good and some where they looked similar to last year… so not really sure what to expect from the final eight games from the Huskies.

Gregorski: Ohio is the toughest read in the MAC East. The 1-3 record makes sense to a degree given the opponents and injuries but who knows if they will put it together in conference play? In the MAC West, Western Michigan. WMU clearly has the elements of a championship offense but how will the defense do in MAC play? Surrendering over 500 yards a game against Michigan State and Syracuse’s offenses seems extreme but it could have been the number of turnovers and less the fault of the defense.

VanNieuwenhze: Toughest read? Can I go with an Antonio Brown English paper here? Oh, you said team?

I am unsure about Buffalo. Great 2018, but lost so many guys. They played Penn State tough for a half, and beat a pretty good Temple squad but then gets hit in the face by a Miami team that I had written off. So I am not sure what we’re dealing with here but a loss to Ohio could put the Bulls too far behind to compete for a division title.

Also, I really feel like you could pick Ohio, NIU, Miami, Ball State, Kent State and even EMU for this question and I could agree.

A third of the way through the season, what is your MAC champion pick: Toledo or the field, and why?

Jimenez: I think there isn’t enough data to understand how the MAC shakes out at the moment. A handful of teams haven’t even played a division game yet. That said, it’s hard not to choose Toledo at this point given their track record thus far.

Helwick: The statistics tell me I should go with the other 11, but Toledo is a safe pick at the moment. Their one loss at Kentucky was caused in part due to the injury of QB Mitchell Guadagni. But since, the Rockets’ offense has rolled behind a strong rushing attack, and the defense looked strong in a statement win over BYU. The MAC West is stacked, but Jason Candle’s the only active MAC coach to run through it and win in Detroit, so I’m picking Toledo.

Drury: I’m going with the field. To be honest, not even sure Toledo can get to the MAC Championship game… the West is loaded this year. I still think NIU can do a lot of damage in conference play, WMU is good enough to make a run, EMU is still a talented dark horse team. And then there are the teams in the East like Ohio and Miami (and maybe even Buffalo) that could upend the Rockets. So, I’ll take my chances with the other 11 MAC teams.

Gregorski: Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’d say Toledo has looked the best with two solid non-conference wins and a good first-half showing against Kentucky.

VanNieuwenhze: I think that right now Toledo is the front runner. The win over BYU really showed me something. Yes, the Rockets for all their success haven’t won that much MAC hardware but look at their schedule: WMU, EMU, NIU, and my sleeper pick, Kent State all have to come to the Glass Bowl. It really shapes up well for them under one of the hottest coaches in Jason Candle.

The Ohio Bobcats entered the season as MAC favorites once again. Last year, the team struggled with a 3-3 start but it’s even worse this year at 1-3. Are the Bobcats still good and just victims of a rough schedule, or is this team a lot more underwhelming than you expected?

Jimenez: It’s a mix of all three. The Bobcats fell victim to the injury bug quite early, especially in the running gane, where their bread and butter is made. Nathan Rourke being ill during the Pitt game doesn’t help either, though that doesn’t make anyone feel better about a game they could have won. Combine that with a tough schedule, and you’ve got some bad mojo. When they’re healthy, they’re one of the most dangerous teams out there. Right now, they’re not, and therefore, they look as they do. Hopefully the BYE week fixed some things.

Helwick: The Bobcats are very underwhelming. The 3-3 start was easily shaken off last year, and Ohio will rattle off wins in conference play again in 2019 because the MAC East doesn’t have an identifiable frontrunner. But a MAC favorite shouldn’t get blasted 45-25 by (a much-improved) Louisiana at home. The Pitt loss is excusable, especially considering how the Panthers played UCF and Penn State, but 1-3 is not a promising non-conference start when this was the year Nathan Rourke and the Bobcats were expected to run through opposing defenses and break the 51-year streak.

Drury: I definitely have been underwhelmed with Ohio so far this year. The loss to Pitt and close loss to Marshall are excusable… but then to not even perform against Louisiana and get torched 45-25 is not. Rourke hasn’t played that well, only throwing for 850 some yards…I mean, if NIU’s quarterback has more passing yards than you (Bowers has 200 more yards than him), it’s not a good sign. While they’ll still probably do well in the MAC… I just don’t see this team winning a title with the way they’ve played so far.

Gregorski: I think we are going to learn a good bit about Ohio’s MAC East chances this week vs. Buffalo. Coming into the season I thought Ohio could finish non-conference anywhere between 4-0 and 1-3 based on the opponents of Pitt, Marshall, and Louisiana all being conference title contenders. Given the talent on the roster, I expect a much better result in conference play if Ohio starts to get some turnovers and play more consistent run defense. Too much talent not to start winning some games.

VanNieuwenhze: As much as I think Ohio under achieves with Frank Solich at the helm, I still think that they figure it out. Being 1-3 is not as bad as it sounds when you see that those losses are to Power 5 Pitt (who might be a top 25 team to some), a Marshall squad who is 2-2 with losses to two good teams in Cincinnati and Boise State and lastly Louisiana, who just extended their coach. It just feels like a schedule which is preparing the Bobcats for conference play and the East is wide open. Now if they lose to Buffalo, then I’ll be alarmed.

One of the best position groups, if not the best in the conference, is the running back. With plenty of elite talent across the board, who is the best running back in the conference?

Jimenez: Best running back right now is Jaret Patterson. LeVante Bellamy has had three 100+ yard performance over the last three weeks, but two bad performances to start the year can’t be overlooked. Patterson has ran for no lower than 69 yards in any game, and had 183 in his last game. Patterson is an emerging star, and the schedule lightens up from here, giving him a chance to shine.

Helwick: There are three excellent options, and none of them are wrong answers — LeVante Bellamy, Jaret Patterson, and Bryant Koback. If I want to run the ball down an opponent’s throat and keep the sticks moving and make their defense gassed, I’m calling Jaret Patterson. Patterson is averaging 109 yards per game and put up strong performances against powerful Penn State and Temple defenses. If I want big play potential, I’m going LeVante Bellamy. Bellamy’s speed is unmatched and he’s broken free for five touchdown runs of 35+ yards this season.

Drury: LeVante Bellamy is certainly the most dangerous back. He can hit you hard and just keep pushing through. I’d say he’s the top dog. But… Buffalo has a pair of studs, Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, who have combined for 966 yards this year. So, while Bellamy might be the best, I would NOT want to face the Bulls rushing attack right now.

Gregorski: I’d say senior LeVante Bellamy from Western Michigan right now but sophomores Bryant Koback, Jaret Patterson, and Kevin Marks are closing in.

VanNieuwenhze: There’s two possible answers to this: Levante Bellamy from Western Michigan and the wrong answer. It’s that simple. Bellamy may be the best player in the conference, period. Seven touchdowns and a 6.4 per carry average does it for me here.

What does your current CFP look like, and which team from a non-access conference will clinch the New Year’s Six bowl?

Jimenez: It’ll be the old faithfuls. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Georgia.

In terms of the G5 squad, it’ll be a fight between Boise State and UCF. Boise has the name power and an easier path to the Mountain West along with some good OOC wins. UCF has bigger wins in the OOC, but the American will be a tough road to plow this season, with SMU, Memphis, Tulane and others all emerging.

Helwick: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Georgia.

One thing about Georgia — I don’t think the Bulldogs are a Top 5 team right now, I have LSU and Oklahoma above them. But the Bulldogs play in an easy-to-win SEC East and their inevitable loss to either Auburn or Alabama won’t count against them as much as Oklahoma will be docked for a loss to someone like Texas.

For the NY6 non-access team, as much as I’d love to see UCF three-peat for that slot, I don’t see the Knights surging through the rest of their schedule unblemished, despite a considerable win over Stanford. Boise State’s schedule is much easier with a road trip to Utah State as its toughest draw. Meanwhile, UCF plays Cincinnati, Temple, Houston, and Tulane. The playoff committee loves “strength of schedule” but that won’t factor when pitting together “Group of Five” teams, so the Broncos get the nod.

Drury: Right now, based on how teams look…the SEC might get three in: Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. Thankfully they should eliminate each other as the season goes on. But, as it stands, I have it as Clemson, Bama, Georgia, and Oklahoma… with Wisconsin and LSU as my next two in. Hurts has looked real, real good as a Sooner and my dark horse is the Wisconsin Badgers, as they finally have a decent passing attack and defense to go with that power run game. As for the G5 team, it’ll be a toss up between UCF and Boise. Right now I think a lot of the P5 schools are kind of sick of UCF and how cocky they’ve gotten, so with their one loss, I think they’d pick Boise at the moment.

Gregorski: Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, LSU are my CFP. Regarding G5, I’d say Boise State. I think UCF probably has the tougher schedule.

VanNieuwenhze: As of right now, I have to go with Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma (Jalen Hurts, wow), and for a fourth school… it pains me to say it but… Ohio State. I just think Justin Fields is doing what Dwayne Haskins did plus with something extra in his speed. Michigan State’s defense will keep them close this week but the Buckeyes look really good.

As for a group of five in the New Years Six, I’ll go with UCF. They are becoming a lot like Gonzaga in college basketball to me, where yes they are not in a major conference but you could fool me by their talent level and culture.