‘Tis the season.
The 2019 college football season is two games in and the first MAC teams take the field Thursday night. With the first drop of MACtion on the way, Hustle Belt writers James Jimenez, Steve Helwick, Dave Drury, and Keith Gregorski predict breakout teams, players, conference champions, and more.
Which MAC team makes a leap and which one takes a tumble from last season?
James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): Making the leap: Kent State. Check out those box scores from 2018 again and take a closer look. For the majority of those games, the Flashes managed to keep the game within 10 points or less, which means their 2-10 record isn’t necessarily an indication of their potential. They return many of their key playmakers on both sides of the ball, including former Auburn QB Woody Barrett, and are now in another year of the Flash Fast system, meaning there should be more familiarity. The Flashes didn’t go out without a fight last season. In a wide open MAC East, I expect them to compete.
Taking a tumble: Buffalo. Simply put, the Bulls lost a bevy of pro-caliber talent and didn’t really replace it. The Bulls lost their star QB (Tyree Jackson), their two leading receivers (Anthony Johnson and K.J. Osborn) and their anchor on defense (Khalil Hodge). It’s going to be hard to replace all that output, especially with position battles all over the place. They do return Jaret and James Patterson, amongst others, but it’s going to be a season of unknowns at UB.
Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): Eastern Michigan takes a leap this season. Yes, the Eagles were 7-6 last season and a missed field goal away from winning their first bowl game since 1987. But I envision Chris Creighton’s team hitting the 8-win mark for the first time in 32 years and possibly even reaching nine wins. Mike Glass returns at quarterback after a phenomenal 3-touchdown passing performance in the Camellia Bowl, and we already saw his running capabilities against Western Michigan and Toledo. With the best secondary in the conference featuring Kevin McGill, Vince Calhoun, and Brody Hoying, I’m excited to see how many wins Eastern Michigan can achieve with a manageable non-conference schedule (Coastal Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Central Connecticut).
The team falling in the standings will be Buffalo. I do think the Bulls are the second best team in the East division, but without Tyree Jackson, Khalil Hodge, and their five leading receivers from 2018, Lance Leipold’s squad will have to endure growing pains to start the season. Buffalo has arguably the best running back in the conference in Jaret Patterson and a talented offensive line, so the Bulls will likely qualify for bowl eligibility and get around seven wins. But the uncertainty at quarterback makes winning 10 games and a division title a difficult task.
Dave Drury (@DDrury86): The obvious, and most likely, choice is Buffalo takes a tumble this season. Without Tyree Jackson, Anthony Johnson, or K.J. Osborn that offense is nowhere near where it was last season. As for leapers… I could see Miami surprising a few teams or Eastern Michigan finally riding that dark horse label into a great season.
Keith Gregorski (@keith_gregorski): I think most MAC teams will be about where they were last year. Buffalo set the bar really high last year so they probably drop a few wins given personnel changes in its passing game. Ohio is a wild card in that it could improve dramatically on 9-4 depending on whether it goes 4-0 or 1-3 in non-conference. Central Michigan should at least triple last year’s win total.
The conference loses plenty of starting quarterbacks from Tyree Jackson to Gus Ragland to Jarret Doege. With lots of new blood in the MAC, which first-time starting QB has the best season?
Jimenez: Well, it depends. The MAC will likely have as many as three graduate transfers at the position in Ross Bowers (NIU), Darius Wade (BGSU) and Quinten Dormady (CMU). Drew Plitt will return to action as a full-time starter at Ball State after Riley Neal’s departure. And there’s still ongoing QB battles in Miami and Buffalo that might not get resolved until the season is already underway.
Each QB brings something different to the table. Bowers has a strong arm, Wade is a physical dual-threat and Dormady is a cerebral player who makes few mistakes. Bowers is perhaps in the best position to succeed immediately, as he joins a defending champion team which has the benefit of great personnel running with him.
Helwick: Central Michigan managed eight wins with a rather competent offense under Michigan grad transfer Shane Morris. Despite Morris’ struggles in Ann Arbor, the lefty proved to be a solid acquisition for the Chippewas. I think the same thing happens to Quinten Dormady. Dormady’s struggles at Tennessee were well documented and he failed to see the field at Houston, but all the built-up experience he received at his past programs should prepare him for a better life in Mt. Pleasant.
I also considered Ross Bowers, but it’s unclear whether Northern Illinois will begin the Thomas Hammock era with two-year incumbent starter Marcus Childers or the transfer from California.
Drury: Best first-time starter in the MAC — Ross Bowers from NIU. The Cal transfer has a big arm and, unlike the QBs coached by Rod Carey/Mike Uremovich, he won’t just throw underneath every play.
Gregorski: Quinten Dormady will have best season if we are talking about first-time MAC starters.
Who are your conference players of the year, offensive and defensive? And do any of these players have a shot at following Sutton Smith’s footsteps in becoming the next All-American from the MAC?
Jimenez: OPOY: Nathan Rourke. He’s easily the most talented player in the MAC, capable of eluding opposing defenses with both his arm and his legs. The schedule also falls favorably for Ohio this year, so they can do some damage.
DPOY: Antonio Jones-Davis. The anchor of the NIU defense, Jones-Davis is a tough backer who nary misses a tackle in the middle of the field. He’ll once again be the primary run stopper for the Huskies, which will open plenty of opportunities for him.
In terms of All-Americans, I don’t have a lot of faith in voters to vote any MAC player to the list. If he stayed at Central, I’d have placed Mike Danna here. But he’ll likely have a better shot making the list at Michigan.
Helwick: The MAC Offensive Player of the Year should be a consensus pick. It’s Nathan Rourke. The Ohio quarterback is one of the best mobile QBs in the nation with 1,767 rushing yards and 36 rushing touchdowns in two seasons. He’s deadly on the speed option and his break-tackle ability is superior to almost any quarterback in the FBS. As a passer, he’s only gotten better with time, sharply increasing his completion percentage and yards per attempt as a junior last year. Remember that feeling we had going into 2017 where Logan Woodside seemed destined to carry Toledo to a MAC title and become the conference’s most decorated player? I feel that with Rourke now.
The Defensive Player of the Year is a tougher decision, but I’ll go with Akron free safety Alvin Davis in a dark-horse pick. Davis started 2018 as one of the top coverage men in the country, intercepting four passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in his first four games. He makes great reads in zone coverage and has potential to rank among the nation’s elite in the interceptions category. Antonio Jones-Davis will be under consideration as well, but I feel like sacks and interceptions are the attributes that often win this honor.
Most MAC All-Americans have been produced by posting video game numbers. Whether it’s Jordan Lynch’s rushing yards, Shawun Lurry’s interceptions, or Sutton Smith’s sack count, a MAC player has to go above and beyond in a major stat category. But I can’t pinpoint a particular player for an All-American selection now.
Drury: Nathan Rourke probably wins OPOY. He’s got the talent to get Ohio to Detroit and possibly claim their first MAC title in 51 years. For DPOY, my pick is linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis from NIU. The guy always seems to be where the ball is and, if he gets you wrapped up, you’re not escaping. While AJD has a small chance at being an All-American, I doubt any MAC players will get that honor this season.
Gregorski: Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio for Offensive MVP. Javon Hagan, Ohio, S for Defensive MVP. I think Hagan is poised for a breakout statistical season this year. Antonio Jones-Davis is in the conversation, no doubt. No All-Americans.
What are the best non-conference wins you envision for the MAC this season?
Jimenez: NIU over Vandy and EMU/Toledo over Kentucky would be fantastic for boosting the profile of the MAC on a national scale. But realistically, there’s multiple MAC teams facing Illinois who have a really good chance of winning.
Helwick: Ohio will beat reigning ACC Coastal champion Pitt at Heinz Field. Pitt loses to good Group of Five teams seemingly every season, and Nathan Rourke will be too much for the Panthers’ defense to handle. Also, somebody is going to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats finished No. 12 last season but lose running back Benny Snell, tight end C.J. Conrad, and outside linebacker Josh Allen. If I had to pick between Toledo and Eastern Michigan to take them down, I’ll go with the Eagles.
Drury: NIU over Vanderbilt. While I hope NIU can upset top-25 teams Utah and Nebraska, I really think they have a shot at shocking Vandy. Toledo escaping Kentucky and/or BYU with a win isn’t out of the question. And, as a parting gift for Rod Carey, I would love to see Buffalo beat up on Temple.
Gregorski: I can see Toledo or EMU beating Kentucky. Northern Illinois over Vanderbilt. Ohio can beat Pitt. I like Miami over Cincinnati.
Will any coaches be poached by Power 6 programs or are there any coaches on the hot seat?
Jimenez: Half of the league is in the midst of rebuild, and Frank Solich ain’t going anywhere. The only coach who’s on the watch list is Jason Candle, and even that is dependent on the jobs available.
Helwick: There are three coaches with poaching potential — Jason Candle, Chris Creighton, and Lance Leipold. Candle has captained high-caliber offenses and sustained the success of his program at Toledo, while Creighton and Leipold built struggling programs from the ground up. I’m going to say an American, ACC, or Pac-12 job becomes available and one of Candle or Creighton gets hired. The coaches on the hot seat are Chuck Martin and Mike Neu. Miami must attain bowl eligibility for Martin to stay in Oxford and Ball State probably needs five wins for Neu to remain in Muncie.
Drury: With four coaches entering their first year at MAC programs, Solich being a staple at Ohio, Leipold inking an extension at Buffalo, and Creighton doing well at EMU the past three years, I think it’ll be a boring year for coaching changes in the MAC. Jim McElwain and Jason Candle have the best chances to move up but I don’t see any P5 programs poaching them just yet… unless CMU or Toledo go 11-1 or undefeated.
And I have Ball State’s Mike Neu is the only coach on the hot seat right now but if Kent State has another bad season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Sean Lewis end up there too.
Gregorski: Hot seat: What’s Neu is about to get old unless Ball State can get to 5-6 wins. I can’t see Central Michigan’s McElwain beating the all-time MAC coaching win record but I can see a two-year stunt, so probably no poaching. I see all coaches back who are not fired.
Who ends up in Detroit for the MAC Championship and who wins it?
Jimenez: I’m already on the radio airwaves saying it’s going to be Ohio and NIU in Detroit, with Ohio taking the title. It’s been 50 years, they’re about due. It’s now or never at this point.
Helwick: Ohio wins the East in a landslide. The West is a four-team race between Northern Illinois, Toledo, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan. Out of the four, I’ll pick Northern Illinois for its relentless defense headlined by linebackers Antonio Jones-Davis and Kyle Pugh. I think Thomas Hammock takes the offense to another level that was missing at the end of the Rod Carey era in terms of play-calling and execution in the passing game.
In Detroit, Ohio takes the crown for the first time since 1968. It’s still absurd that amid all the success, Frank Solich doesn’t have a MAC Championship. That changes in December.
Drury: Hard not to pick Ohio in the East. As for the West, that race is up for grabs… NIU, WMU, and Toledo all have legit chances to make it. Toledo is always picked to win and never does… I think this year is the same. A crucial late loss ends their chances. I do have a bias here and, with NIU most likely improving their offensive abilities under Hammock, I think the Huskies surprise a lot of teams (AGAIN) and make it Detroit. That being said, I feel like Ohio ends their drought and wins the MACCG.
Gregorski: Ohio vs. NIU in the MAC Championship. Ohio wins. Ohio has a chance to make a big leap on defense and has one of the potentially deepest defensive rosters in the Solich era. NIU’s defense is great again at all levels. Ohio has the MAC MVP in Nathan Rourke.