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One storyline to watch for in each Wednesday night MACtion matchup

Hear from all 12 MAC coaches prior to Wednesday night’s season opening slate.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 MAC Championship Game - NIU v Buffalo Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Six games. One day. All the MACtion.

This Wednesday will be the most action-packed college football Wednesday in the sport’s history as all 12 MAC teams take the field for their season opener, broadcasted across a bevy of networks.

The MAC coaches previewed their upcoming seasons at media day press conferences last week. With input from each coach, here is one storyline to focus on for each program heading into Wednesday’s MACtion-heavy slate.

Eastern Michigan at Kent State

Eastern Michigan: Chris Creighton assumes play calling duties

Former offensive coordinator Aaron Keen left Eastern Michigan to accept a Division III head coaching job at Washington University in St. Louis. The Eagles’ new offensive coordinator is quite the familiar face and they didn’t have to conduct a painstaking job search to find him — it’s head coach Chris Creighton, entering his seventh year with the program but first year as the chief play-caller.

“We’ll be doing it as a group, as a team. It’s not my style with the staff to tell everybody what to do and outsmart people,” Creighton said on assuming play-calling duties. “My piece of it is just making sure everyone understands philosophically what we want to do. Often, guys on the staff have better solutions knowing what we’re trying to get than I do, so we’re doing it together as a group, but I’ve done it for a long time. It was probably more awkward for me the last six years not doing it.”

Kent State: Did the Golden Flashes turn the corner?

Kent State found itself trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter to Buffalo on a cold November night in the Ohio Valley. On the verge of their seventh loss, it was shaping up to be another dreary season for the Golden Flashes. But under head coach Sean Lewis, Kent State isn’t the Kent State program of yesteryear. The Golden Flashes mounted a 24-point scoring barrage in the final eight minutes to topple Buffalo which launched a four-game win streak to end 2019.

“We were very, very close for a very long time. We had eight one-possession games a year ago... but learned very valuable lessons and we were able to apply that to push through,” Lewis said. “That Buffalo game gave everyone in our building a sense of belief, a sense of purpose. They had a little bit of juice to finish out the season the right way.”

NCAA Football: Kent State at Arizona State
Sean Lewis took the Kent State program to new heights in year two, winning the first bowl game in program history.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The season concluded in the program’s first-ever bowl victory, upsetting Utah State 51-41 in the Frisco Bowl. As winners of its last four games, Kent State hopes it finally corrected the losing ways of the past to establish something great in the future.

“When we got back in January, we ceremonially ripped the rearview mirror off and have been looking forward because this is the unique challenge that we face year in and year out,” Lewis said. “We lost of good football players, guys who played a bunch for us that were cornerstones of the program that we built. But the legacy that they laid down and the foundation that they laid down is something we can build off of going forward.”

Western Michigan at Akron

Western Michigan: Replacing departed senior talent

In 2019, Western Michigan was a primarily senior-oriented squad. The Broncos featured the MAC Offensive Player of the Year in senior running back LeVante Bellamy. Bellamy, quarterback Jon Wassink, tight end Giovanni Ricci, and center Luke Juriga are just a handful of key names the Broncos must replace heading into 2020.

Starting quarterback Kaleb Eleby is a familiar face to Western Michigan faithful, however. While he didn’t take a snap in 2019, Eleby started the final four games of 2018 (including the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl) following a season-ending injury to Wassink.

“We got a new quarterback and that’s gonna always be a question when you have a guy whose only has five games under his belt,” head coach Tim Lester said. “But it’s a fun team to be a young quarterback on. We have talented running backs, a talented o-line, and Skyy Moore and Dee Eskridge on the edges. We have a good group of wide receivers with speed. Hopefully we can surround the young quarterback with as much talent as humanly possible and let him go to work.”

Western Michigan has been loaded with talented running backs since the dawn of the P.J. Fleck era. The Broncos have a streak of 1,000-yard rushers dating back to 2014, but the 2020 backfield will be its most inexperienced in a long time. Instead of operating with a workhorse back like Bellamy, there may be a running back by committee in Kalamazoo this year with Sean Tyler, Jaxson Kincaide, and La’Darius Jefferson all in the mix.

“Sean Tyler is an exciting young back. You can ask LeVante about him. LeVante will tell me, ‘He’s a better young me,’” Lester said. “He’s gotta develop like LeVante did, but he’s an exciting young guy. With Kincaide and with La’Darius, it’s definitely gonna be more like our first couple years here. Figure out who has the hot hand, lean on them. If one of them distances himself from the rest of the pack, maybe he becomes the workhorse.”

Akron: Seeking Tom Arth’s first win

There are 130 FBS programs, and 129 experienced the exhilarating feeling of celebrating in the winning locker room at least once in 2019. And then there’s Akron. The Zips debuted a new head coach last season in Tom Arth. Akron fared 0-12 in Arth’s first season and only covered the spread on one occasion. There is a lot of rebuilding work to be done at Akron, but Arth doesn’t see dejected faces this offseason — he sees a team on a mission to build from square one upward.

Akron v Miami Ohio
Tom Arth is 0-12 in his FBS head coaching career, but he hopes to see a cultural turnaround in year two at the helm.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

“We’ve seen so much growth and really, it goes back to the winter time for us,” Arth said. “Our guys came in with such an incredible mindset. Their attitude, their effort, the competitive spirit they brought every single day — it was noticeably different. When you talk about the culture of your program, the things that are most important to building a successful program... I think a lot of those things are really starting to take root.”

Buffalo at Northern Illinois

Buffalo: Do the Bulls remain reliant on rushing?

If the MAC season started in mid-October last year, the Buffalo Bulls likely hoist the conference crown. Once Buffalo started playing to its strengths in 2019, it dominated the competition. Playing to its strengths primarily involved a tendency to remain dependent on the run and feed the 1,000 running backs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks. In each of Buffalo’s final six contests, Patterson earned 26 or more carries and produced 140 or more yards each time. The Bulls fared 5-1 over the span while slowly phasing out of the passing attack. In games where Patterson earned fewer than 25 carries Buffalo struggled with a 2-4 record, so favoring the run went a long way in the Bulls’ prolific midseason turnaround.

“The strength of our football team is in the backfield and the production of the two running backs,” Leipold said. “(Patterson) does so much for us... He has a great complement in Kevin Marks and we feel we have other depth at that position so we hope we can keep him fresh and healthy along the way. When you’re breaking in some new offensive linemen, it’s a culmination of a lot of things and we’ve gotta make sure we stay with our plan in the run game and he stays consistent in it.”

Patterson and Marks return to Buffalo, but the Bulls lose three of the five pieces from the premier offensive line in the MAC. With the same personnel in the backfield but a new cast of characters in the trenches, it will be interesting to see if Leipold continues to rely heavily on the rushing attack or switches to a more balanced scheme.

“We want to be more balanced,” Leipold said. “With a veteran offensive line and two quality running backs, it just played out that way (in 2019). But we know if we want to be the type of team we want to be, balanced and spreading the ball around — we have to have more consistent targets other than (wide receiver) Antonio Nunn and make people defend the whole field on us.”

Northern Illinois: Reverting to the program’s winning tradition

Northern Illinois was far and away the most successful MAC program of the 2010s. The Huskies reserved a spot in the conference championship game every year from 2010-15 and surged back to the mountaintop in 2018. The Huskies won a record three conference titles over the decade, appeared in the 2012 Orange Bowl, and sent former quarterback Jordan Lynch to New York for a Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Northern Illinois ushered in a new era when hiring its former running back Thomas Hammock to the head coaching position in 2019, following Rod Carey’s departure for Temple. The era was off to a trying start as the Huskies stumbled to a 5-7 record and failed to finish above .500 in MAC play for the first time since 2007. After one year of learning the ropes, Hammock strives to bring reinvigorate the program and breed a winner in DeKalb.

“We gained a lot of value and information about the program and where it’s at and where it needs to go,” Hammock said. “NIU has had a great program over the last 10-12 years, but some of these young guys don’t understand what it took to get to that level... We couldn’t be more excited to build on the traditions of this program.”

Ohio at Central Michigan

Ohio: Following up Nathan Rourke at quarterback

For the first time since 2016, Ohio’s offense will operate without three-time All-MAC quarterback Nathan Rourke. He was the ideal dual threat quarterback for the Bobcats each of the last three seasons, throwing for 60 touchdowns and rushing for 49 during a tenure which featured three bowl victories. Nathan may have graduated, but the Rourke legacy lives on through redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke. Kurtis is a candidate for the starting quarterback spot but plays a different style than his older brother.

“We got really comfortable with Nathan taking the snaps of course,” head coach Frank Solich said. “Kurtis is a guy that can throw the ball really, really well, probably a little bit better than this brother. Maybe not quite the runner that his brother is, but he’s great at movement in the pocket and excellent at running. Throwing is probably his main deal.”

Ohio also made a nice haul in the transfer market by landing former UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers. The grad transfer has 18 games as an FBS starter under his belt and exudes dual-threat abilities. Rogers averaged over 77 rushing yards per game at UNLV while throwing for roughly 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns.

“You look at Armani and it kind of reverses a little bit,” Solich said. “Armani’s a great runner and he’s really developing into an excellent thrower. We’re gonna have two talented quarterbacks — they’re just gonna be inexperienced.”

NCAA Football: Hawaii at UNLV
Former UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers is competing for the Ohio starting job this season.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Central Michigan: How will Daniel Richardson fare in his first start?

Central Michigan has experience at quarterback on the roster, but the Chippewas will be forced to go with inexperience on opening night. Quarterback David Moore started four contests in 2019 for the Chippewas but tested positive for a banned substance to provoke a 1-year suspension.

Redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson checked into the lopsided New Mexico Bowl loss in the fourth quarter last year and threw his first three passes in maroon and gold. Richardson was the last QB to take the field for Central Michigan and will be the first to do so again Wednesday with Moore sidelined. With Richardson as the starter, head coach Jim McElwain also expects FCS transfer quarterback Ty Brock to check in under center against Ohio.

“We still have not heard anything on David Moore. He’s still practicing. We’re still waiting for the final report from the NCAA as far as moving forward. Right now, D-Rich will be the starter if we don’t get any reports and obviously Ty will play a big role in the game,” McElwain said. “It’s actually been kind of fun as a coach, the challenge to make sure that you’re getting your best 11 on the field.”

Ball State at Miami (OH)

Ball State: “Detroit or bust”

The Cardinals have not participated in the MAC Championship since 2008. They have not been bowl eligible since 2013. But the 2020 iteration of the program is aiming for the fences, adopting a full-fledged “Detroit or bust” mantra initiated by free safety Bryce Cosby. The MAC Championship Game will be held Friday, Dec. 19 in Detroit and Cosby has encouraged a sense of belief that the program can return to the Motor City for the first time in 12 seasons.

“Last year it was hard, some of those games we lost that we didn’t deliver in those critical moments. That didn’t sit well, so when our offseason began way back when before all the COVID hit back in January, that was the mindset,” head coach Mike Neu said of the player-driven mantra. “It was very difficult for the guys to watch the MAC Championship Game after we concluded the season and we felt strongly that we had the tools and the ingredients to be in that situation.”

Miami (OH): Offensive linemen back on campus

When the fall MAC season was originally canceled on Aug. 8, many players were faced with difficult decisions about their future. Two of Miami’s top linemen, offensive tackle Tommy Doyle and center Danny Godlevske, hung up their RedHawk uniforms to declare for the NFL Draft. The MAC reversed its original course of action on Sept. 25, and suddenly, the two star linemen returned in Oxford with hopes of raising their draft stock and leading Miami to consecutive conference championships.

“When we decided to play, I just reached out to them and said, ‘I totally understand if you want to stay opting out and I totally respect that. That’s between you and your family. But I just want you to know if you opt back in, I’d love to have you,’” head coach Chuck Martin said. “They had the mindset if we’re playing in the fall, my plan was to play in the fall all along.”

Bowling Green at Toledo

Bowling Green: Retaining the Battle of I-75 Trophy

The Battle of I-75 Trophy became a stationary fixture in Toledo across the 2010s decade. Despite two MAC titles in the mid-2010s, Bowling Green lost nine straight to its hated crosstown rival from 2010-18. That all changed on Oct. 12, 2019 when the Falcons hosted the Rockets as 28.5-point underdogs. Bowling Green’s defense took over that afternoon and shocked Toledo in 20-7 fashion. The Falcons aim to create a win streak after last year’s surprise. But also, Bowling Green is still searching for its first winning season since 2015 and perhaps a solution is to treat every week like Toledo week.

“For the first time in its baby steps, our kids practiced today with the emotion and intensity that it’s supposed to be like,” head coach Scot Loeffler said Friday. “The Toledo week is different but our coaches are trying to stress upon our players that every week — January 28 whenever we’re lifting weights at 6 o’clock in the morning — it needs to be that type of urgency.”

Toledo: Bryce Harris returns to action

The injury bug bit Toledo with great impact last fall. One month before the opener at Kentucky, the Rockets lost its star center. Bryce Harris suffered a knee injury in practice and missed the entirety of the 2019 season. He will earn an opportunity at a reboot of his senior campaign, hoping to follow up the All-MAC and Academic All-MAC selections he received in a successful 2018 season.

“You downplay that injury and you try to push it to the side like it didn’t happen at the time last year because it was such terrible timing and you have to get a team ready to play. Kentucky didn’t care if our all-conference center was playing or not, so we had to treat it as such, but really that was a major loss for us,” head coach Jason Candle said. “That’s the guy that touches the ball on every play, that’s the guy that’s the communicator, that’s the guy that’s making all the calls on the line.”

MAC Championship - Akron v Toledo
Bryce Harris returns to the starting lineup after missing the entirety of 2019 with a knee injury.

Harris presents a lot more to the program than elite blocking skills on gamedays. He’s the star of the team in practices and off the field, and Toledo will be grateful for Harris’ return to the lineup this fall from a leadership perspective as well.

“He’s a multi-year captain, voted a captain again this year, and a rock solid student — a guy that already has his undergrad degree pursuing his master’s degree, and a guy that’s very active in our community,” Candle said. “When you lose that guy, it’s more than just a center. It’s more than just an offensive lineman. It’s more than just an all-conference football player.”