After news broke Aug. 8 that the MAC would cancel its fall season, we never thought we’d get this far. Three months have passed and suddenly, there are games to look forward to. As we prepare for the most stacked Wednesday night in college football history, our panel of Hustle Belt writers predicts how the 2020 six-game MAC season will play out.
MACtion will dominate the sports world on Wednesday nights this year with NBA, NHL, and MLB all currently in the offseason. How vital will the standalone television exposure be to the conference this year, and with no fans in attendance, should have the MAC elected to play midweek all six weeks?
James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): As much as I admit liking the idea of this from a ratings and entertainment viewpoint, it simply wouldn’t be fair to the players, coaches and staff around the program to do a full mid-week schedule. Part of the reason the MAC assembled the schedule as it did was because they wanted to keep player health (physical and mental) at the forefront, while also keeping the MAC front-and-center on TV. It’s about as good as a compromise as you can get, all considered. The on-field action will always speak for itself, no matter what the schedule ultimately looks like.
Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): It’s huge. Look at this Wednesday night. MACtion dominates nearly all ESPN networks, including the flagship station. Casual sports fans looking for something to watch will wind up tuning into MACtion, and perhaps it gets them hooked. These next three weeks should be some of the most eyeballs the MAC receives on its product. The MAC will switch exclusively to Saturdays come late November, but I respectfully disagree with the decision. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are where the exposure is, while Saturday games are best for fan, student, and alumni attendance. MAC stadiums are closed to general attendance this year, so I think playing the entire 6-game season midweek would have been the best course of action.
Jordan Rinard (@CoachRinard): I feel like it could be an opportunity for growth if those games were heavily promoted. Typically, #MACtion hasn’t been a priority for ESPN and other networks, so I’m not holding my breath. I actually like the Saturday games in December, since other conferences will have wrapped up play by then anyway.
Dave Drury (@DDrury86): I think the increased exposure will be great for the conference but, yes, if the conference really wanted to help themselves, they would have done every game a weeknight game. What sucks, as a fan, is that the MAC is finally do Saturday games in November/December again… but now, no one can attend. That’s something a lot of MAC fans have been wanting but, because of the TV revenue, hasn’t happened in a “normal” season… so I’m confused as to why it’s happening now, when they need that TV revenue even more.
Keith Gregorski (@keith_gregorski): I like the idea of six weeks of MACtion and the exposure it would bring to the schools. I know a lot of folks who like Saturday gamedays, but if there is no major attendance, that is not really a factor. The one thing I see this season to like about Saturday games is I might be able to see more MAC games in one day vs. MACtion.
Ken Bailey (@michexposures): Personally I hate midweek games because I’m one of those working stiffs, but since I’m not actually going to the games this year, midweek games would have been great for exposure. Maybe they should have shot for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday games all season.
Over/under: 3.5 cancelations this season? Do you think MAC teams should be allowed to schedule makeshift non-conference matchups if a game is canceled?
James: Looking at patterns in the Big Ten and our Group of Five peers, I’m going to go ahead and say it’s a push. Three cancelations sounds about right to me in the grand scheme, but four or more would also not be surprising. That said, in a 36-game schedule, three or four cancellations is about nine percent of the season and would significantly affect the standings, which would be a nightmare to parse out. And no, absolutely under no circumstances should a team be allowed to seek out a “non-conference” fill-in. The Big Ten absolutely did the right thing telling Nebraska to shove corn in their ears when they attempted to schedule and FCS program to fill the Wisconsin void. The whole point of this schedule was to limit spread. Little good that would do if you allowed teams to just schedule whoever they wanted.
Steve: Looking at the conferences that returned in late October, the Big Ten is already at two cancelations through three weeks and the Mountain West is at one. The MAC was the first conference to cancel the season back in August, so I’d expect the league to handle COVID-19 with utmost caution. That being said, I’ll predict four cancelations this year.
I understand conferences adopted conference-only schedules to limit the spread of COVID-19, but if a MAC team facing a cancelation tests 100% negative and another non-MAC team tests 100% negative, I’d be open to discussing non-conference games. It’s a slippery slope, but players sacrificed a lot for the opportunity to take the field and if there can be a non-conference game safely scheduled, it might be something the MAC should look into.
Jordan: Over. Ohio has been a COVID hotspot since the beginning so I would be stunned if those schools get through the season unscathed. In a perfect world, they should be able to makeup some games, but they were in such a hurry to get back that there isn’t really a plan for cancelations.
Dave: Hoping for under but it wouldn’t shock me seeing more since cases seem to be spiking again. And I would support makeshift non-conference games, if an opponent could be found in time and the game played in a safe manor.
Keith: Over. The vast majority of the players are doing everything they can to play and the teams have put a lot of thought in to precautions, but 3.5 games lost could happen if just 2 of the 12 teams get hit and have to cancel a few weeks. 3.5 games is just under 10% of the total games so I think it would be fortunate only to be 4 games lost.
Ken: The Big Ten has been relatively COVID free.... I’ll say under. With a shortened conference schedule, every game is important.
Out of the five MAC teams with losing records last season (Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois), which is most poised for a breakout campaign during this abbreviated season? Which winning record team (Buffalo, Central Michigan, Kent State, Miami, Ohio, Western Michigan) takes a tumble?
James: It’s a six-game schedule, so it’ll be difficult to say a team is really rising or falling in the most conventional sense. The Miami Marlins in this year’s abbreviated MLB season showed even a team projected to be one of the worst teams in the majors in a full schedule could still make a lot of noise in the playoffs. That said, Ball State should really see some improvement. BSU was a bit unlucky down the stretch of last season (their game against CMU is especially indicative), and they’re also notoriously fast starters for about as long as I can remember covering the MAC. They return a lot of their biggest contributors on both sides of the ball in 2020, and unlike previous seasons, there’s no dominant team in the division. NIU is on the rebuild, Toledo seems vulnerable and WMU is floating around (more on them in a second.) If they get one or two results they couldn’t muster in 2019, they could well establish themselves.
On the other end, WMU is absolutely set for a tumble. There’s a lot of transition at key positions on both sides of the ball, and the Broncos showed a startling lack of execution down the stretch in 2019, blowing a chance to control their West division destiny with two weeks to go by losing to a bad NIU team. Tim Lester returns, and it’s now firmly his roster of players four years removed from the Fleck era. It’s a now-or-never season for the Broncos, and I just don’t know if Lester is the right man to lead them here.
Steve: Ball State is armed with plenty of talented weapons offensively. Drew Plitt emerged as one of the best passers in the MAC last season, Caleb Huntley is a force in the rushing game, and the Cardinals are loaded on the edges at wide receiver and cornerback. Ball State finished 4-4 in conference play in 2019 and dropped three of its final four games in due to opponent go-ahead touchdowns in the final 65 seconds. If the defense ramps up a notch, Ball State has all the makings of a contender.
I’ll pick Central Michigan to regress this year after shocking the nation to win the MAC West in 2019. The Chippewas will start the season with an inexperienced quarterback in Daniel Richardson and they lose their premier ground threat in Jonathan Ward. The loss of defensive captain Michael Oliver (87 tackles, 9 tackles for loss) may hamper the run defense as well. Lastly, the Chippewas don’t have the friendliest crossover schedule, drawing Ohio in their inter-divisional game, which is considerably a tougher opponent than most winning teams from the 2019 season.
Jordan: Ball State may be the surprise team of 2020 with as much talent as they bring back. If the defense improves at all, we’re possibly talking about a division champion. Ohio without Nathan Rourke concerns me because the East is so good now, it’s possible that the Bobcats might’ve missed their window of opportunity for their first MAC championship in a long time.
Dave: I think Ball State and EMU are poised to do well this season. Unfortunately, I don’t have high hopes for my Huskies breaking out this year… but watch out next season! As for the winning teams, I think Western Michigan and Kent State take a tumble and Buffalo and CMU stay on top.
Keith: For the team with losing records last year, Ball State has the best chance for a breakout. Ball State’s schedule is tough with a game at cross-divisional Miami, yet they have the best returning team in the group. The Cardinals feature strong groups at QB, RB, OL, LB, and DB and lost close contests to WMU and CMU last year, by a total of four points. Find a way to make a few more plays and Ball State can rise up. I think the most likely team to take a tumble is probably Kent State, but just because the others are very good teams. WMU has a ton of offense to replace but are very strong on the offensive line and above average on the defensive line. That is where the games are won.
Ken: I’m jinxing myself but I think Eastern Michigan may be poised for a breakout season. They are returning a veteran receiving corps. Their line is fairly veteran. One of their quarterbacks should be up to the task. The only dark horse is their running game but with an unknown running corps, we’ll see.
Who are your offensive and defensive MVPs for the conference?
James: At this point, prognosticating anyone that isn’t Jaret Patterson as the preseason selection for offensive player of the year is a disservice to the concept of journalism. Patterson broke out in 2019, finishing with 1,799 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns as a true sophomore, an absolutely incredible statline comparable with some of the best in the country at the Power Five level. Save for anything untowards, he should only progress in 2020, even if he’ll only have half of his usual schedule available to accumulate stats with. For defensive player of the year, it’s probably a bit more wide open, with some of the MAC’s better defenders having graduated in 2019.
LB Treshaun Hayward at WMU is probably the favorite as the defending champion, accumulating 142 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2019. Those are eye-popping numbers, and I’m not sure any other linebacker in the conference can get close to that. CMU LB Troy Brown might get there if he can continue his excellent pass coverage and improve his tackling, as he pulled in 89 total tackles (17.5 for loss) and had three interceptions in his first year as a backer after converting from safety.
Steve: The Offensive MVP is clear. Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson is a top five running back in college football. He rushed for 1,799 yards last year, ranking second among all players returning for 2020. Patterson is only getting better and better, and he went ballistic to end 2019. The Bahamas Bowl MVP rushed for 140 or more yards in each of his last six games, attaining 1,113 yards and 15 touchdowns over the timespan.
Reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year Treshaun Hayward should be a force again for Western Michigan, but I’ll predict another Buffalo player to take home a major award. The Bahamas Bowl Defensive MVP, defensive end Malcolm Koonce, finished with eight sacks and three forced fumbles in 2019, and I see him sharpening his pass rushing skills and taking an even further leap as a senior.
Jordan: Offensive MVP goes to Jaret Patterson, as he is the Buffalo offense. The defensive MVP is where it gets interesting, as I feel like it’s going to go to a defensive back this year because a lack of chemistry between RBs and the offensive line may be apparent early in the season, leading to more pass attempts and interceptions. It would not surprise me at all to see someone like a Sterling Weatherford from Miami taking home DPOY honors due to an abnormal amount of picks.
Dave: Jaret Patterson, Buffalo’s running back, would be my early vote of Offensive MVP. Kyle Pugh, NIU’s linebacker, comes back from injuries and has a great senior season, earning himself Defensive MVP.
Keith: Offensive MVP, Dustin Crum. Crum does not have the biggest arm or the fastest feet but what I find rare and impressive about Crum is his offensive awareness. When you look at the bowl win vs Utah State last year, his performance was amazing in terms of his decision-making. Utah State had to be so frustrated by the end of the game because Crum saw most every opportunity and exploited them. Defensive MVP, I like Buffalo’s Taylor Riggins, second in the MAC in sacks last year.
Ken: Offensive, I’ll be a homer and say Eastern Michigan quarterback Preston Hutchinson. Defensively, Ball State cornerback Amechi Uzodinma. I don’t know why... but we’ll see.
Who do you project makes it to Detroit for the MAC Championship? Does the winning team finish undefeated, with one loss, or with two or more losses?
James: Buffalo vs. Central Michigan. I’ve got Central Michigan in the MAC West and Buffalo in the MAC East. They both make it for similar reasons: coaching staff and returning weapons, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The receiving duo of Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan will cause a lot of matchup problems for opposing defenses, while for Buffalo, they have perhaps the MAC’s best pro prospect in Jaret Patterson toting the ball with Kevin Marks as a capable replacement. Both defenses have also shown themselves capable of covering any assignment thrown their way, and that’s a testament to the coaching staffs, who are some of the deepest and most experienced in the conference. In terms of their records, I think a team could afford one loss and still make the title game. Two losses, and you’re suddenly looking at a danger zone.
Steve: Buffalo vs. Toledo. From the East side, I predict Buffalo to finish the regular season 5-1 (operating under a no-cancelations assumption). The Bulls make it due to their talented rushing tandem of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks — the only returning 1,000-yard running back duo for 2020. Also, Buffalo dominates on both sides of the trenches, finishing among the nation’s elite in sacks produced and fewest sacks allowed in 2019. The West should feature heavy parity, and Toledo sneaks out at 4-2 thanks to a convenient tie-breaking win. The Rockets feature a star halfback in Bryant Koback and they have a lot of experienced pieces on offense from quarterback Eli Peters to returning center Bryce Harris. The Bulls dominate in Detroit and win their first MAC title since 2008. Assuming a bowl victory, they’ll finish 7-1 and claim the best record in the conference for the third-straight season.
Jordan: Miami vs. Ball State. I feel like Miami and Ball State make the trip to Detroit based on the talent that they have and the growth that they’ll make in 2020. If Brett Gabbert can become a top tier QB in the MAC and the Cards’ defense is more efficient, then it’s not a stretch to see a possible Redbird Rematch in the title game. Miami could very well go 6-0, but 5-1 is probably more likely while the West may get topsy-turvy with some of the results this season.
Dave: Buffalo vs. Central Michigan. Buffalo and CMU are my picks to make it to Detroit, with Buffalo upending the Chips and winning their first title in 12 years. I think both teams go 5-1 in the regular season.
Keith: Ohio vs. Toledo. There are a lot of teams that will compete for the title and every team has some soft spots. I picked Toledo vs. Ohio to make it to Detroit (even though Buffalo vs. CMU is very attractive). I think the MAC is too competitive at the top half to get to 6-0 but I think a division winner could finish with a record as high as 5-1.
Ken: Bowling Green vs. Eastern Michigan. Again, I’ll go with my homer instincts and say Eastern Michigan. I honestly don’t know why I’ll pick them. And on the other side..... we’ll say Bowling Green.
Does a MAC team earn a ranking in the AP Poll or CFP rankings this year?
James: To put it bluntly: no. The MAC has been treated severely in national media in recent years, due to a perception (fair or not) that it’s a weak conference. Playing only six games will also likely be a strike against them, with other leagues playing eight or more games for voter’s consideration. The MAC constructed that schedule for safety, not for contention. (Aside: I am perfectly fine with that exchange so long as the players remain healthy.) It took WMU two years of utter dominance to even enter the ranking conversation back when they finally made the list in 2016, and that’s likely going to be the case moving forward. UCF making the New Year’s Six after two undefeated seasons has opened up the discussion for G5 inclusion in the AP Top 25 since that magical run— and it has shown itself in 2020, with several Sun Belt and American Athletic Conference teams vaulting up into the rankings. But as more leagues come back, that window gets more congested, and more teams get shut out. Even with the added visibility of weeknight windows, six games is too small a sample size, November is very late to start a season, and the MAC has a perception to shake off that will make it so that even an undefeated team could ultimately get buried by better teams with larger resumes. A 7-0 MAC champion could perhaps get some glean, but they’d likely have to win their bowl game too (assuming that’s even a thing by January or February).
Steve: CFP rankings? No, they haven’t been friendly to the MAC in years past. AP Poll? Yes. Since I’m predicting Buffalo to finish 7-1, the Bulls are a shoo-in to appear in the AP Poll. AP voters are paying attention to record but not focusing on strength of schedule this year, as evidenced by the fact that Liberty is ranked No. 25 despite its best wins being over 2-5 WKU and 1-6 Syracuse. Also, with a lack of non-conference games, the strongest conferences are cannibalizing themselves. For example, a team (let’s say Auburn) may have gone 4-0 in non-conference play, but instead, it fares .500 in SEC play. Thus, instead of 8-4 and a potential ranking, such a team would be sitting at .500 and unranked, opening a spot in the poll for a squad like Buffalo.
Jordan: It’ll be hard, but teams will be playing later than usual which could make a difference. The Top 25 this year has been wacky anyway (Cincinnati in the Top 10! Marshall inside the Top 20!) so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the MAC champion will be ranked.
Dave: Sadly no. And, if I’m honest, I doubt more than one or two teams make a bowl game this year. Only playing six games and starting so late in the year hurts the MAC here.
Keith: Unlikely for me that a team makes the AP Poll but not out of the question: the team would need to get to a 6-0 record to do it.
Ken: Nope. The classic “they didn’t play nobody” will rear it’s ugly head.