This offseason was perhaps the toughest—and most self-reflective— offseason for the MAC as a Division I sporting conference.
With the world coming to a stop due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MAC became the first conference to cancel all fall sports in July, moving the schedule to tentative dates in the fall. About two months later, the MAC acquiesced to indirect (and direct) pressure from botho outside and inside to re-instate the season, choosing a November kickoff to take advantage of the Big 4 leagues not being on the calendar from Tuesday to Thursday.
A halved season means less room for mistakes— but also more room for flukes to turn into tragedies (or miracles.)
That all paints the preseason polls for both coaches and media, as four different programs were selected to win their respective divisions and over half the conference received at least one vote to win the MAC title game. To put it plainly, no one knows how to approach this season, so instincts are going to be key to trying to understand the action happeneing in front of us.
For this year’s Power Rankings, we add one new voter in Zach Folly, co-host of our Mid-American Bandwagon podcast, and bring back our other nine voters to round out to 10 per week. There may be days where there are less than 10 votes. In that case, we will go off their last listed results, except for the preseason ballot, as it is a fresh start.
Without further ado: the Hustle Belt preseason power rankings:
12. Akron Zips
- Unanimous #12
Well, when you haven’t won a game in two calendar years, you’ll find yourself a unanimous #12 in the power rankings.
Akron does have some promising freshmen in the mix, particularly along the offensive line, but it cannot be denied that the Zips will struggle for relevancy, especially in a six-game season. They are, by far, the youngest team in the conference, with well over half of the roster listed as a true or redshirt freshman. We won’t know exactly what the team will look like until they take the field, but at least it’s at home, even if it’s against a talented WMU team.
11. Bowling Green Falcons
- High vote: 10 (two voters)
- Low vote: 11 (six)
- Average vote: 10.85
Bowling Green only had three wins last season, but one of them was against a heavily-favored Toledo squad— and it just so happens those two sides play once again on Wednesday night in the Glass Bowl.
A fully healthy Andrew Clair returns to the lineup, as does Senior Bowl TE prospect Quintin Morris, which should give new quarterback Matt McDonald some fun weapons to play with on offense. Defensively, though, there’s still plenty of question marks as the work to bring the talent back up still goes apace. This team gave up 30+ points in all but three games last season, so they’ll have to work at it to stay in contention in 2020.
A test against a ferociously talented Rockets squad will be a baptism by fire in that department, though on-paper matchups tend to be thrown out in rivalry games.
T-9. Eastern Michigan Eagles
- High vote: 9 (four)
- Low vote: 11 (one)
- Average vote: 9.42
EMU is slowly working its way back up to respectability, and last season was certainly an indication that they’re ready to make the leap. The Eagles were involved in an incredible eight games that were decided by one score or less in 2019, tops in the country in that statistic. If a few bounces go their way, EMU could well have been division champions in a MAC West which didn’t settle until the final week of games.
Alas, the Eagles finished 6-7 en route to (another) one-score game in the postseason, falling to Pitt. EMU will have to take those lessons and learn to finish when the game is on the line before they start gaining votes any higher than the lower third, especially since they lose a good number of important pieces on both sides to graduation. They’ll have a chance to prove themselves vs. MAC media darling Kent State.
T-9. Northern Illinois Huskies
- High vote: 7 (one)
- Low vote: 11 (one)
- Average vote: 9.42
2019 was clearly a rebuilding year in DeKalb, something which Huskie fans are unaccustomed to after an unbelievable decade of dominance in the 2010’s. But nothing is meant to last, and as NIU enters 2020, they’ll have to move forward with a roster which experienced mass transfers in the offseason and will be forced to rely on youngsters at many key positions.
Thankfully, Ross Bowers and Kyle Pugh are back to give the team a veteran presence.
It’ll be a tough road for such a young roster to try and remain competitive in perhaps the toughest division in Division I football, but they were excellent in playing the role of spoiler in 2019, and if they can reprise the role again in a shortened season, they could sneak into some success. They start the season vs. Buffalo.
8. Western Michigan Broncos
- High vote: 6 (two)
- Low vote: 8 (three)
- Average vote: 7.28
It’s Year 4 of the Tim Lester era in Kalamazoo, and the former Bronco QB is ready to show what the team looks like with his footprint on the program, as the last of the PJ Fleck-era players are off the roster for the most part.
The Broncos went 6-7 in 2019, ultimately missing a chance at the MAC West with a loss to NIU with two weeks to go (as mentioned earlier) and then showing a late lack of awareness to lose to Western Kentucky in their bowl game. Those will surely be demerits in terms of their preseason ranking, but not all is bad with the Broncos.
For one, they return MAC Defensive Player of the Year in LB Treshaun Hayward, who led the MAC with an incredible 179 total tackles. They also return one of the deeper receiving attacks, with D’Wayne Eskridge (re-conversion from DB), Skyy Moore, DaShon Bussell, Corey Crooms and Jaylen Hall all returning to action.
WMU should be in position top at least compete for the MAC West, and get a lucky start with Akron in Week 1.
7. Ball State Cardinals
- High vote: 2 (one)
- Low vote: 9 (one)
- Average vote: 6.71
The story of the 2019 Cardinals was of a team which couldn’t get out of its own way. It was certianly not for a lack of talent they found themselves out of bowl contention in 2019, as Drew Plitt, Justin Hall, Caleb Huntley, AJ Udozinma II, James Jennette III, Bryce Cosby and Antonio Phillips all return for the 2020 season.
But if they hope to compete, they have to stop being conservative with leads and play to win, as opposed to not losing, No games are perhaps more emblematic of this fact than their 2019 tilts with Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan, two games where they held double-digit leads before losing at the tail end.
Ball State has the potential to be a tough out in the conference, but they’ll have to execute from the start. They face MAC champion Miami right out of the gate.
t-5. Kent State Golden Flashes
- High vote: 4 (two)
- Low vote: 8 (two)
- Average vote: 5.28
The darlings of 2019 are back, and their prospects for making noise in 2020 have a lot of fans excited to see what happens once they hit the gridiron.
After an unbelievable end to the 2019 which culminated in the program’s first bowl win in its long history, the Golden Flashes have their eyes on Detroit. They certainly have pieces to attempt a run, as senior QB Dustin Crum returns to lead one of the most effective aerial offenses in the MAC. Isaiah McKoy, perhaps the best deep threat in the MAC, and Will Matthews, who showed himself to be a capable runner when necessart, also makes their return to the roster. It also helps their chances that Matthew Trickett is the MAC’s best placekicker prospect, ensuring they have a chance to stay in close games.
The East could be wide open this season, so if Kent State improves as much as we think they will, they should be in the mix heading into the final weeks. They’ll start their season against their MAC West analog EMU.
t-5. Toledo Rockets
- High vote: 2 (one)
- Low vote: 7 (two)
- Average vote: 5.28
The favorite of MAC coaches to win the MAC West division, and third-favorite to win the MAC outright by media, the Toledo Rockets once again are in a postion of exepectation— despite their wounded 6-6 finish in 2019, which left them out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.
2019 was a year of pain for Toledo, as a number of key contributors were injured early on, making it difficult to stay competitive. Thankfully for Rockets fans, stud RB Bryant Koback is fully healthy and ready to go and veteran center Bryce Harris also returns to man the offensive line. The quarterback question is still to be answered, but Carter Bradley and Eli Peters proved they were capable of handling those responsibilities in relief duty for Mitchell Guadagni.
They’ll look to avenge their most painful loss of 2019 to kick off 2020, taking on BGSU in the Battle of I-75.
4. Ohio Bobcats
- High vote: 3 (one)
- Low vote: 6 (two)
- Average vote: 4.42
The Bobcats come into 2020 without foundational piece Nathan Rourke, who graduated and signed with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League in the offseason.
But they won’t be lacking for talent this season, returning one of, if not the most, experienced teams in the conference on both sides of the ball.
Their rushing attack is perhaps the team’s most intimidating position group, with three running backs capable of being a full-time starter rotating for carries in De’Montre Tuggle, O’Shaan Allison and Julian Ross. Whoever takes snaps at QB figures to also be a running threat in the patented Solich pistol offense, and both Kurtis Rourke (Nathan’s younger brother) and UNLV grad transfer Armani Rogers are certainly capable of scrambling when necessary.
The defense will face a number of question marks, with at least two starters opting-out due to COVID-19 and several more graduating, but it was a solid group in 2019 and projects to be solid once again in 2020, with the ends Austin Conrad and Amos Ogun-Semore setting the edge. They face Central Michigan on the road to start the season.
3. Central Michigan Chippewas
- High vote: 1 (once)
- Low vote: 7 (one)
- Average vote: 3.14
Speaking of Central Michigan, the Chippewas will begin their first division title defense since 2009 on Wednesday night, and return perhaps the most complete roster in the divison.
First-team all-MAC receiving dup Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan are back to pace the aerial attack, while Kobe Lewis gets promoted to the RB1 role after a breakout campaign in 2019 as relief back for Jonathan Ward (now with the Arizona Cardinals.) The defense sees the return of first-team all-MAC linebacker Troy Brown as well, with third-team all-MAC tackle Robi Stuart, LaQuan Johnson and Devonni Reed for senior leadership roles.
There will be a couple question marks for CMU along the way this season, including the offensive line’s chemistry while introducing four new starters, and how the defensive backfield will look with the departures of freshmen phenoms Kyron McKinnie-Harper and Montrae Braswell. But there’s no doubt this group is still talented, and our voters certainly respected that fact. The Chips play Ohio to start the year.
2. Miami RedHawks
- High vote: 1 (two)
- Low vote: 5 (one)
- Average vote: 2.71
Last year’s MAC champion looks to prove that 2019 wasn’t an anomaly, and will be well-positioned to make a run once again.
MAC Freshman Player of the Year Brett Gabbert is back to take the reins at quarterback, and returns a lot of his favorite targets, including Jack Sorenson, James Burns (nee Maye), Jalen Walker and Dominique Robinson. On defense, Emmanuel Rugamba returns to Oxford after previously opting-out of the season and will pair with Sterling Weatherford, immediately giving the RedHawks one of the best defensive backfields in the MAC. Kameron Butler also returns as a key piece of the defensive line.
The RedHawks won on the margins in 2019, and proved to be one of the most disciplined teams in the MAC en route to the title, so another year under Chuck Martin with largely the same unit should produce similar results. They start the season against MAC West upstart Ball State.
#1. Buffalo Bulls
- High vote: 1 (five)
- Low vote: 2 (three)
- Average vote: 1.42
No shocker here: the Bulls are the #1 team going into the first week of games.
Both media and the coaches polls were really high on the Bulls, and we are too. It’s hard not to, given they have MAC Offensive Player of the Year Jaret Patterson toting the rock, and one of the MAC’s toughest defenses to offer support.
The Bulls were largely victims to circumstance to start the 2019 season, struggling to play cohesively, even dropping thier first two games in conference play vs. Miami and Ohio. They proceeded to rally from there, winning 6 of their last 7 games to finish 8-5. Their only loss? To Kent State, on a walk-off field goal to cap a miracle 21-point comeback rally. If Buffalo held on, they would have controlled their MAC title fate.
They’ll be on a revenge tour in the shortened season, motivated to correct their 2019 foibles in the condensed claendar. They start against a rebuilding NIU.
Did we get it right? Did we get it wrong? Be sure to sound off in the comments section below, or at us on Twitter @HustleBelt!