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2021 MAC Midseason Report Cards

We assess every MAC team in terms of preseason expectations and 2021 performance at the season’s halfway point.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe it, but we’re already halfway through the 2021 college football regular season. With six weeks in the books, every MAC team has battled two conference opponents and taken the field six times in total. Right now, parity is a defining feature of the MAC with eight of the league’s 12 teams sitting at 1-1 in conference play. Six games in, 11 of 12 MAC teams have at least two wins and all 12 have at least two losses to their name.

Before we get that seventh data point on each team, we assess all 12 MAC programs at the season’s midway point, factoring in preseason expectations as well as current on-field performance:

Akron Zips (2-4, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: C+

Only eight times this year has an FBS team lost by 50 points or greater. Akron was on the wrong side of two of those lopsided shellackings. While the Zips have already registered their highest win total since the 2018 season, the jury has not determined if the program is taking a promising leap in the third year under head coach Tom Arth. Akron’s first sign of concern was blowing a second half lead to a then-winless Ohio squad at home in Week 5. But the Zips redeemed themselves and improved to 1-1 in MAC play by upsetting Bowling Green on the road as double-digit underdogs. The most impressive quality of this team is vastly improved quarterback play. Although they’ve rotated through three quarterbacks, D.J. Irons, Kato Nelson, and Zach Gibson combine for a 69 percent completion rate, collectively firing 12 touchdowns to just four interceptions — on pace for the Zips’ best TD-INT ratio of the 21st century.

Ball State Cardinals (3-3, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: C

Ball State entered the season riding the FBS’s fourth longest win streak at seven games. The Cardinals were ranked No. 23 in the country to finish 2020. They won the MAC championship, the Arizona Bowl, and nearly the entire cast that manufactured that successful 2020 campaign returned. But Ball State squeaked past an FCS team in Week 1 and subsequently dropped three consecutive games by double-digits, including a questionable 33-point drubbing from Wyoming. Just when things couldn’t looker any bleaker for the Cardinals, they convincingly beat 4-0 Army and 4-1 Western Michigan — and totally redeem themselves! After consecutive games of reinvigorated play from quarterback Drew Plitt, Ball State suddenly looks like the 2020 team all over again. While 3-3 isn’t an ideal record for the first MAC team to receive preseason votes since 2016, Ball State still has 75 percent of its conference schedule ahead. If the Cardinals sustain their play from the last two weeks, all six of their remaining contests are certainly winnable. And so is the wide-open MAC.

Bowling Green Falcons (2-4, 0-2 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: B-

If we conducted midseason grades after non-conference season concluded, Bowling Green certainly receives an A. After fielding the second worst scoring defense in the land in 2020, the Falcons showed massive signs of progress defensively to start the year. In Week 3, they snapped a 10-game losing streak and soundly put away Murray State of the FCS. In a stunning follow-up act, Bowling Green marched into Minnesota and pulled off the greatest upset in college football since 2012 in terms of the point spread. As 30.5-point underdogs, the Falcons held the Gophers to 5/13 passing and forced two clutch interceptions to secure a 14-10 landmark victory. But Bowling Green couldn’t extend the win streak to three and squandered a fourth quarter lead to a solid Kent State team in the following week. Then the inexcusable happened. The Falcons, pegged as double-digit favorites over FBS competition for the first time in six years, dropped a head-scratcher to Akron, 35-20. The passing defense which dominated all year finally displayed some weaknesses, and the team couldn’t afford that showing. The defense remains the strength of this team, but Bowling Green’s rushing offense — which ranks last in the country in yards per carry — certainly needs refining before the Falcons can jump into the bowl eligibility ranks.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Minnesota
Free safety Jordan Anderson celebrates on the field after securing the game-winning interception to knock off Minnesota.
Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Bulls (2-4, 0-2 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: B-

After the departure of Lance Leipold and several key contributors including All-American halfback Jaret Patterson, there was no question 2021 would be a rebuilding year under first-year head coach Maurice Linguist. Buffalo has yet to win a conference game, but it appears to be a solid football team that has been victimized by a difficult schedule. The Bulls are the only defense to not allow Coastal Carolina’s explosive offense to hang 49+ points, and Buffalo came within a field goal of the ranked Chanticleers that game. Buffalo also held fourth quarter leads over Kent State and Western Michigan — two of the top teams in the MAC. However, not finishing games has been a recurring issue with the Bulls this year. In five games against FBS opponents, Buffalo has been outscored 64-15 in fourth quarters. But some positive extensions of the Leipold era still resonate within this program. The team still fields a strong pass rush led by Taylor Riggins while the offensive line continues to prevent sacks on a regular basis. And perhaps when the schedule softens up, the team’s 27th ranked rushing attack led by Kevin Marks and Dylan McDuffie can amplify its already impressive numbers and generate some wins.

Central Michigan Chippewas (3-3, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: C+

Central Michigan’s season has been a roller coaster. The Chippewas provided a scare to Missouri in Week 1 and appeared to fit the mold of MAC West contenders after the 34-24 defeat. Although contention is certainly an option in a division with five 1-1 teams, the Chippewas haven’t been able to take care of struggling programs this year. Central Michigan required a 17-point fourth quarter comeback to topple 1-5 FIU and the team needed 10 unanswered points in the final frame to defeat Ohio. However, the 3-3 record is respectable and running back Lew Nichols is piecing together a potential All-MAC season as the conference’s leading rusher. The next four opponents for Jim McElwain’s team are Toledo, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Kent State, so this team must be prepared to run the gauntlet in order to secure its second MAC West title in three years.

Eastern Michigan Eagles (4-2, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: A-

Eastern Michigan is one of three teams tied for the best overall record in the conference. The Eagles have once again sustained success under head coach Chris Creighton, and this season, the program’s acquisition of Cincinnati transfer quarterback Ben Bryant is a major reason why. Bryant claimed the starting job in Week 3 and has delivered 1,219 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions on a completion rate exceeding 66 percent. The transfer’s first two starts resulted in 101 points for an Eagles offense which is capable of explosiveness. Although the offensive outbursts have calmed down upon entering MAC play, Eastern Michigan’s secondary still operates as one of the premier units in the conference. MAC quarterbacks are only completing 42.4 percent of passes when pitted against the Eagles this year.

Kent State Golden Flashes (3-3, 2-0 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: B

Yes, one of the conference’s two 2-0 teams earns a ‘B’. But after watching Kent State’s offense average a nation’s best 49.8 points per game in 2020, it was hard not to expect more from the unit in non-conference play. Kent State failed to crack 20 on the scoreboard vs. Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland and suffered 20+ point losses to all three teams in a grueling non-conference schedule. Although the offense moved down the field with moderate success in those losses, finishing drives was a challenge for Kent State. But that dominant Golden Flashes offense finally returned last Saturday against a solid Buffalo defense. In a 48-38 shootout victory, Dustin Crum looked like Dustin Crum of old with his first 400-yard passing game of his career, while accounting for five total touchdowns. Now that Sean Lewis’ high-powered offense returned to form, Kent State appears to be the team to beat in the East division. This passing defense is also one of two teams in the FBS to average at least two interceptions per game, so more potent defensive play makes the Golden Flashes even more of a force to be reckoned with this season.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Texas A&M
Wide receiver Dante Cephas has been one of Kent State’s breakout players, totaling 13 receptions, 186 yards, and 3 TD in the win over Buffalo.
Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Miami RedHawks (2-4, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: C+

Miami can’t seem to figure out non-conference play. The RedHawks extended their losing streak to non-conference FBS competition to 31 games after falling to Cincinnati, Minnesota, and Army this season. Slow starts plagued Miami and they entered halftime with a combined deficit of 73-6 in those three losses. But the RedHawks got off the schneid by posting 350 passing yards and four touchdowns on Central Michigan in Week 5. Without Brett Gabbert at quarterback last Saturday, the offense stalled and produced under 15 points for the third time this year. Injuries have haunted this team as Gabbert has already missed several games with varying diagnoses, while star inside linebacker Ryan McWood is out for the season. Miami, the 2019 MAC champion, was the biggest wildcard team heading into the year after experiencing a small 3-game sample size in 2020. And even through six games, it’s unclear if the RedHawks can contend for the MAC East or if they’re heading toward their first losing season since 2017.

Northern Illinois Huskies (4-2, 2-0 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: A

Northern Illinois didn’t win a single game last season. After dominating the MAC West for much of the 2010s, the Huskies finally received a taste of what it’s like to be the conference’s punching bag. That brief era as a conference doormat is already over. Northern Illinois is tied for the best overall record in the MAC and the Huskies are one of two 2-0 teams in league play. The Huskies slid past two viable opponents in Eastern Michigan and Toledo to grab a stranglehold on the West division. Also, Northern Illinois took down Georgia Tech in Atlanta on opening weekend and Thomas Hammock is still the only head coach this year to successfully convert a go-ahead 2-point attempt in the final minute. Also, there’s not too much shame in either loss — a blowout defeat to a Top 10 Michigan team or a 7-point defeat at the hands of 4-1 Wyoming — especially for a program which finished 0-6 a year ago. A new star is also developing in DeKalb as Harrison Waylee has been as productive as any running back in the conference. The redshirt freshman currently ranks 19th in the nation in rushing yards with three 130+ outings this year.

Ohio Bobcats (1-4, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: D-

Ohio lost to Duquesne. And although it came down to a 2-point attempt, the Bobcats trailed by 12 in the fourth quarter which is certainly an unfavorable aesthetic. On that September afternoon, Ohio became the first MAC team to lose to FCS competition since 2017, and the loss set the program at its lowest point in decades. It’s no secret the Bobcats entered the 2021 season at a disadvantage due to head coach Frank Solich stepping down 52 days before kickoff. With 16-year offensive coordinator Tim Albin taking over the reins, Ohio finally established an offensive identity as a power running team against Akron. The Bobcats attained 398 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in a 34-17 victory to combat its winless record. Ohio’s new offensive look, led by former UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers, nearly catapulted them to a 2-0 MAC record, but they fell short against Central Michigan after holding a 27-20 fourth quarter lead. Now at 1-5, Ohio is in grave danger of its experiencing its first losing season since 2008.

Toledo Rockets (3-3, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: B

No matter what happens from here on out, Toledo’s 2021 season might best be remembered for almost pulling off a victory for the ages. The Rockets led Notre Dame with 1:35 remaining on the clock, but 26 seconds later they trailed. Allowing a 3-play, 75-yard drive drained Toledo’s dreams of earning its first Top 10 victory since 2003. But the Rockets have been rather inconsistent since that showing. Toledo followed that heartbreaker up with an inexplicable 22-6 home loss to a Colorado State team which dropped games to Vanderbilt and to an FCS team. The Rockets then prevented Ball State’s offense from reaching the end zone and won their MAC opener in dominant defensive fashion. However, a low-scoring outcome did not favor Toledo last Saturday as the team fell in a 22-20 finish to Northern Illinois on a last-minute field goal. The 19th ranked points per game defense almost always shows up, but offensive inconsistency is the main item preventing Toledo from fielding a winning record at the season’s halfway point.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Notre Dame
Toledo is still utilizing a two-QB system, splitting time between Carter Bradley and Dequan Finn.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Western Michigan Broncos (4-2, 1-1 MAC)

2021 Midseason Grade: B+

Just like Bowling Green, Western Michigan was another team which saw its season take a surprising turn in Week 6. Western Michigan already out-dueled a Pitt team which ranks first in the country in points per game in a 44-41 thriller. With that victory under its belt, the Broncos seemed destined to control MAC play, but that was not the case last Saturday at home vs. Ball State. Western Michigan committed its first two interceptions of the year and struggled at the line of scrimmage as the Cardinals posted a 45-20 upset win in Kalamazoo. Even with the loss to Ball State, you can’t ignore the bigger picture of what this team has accomplished. Not only did Western Michigan defeat Pitt in a shootout, but the Broncos also demonstrated defensive prowess in wins over San Jose State and Buffalo. Kaleb Eleby is still one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football, and with his horde of valuable targets from Skyy Moore to Jayden Reed to Corey Crooms, this Western Michigan team has potential to be the best in the Tim Lester era.