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Ye Olde Roundtable: Ramping up to the first games of the 2021 weeknight #MACtion slate

It’s going to be a busy week of narratives for the MAC, with the action heating up on the field— and off the field as well.

James H, Jimenez

We blow the clarion horn to once again gather the Knights of Ye Olde Roundtable to discuss the happenings of the 2021 Mid-American Conference season as the second month of games has come and gone.

But now it’s time for what the people come to see on a year-to-year basis: November weeknight #MACtion! With the games set up to begin after the Halloween holiday, we gather four of our writers and discuss the emergent stories from the October action, and discuss what we’re looking forward to the most in November.

It’s the end of the all-Saturday slate of the MAC schedule, and so far, it’s revealed a lot about the strength of the MAC. How do you feel about how it’s all played out so far, generally?

Zach Follador, WMU football writer, MAC Bandwagon Podcast co-host: I think we’ve got a lot of good teams this year but nobody great. Even NIU, our only undefeated team, has had a few close calls and probably should have lost at CMU this past weekend. We’ve got five teams in the west sitting at 2-2, and Miami and Kent tied atop the East at 3-1. These teams all feel very similar, and there’s not a whole lot separating any of them. It will be a very interesting final month.

Steve Helwick, general MAC football reporter, MAC Bandwagon Podcast co-host: 2019 brought us a MAC Championship Game between Central Michigan and Miami (OH) squads which finished 8-6. Buffalo had the best overall record in the conference that year at 8-5... and it feels like we’re headed toward that level of extreme parity again. The MAC West currently features five teams that are .500 in league play while nobody in the MAC East is better than 4-4 overall. Western Michigan, the apparent favorite after beating ACC frontrunner Pitt, already suffered two 3-score losses to conference opponents. Thus, I’m at the point where almost no result would surprise me, especially considering how much the floor has raised in this conference. Akron and Bowling Green have shown competency throughout the season and the separation between the basement and ceiling isn’t what it used to be. November will be chaotic.

Zackery vanNieuwehnze, Toledo and BGSU beat writer: I think that it was generally in line with recent seasons, where the conference has somewhat cannibalised itself. NIU and Kent State have survived but everyone else is in a mosh pit, and I don’t know if people are buying into NIU based off of last season or Kent State, due to their non-conference record. Add it together and the perception of the conference nationally is down.

Dave Drury, NIU football writer: I feel like this is one of the more balanced MAC years we’ve seen. I don’t think there’s been a clear cut team to beat...each week it seems like there’s a new team that emerges or “upsets” one of the usual leaders. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen five teams tied for second place in a division like the West is now. And, even with NIU at 4-0, all their games have been super close and could have easily gone the other way. It’s crazy even out there and I have no clue who’s going to win from week to week.

NIU has been the big storyline of the season so far, standing at a perfect 4-0 league record and claiming bowl eligibility, a season removed from 0-6. How should we interpret this so far, and how does it end?

ZF: What a rebuilding job by Thomas Hammock. We’re now seeing the payoff from what he and his staff did last year, which was to tear this program down to the foundation and build it back up. Their young offensive line has been fantastic, as have their stable of young running backs. Hammock should be coach of the year. With that said, they’ve had a few close calls, and their schedule in November is brutal. After traveling to Kent State, they face Ball State, Buffalo, and Western Michigan. I think the Huskies lose at least one of those games, but I still think they have to be the favorite to win the West and get back to Ford Field.

SH: Northern Illinois currently has five FBS wins. Yet, not a single one was separated by more than one score. The Huskies have closed their tightly-contested games at a high level — they won twice on last-minute go-ahead field goals and they are the only team in the FBS to successfully convert a go-ahead 2-point attempt in the final minute this year. The prowess of NIU’s rushing attack is undeniable. Four different players have registered 100+ yards on the ground this year. But now that the Huskies demonstrated in Mt. Pleasant that they can win a game through downfield passing, I’m more sold on them as a legitimate threat for the conference crown. However, their remaining schedule is a murderers’ row in terms of MAC play and NIU hasn’t won convincingly enough for me to go all in. I think they drop two more games, including a crucial tiebreaker to Western Michigan on the final week, and the Broncos land in Detroit instead.

ZV: At some point, we have to buy into the Huskies. They just keep winning, and I think we are forgetting that the lead up to last season and the actual season made it hard for teams to take that step forward. They have a two game lead in the West, and tiebreakers over Eastern, Central and Toledo. NIU fans can at least start scouting hotel deals in Detroit, for December.

DD: I think this is just the tip of the iceberg for NIU. Don’t forget, 75% of this roster is freshmen and they’re only playing with a small handful of upperclassmen. I don’t know how the rest of this season will go for NIU but, with how much growth we’ve seen from last year to this year, I’m expecting them to win the MAC either next year or in 2023...if not this year. Hammock has gotten the players to buy into his system and, more importantly, they’re improving. Now that most of Rod Carey’s recruits are gone, you can see just how much NIU needed a new coach...and Hammock’s recruits are already progressing better than any of Carey’s did. If he can continue to get these types of recruits and teach them like he has, NIU has a great chance to become a nationally recognized name again.

On the other end of the spectrum, three teams have either played themselves out of a bowl game or are close to it, with Ohio (1-7), Akron (2-6) and BGSU (2-6) all facing the chopping block. Of these three teams, which one do you have the most optimism about?

ZF: It’s hard to be optimistic about any of these teams, but Ohio has showed the most life over the last few weeks. At the very least, they have a solid offensive identity. DeMontre Tuggle and O’Shaan Allison still form one of the best running back duo’s in the MAC, and this team is still playing hard for coach Tim Albin. The early season optimism around Bowling Green has evaporated after very disappointing performances against Akron and EMU, and their defense has regressed after a great start to the season. Akron has had some young players step up at the skill positions (namely, WR Konata Mumpfield and RB Jonzell Norrills), but their line play has been so bad that it’s hard to see them being competitive any time soon.

SH: It was easy to buy into the Bowling Green hype train after the Falcons’ defense suffocated Minnesota in a landmark upset. After all, Bowling Green’s defense caused quarterbacks to produce nightmare numbers and the Falcons exhibited one of the best aerial counters in the country through the first half of the year. All of that has diminished since MAC play entered full swing, so Bowling Green is slowly slipping to the Falcons team of yesteryear, as evidenced by Eastern Michigan’s 55-point outburst a week ago. Now, I have the most optimism for Ohio. The Bobcats endured a brutal non-conference showing before finally figuring themselves out in year one of the Tim Albin era. Ohio is so close to reverting back to 2019-20 levels and its last three performances have been competitive one-score losses to 4-4 teams.

ZV: I would have to say BGSU. They have made some steps, had some close losses and beat Minnesota of the Big Ten on the road. They have come back to earth lately but it’s been a step forward. You have to think that if they beat Toledo, then it would be considered a successful season for the Falcons.

DD: I feel like Ohio is the best of those teams...they have been competitive in almost every game but have played so poorly at the end of games this season. It feels like they just can’t close out a game. The Bobcats are the flip side to NIU...they just can’t win those close games and were only a few plays away from being 5-3

Of the midtable teams (and boy, are there a bunch of them!), which one could potentially make the most hay and play the spoiler in weeknight #MACtion?

ZF: For me, I think it’s got to be Eastern Michigan. They have a long standing propensity for playing close games, and I think this years’ team is the best of the Chris Creighton era. QB Ben Bryant has been fantastic after transferring from Cincinnati, and the Eagles passing offense will give everyone in the MAC problems. The Eagles have games coming up against Toledo, WMU, and CMU. They will likely be underdogs in all of those games, but I could easily see this team winning at least one of those games.

SH: You know who really likes playing in close games? Eastern Michigan! I’ll call the Eagles a midtable team at 5-3, and this appears to be the most lethal offense of the Chris Creighton era. Cincinnati transfer quarterback Ben Bryant slings the ball for 280+ yards on the regular and Eastern Michigan’s offense is posting 32.8 points per game — just 0.5 points away from the program’s best since 1995. There aren’t a ton of defensive juggernauts in this year’s MAC, and I think Eastern Michigan’s ability to generate points could pave way for a surprise trip to Detroit.

ZV: I gotta go with Eastern Michigan. They have had some of their normal close losses to Ball State and front runner, NIU. Ben Bryant has been overlooked within the conference and the Eastern offense has been very good. Add in matchups with Central and Western for the Michigan MAC trophy plus a game against de facto rival Toledo and anything can happen.

DD: Well I think Ball State and WMU are better than their records, Buffalo has the best chance to play spoiler in weeknight #MACtion. They still have games against NIU, Miami, and Ball State coming up so the Bulls could take down the first place team in the MAC East and the MAC West in consecutive weeks and then ruin Ball State’s chances of a miracle comeback. Buffalo’s schedule gives them the biggest opportunity to play spoiler and maybe make a late run at the East as well.

With the narrative table set for the weeknight games, which game are you looking most forward to and why? (You can only choose one.)

ZF: Northern Illinois @ Kent State this coming Wednesday is a very intriguing match up. The Golden Flashes rank 10th in the MAC and 117th nationally in rush defense, and the Huskies rank 12th in the FBS in rushing offense at 232.8 yards per game. That does not bode well for the Flashes. With that said, the Huskies defense has struggled as well, ranking 9th in the MAC in total defense. NIU is coming off of a game where they allowed 500 yards of offense to CMU, so this could be a high scoring affair between two teams that have their sights set on Ford Field. Kent State is tied with Miami atop the East at 3-1, so a win against the Huskies would be huge for Sean Lewis’ squad.

SH: I think Western Michigan at Northern Illinois on Nov. 23 is shaping up to be a de facto MAC West title game, similar to the Broncos’ matchup at Ball State in the prior year. The winner has alternated every season since 2015 in this series depending which team serves as the host. This year, it’s in DeKalb and the Huskies have the opportunity to resume their 2010s stranglehold on the MAC West and complete an unlikely rise back to the top. From a football perspective, NIU’s juggernaut of a run game vs. Western Michigan’s talented receiving corps presents an interesting stylistic clash between offenses as well.

ZV: If the conference championship was today, it would be NIU vs Kent State. It’s hard to pick any game other than that one. Although, the MAC schedulers have done the fans a disservice by moving the rivalry games to week nights after a year where fans couldn’t attend.

DD: I have to go with NIU-WMU on 11/23. If the Huskies can win one of the three games before that and WMU wins their games, it sets the tone for a HUGE finale between the two teams to see who takes the West. Plus, as an NIU fan and with it being at Huskie Stadium, I feel like NIU has a better shot at taking the game and the MAC West crown.

Are there any coaches in the MAC you would consider for promotion or firing after the season based on this year’s performances?

ZF: If NIU continues on their current trajectory, I think you’ll see Thomas Hammock’s name come up in some coaching searches. Maybe not after this year, but the Huskies improvement this season has been well ahead of schedule. On the other side of the spectrum, I think it’s time to start asking some tough questions at Bowling Green. The Minnesota win was great, but as the year progresses, that victory is starting to seem like an aberration. The loss at home to Akron was dreadful, and the Falcons were uncompetitive in this past weekends 55-24 loss to Eastern Michigan. This program was in bad shape when Scott Loeffler arrived, but this is his third season now, and signs of progress have been few and far between.

SH: No. The clear-cut MAC coach of the year award belongs to Thomas Hammock, who turned around the Huskies from 0-6 to a first-place 6-2 record through eight games. Hammock’s alma mater is NIU and his success is relatively new, so I think he earns a long stay in DeKalb after this impressive turnaround. Scot Loeffler, Tom Arth, and Tim Albin are the coaches of the MAC basement, but I think all three deserve more time to build their programs. Although Loeffler and Arth are technically in year three already, I don’t think the impromptu pandemic season should count against their rebuild timeline.

ZV: Thomas Hammock is the coach of the year right now in the conference, and I think that coach Loeffler has done a great job in Bowling Green. Beyond them, one has to wonder if Ohio is regretting quickly appointing Tim Albin to replace Frank Solich while Tom Arth isn’t moving the needle in Akron. Tim Lester and Jason Candle continue to show that the MAC is a great career path as long as you mix in a few wins with the usual underachieving, disappointing teams.

DD: Obviously Hammock has been the coach for promoting this season, turning around the Huskie program basically overnight. And as for firing, Tom Arth and Scot Loeffler are certainly feeling their seats heat up. And I know it’s just been one season but if Albin and Linguist keep struggling at Ohio and Buffalo, they might be on the hot seat next season.

BONUS: Last time, we talked about potential movement for college programs around the country. With more confirmed moves since we last spoke, do you still feel the same as last time, or have your opinions on the issue changed since? (This question was asked prior to Peter Thamel’s report confirming potential MAC expansion on Friday afternoon.)

ZF: I still feel the same. I thin the MAC will stand pat at 12 teams. To me, there are no potential members out there that make sense geographically and economically. I’ve seen Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State talked about a ton, but I don’t know how much those schools have in common with current MAC members. The MAC’s greatest asset has been stability, and I think the folks in the league office know that. I don’t anticipate any moves being made.

SH: I like the MAC’s stability, and I think staying put with the same programs over the years has been great for the conference’s brand. I don’t think they should pick up C-USA leftovers in expansion, although I can’t lie — the thought of bringing Big Red and the WKU Hilltoppers into the league intrigues me. But if it ain’t broke and no MAC teams are getting poached by other leagues, there’s no need to fix what’s working.

ZV: It’s bad for the sport. Its bad for the little guys. And it’s bad for the MAC, if they don’t make a move to add a school while similar statured conferences like the Sun Belt make moves. [T]he league really needs to look at this as a chance to improve other sports beyond football and potentially move the league towards being a two bid basketball conference again.

DD: I don’t like all the realignments and see the trend of making these super-conferences...I think it hurts CFB more than anything. But, with everyone making moves, it wouldn’t be terrible to see the MAC add WKU or MTSU or even a pair of up-and-coming FCS teams. I like the MAC as it is...but if they just keep avoiding the changes happening around them, I’m worried the MAC get drowned out in an era of super-conferences and go the way of the WAC.