The season finally kicks off next week, and in case you missed it, we talked about what MAC teams we think could impress and disappoint in the 2021 season. You can catch up on that via this handy link.
We were all so excited about the season, we had to split out previously one-article look into two, and this week, we take a look at the #MACtion on the micro level. For as much as the teams will fight and compete, they’re only as good as the parts which make up the full unit.
Here’s how the Hustle Belt staff sees the individual storylines falling through:
Which under-the-radar players, one offensive and one defensive, do you see having a breakout season in 2021?
James Jimenez, creative director (@AVKingJames): I hate to sound like the Extreme Homer after saying CMU was a breakout candidate previously, but watch out for RB Darius Bracy. Bracy, who started his career at corner, converted to HB during the COVID season as a cross-training candidate, and stuck around due to his speed and lateral ability. A former option QB in the tough-as-nails Alabama HS scene in Mobile, Bracy rushed for 95 yards on 15 carries from the wildcat formation, but could be an excellent compliment back to Lew Nichols in a more traditional role. Second backs have a recent track record of success in Mt. Pleasant, and Bracy presents a versatile option to open up the CMU offense. If he develops as the coaches think he has, will be an invaluable addition.
On defense, Ohio safety Jett Elad will be a name to monitor. As a redshirt freshman, he picked up two interceptions in three games, showing a nose for the football in coverage. Elad was also a sure tackler, and possess a prototypical safety frame, with both the speed and the bulk to prove himself a capable, well-rounded defensive back who can play in a variety of roles on the defense. He’s only a redshirt freshman, so there’s definitely room to grow.
Steve Helwick, contributor and podcast co-host (@s_helwick): Kent State has to replace a lot of receiving production with the departure of Isaiah McKoy. Thus, I expect Dante Cephas to play a major role in the Flash Fast offense in 2021. He showed glimpses of potential in the opener against Eastern Michigan, and he displays diversity in his skill set as a short-yardage target and a deep threat. He’ll spend his redshirt sophomore season as one of Dustin Crum’s main guys.
On the defensive side, it’s hard to go against Ohio strong safety Jett Elad. Watching the freshman play three games last year just left all Bobcat fans wanting more, and understandably so. Elad picked off two passes and was an aggressive hitter off the bench. As the defense looks to replace leadership such as Austin Conrad and Jared Dorsa, look for Elad to step up. There’s a lot of Javon Hagan in him.
Dave Drury, NIU contributor, Beer Garden maestro (@ddrury86): Offensively I’m going with NIU’s wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph. Rudolph showed us last year he had some skills returning kickoffs and breaking tackles and now, with a former B1G quarterback at the helm, I think we’ll see his receiving stats skyrocket this season. He’s fast, shifty, and primed for a breakout season... especially as opposing DBs will more likely be drawn to Tyrice Richie and Cole Tucker.
Defensively I have to agree with Steve and Keith... Jett Elad. The freshman safety for Ohio really showed some skills last year with a pair of interceptions and some big tackles coming off the bench. If not him, Devin Lafayette is another freshman DB to watch in DeKalb. Lafayette finished second on the team in tackles last season as a true freshman and finished the year with a sack, a pick, and 36 total tackles in six games for NIU in 2020.
Keith Gregorski, Ohio and WMU contributor (@KGregorski): Offensive: Senior WR Bryce Nunnelly, WMU. With teams worrying about All-MAC WRs Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall, 2021 FCS transfer Nunnelly will have plenty of opportunities against opponents’ lesser players, which could result in a big year. Before arriving at WMU, Nunnelly torched the Southern Conference with 143 catches for 2,120 yards, and 12 touchdowns in route to back-to-back first-team all-SoCon honors.
Defensive: Redshirt freshman Jett Elad, Ohio. With only three games last seasons, Elad’s play may have gone unnoticed outside of Athens but he was second in the MAC in interceptions with two and has all the makings of a player on the rise. At 6’0” and almost 200 pounds, he has the size to play the run but the speed and agility to play the pass.
Alan Rucker, editor-in-chief (@AlanRucker): On some level, it’s hard to call a bowl-winning defending conference champion under the radar, but Drew Plitt from Ball State consistently gets a lack of shine compared to some of his QB counterparts throughout the conference. Sure, Crum and Eleby are outstanding signal-callers, but Plitt has two things they don’t: last year’s championship and a desire to continue to add to the trophy case.
Defensively, I’ll go with Dishon McNary from Central Michigan. CMU is a team loaded with talent yet to be realized or respected, and I think McNary leads the defense this season to a surprising outcome for CMU. The Chips are sort of written off as a whole but it is the defense that is going to save the day.
Zach Follador, contributor and podcast co-host (@zach_folly): On offense, I really like Eastern Michigan QB Preston Hutchinson. I think he may be the most underappreciated player in the conference. Hutchinson completed 63.6% of his passes last year, for 1,662 yards and 12 TD’s. If that’s not enough, he was also the Eagles second leading rusher, accounting for 307 yards and 8 TD’s on the ground. This will be Hutchinson’s first full season as a starter, and I believe he will lead the Eagles back to bowl eligibility this year.
On defense, I’m looking at Kent State safety and former Maryland transfer Antwaine Richardson. The Golden Flashes’ issues on defense last year have been well documented, and having a veteran presence on the back end such as Richardson should help immensely. Richardson started 15 games in his career at Maryland and should help solidify the Kent State secondary. The Flashes have aspirations of a conference title this year, and justifiably so. If they want to reach that goal, the defense must improve. I believe Richardson will help immensely.
Who do you predict wins the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards?
JJ: It’s going to be incredibly hard to deny Kent State QB Dustin Crum for OPOY so long as he stays upright. He’s a top five dual-threat QB prospect in college football, and in their three-game season in 2020, KSU posted an unbelievable 49.8 points per game, led by Crum’s playmaking ability. He’ll have pro scout eyes on him as a late-round project, so his growth in 2021 will be key to his future. Crum has it all to play for; I don’t see him not stepping up to that challenge.
Defensively, I have my eyes on perennially underrated WMU DE Ali Fayad. Fayad has quietly assembled some huge seasons on the edge, and will be on the long road to vengence after fighting a nagging injury in 2020. Even that 2020 season was still fairly productive, with 17 tackles, including 6.5 tackles-for-loss, and a forced fumble in four games. He’ll have a chance to join the all-time MAC greats in career sacks this season, and that in and of itself should be enough motivation for him to land DPOY honors.
SH: Offensively, I can’t go against Dustin Crum. He has been sensational in Sean Lewis’ offense the last two seasons. As a passer, Crum posted an interception ratio of 34-4 over that time span while completing over 70 percent of passes. As a runner, he’s as dangerous as any quarterback in the country on the zone read, accumulating nine rushing touchdowns in his last nine outings. There are no limits to this offense with Crum, and the unit averaged an FBS-best 49.8 points per game in 2020 as a result.
While the odds are often stacked against defensive backs for these awards, I like Bryce Cosby for DPOY. Cosby is the heart and soul of Ball State’s defense, and the veteran free safety has more career tackles than all but one player in the conference. Ball State forced interceptions at the second highest rate in the MAC in 2020 and their safeties were instrumental in stopping Buffalo’s powerful rushing attack in the MAC title game last December. Cosby is an integral reason why both aspects of this defense are impressive.
DD: Dustin Crum is clearly the odds on favorite. He’s got Kent State headed in the right direction and has really made the Flashes a tough team to face the past few seasons. I think he’ll continue to play well and might even lead them to the MAC Championship Game.
DPOY is up in the air to me. There’s so many players that could take home that award but I think Toledo Rocket linebacker Jamal Hines has a good chance to really breakout and take the award home this season. Hines was a Second Team All-MAC choice last season and has already been named to some preseason awards for 2021. The junior has gotten better and better each year and he’s going to be a beast for the Rockets again this season.
KG: It is hard to go against QBs Kaleb Eleby or Dustin Crum here with the success these players have and the status the QB position affords them but I’m going a different direction for offensive MVP — Ball State WR Justin Hall. “Big players make big plays in big games” and Hall did just that in 2020; in critical three point wins vs Toledo and Western Michigan and the MAC championship against Buffalo, arguably the MAC’s best teams, Hall handled the ball 37 times (rushing/receiving) for 443 yards and three touchdowns. The Cardinals do not win the MAC in 2020 without Hall’s performance against Western Michigan, where he showed he is the ultimate competitor, willing the Cards to an amazing second-half comeback.
For defensive MVP, I like Western Michigan DE Ali Fayad. A 2019 second-team All-MAC selection, Fayad fell off the radar a bit in an injury-plagued 2020 season. A healthy Fayad will be trouble for opponents in 2021 and could be the MAC’s sack leader. Fayad has 37.5 career tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks, and, with strong year in 2021, Fayad will join some of the MAC’s best sack artists in the last two decades — Larry English (31.5 sacks), Sutton Smith (30), Khalil Mack (28.5), Chris Jones (28), Tarell Basham (27), and Dan Bazuin (26.5).
AR: The homer in me wants to give it to Justin Hall, so let’s do it. You point me to a more explosive or valuable player for the successes of their team and I’ll tell you that you’re wrong. He may not be the NFL superstar that some of his receiver predecessors in this conference turned out to be, but Hall is the next in line for MAC pass catchers that lead their team to Ws. Lots of them.
For defensive POY I’ll head up to the Mitten and put my chips on Ralph Holley. With the attention and interest that his running mate Ali Fayad gets, Holley may be able to collect the remnants and have a surprisingly dominant season. The Broncos have an aggressive defense and collect sacks like candy on Halloween. Both those two are likely to get more than their share of treats.
ZF: On offense, I’m going to go with Western Michigan QB Kaleb Eleby. I know Dustin Crum is the popular pick, but I really think Eleby has all the tools to be one of the best players in the conference. He is one of the few QB’s that has the efficiency to match Crum, having completed 64.7% of his passes last year while compiling a stellar 18:2 TD to INT ratio. With a veteran offensive line in front of him, and explosive playmakers like Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall as his top targets, I think Eleby is primed for a huge year in 2021.
On defense, I’m going to go with a longshot and take Akron LB Bubba Arslanian. Back in 2019, Arslanian led the MAC and was 9th in the country with 125 tackles. He followed that up last year with a first team All-MAC season, leading the Zips with 74 tackles in only six games. I know the odds are typically stacked against players like Arslanian, who are on teams that aren’t picked towards the top of the conference. When it comes to individual talent though, I think Arslanian measures up with any of the defenders in the MAC.
Which head coaches have the most at stake in 2021? Also, do you see any coaches at risk for being poached by another program, à la Lance Leipold?
JJ: The good thing about the MAC is that it is an extremely stable conference in terms of their coaches. The only coach I could really consider being a potential walk-away in 2021 would be Frank Solich, who retired earlier this offseason. Several coaches also signed extensions this past season, and a handful of schools brought in new coaches, ensuring they’ll be around for at least three years.
Hell, the coach everyone thought would be on the hot seat in 2020, Mike Neu, went and proved the doubters wrong, earning himself a contract extension. So, certainly, things can change in a hurry.
That said, the coach with the most at-stake this season is Jason Candle. Under his watch, Toledo has allowed several teams in the MAC West to encroach on their status as a MAC West favorite time and again, winning only one MAC title in five seasons since taking over for Matt Campbell. The last two seasons have been particularly embarrassing, allowing CMU to complete the last-to-first gauntlet in 2019 and losing to both WMU and Ball State by a combined six points to play themselves out of the West Division chase, rendering their two-game win streak to end the season useless. It is this kind of underperformance which endangers coaches, and even understanding the impossible injury situation of some seasons, at some point, someone has to be responsible for getting the team ready, and Candle simply hasn’t lived up to expectation.
In terms of a coach getting snapped up in the coaching carousel, I don’t really see anyone making the jump unless there’s an impossibly good season. Chris Creighton will be a popular name for “Power 5 team in desperate need of a ground-up rebuild,” but he wasn’t even close to being a candidate for the top job fitting that descriptor in Kansas— despite his excellent background in the region— which says to me that he won’t ever be in the running for a job of that nature.
SH: Bowling Green has crashed and burned from its glory days of the mid-2010s, and Scot Loeffler is still attempting to right a ship which has been misaligned since Dino Babers left in 2015. I’m not sure what timetable administration and donors expect for a turnaround, but anything less than 4-8 might not cut it this year. Loeffler inherited a laborious project, and he deserves more time to recruit his players and develop a culture in a climate of normalcy, but whether fair or not, sometimes results are demanded immediately.
If Kent State’s season goes how I think it will go, the Sean Lewis rumors will run unhinged in December. The Golden Flashes intelligently extended him earlier this month, which should increase his buyout should another school attempt to poach him. Lewis turned this program from an annual 2-10 cellar dweller to one of the most electrifying offenses in all of college football. He may choose to stay at Kent State, but the phone calls will start to trickle in if he chooses to go another route.
DD: I know a lot of Huskie fans are still weary of Hammock’s job but Bowling Green’s head coach Scot Loeffler is surely the one with the most on the line. The Falcons have continued to slip and struggle to win games under him... although inheriting the sinking ship he did is a tough, tough rebuild.
And, should Kent State play as well as we all think they will, Sean Lewis should be getting some attention from P5 schools come December.
KG: Bowling Green’s head coach could have the most at stake in 2021. Bowling Green needs to show some signs of life after last season where the record was 0-5 and the average loss was 11-45. The MAC currently has three full-blown roster rebuilds underway involving head coaches all entering their third season: NIU, Akron, and Bowling Green. Although 0-6, NIU was at least competitive in 2020, losing three of the last four by a touchdown or less. Akron showed improvement from year one to year two and the 2021 version will be better than 2020. Akron’s offensive and defensive lines are taking shape and they have some All-MAC players in CB AJ Watts and LB Bubba Arslanian. Bowling Green took a step backwards last year: the 2019 Falcons beat Akron 35-6 only to lose in 2020 by the score of 31-3.
With Mike Neu and Sean Lewis scoring new deals, I don’t see much poaching unless a big season by CMU puts Jim McElwain’s name in the mix.
AR: While Mike Neu and Sean Lewis both scored new deals, at the end of the day if a bigger program wants them the numbers are relatively minor by comparison to even coordinators at premier schools. Neu has the alma mater X factor when looking at talent, but there’s the old adage about jumping when the jumping is good, and after a year with the returning talent on tap in Muncie, this might very well be the high point. I don’t see any coach on Dead-Man-Walking mode with the dreaded AD vote of confidence in Week 4, but it’s the MAC and crazy things have happened.
ZF: I’m going to agree with Steve: if Kent State is successful this year, I don’t think there’s any chance he’s back on the sidelines in northeast Ohio next year. He has completely transformed the Golden Flashes program in the past three years, and expectations entering this season are as high as they’ve ever been at Kent. If the Golden Flashes win 8 or more games and make a bowl game, I think a power 5 program will come calling.
As far as coaches on the hot seat, I have to think it’s Scot Loeffler at Bowling Green. He obviously inherited a mess, but there has been almost no progress for the Falcons the last two years under his watch. A lot of BG fans accepted the 2019 season because of the upset victory over Toledo, but those same fans also expected to see some signs of progress last year. That didn’t happen, as the Falcons again fielded one of the worst defenses in the FBS. Things weren’t much better on the other side of the ball, where BG ranked 11th in the MAC in passing offense, 11th in total offense, and last in points per game. If we don’t see some signs of progress this year, the Falcons may be once again looking for a new coach come December.