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2021 Hustle Belt MAC Football Power Rankings: Preseason

It’s that time of year once again, as the crew gather around to rank the MAC teams prior to the start of the season.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Ball State vs San Jose State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

12. Bowling Green Falcons (Last Rankings: 12)

  • High vote: 11 (once)
  • Low vote: 12 (seven times), though some jokester originally wrote 13.
  • Average vote: 11.85

The #12 spot might as well be the “12 Spot Presented By Bowling Green State University”, as the poor Falcons somehow found a way to regress from what was a failure of a 2019 campaign. They were plastered in most every 2020 contest, with an emphatic 63-24 loss to Kent State which highlighted the absurdity of their efforts.

If 2020 proved a reason for optimism in Akron, the previous perma-12, 2020 provided a reality check for BGSU fans fawning for the days of Matt Johnson.

The rebuild will not be easy, and this edition of BGSU football will start their season in a place that’s hungry for success in their own right in Tennessee. They’ll probably be back here next week.

11. Akron Zips (LR: 11)

  • High vote: 11 (seven)
  • Low vote: 12 (once)
  • Average vote: 11.125

Well, whatever cause there was for optimism as spoken of previously, has seemingly disappeared, as RB Teon Dollard was dismissed with no explanation by the Zips program last week. The expected replacement, Indiana transfer Cole Gest, also magically disappeared, leaving Zips faithful to wonder what to expect out of the position.

The Zips do return several key contributors from last season’s campaign in Bubba Arslenian, AJ Watts and Rand Cochran Jr., as well as an offensive line which held up admirably in 2020, so there’s some positive things to take away. Kato Nelson also returns as quarterback after opting out of the 2020 season to focus on recovering from shoulder surgery.

Akron gets tossed into the fire right away, facing Auburn in the “Terry Bowden Bowl” on Saturday.

10. Northern Illinois Huskies (LR: 10)

  • High vote: 9 (once)
  • Low vote: 10 (seven)
  • Average vote: 9.875

There’s not usually a lot of positives to take away from an 0-6 campaign like NIU suffered through in 2020, but for all the frustration, the Huskies found a number of contributors who they’ll be able to build around on both sides of the ball, and got some much needed experience for their young offensive line, which started only one upperclassman last season.

(Suffice to say they’re in a lot better situation than the previous two squads.)

Michigan State transfer QB Rocky Lombardi will be the storyline for much of the year, but the emergence of Harrison Waylee at RB should be more indicative of NIU’s chances at success in 2021.

They travel to the heart of Atlanta to face Georgia Tech on Saturday.

9. Ohio Bobcats (LR: 8)

  • High vote: 4 (once)
  • Low vote: 9 (once)
  • Average vote: 7.5

It’s hard to know what exactly this Ohio squad will look like, sicne they only played three games in 2020. This could be why they’re pushed so far down the rankings even despite the amount of talent they possess on the roster, especially on the defense.

The key question to be asked is if the offense, led by RB De’Montre Tuggle, can get moving down the field. Kurtis Rourke, brother of Bobcat legend Nathan, is projected to be the starting QB, but UNLV transfer Armani Rogers will also threaten for time there, which could lead to a bit of a stall in the aerial attack if it isn’t resolved quickly.

All eyes will be on Ohio this week, as Tim Albin takes over as the successor of Frank Solich, who stepped down suddenly this offseason. They start the year by hosting Syracuse at Peden Stadium.

8. Buffalo Bulls (LR: 2)

  • High vote: 5 (twice)
  • Low vote: 9 (four)
  • Average vote: 7.25

The biggest fall between the end of the season and now is for Buffalo, a team who is somehow both a team in transition and a team with championship expectations.

A season removed from nearly taking home a MAC crown, Buffalo is without head coach Lance Leipold (now at Kansas) and talisman RB Jaret Patterson (who recently made the Washington 53-man roster.) In comes new head coach Maurice Linguist, whose last title is Michigan co-defensive coordinator, but spent 2020 in the NFL as a secondary coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He holds no head coaching at any level, so not a lot is known about how this team will look going into 2021. This uncertainly leaves prognosticators like us at a loss.

The good news is they return most of their contributors, especially former Patterson backup Kevin Marks and veteran QB Kyle Vantrease on offense, while LB James Patterson (brother of Jaret), LB Kadofi Wright and DB Aapri Washington return on defense.

They start their division title defense vs. Wagner on Thursday night.

7. Central Michigan Chippewas (LR: 5)

  • High vote: 5 (twice)
  • Low vote: 9 (twice)
  • Average vote: 7

The Chippewas are another one of those teams which are hard to pin down. They were competitive in all three losses last season, and showed their talent in their three wins, even with a depleted roster which had some players cross-trained or playing both sides. When they were on, they were certainly on. But when they were off, it was extremely evident as well. You never really knew which team you were getting on a game day.

They have all the talent in the world to make a run at the MAC title, with RB Lew Nichols III and WR Kalil Pimpleton set to take charge on offense, and LB Troy Brown Jr. and MAC co-defensive player of the year DE Troy Hairston Jr. patrolling the defense. Even the special teams are good on this squad, with both kicker Marshall Meeder and punter Luke Elzinga named first-team all-MAC.

What will determine the Chippewas’ fate is whoever takes snaps at QB. They’re in the dreaded “double OR” situation, with three QBs all listed at starter, including Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon, incumbent starter Daniel Richardson and greyshirt freshman Tyler Pape. Per interim coach Tim Skipper, all three are expected to get reps in game, as it’s a “true competition” at the position.

That evaluation will begin in hostile territory at Mizzou.

6. Eastern Michigan Eagles (LR: 9)

  • High vote: 1 (once)
  • Low vote: 8 (once)
  • Average vote: 6.125

It’s everyone’s favorite team that lives and dies by the margins: the EMU Eagles!

EMU once again showed their insane talent for losing close games, losing three of their games by one score or less in 2020. Their history of non-conference wins is also filled with narrow misses and close calls, as 2019 saw EMU beat both Central Connecticut State (bad!) and Illinois (good!) by seven combined points. (Coincidentally, EMU beat Coastal Carolina in 2019 by a touchdown at the end of that game as well.)

EMU returns the vast majority of their starters on both sides, including QB Preston Hutchinson, who was near the top of the MAC rushing leaderboards with eight touchdowns last season to go along with 12 passing touchdowns, and stalwart cornerback duo Alnovski LaFleur and Freddie McGee III.

They look to start the season off against Saint Francis (PA) in a Friday night showdown.

5. Miami RedHawks (LR: 6)

  • High vote: 3 (once)
  • Low vote: 8 (two)
  • Average vote: 5.875

Much like blood rival Ohio, Miami never was able to get their season off the ground due to COVID issues, so it’s hard to evaluate this team based on 2020.

However, we shouldn’t forget that this is the 2019 MAC championship squad, and that many of the players on that roster are still in Oxford. It’s a proven team with a big chip on their shoulder due to having their ability to defend their crown taken away from them due to outside circumstances.

Both Tyre Shelton and Jaylon Bester return as a running back duo after spending 2020 rehabbing injury, while Brett Gabbert is back under center, two seasons removed from MAC Freshman of the Year honors. WR Jack Sorenson cannot be ignored on the outside either in the offense, while DB Sterling Weatherford and LB Ryan McWood command a strong defense, especially in the run game.

Miami will face old rival Cincinnati to start off the year, as per tradition, hoping to reclaim the Victory Bell in college football’s oldest non-conference trophy game, one which has a history dating back to 1888.

4. Western Michigan Broncos (LR: 3)

  • High vote: 1 (once)
  • Low vote: 6 (once)
  • Average vote: 3.625

Originally a favorite to top the MAC West in 2020, the Broncos managed to lose both games they absolutely had to win, missing out on a trip to Detroit. Ball State got that honor instead, and took home a MAC title for their work in the process.

This surely stings for the Broncos, who missed out by a combined six points. They’ll bring back the old crew once again for this job, led by all-MAC QB Kaleb Eleby, who had an incredible 16:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio during the 2020 campaign, as well as La’Darius Jefferson in the backfield and DaShon Bussell and Skyy Moore as receiving options. Defensively, Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley will man the line, while AJ Thomas and Corvin Moment are expected to make hay in the secondary and middle.

They get a tough assignment to start with, traveling cross-state to The Big House to face Michigan.

3. Toledo Rockets (LR: 7)

  • High vote: 1 (once)
  • Low vote: 5 (once)
  • Average vote: 3.5

Once again, the Toledo Rockets are near the top of the preseason boards, as seems to be tradition.

Even with Eli Peters forced into medical retirement, the Rockets are still one of the fiercer offensive units, with elite RB Bryant Koback in the backfield and one of the MAC’s best offensive lines to set the pace. In steps Carter Bradley, son of NFL coordinator Gus, to attempt to lead Toledo to the title game for the first time since 2017.

The question with Toledo will be their defense being able to keep things in front of them. Outside of two blowout wins against winless teams in 2020, the Rockets struggled to keep contain on their opponents, with three of the other four games coming down to a field goal or less. They were especially prone to teams with good running games, which bodes dangerously in a division chock full of them.

They face Norfolk State for a tune up this weekend.

2. Kent State Golden Flashes (LR: 4)

  • High vote: 1 (once)
  • Low vote: 7 (once)
  • Average vote: 2.625

Kent State has gone from a football also-ran to media darling over the course of Sean Lewis’ time at the head seat. 2021 is the season they’ve mpre or less had circled for awhile in terms of being a competitive team, and all eyes will be on them to prove that 2020 wasn’t just a fluke.

They’re the favorite to win the MAC East, and for good reason: their offense was the best in the country in 2020, scoring 49 points per contest on average despite only playing three games. QB Dustin Crum has been getting a lot of preseason hype for the combined efforts of his 2019 and 2020 seasons, and with a powerfully versatile corps of weapons at the receiver and back positions, he’ll have plenty of options to choose from. RBs Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams will provide the running attack, while WRs Isaiah McKoy, Issac Vance and Ja’Shaun Poke will all get good volume on the outside.

This team will damn the torpedoes on both sides of the ball, and will prove overwhelming to most every opponent they face.

#1. Ball State Cardinals (LR: 1)

  • High vote: 1 (four)
  • Low vote: 3 (once)
  • Average vote: 1.625

They aren’t unanimous, but they’re still our favorites at the top of the charts.

The Ball State Cardinals were able to achieve what many didn’t think possible in 2020, going from last-to-first in the MAC West to clinch the title over the much-favored Buffalo Bulls. It was a fairy tale ending to what was probably an otherwise adversarial season, but the past is the past.

Ball State will return the vast majority of their starters on both sides of the ball, most notably QB Drew Plitt and WRs Justin Hall and Hassan Littles all reprising their roles on offense. RBs Will Jones and Tye Evans will try to replace the departed Caleb Huntley (now with the Atlanta Falcons practice squad.) Defensively, CB Amechi Udozinma II, DL Chris Auyomang and MAC co-defensive player of the year LB Brandon Martin will seek to lead the Cardinal defense.

There’s not a lot of reason to choose against them at this point, and they will most likely stay here next week, as they take on Western Illinois on Thursday night to kick off the MAC season in earnest.

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!