A lot has changed in the last month, with the power rankings and predictions at the start of the season pretty much turned on its head, and no team showing a strong grip on the MAC through the first four weeks.
This is business as usual in most years for the MAC, but the whole of college football seems to be going through similar motions this time around, which has made this season of football great viewing on the September Saturdays.
With a month of results in hand, the Knights of Ye Olde Roundtable have assembled at Hustle Belt HQ, with their mightier-than-the-sword pens in hand, ready to re-assess their preseason predictions and look forward to the future of the 2021 MAC Football season.
(Congrats to James for correctly predicting the WMU/Pittsburgh upset and to Dave for doing the same with NIU/Georgia Tech, by the way!)
Without further ado: here’s the conversation!
Hustle Belt: Now that we’ve (more or less) reached the conference season, what are your feelings about the MAC as a sum of its parts? Is the performance about what you expected, or is it different?
James H. Jimenez, creative director (@AVKingJames): There’s still a lot to learn about the MAC this year, honestly. Some teams who were expected to show out, such as Kent State and Ball State, showed some struggles in the non-conference season, with the MAC’s two winless teams from 2020 notching upsets against Power Five schools. One week, Toledo is a minute away from beating Notre Dame in front of Touchdown Jesus. The next, they can’t muster a single touchdown against a winless Colorado State.
It’s just been that kind of year, so it’s different in some ways, but it’s a long season, and cream rises to the top of the glass. I think the main contenders will be still the topic of conversation to the end.
Dave Drury, NIU beat writer and Beer Garden Meister (@ddrury86): It’s been a weird year. The MAC has had a lot of ups and downs and it’s certainly different than I expected. Last seasons’ winless teams have each won against P5 teams - NIU upsetting Georgia Tech & Bowling Green beating Minnesota - and Western took out Pitt and Toledo NEARLY beat Notre Dame. But then you have that same Toledo team losing to Colorado State, Ohio losing EVERY game, and Ball State starting 1-3...I have no idea what’s going to happen week to week. But I guess that’s classic MACtion.
Kenneth Bailey, EMU beat writer and photographer (@michexposures): The Eastern Michigan Eagles are 3-1. I was not expecting them to beat Massachusetts, so there’s that. I wish they could have put up more against Wisconsin, but they aren’t there yet. I’ll have to see how they do against Northern Illinois though.
Steve Helwick, podcast co-host and football contributor (@S_Helwick): I thought this was a solid showing from the MAC in non-conference play. Notable victims included a potent Pitt team, a Georgia Tech team that obliterated North Carolina, P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota squad, and reigning Mountain West champion San Jose State. Honestly, the conference performed better than expected in non-conference play and the MAC attained one of its main goals by extending its streak of defeating a Big Ten team to 15 consecutive years (excluding the 2020 pandemic season, of course).
Zach Follador, podcast co-host and WMU beat writer (@zach_folly): I’d say it’s about what I expected. The MAC got three very nice wins (NIU over GT, WMU over Pitt, and BG over Minnesota) but there have also been some very disappointing performances (looking at you, Ball State and Ohio). Overall, I think the top of the conference is very strong this year, and the teams at the bottom have gotten better.
Which team has been the biggest surprise so far? Which team has been the biggest disappointment?
JHJ: Far and away, Bowling Green is the biggest surprise. I think many in sports media (including us here at the Belt) overlooked the Falcons, assuming they were going to be in the basement of the basement once again in 2021 based off their 2020 performance. Yet, they’re a walk-off field goal from being 3-1 going into conference play. It’s hard to not feel optimistic about this group.
For disappointments, it’s easy to say Ohio after their 0-4 start, but they looked discombobulated in 2020, even with a winning record, and they’re in the first year of a new head coach. But my choice here is Ball State. They brought back the most starting experience in the country with 92 percent of the roster returning from a championship unit; they should be a Top 3 MAC team. Instead, they’re 1-3, in the basement of the MAC West with a loss to Toledo, and didn’t look convincing at all in their one win vs. Western Illinois. I’m starting to wonder if their championship run was a pandemic blip.
DD: Biggest surprise: Bowling Green and NIU. Both of them started this season 2-2 and have beaten P5 schools after losing every game last season. I would give the overall nod to BG though since I had a feeling NIU would bounce back this season. Biggest disappointments have to be Ball State and Ohio. The reigning MAC champs have struggled the past few weeks against Toledo & Wyoming and their only win was against an FCS squad that kept it close for most of the game. Ohio has probably been the most disappointing though. All three of their games against FBS teams have been blowout losses and then that lose to FCS-team Duquesne was shocking.
KB: The biggest surprise for me is that Bowling Green beat Minnesota. The biggest disappointment is probably Ball State.
SH: It’s hard to state any team other than Bowling Green for the most pleasant surprise. Heading into the season, this was a group that lost eight consecutive games by 28+ points with seemingly no passageway out of the gutter of college football. After five years of fielding disastrous defenses, Bowling Green instantly turned things around under first-year defensive coordinator Eric Lewis. Two victories seemed to be the Falcons’ ceiling entering the year but they already tied that threshold after obtaining a landmark road upset over Minnesota. As 31-point underdogs, it’s safe to say nobody saw that result coming.
Deciding on one team for biggest disappointment is tougher. On one hand, you have Ball State which became the first MAC team to receive preseason AP votes since 2016. With roughly 20 starters back, the Cardinals were expected to be a replica of the 2020 team that won their final seven games and defeated two ranked opponents en route to a No. 23 finish in the AP Poll. Ball State hasn’t shown any sign of life this year, including in its lone win over an FCS opponent. At 1-3 with a 45-12 loss to Wyoming, Ball State’s 2020 MAC title is starting to feel more and more distant. On the other hand, there’s Ohio which is 0-4, lost to an FCS team, and looked atrocious offensively in all of its losses. The loss of Frank Solich was certainly a tough departure to endure, but Ohio was still expected to field a competent team. After 12 consecutive non-losing seasons, it appears the Bobcats are on track to go full UConn this year.
ZF: The biggest surprise has to be Bowling Green. If you saw them improving this much on defense coming into the year, you’re lying. Their win over Minnesota this past week is the type of win that can change the trajectory of a program. Scott Loeffler seems to have things moving in the right direction. On the other side of the spectrum, the biggest disappointment to me is Ball State. I know Ohio is probably the popular pick here, but the Cardinals had expectations of getting back to Ford Field in December. Sitting at 1-3 (0-1), that now looks very unlikely. The offense has not looked right all year, and I honestly would not be surprised if the Cardinals finished below .500.
The start of a new season can sometimes mean finding contributors where you least expect them. Who are some of the newbies that have caught your eye in the first four weeks?
JHJ: I’ve been really impressed with CMU’s Thomas Incoom, the transfer defensive end from Valdosta State. It’s hard to know if someone from Division II will translate when they jump levels, but Incoom has proven to be a capable rusher in his first four games in Maroon and Gold. He’s second on the team in tackles-for-loss with 4.5, eighth on the team in total tackles with 12, leads the team with three QB hits and also has a sack.
Offensively, EMU RB Jawon Hamilton, a former James Madison and UCF back, has seemingly found a home in Ypsi, usurping both Samson Evans and Darius Boone to become the lead back in his first season. He sits at 239 yards and three touchdowns on just 22 carries, averaging nearly six yards per carry for a run-heavy EMU attack.
DD: Clint Ratkovich has been a nice addition to the Huskies’ backfield. The hybrid RB/FB has five of NIU’s 15 touchdowns (three rushing and two receiving) and has tallied 176 total yards. In close situations he’s strong enough to power his way for a first down yet fast enough to bust big plays, like his 52 run against Wyoming. He’s been a great backup to Waylee so far.
KB: For Eastern Michigan, it would have to be Jawon Hamilton. I can’t really count Ben Bryant because he is a transfer.
SH: Bowling Green lost many of its key skill position players from 2020, but the Falcons reloaded by landing a talented receiver from Washington in the transfer portal. Austin Osborne reunited with his high school quarterback Matt McDonald and the connection between the two has been special. Osborne leads all MAC players in receptions, and he’s been the perfect short yardage specialist to thrive in a Falcon offense built on quick passes.
Another incoming transfer stepping up to the occasion is Eastern Michigan quarterback Ben Bryant. The longtime backup to Desmond Ridder at Cincinnati quickly emerged to become the No. 1 quarterback in Ypsilanti, and the Eagles are averaging over 50 points per game since labeling him the starter. Bryant is completing roughly 65 percent of his passes this season and he has four touchdowns without an interception. Additionally, he showed off his mobility last week on a 39-yard touchdown scramble against Texas State.
ZF: Eastern Michigan QB Ben Bryant has been a huge surprise to me. I did not foresee him taking the starting job from Preston Hutchinson, who I thought played very well for the Eagles last year. But Bryant has done just that, and performed very well in his new role. He’s currently completing 64.8% of his passes with four TD’s and zero interceptions. He’s a big reason why the Eagles are 3-1 and in position to challenge for a bowl game.
At the start of the season, we asked you folks to predict who would be in the running for MAC OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year) and DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year.) Are you still confident in your selections? If not, who would you choose and why?
JHJ: My original choices were Dustin Crum on offense and Ali Fayad on defense, and I’m still feeling pretty okay with those choices so far.
Crum, understandably, didn’t look to form against some seriously overpowering competition in Texas A&M and Iowa, but there’s still no reason yet to say that he’s declined, especially as the conference season rolls around. I think he’ll be closer to his VMI performance than his performance vs. P5 teams.
Fayad is currently sitting at 15 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble in four games so far, numbers which should only go up when the MAC slate starts. Fayad had particularly good performances against a Top 25 team in Michigan and a reigning Mountain West champion in San Jose State, so I have no reason to abandon ship here at present.
DD: I originally said Dustin Crum (OPOY) and Jamel Hines (DPOY) and, while I still have faith in Crum to crush it in MAC play, I think I need to rethink my DPOY. I’m still sticking with a linebacker from the West but I’m going to change it to Lance Deveaux Jr. from NIU. He’s had an amazing start to the season and leads the conference in solo tackles (21) while his 32 overall stops ranks 5th. He also has four TFL and a QBH. All in all, he’s been everywhere for the Huskies and has made big plays when they need it most.
KB: [Editor’s note: Ken was not part of the preseason predicitons.]
SH: I selected Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum for MAC Offensive Player of the Year. While Crum didn’t replicate his 2020 numbers in non-conference play, I believe the reigning First Team All-MAC quarterback enters a rhythm when MAC play begins. Ever since the Texas A&M game, he’s reverted to his previous levels of efficiency as a passer and he managed over 300 yards for the first time last Saturday. Upon facing less rigorous defenses, Crum won’t be bottled upon in the backfield as much, so his rushing numbers should start to take off as well.
Defensively, I’m adjusting my pick from Ball State free safety Bryce Cosby to Buffalo defensive end Taylor Riggins. Cosby’s had a strong season with 28 tackles and a career-best two sacks through four games. But Riggins’ dominance against opposing offensive lines is hard to gloss over. He missed the Old Dominion game with a lower-body injury, but the 2019 First Team All-MAC selection returns this week after collecting 17 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and two forced fumbles in his first three outings.
ZF: I went with Western Michigan QB Kaleb Eleby for my OPOY, and I’m feeling very good about that choice through four weeks. Eleby currently leads the MAC in total offense and touchdowns, having thrown for 902 yards to go with seven scores. It doesn’t hurt that the Broncos are 3-1 with two nice wins over Pitt and San Jose State. If Eleby can get WMU back to Ford Field, I think he wins this award.
On defense, I went with Akron LB Bubba Arslanian. He was a bit of a dark horse pick, as I think his chances might be hurt by Akron’s lack of team success. With that said, he does lead the MAC in tackles through four games, with 43. If he keeps that up, he will certainly be in the conversation, but I think you could make the case for a number of players here. Bowling Green LB Darren Anders has certainly made his case, as he is second in the conference in tackles (behind only Arslanian) and also has a forced fumble and a pick six to his name.
Which matchup(s) over the remaining eight weeks are you looking forward to seeing the most out of the future schedule?
JHJ: Toledo vs. WMU on Oct. 23 will have the biggest impact in the West, especially with Ball State having already lost to the Rockets in early conference play, while Kent State vs. Buffalo on Oct. 9 will similarly affect the East race. The latter matchup has been great drama the last two seasons, so you’ll want to tune in.
For a true sickos matchup, Ohio vs. BGSU on Nov. 26 will be a great indicator of where both those programs stand in terms of their potential rebuilds. Will Ohio rebound to being competitive by then? Does BGSU fall off after a hot start? This game will set up the storylines and momentum for both teams in 2022.
DD: I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the Michigan MAC Trophy. I think the games between EMU, CMU, and WMU will all be close, fierce battles that will determine the outcome of the MAC West. I’m also looking forward to the Kent State/Buffalo game next weekend on 10/9. That one will most likely determine the winner of the East moving forward.
KB: For me it is games that Eastern Michigan has against Central Michigan and Western Michigan.
SH: I have the Kent State vs. Western Michigan matchup on Oct. 16 circled, as I believe that will serve as a preview to the 2021 MAC Championship Game at Ford Field. Watching Dustin Crum and Kaleb Eleby — the two best quarterbacks in the conference — duke it out in presumably shootout fashion should be electric. Also, the strongest rivalry in the conference belongs to the Battle of I-75. Bowling Green and Toledo clash on Wednesday, Nov. 10 in a compelling midweek MACtion matchup. Now that the Falcons appear competitive again, this rivalry gains a lot more steam. And nothing beats a November midweek football game.
ZF: Kent State @ Western Michigan on October 16th is a game I’ve had circled for a long time. With how these two teams have looked over the first month of the season, I think this could be a preview of the MAC Championship game in December. The two best QB’s in the conference will battle it out against two improved, yet inconsistent, defenses. I think this game will provide plenty of fireworks.
Secondarily, I think Miami @ Kent in the last week of the season will be intriguing. None of the other teams in the east have inspired much confidence: Bowling Green is a nice story but still probably a year or two away from truly competing, and Buffalo needs to show me more consistency before I look at them as a contender to win the division. I think this matchup between the RedHawks and Golden Flashes could determine who wins the division and gets to Ford Field.
Knowing what we know now, we’ll offer another chance to take a stab at the MAC division winners. Who takes home the division crowns, and who claims the MAC?
JHJ: I had Kent State vs. Western in my initial analysis, and once again, I still feel pretty good there. Toledo could have something to say with an early lead in the division race, but I’m confident in the Broncos’ ability to overcome and adapt en route to Detroit.
Kent State is 1-3, and that’s not very encouraging, but I will still give the benefit of the doubt due to the sheer difficulty of their non-con schedule. Buffalo will certainly give them a run for their money.
I will, however, say that WMU could win it all, instead of Kent State. They are the most balanced team in the conference on both sides of the ball, and are coming in to this conference slate rolling. It could finally be the year for Tim Lester to prove his worth.
DD: Right now I’m thinking WMU takes the West (with NIU or EMU being my dark horses) and the East will go to Kent State or Buffalo...whoever wins that game (leaning Kent’s way still though.)
KB: I’m going to pick Eastern Michigan as the dark horse for the Western Conference and the MAC, but again, I would like to see how they do against Northern Illinois before making any choices.
SH: My preseason pick for the conference champion was Kent State, and although the Golden Flashes are 1-3 with three 20+ point losses, I am still clinging onto belief for a turnaround. Kent State battled an arduous schedule of Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland — three teams which all display elite defenses — and the Golden Flashes never showed offensive consistency. But flashes (pun absolutely intended) of offensive dominance were evident against their FCS opponent, so I believe Dustin Crum and the crew still have potential to churn out 50 points on the regular when MAC play initiates.
For the West division, I’ve made a necessary audible from my preseason pick of Ball State. Western Michigan looks far and away the superior team in the division at the moment. The Broncos knocked off Pitt’s juggernaut of an offense in shootout fashion and their defense suffocated San Jose State to three points last week. Tim Lester has the most well-balanced roster in the MAC and the Broncos appear bound for Detroit for the first time since 2016.
ZF: I am sticking by my pick of Kent State in the East, I still think they’re the best team in that division by a large margin. In the West, I picked Ball State to repeat. I have lost all confidence in the Cardinals. Western Michigan, in my opinion, is the best team in the West and I think they will be the team that takes on the Golden Flashes at Ford Field.
BONUS QUESTION: There’s a lot of movement happening with the lower levels of college sport, and some G5 teams are looking to leave for bigger pastures. Briefly as possible, what do you think the MAC might do (or not do) in that department?
JHJ: The MAC has been the most stable conference by far in the FBS for some time now, and I don’t think they’d do something out-of-character just because everyone else is running around like a chicken with their head cut off. I personally don’t think they should expand, but if there isn’t a choice (like if the C-USA collapses, for instance), it could be worth pursuing Western Kentucky and an old friend in Marshall. Both programs would be great full members, especially in basketball and football, and are within in the geographic “bus trip” bubble of the MAC.
DD: I think the MAC has and will continue their philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But if they look to expand, I would like to see them reach out to ND State, James Madison, or even Montana/Montana State.
KB: I don’t think the MAC is going to do anything. I think they are happy where they are. But in the future, I could see Northern Illinois and Buffalo looking for greener pastures.
SH: The MAC is one of the most stable conferences in college football and it exhibits cleaner geography than almost every other league. All but three members were in the league in 1975, so the continuity the conference has established is astounding. They’ll stay put with the current 12 members.
ZF: The MAC is the most stable conference in the FBS for a reason. They’ll stand pat with the current members, like they always seem to do.