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Evaluating which MAC teams are most likely to finish non-conference play above .500

Briefly breaking down each team’s non-conference schedule to gauge how many wins are on the table.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Western Michigan at Pitt Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s officially July, which means it’s the final month of the college football offseason. But the sport’s main topic of discussion isn’t the 2022 schedule quite yet. Unexpected realignment news regarding the Big Ten’s addition of USC and UCLA in 2024 is sending shockwaves across the college football universe.

However, that’s still two years away and there is football to be played in less than two months. When the season commences, the MAC typically spends the first four weeks engaged in non-conference clashes. But not all non-conference schedules are created equal. So let’s apply expectations to each MAC program when it comes to those early-season 4-game slates:

2021 non-conference results

  • 0-4: Ohio
  • 1-3: Akron, Kent State, Miami (OH)
  • 2-2: Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo
  • 3-1: Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan
  • 4-0: N/A

Nobody was perfect in 2021, but Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan were closest — although both programs suffered lopsided losses in Big Ten country to Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively. The majority of the conference finished an even 2-2 prior to MAC play. But not everybody enjoyed success, as four MAC East programs fell below .500, including Ohio which suffered a rare loss to an FCS team.

Now, let’s look forward to 2022.

Should get the FCS win

Akron Zips

  • vs. St. Francis PA (FCS), 9/1
  • @ Michigan State, 9/10
  • @ Tennessee, 9/17
  • @ Liberty, 9/24

The Joe Moorhead era in Akron kicks off on a Thursday Night at InfoCision Stadium. For the first time since 2018, the Zips open with an FCS opponent — a perfect opportunity to start Moorhead’s tenure a fresh 1-0. After the new-look Zips battle St. Francis PA, non-conference play transforms into an uphill battle. Akron ventures out on road trips to East Lansing and Knoxville, where Mel Tucker and Josh Heupel have noticeably improved their respective programs. Wins won’t be easy to come by in Big Ten and SEC territory, so the Zips’ best shot at a second victory transpires at Liberty. Malik Willis is no longer on campus, but Hugh Freeze’s Flames reloaded significantly through the transfer portal — acquiring former Baylor and Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer as well as Hawaii running back Dae Dae Hunter.

Bowling Green Falcons

  • @ UCLA, 9/3
  • vs. Eastern Kentucky (FCS), 9/10
  • vs. Marshall, 9/17
  • @ Mississippi State, 9/24

Disclaimer: If Bowling Green knocked off 9-4 Minnesota on the road last fall as 30.5-point underdogs, all of these upsets are certainly possible. That being said, the odds will be against an improved-Falcons team in three of these games. UCLA made impressive strides to 8-4 under Chip Kelly last year with a high-powered rushing offense, which should sustain with halfback Zach Charbonnet behind a veteran o-line. Former MAC rival Marshall, now a member of the Sun Belt, trots out one of the nation’s best running backs in Rasheen Ali which could provide headaches for the defense. Lastly, the Falcons face a contrasting scheme to close out non-conference play on Sept. 24 against Mike Leach’s air raid in Starkville. Bowling Green’s defense posted its best numbers since 2013 under new defensive coordinator Eric Lewis, and the Falcons looked consistently sharp on that end in non-conference play. Thus, the 109th ranked scoring offense will need to elevate to the next level in order to find a win outside of Eastern Kentucky this September.

Bowling Green v Minnesota
Darren Anders and Jordan Anderson return to a Bowling Green defense which held Minnesota to 10 points in a non-conference upset last September.
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Kent State Golden Flashes

  • @ Washington, 9/3
  • @ Oklahoma, 9/10
  • vs. Long Island (FCS), 9/17
  • @ Georgia, 9/24

Kent State’s annual tradition of pitting itself against an impossible non-conference schedule continues. Last year, the team took road trips to Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland. In 2019, the Golden Flashes visited Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin... yet, this year’s slate might even be the most daunting of the Sean Lewis era. The 2021 iteration of Washington was a very beatable team, but new head coach Kalen DeBoer aims to redirects the defensive-minded Huskies back on track. Oklahoma and Georgia are long-shots for any team outside the Top 25, and knocking off either one of those perennial playoff contenders is an improbable task. But as usual, Kent State gets a brief respite against FCS competition, and judging by last year’s 60-10 demolition of VMI, this should be an opportunity for the Flashes to take out pent-up frustration against an overmatched opponent. The silver lining of this grueling schedule — Kent State enters MAC play prepared. The Golden Flashes still generated seven wins and qualified for bowl eligibility in 2019 and 2021 despite 1-3 non-conference records.

Ohio Bobcats

  • vs. Florida Atlantic, 9/3
  • @ Penn State, 9/10
  • @ Iowa State, 9/17
  • vs. Fordham (FCS), 9/24

The worst part about Ohio’s non-conference schedule is that the FCS opponent is reserved for Week 4. The Bobcats started the Tim Albin era with an 0-4 record last fall and could use an early-season confidence booster. Last year, they became the first MAC team to drop an FCS game since 2017 Bowling Green, so it’s of utmost importance to grab the lower hanging fruit this time around. Road wins at Penn State and Iowa State will be hard to come by for a Bobcat team coming off a 3-9 season. But hosting Florida Atlantic is certainly a winnable opener, given the Owls’ 5-7 record and porous passing defense from a year ago. Quarterbacks typically experience a major leap from year two to year three as a starter, so this team will go as far as Kurtis Rourke’s development takes them. Two wins against this slate should be considered a resounding success in Athens, OH.

Most likely 2-2

Ball State Cardinals

  • @ Tennessee, 9/3
  • vs. Murray State (FCS), 9/17
  • @ Georgia Southern, 9/24
  • vs. Connecticut, 10/8

An initial reaction to this schedule should note the presence of an FCS team, Georgia Southern, and UConn, which means as many as three wins are on the table. However, the 2022 iteration of Ball State is almost unrecognizable compared to the two previous years, and it will be a rebuilding campaign for Mike Neu and Co. After boasting a super-senior laden roster in 2021, the Cardinals have less than half of their production returning this fall. Key losses include quarterback Drew Plitt, wide receiver Justin Hall, free safety Bryce Cosby, and inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas, among others. Georgia Southern and UConn trot out first-year coaches Clay Helton (who is transitioning out of a triple option offense) and Jim Mora after forgettable 2021 campaigns, so the rebuilding Cardinals should be able upend at least one of these two opponents to generate a .500 record outside of MAC play. Three wins wouldn’t be a surprise, but accruing only one would be a disaster.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 25 Camellia Bowl - Ball State v Georgia State
Many key playmakers from the 2021 Ball State roster have graduated, but halfback Carson Steele is still in Muncie after a breakout November.
Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Buffalo Bulls

  • @ Maryland, 9/3
  • vs. Holy Cross (FCS), 9/10
  • @ Coastal Carolina, 9/17
  • @ UMass, 10/15

Buffalo feels like a wildcard in terms of possibilities for the 2022 season. The Bulls are still in a rebuilding stage, transitioning from the highly successful Lance Leipold era into year two of Maurice Linguist’s reign. The schedule opens against Taulia Tagovailoa and the explosive Maryland passing offense, which ranked 13th in yards per game last season. After the Terrapins’ 54-point explosion in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Bulls’ secondary must be on their A-game for any shot of pulling off the upset. Holy Cross and UMass shouldn’t be nearly as difficult, especially when factoring in the Minutemen’s 2-26 record over the past three seasons. The Sept. 17 game against Coastal Carolina is certainly an interesting one. Buffalo played a ranked Chanticleers squad within three points on Week 3 last fall, excelling in the rushing department and generating routine stops on third down. But Coastal likely enters as considerable favorites again with option aficionado Grayson McCall returning at quarterback and sack machine Josaiah Stewart lining up on defensive end. Still, this clash on the teal “Surf Turf” has intriguing upset potential given last year’s result.

Central Michigan Chippewas

  • @ Oklahoma State, 9/1
  • vs. South Alabama, 9/10
  • vs. Bucknell (FCS), 9/17
  • @ Penn State, 9/24

Central Michigan vs. Oklahoma State. Yes, that went the Chippewas’ way last time those programs met — in the most chaotic, controversial fashion. And just like in 2016, the Cowboys are an aspiring College Football Playoff dark-horse coming off a New Year’s Six appearance. Given the prowess of that front seven and the litany of offensive weapons, repeating in Stillwater won’t be an easy task — especially considering Central Michigan’s notable losses at wide receiver and linebacker. Winning in Happy Valley is difficult too, but Penn State’s offense stuttered at times last year, so Central Michigan will have to participate in a low-scoring slugfest in order to become the first MAC team since 2012 Ohio to emerge on top of the Nittany Lions. The other two games are set up for Chippewa wins. South Alabama has been a pest in non-conference play throughout the past decade, but the Jaguars’ offensive firepower without Jalen Tolbert is nowhere near the Chippewas’ with reigning rushing champ Lew Nichols. Add Bucknell into the equation and Jim McElwain’s team should enter October at 2-2.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

  • vs. Eastern Kentucky (FCS), 9/2
  • @ Louisiana, 9/10
  • @ Arizona State, 9/17
  • vs. UMass, 10/1

Outside of Ball State and Northern Illinois, this is the easiest non-conference schedule in the MAC. Opening against FCS competition is a great confidence booster and serves as a litmus test for ongoing position battles. Louisiana returns less than half of its 2021 production in addition to losing head coach Billy Napier and a large component of his staff. Arizona State was hit heavy by the transfer portal this offseason including the loss of quarterback Jayden Daniels, but Herm Edwards’ team also utilized the portal to restock the roster with a strikingly different cast of characters. Lastly, Eastern Michigan gets another shot at UMass after dismantling the Minutemen 42-28 last September. The Eagles should certainly finish non-conference play at least 2-2, but the potential to exceed that expectation certainly exists, especially if Louisiana regresses substantially. A lot hinges on transfer quarterback Taylor Powell, who looks to sustain the Eagles’ aerial excellence from last year — 34th in passing yards per game and 10th in accuracy.

Miami RedHawks

  • @ Kentucky, 9/3
  • vs. Robert Morris (FCS), 9/10
  • vs. Cincinnati (neutral site), 9/17
  • @ Northwestern, 9/24

Last time Miami won the MAC championship, the RedHawks endured the grind of Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Iowa — which all finished ranked in the 2019 season. The RedHawks resurge as contenders once again, but the slate is a bit simpler in 2022 for Chuck Martin’s squad. Kentucky is not an impossible opener, but winning in Lexington will be tough as the Wildcats return one of the nation’s best linebacking corps and quarterback Will Levis from their 10-3 campaign last fall. Robert Morris serves a much-needed follow-up game if things go awry at Kentucky. Then, the schedule get interesting. Cincinnati produced the third-most draft picks in April, implying a significant amount of production from the 2021 College Football Playoff team is gone. The RedHawks haven’t won this rivalry game in 15 tries, but this is the most winnable chapter in the rivalry since 2017. Lastly, Northwestern is a random number generator of a football team. The Wildcats routinely bounce between 3-9 seasons and Big Ten West titles. Expect a tough defensive game here, but Miami certainly has the offensive firepower to edge Northwestern in Evanston with Brett Gabbert under center. Pinpointing which non-FCS game results in a win isn’t easy, but the RedHawks certainly have potential to chalk up a victory against the Wildcats, Bearcats, or Wildcats before MAC play launches.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Frisco Football Classic Bowl - North Texas v Miami (OH)
Quarterback Brett Gabbert has withstood several grueling non-conference schedules at Miami. After winning a MAC title and a bowl game, he’s fully prepared to endure another early-season challenge.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Western Michigan Broncos

  • @ Michigan State, 9/2
  • vs. Pittsburgh, 9/17
  • @ San Jose State, 9/24
  • vs. New Hampshire (FCS), 10/1

Western Michigan has lost 12 straight contests to the Spartans dating back to 1919, including six since 2009. Mel Tucker’s squad made a giant leap to the New Year’s Six last season and should pose a difficult Week 1 matchup for the Broncos — similar to their opener at the Big House last September. Pitt comes to town Week 2, and although Western Michigan defeated the eventual ACC champions at Heinz Field last September, this rematch won’t be easy without the lethal offensive connection of Kaleb Eleby and Skyy Moore. The Broncos handled San Jose State with ease last year and although west coast trips can be difficult for MAC teams, Tim Lester’s experienced defense and versatile rushing attack should peg Western Michigan as road favorites. Closing with an FCS team is a nice way to bolster confidence as MAC play enters full swing, but the Broncos’ conference schedule is unorthodox as they face Ball State in a Week 2 showdown.

The main +.500 candidates

Northern Illinois Huskies

  • vs. Eastern Illinois (FCS), 9/3
  • @ Tulsa, 9/10
  • vs. Vanderbilt, 9/17
  • @ Kentucky, 9/24

Last year’s Huskie squad was very young, but the group gained invaluable experience and improved as the season progressed. We’ll see if Thomas Hammock’s team is even stronger when the reigning MAC champions take the field for the first time since the Cure Bowl heartbreaker. Week 1 is a highly winnable game against Eastern Illinois of the FCS. Week 2 presents a relatively evenly-matched Tulsa team coming off a Myrtle Beach Bowl victory. With the way both offenses moved the ball late in the season, this could sneakily be one of the most enticing matchups of the week, or non-conference play as a whole. The Huskies then welcome in a Vanderbilt group which struggled mightily with a 2-10 record (and a 20-point FCS loss) in 2021. If all goes as expected, Northern Illinois is perfectly set up for its first SEC win since shocking Alabama in 2003. But if the Huskies squander that opportunity, another SEC opponent awaits the next week. However, Kentucky and its 26th ranked scoring defense is a different animal than a Vanderbilt team which has dropped 21-straight SEC contests.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Northern Illinois at Coastal Carolina
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi returns to the Northern Illinois offense after rushing for 3 touchdowns in the 2021 MAC Championship Game victory.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Toledo Rockets

  • vs. Long Island (FCS), 9/3
  • vs. UMass, 9/10
  • @ Ohio State, 9/17
  • @ San Diego State, 9/24

Ohio State is 28-0 all-time against MAC teams, and this year’s Buckeye offense features arguably a top three quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in the sport. That would be a landmark upset for Toledo to a greater degree than last year’s close call at Notre Dame. But the non-Ohio State matchups are quite winnable for Jason Candle’s team. Toledo has an easier road to a 2-0 start than almost every team in college football with Long Island and UMass visiting the Glass Bowl in back-to-back weeks. The Week 4 bout against San Diego State is the toss-up on this schedule. The Aztecs always play a suffocating brand of defense, but the lack of explosiveness on offense allows opponents to hang around. If Toledo’s talented pass rush featuring Jamal Hines and Dyontae Johnson makes a mark in limiting San Diego State’s offense, the Rockets (27th in scoring offense in 2021) certainly have enough of their own offensive firepower to pull off the upset.

No MAC team has finished 4-0 in conference play since 2016 Western Michigan, but all 12 teams will strive for that when the first games for the conference kick off on Thursday, Sept. 1.