There’s something special about mid-to-late August. You’ve waited all offseason to hear the resonating sound of the clicking of pads and the harmonious melody produced by a sticky pair of gloves absorbing a leather ball. Preseason NFL games became standard background noise on your TV, as you begin to slowly internalize where the stars of college football’s yesterday will commence their professional journeys.
Vegas spreads for Week 0 and Week 1 are released. Quarterback battles are settled. You fire up YouTube to rewatch highlights from that unforgettable, nail-biting win last season. Your favorite wings joint sends you a promotion deal to come dine in their establishment.
It smells like football.
And when it smells like football, you talk extensively about football. Zero games have been played, but we all have ideas on how the 2022 college football season will shape up. Here at Hustle Belt, we have a panel of MAC writers dishing out predictions for the upcoming campaign to prepare you for those fall Saturdays (and Tuesdays and Wednesdays). So here we go, it’s the annual MAC football season predictions roundtable:
Who will be the breakout team in the MAC for the 2022 season? On the contrary, which bowl eligible team from 2021 takes a tumble?
Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): For a breakout team, look no further than a squad which could field the MAC’s top defense in 2022. Bowling Green made tangible progress in 2021 by defeating 9-4 Minnesota and logging its winningest campaign since 2016, but I think the Falcons further their footprint this year. From Karl Brooks on the defensive line to Darren Anders at linebacker to Jordan Anderson and Davon Ferguson manning the secondary, there’s a lot riding for the program in all levels of the defense, which showed marked improvement in 2021. If the Falcons can sort out their 119th ranked rushing attack, they sneak into MAC East contention.
On the contrary, Ball State’s flame seems to be burning out. The 2020 Cardinals ran it back in 2021 with nearly every starter returning, but many of those key contributors such as Justin Hall, Drew Plitt, and Bryce Cosby concluded their time in Muncie. Ball State already had its struggles in a 6-7 finish last year, and the growing pains this fall could be prevalent considering the immense roster turnover.
James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): If we consider “breakout” a team who finished under .500 in 2021, then I have to agree with Steve and say the only real choice here is Bowling Green, since Ohio and Akron just aren’t up to the task quite yet in their rebuilds. BGSU was the MAC’s top defense in 2021, and a Top 25 unit in the country. With many of the same contributors coming back into the fold, we expect them to be at a similar level. It’s ultimately the offense where the issue lies, as it was scatter-brained even in the best of times. If they can keep a steady ship, they could make noise in the East.
I also have to agree with Steve about Ball State being a tumbler. That unit did not play the part of a defending MAC champion in 2021, looking nothing like the head-on-fire unit which gave many teams issues the season prior. Now, they have to replace basically their entire upperclassmen class and put a lot of underclassmen into the baptismal fire in a cut-throat MAC West which saw no other team finish below .500 in 2021.
Zach Follador (@zach_folly): For my breakout team of the year, I’m going to be a bit contrary and go with Akron. Despite last year’s 2-10 record, the cupboard is not completely bare for new head coach Joe Moorhead. Quarterback DJ Irons returns under center for his second year in the program, and first year as the undisputed starter. While splitting time with Zach Gibson last season, Irons completed 65% of his passes and had a perfectly good 8-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio. With Penn State transfer Daniel George and Pitt transfer Shocky Jacques-Louis solidifying the wide receiver room, I believe this offense will see significant improvement. Jonzell Norrils returns at running back and will be joined by Minnesota transfer Cam Wiley, giving the Zips two legitimate backs. Though the defense has some holes to solidify, linebackers Bubba Arslanian and Jeslord Boateng give the Zips a legitimate duo in the middle. I’m not saying that Akron will go to a bowl this year, but I think four or five wins is attainable. That would be a tremendous season for a program that needs some good fortune.
For a team that I expect to take a step back this year, I’d have to go with Kent State. The greatness of Dustin Crum has been covered many times over on this site (with good reason), and the do-everything quarterback is now in camp with the Kansas City Chiefs. New QB Colin Schlee has perhaps the biggest shoes to fill of anyone in the conference, and he will be tested quickly. Schlee will have some weapons at his disposal on offense, with first-team All-MAC wide receiver Dante Cephas returning, as well as the top two running backs in Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams. The offense may be okay, but this defense needs to see marked improvement if the Flashes want to return to a bowl game. New coordinator Jeremiah Johnson was brought in to fix a unit that gave up 36.3 points and 471.5 yards per game last year, and outside of cornerback Montre Miller and defensive tackle Zayin West, there’s not a ton of talent here that he can lean on. I don’t see the Flashes returning to a bowl game this year.
Drew Pearson (@DPearson88): I’m going to take a chance with Buffalo being a breakout team in the East. They added 38 players to their roster this offseason between the second strongest recruiting class in the MAC and the best transfer class. It’s a lot of new faces for a second-year coach to process into the program, but if it works it’s not hard to see a big jump up from 4-8 in 2021. This season will be Mo Linguist’s first season with a full offseason leading into it, which can only be a good thing for the Bulls.
The team that makes a tumble could be Western Michigan. As an alum, it pains me to say it, but the offense could be one dimensional and the defense has always been prone to giving up the big play. On offense, the Broncos replace the quarterback, three linemen and Corey Crooms is the only returning receiver with a catch from last season. Plus a new offensive coordinator. It’s a recipe for stretches of poor execution. The defense shouldn’t be a serious liability but can they be good enough to win games? Maybe, but probably not well enough to replicate an 8-5 record.
Which under-the-radar players, one offensive and one defensive, do you see having a breakout season in 2022?
Helwick: Northern Illinois wide receiver Messiah Travis should have a large role cut out for him after the unfortunate season-ending knee injury to All-MAC wideout Trayvon Rudolph. The Huskies also lose Tyrice Richie in their receiving corps, so a new face needs to step up alongside Cole Tucker and FIU transfer Shermar Thornton. Given Rocky Lombardi’s emergence as a passer late last season, I expect NIU to field a dangerous aerial attack in 2022, and Travis should be a major factor.
Miami (OH) lost a slew of talented defensive linemen, ranging from Lonnie Phelps to Dominique Robinson to Kameron Butler. But defensive line coach Ron Burton does an excellent job generating star talent within his unit, and this year’s rather-inexperienced group should experience similar development. Iowa State transfer Corey Suttle rarely played as a Cyclone, but the 6’4” defensive end seems like a prime candidate to reignite the RedHawks’ top 25 pass rush from a year ago.
Jimenez: Ball State transfer Jalen McGaughy now finds himself at Central Michigan, against who he had his best game as a Cardinal, with 100 yards and two touchdowns on three receptions against CMU on the road in 2020 — in his collegiate debut. He projects to have a potential starting role for the Chips as a tall, physical speedster on the outside at 6’2”, 217 pounds to complement fellow transfer Carlos Carriere and slot receiver Dallas Dixon.
Michigan State transfer Chase Kline is set to take the stage at inside linebacker at Eastern Michigan. At 6’4”, 245 pounds, Kline has both the size and caliber for success at the MAC level, as the former high three-star prospect per 247Sports was once considered the best interior linebacker in Ohio for the 2018 class. He arrives at EMU after accumulating 52 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass breakup, and two forced fumbles in 24 appearances over three years in East Lansing.
Follador: I’m going to go with another wide receiver and say Miles Marshall of Miami on offense. The RedHawks have big shoes to fill with Jack Sorenson graduating, and Marshall was a nice get for Chuck Martin out of the transfer portal. Marshall started 18 games over the past three seasons at Indiana and has averaged 14 yards per catch for his career. With Mac Hippenhammer on the other side, and tight end Jack Coldiron providing a receiving threat as well, I think Marshall could have himself a heck of a year. It doesn’t hurt to have Brett Gabbert throwing you the ball.
On defense, I’m going to go with Buffalo safety and Boston College transfer Jahmin Muse. The Bulls struggled to defend the pass last year, ranking 11th in the MAC with only three interceptions and 34 pass break ups. Muse accumulated five interceptions and 69 tackles over the course of his career in Chestnut Hill, and he looks to be someone that will have an immediate impact on this defense. Buffalo is a team looking to bounce back after a rocky first season under Mo Linguist, and Muse could go a long way towards helping them reach their goals.
Pearson: Toledo always has a good running back ready to go and Bryant Koback is trying to make an NFL squad. During the off-season, they brought in Peny Boone from Maryland. Boone is a former four-star running back from the 2020 class that left after 58 carries for 258 yards. A rushing average of 4.4 yards isn’t amazing but he wasn’t their starter and for a myriad of reasons, Maryland is not a premier rushing offense in the Big Ten East. Toledo can give him the opportunity to show his four-star talent in their offense.
Marshawn Kneeland was in the defensive rotation for Western Michigan last year, but was not a starter. In limited time, he still got to the quarterback for 4.5 sacks and three hurries. He’s taking over for Ali Fayad who graduated and will have a much greater opportunity to leave his mark on the MAC. His 6’3”, 275-pound frame is going to be a handful for the linemen across from him all season. Plus, as a redshirt sophomore, he could be around for a while.
Which head coaches have the most at stake in 2022? Also, do you see any coaches at risk for being poached by another program, à la Lance Leipold in 2021?
Helwick: I don’t see any poaches happen this offseason, but if Sean Lewis sustains Kent State’s success in the post-Dustin Crum era, that would be my first choice. For most at stake, Bowling Green head coach Scot Loeffler comes to mind as he enters year four with the Falcons. His team witnessed serious progress last season, although on paper, the result was still 4-8. As long as Bowling Green builds on that improvement and exceeds four wins, I think Loeffler remains at the helm.
The other program I look at is Ball State. Head coach Mike Neu approaches his seventh season with the Cardinals with only one winning record in the rearview mirror — although, it was Ball State’s best season in program history, complete with its first bowl win and first final AP Poll ranking ever. With a mass exodus of veterans, I expect the Cardinals to take a tumble. Does a decline to 2-10 or 3-9 cause Ball State to make a move? It’s too soon to tell, but I think Neu deserves get a fair shot at developing this young group because he turned a similar 2017 squad into MAC champions three years later.
Jimenez: This is the make-or-break year for Bowling Green head man Scot Loeffler. It’s his fourth season, and BGSU, outside of a few flashes of potential here and there, is still an abysmal 7-22 in games he has coached. If the Falcons don’t show a proof of concept in 2022 (I’d say 5-6 wins would do it), BGSU is staring down a third remake in as many coaches.
Another name to consider: Toledo’s Jason Candle. The Matt Campbell protégé has only managed to haul in one MAC title despite pulling down the best recruiting class in the MAC five of the last six seasons, with both Jim McElwain and Thomas Hammock entering as newcomers and outperforming him since his hire. Something has to give there soon.
Follador: I’d have to agree with James here and go with Jason Candle. Ever since the Rockets won the MAC title in 2017 (Candle’s second season in charge), this is a program that has failed to live up to expectations. The Rockets own a 24-20 record over the past four seasons, which is a mark that would be acceptable at many schools. However, the Rockets consistently have a roster stocked with talent, and because of that are often expected to compete for conference championships. That hasn’t been the case since 2017. If Toledo once again go 7-5 or 6-6, they may be looking for a new head coach next season.
Pearson: If Ball State drops down a level and has a 3-9-ish season, does Mike Neu survive it? The build at Ball State was slow, some of that can be explained by bad injury luck, but how long do the good feelings from a MAC championship last? After a 7-1 season, the Cardinals went 4-4 in the MAC. Through six seasons his MAC record is 17-29, and if that becomes a 2-6 record this season, the perception could be a slide back to mediocrity.
Central Michigan is in the running for a MAC West championship. Jim McElwain has name recognition that the rest of the MAC coaches don’t and a division championship could generate enough buzz to find a new home. There haven’t been any reports that McElwain is looking to leave or unhappy at all in Mt. Pleasant, but power five money talks.
Bowling Green’s marquee upset over Minnesota extended the MAC’s streak of 15 consecutive seasons with a win over the Big Ten (excluding the 2020 pandemic-shortened schedule). Does that streak extend to 16, and if so, which MAC team is defeating a Big Ten opponent?
Helwick: I just checked the calendar and it’s an even year which means Northwestern is going to win the Big Ten West instead of posting a 3-9 record. Jokes aside, Miami (OH) at Northwestern on Sept. 24 is the MAC’s best bet, but I can’t expect a Pat Fitzgerald-coached Wildcats team to look disoriented in consecutive years. Still, Miami’s aerial attack is probably adept enough to impose its will and eke out of Evanston with a close victory. So yes, the streak extends.
Jimenez: The number of MAC teams scheduled to play our nearby neighboring conference feels lower than in the past, with just eight contests scheduled in 2022, but there’s certainly some chances to be had. I have my eye on Miami (OH) at Northwestern and Central Michigan at Penn State.
Miami is basically peers with Northwestern in terms of on-roster talent and coaching, and they operate in similar fashions. If Miami can take advantage early, they can certainly pull off an upset-prone Wildcats squad.
Central, on the other hand, faces a stiffer — if still achievable — challenge in Penn State, a roster in the midst of trying to rediscover itself after a forgettable 7-6 campaign in 2021. There’s no question CMU has the offense to keep up; it’ll come down to if their new-look defense is up to the task.
Follador: I hate to agree with both Steve and James here, but Miami (OH) at Northwestern seems to be the best opportunity. Northwestern has this odd habit of alternating really good seasons (reaching the Big Ten championship game in 2020, for example) with really poor ones (see last year’s 3-9 record). The Wildcats were dismal offensively last year, averaging on 16.6 points and 321.6 yards per game. With Brett Gabbert back under center, and a rather veteran supporting cast, the RedHawks have the talent to walk out of Evanston with a victory.
As a Penn State alum, I can’t in good conscience pick the Chippewas over the Nittany Lions, though I do agree with James. If the Chippewas play to their abilities and limit mistakes, that is a game they could steal. Penn State has looked rather listless for long stretches of the past two seasons, and while James Franklin’s team will hold a talent advantage, plenty of question marks exist across the roster.
Pearson: Only to be a contrarian, I’ll say Buffalo at Maryland. It would be a huge indicator that my breakout pick is correct, but Maryland is a much better team than Northwestern. Maryland’s offense, lead by Taulia Tagovailoa, will be strong through the air, but the defense is one of the weaker units in the Big Ten. If the Bulls get on the board early and get some turnover luck, the Terrapins could be on upset alert.
Who do you predict wins the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards?
Jimenez: It’s hard not to say Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols here, honestly. He won last season, and with good reason, considering he was the country’s leading rusher in 2021. He’s set for even more reps in 2022, as the depth chart behind him likely won’t threaten to take reps (unless he needs a spell) and the offense is built around his being able to pick up yards.
Defensively, there’s a number of directions you could go. The first name which pops in my head is Toledo’s Jamal Hines. He is a prototypical edge prospect at 6’3”, 250 pounds, and was efficient both in the run and passing games with 88 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and eight pass break-ups. Another name is Bowling Green’s Davon Ferguson, who picked up 68 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks with four pass breakups in just eight contests at the corner spot. 2022 should give him more opportunities to show out as NFL scouts will have their eyes on him.
Helwick: There’s no need to overthink this question. The MAC has the country’s reigning rushing yards leader — a feat the conference last enjoyed in 2006. Even without two day two NFL Draft picks operating on his offensive line, I still believe in Lew Nichols to churn out absurd rushing numbers on a weekly basis. He eclipsed 130 rushing yards in 10 of 13 contests last year, and that feat will transpire many times again in 2022.
On the defensive side, I’ll pick Bowling Green inside linebacker Darren Anders. He was a tackling machine with 124 takedowns in 2021, and he wreaked havoc all over the field with 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, and a handful of forced turnovers. If the Falcons’ defense performs as well as I project, Anders will get his due as the leader of the unit.
Follador: My fellow Belters are correct here, Lew Nichols is the obvious choice on offense. After leading the country in rushing last year, Nichols will be the workhorse for the CMU offense. I anticipate the Chippewas coaching staff will build their game plan around him every week, especially considering the loss of the electric Kalil Pimpleton on the outside. Miami QB Brett Gabbert gets honorable mention here for me, but I don’t see him surpassing the production of Nichols.
On defense, I’m going to go with Buffalo linebacker James Patterson. The younger brother of all-time great Buffalo running Jaret Patterson led the Bulls and was third in the MAC with 114 tackles last year. Patterson is dynamic and is able to blitz (as evidenced by his 4.5 sacks in 2021) and drop into coverage. To put it simply, Patterson is a tackling machine, racking up 10+ tackles on six occasions last season. Another strong year could catapult him up the 2023 NFL Draft boards.
Pearson: Lew Nichols is a great choice based on his 2021 production, but I’m giving my Offensive Player of the Year Award to Brett Gabbert. Miami is the odds-on favorite to win the MAC East and he will be the quarterback leading the way. He led the league in yards per game and touchdowns a year ago, and if he separates himself from the other quarterbacks it will be an easy choice.
Jamal Hines can do it all for the Toledo defense. James has his stats above, and they are impressive. Edge rusher Ali Fayad won MAC Defensive Player of the Year last season and Hines could be the second straight defensive end to do it. If his production increases at all, the award is his.
The MAC Championship Game takes place the first weekend of December at Ford Field. Which teams meet in Detroit and who emerges with the conference crown?
Helwick: Miami (OH) vs. Central Michigan. The MAC is always the hardest conference to predict due to its annual tradition of parity — and four straight upset have occurred in the MAC title game. The conference champion hasn’t even attained double-digit wins since 2017 Toledo. Anyway, selecting the team with the best quarterback typically works, so Miami (OH) will represent the East. The West is a toss-up between Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, but I’ll pick the team that trots out an unstoppable running back in Lew Nichols as well as a fortified defensive line. In this rematch of the 2019 MAC Championship, I’ll pick Central Michigan to emerge with the conference crown for the first time since 2009.
Jimenez: Miami (OH) vs. Central Michigan. I generally get worried when something seems obvious, but Central Michigan and Miami just feels pre-ordained, four years to the week after their last meeting in Detroit.
I have a lot of faith in Miami finishing 7-5, whether it’s a good 7-5 or a bad 7-5, and 7-5 will certainly be enough to take the East. NIU and Toledo are the West favorites, but both teams play on the razor’s edge, especially NIU, who played in 10 one-possession games. CMU has one of the country’s best defenses returning, backed by the nation’s leading rusher. That will be a hard combination to beat.
Central Michigan should be fairly motivated to get revenge on Miami for 2019, and Miami has a lot of turnover to contend with at vital positions.
Follador: Miami (OH) vs. Central Michigan. I’m going to agree with Steve and James here and go with Miami and CMU. The East seems rather clear cut to me this year (though we all know that the MAC is never clear cut). With Kent State losing Dustin Crum, and with Ohio, Akron, and Bowling Green all in various stages of a rebuild, I just don’t see any other team with the talent to compete with the RedHawks. The West is much harder to call. My first instinct is to go with Northern Illinois, but the Huskies won so many coin flip games last fall. Some of those are bound to go the other way this season, and I can’t get the image of that last second victory over Central Michigan out of my mind. With Lew Nichols back, and with the underappreciated Daniel Richardson under center, I see Central Michigan emerging from the West and bringing home its first MAC title under Jim McElwain.
Pearson: Miami (OH) vs. Toledo. I like to be a contrarian if I can be, but Miami is the most complete team in the East. Picking someone else to win the East feels like picking based on potential injuries or the randomness of MACtion. Picking Toledo, however, is betting on them to finally turn their superior recruiting into a championship. Their defense will be a top three unit in the MAC and Dequan Finn is a playmaker at quarterback. NIU and Central Michigan will be stiff competition in the MAC West, but if Toledo can get to the championship game it’s theirs to win. It’s the year of the Rocket.
After Ball State and Buffalo finished ranked in 2020, the MAC did not feature a single ranked team at any point in 2021. Does a MAC team land in the AP Poll or College Football Playoff rankings this season?
Helwick: No. Many teams face difficult non-conference schedules which will be unfavorable early in the season. Then there’s too much parity in the league for a solo team to emerge unscathed in conference play. I bet it’s more likely the MAC finishes without a 10-win team for the third consecutive full length season than sees one of its members crack the rankings.
Jimenez: No. But as always, if there’s a team who goes on a miracle run, there’s a good chance some pollsters might take notice. It’s been about six or seven years since the MAC had an utterly dominant team, so we’re due at some point for a run to be had. This year is probably not that year, though, as three or four teams are in contention for the MAC West division alone.
Follador: No. Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Every conference member will have opportunities to pull an upset in September, but I don’t see any team here with the talent or the schedule to sustain it over multiple weeks. As James and Steve have both noted, this is such a parity driven league, and even a team that pulls an upset or two in the non-conference portion of the schedule is liable to lose a game in conference. Unfortunately for the MAC, someone would need to be undefeated into mid-October to sniff the rankings, and I just don’t see that happening this year.
Pearson: No. To get ranked a team needs a hot start or a long stretch of the season where they can rack up a bunch of wins. The best hot start candidate is Northern Illinois. They start with Eastern Illinois and Tulsa. Both are winnable. Then they host Vanderbilt, a bad SEC team but an SEC team nonetheless. The road trip to Kentucky is where the dream dies, unless it doesn’t. A 4-0 start is very unlikely but only the Kentucky game would require a massive upset. The other route, a winnable stretch of games, seems unlikely in the MAC this season. There isn’t one team that is head and shoulders better than the rest of the league that can go 8-0 and finish 10-2. There will be parity in MAC play.