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2023 MAC Midseason Report Cards

All 12 teams have six data points. Let’s see where each team stands based on performance, preseason expectations, and other factors.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Miami (Ohio) at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re officially halfway through the regular season. All 12 MAC teams have produced an identical quantity of data points. Six games overall, two conference games.

Just like midterm exams in college, it’s an ideal time to assess where each MAC team is with six contests in the books. And at Hustle Belt, grades are officially due this week, so it’s time to issue our annual midseason report cards.

Keep in mind that the grades aren’t necessarily a reflection of the MAC standings. Several factors are considered, with performance being the main driver, but preseason expectations and other variables enter the equation. For instance, a Kent State team that lost nearly all of its production is graded on a different scale than a reigning MAC champion Toledo squad that returned a bulk of its talent for 2023.

Anyway, let’s open up the report cards and post them on the refrigerator.

Akron Zips

Record: 1-5, 0-2 MAC

Midseason grade: D+

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Buffalo at Akron
Akron QB DJ Irons suffered a torn ACL in the Week 5 loss to Buffalo. Irons rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns in an impressive performance at Indiana.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Akron is becoming a beacon of bad luck. All signs pointed to a breakout 2023 for year two of the Joe Moorhead after how the tail-end of the 2022 fared. The Zips went 1-7 in conference play last year and lost five of those matchups by one score. They looked especially spry to conclude the year with a 44-12 win over Northern Illinois and a hard-fought 23-22 defeat to a 7-6 Buffalo team. But rather than those close losses translating to wins, Akron is merely doing the same thing.

The Zips squandered a 21-7 lead to Temple in Week 1 to lose 24-21. Then they missed a game-winning 32-yard field goal at the buzzer at Indiana, falling to the Hoosiers 29-27 in a quadruple overtime affair. If that wasn’t enough, Akron dropped its conference opener, 13-10 to winless Buffalo in overtime fashion. To make matters worse, the Zips lost All-MAC quarterback DJ Irons for the season with a torn ACL in that matchup, and they unraveled in their first game without Irons in a 55-14 evisceration at the hands of Northern Illinois. Akron has one win — and it was nearly an abject disaster. The Zips needed a scoop-and-score with 52 seconds left to upend an FCS opponent.

So Akron is 1-5 with an 0-2 conference record at midseason for the second straight year. Now the question is, where is Akron’s next win on the schedule? Will the Zips have enough fortitude to overcome the Irons loss and the bevy of heartbreaking defeats?

Ball State Cardinals

Record: 1-5, 0-2 MAC

Midseason grade: D-

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Central Michigan at Ball State
Ball State head coach Mike Neu led the Cardinals to a MAC championship in 2020 and is in his eighth season at the helm.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was a steady rise for Ball State from 2017 to 2020, when the Cardinals authoritatively claimed a MAC championship, their first-ever bowl win, and finished the season No. 23 in the AP Poll. Ever since 2020, it’s been a decline that almost perfectly mirrors the climb to that apex. Bowl eligibility was in play during Ball State’s regular season finale in 2022, but the Cardinals are already close to being denied that opportunity with a 1-5 record.

Ball State took care of business against FCS Indiana State, but every outing against FBS competition has been a disheartening blowout for Mike Neu and the Cardinals, which exhibit an average point differential of -28.2 in such games. Ball State entered the year with one of the better transfer portal hauls in the MAC. While they lost star running back Carson Steele to UCLA, they reloaded strong offensively with First Team All-MAC running back Marquez Cooper from Kent State and former Alabama, Arkansas State, and Texas State transfer Layne Hatcher at quarterback.

If there’s one positive stat to pull from this season, Ball State outscored Kentucky and Georgia by a combined score of 7-3 in first quarters. But the Cardinals’ lost those games by 30 and 42, respectively, while falling 40-3 to Georgia Southern, 42-24 to Western Michigan, and 24-10 to Eastern Michigan.

Bowling Green Falcons

Record: 2-4, 0-2 MAC

Midseason grade: B-

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Bowling Green at Georgia Tech
Bowling Green scored 38 unanswered points in Week 5 at Georgia Tech. The Falcons won by 11 despite entering as 21-point underdogs.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bowling Green made positive progress in 2022 by qualifying for bowl eligibility for the first time since 2015. But the Falcons remain on the prowl for their first winning season since that MAC championship campaign. And they’re an incredibly tough team to get a read on at the moment.

In MAC games, Bowling Green has been nothing but alarming, losing to MAC East juggernauts Ohio and Miami (OH) by a combined score of 65-7. After falling 27-0 to Miami last Saturday, the Falcons are one of six FBS teams to face a shutout this year. But in non-conference play, Bowling Green was quite solid. The Falcons shocked Georgia Tech in Week 5 in a 38-27 decision that was as lopsided as 38-14 at one point before the Yellow Jackets scored a pair of late touchdowns. Bowling Green demonstrated the potency of its Connor Bazelak-led passing attack in that statement win, but consistency has yet to be established in that department.

Bowling Green’s trip to the Big House wasn’t bad either. Bazelak missed that game due to injury, but when backup Camden Orth was knocked out in the mid-second quarter, Bowling Green only trailed Michigan, 7-6. And the Falcons played undefeated Liberty quite respectfully too. If not for an 11-of-31, 5-interception catastrophe from the aerial attack, Bowling Green may have pulled out a valuable victory instead of a 34-24 defeat. As long as Bowling Green can replicate its passing success from Atlanta a few more times in October and November, a second consecutive bowl invite is feasible.

Buffalo Bulls

Record: 2-4, 2-0 MAC

Midseason grade: C+

Buffalo v Wisconsin
Buffalo QB Cole Snyder ranks first in the MAC with 1,307 passing yards on the season.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Do you get déjà vu? This Buffalo season is nearly a carbon copy of the 2022 season. Last year, the Bulls erased an 0-3 non-conference start — marred by a stunning loss to an FCS program — to rattle off five consecutive wins and finish 7-6. And once again this year, Buffalo was bafflingly brutal in non-conference play. The Bulls started 0-4 and were one of the last five winless teams in the FBS, and there was a puzzling defeat to Fordham of the FCS during that calamitous stretch.

But whenever Buffalo sees a MAC logo on the opponent’s chest, the Bulls kick into gear like LeBron James in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. It’s uncanny. Buffalo is now 2-0 in MAC play and all those woes that existed in the first four contests suddenly look solved. The two worst aspects of non-conference play for the Bulls were slow starts and poor defensive showings. They scored seven first quarter points in their first four contests against FBS competition while surrendering 44.5 points per game against non-conference opponents.

But last Saturday against Central Michigan, Buffalo raced to 23 points before halftime and limited the Chippewas to 13. The week prior, the Marcus Fuqua-led defense suffocated Akron to a mere 10 points. With the MAC’s leading passer in Cole Snyder, Buffalo’s aerial-centric offense is in fine shape. If the defense is fixed, this team could surprise in MAC play. So while the Bulls look sharp at 2-0 on the road to Detroit, those first four games still factor into their season grade.

Central Michigan Chippewas

Record: 3-3, 1-1 MAC

Midseason grade: B-

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Central Michigan at Notre Dame
Central Michigan has four players with at least 130 rushing yards this year, including two quarterbacks. RB Myles Bailey leads the pack with 332.
Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jim McElwain rarely sees consecutive down years. Central Michigan is already one victory away from matching last year’s win total after a 3-3 start. It’s been a mixed bag for the Chippewas so far, which stunned South Alabama as 16.5-point underdogs on the road one week after South Alabama obliterated Oklahoma State, 33-7. That was unquestionably the high point of the Chippewas’ first six weeks, but that was offset by a head-scratching 37-13 loss to Buffalo, where they were plagued by a 4-0 disadvantage in the turnover battle.

The good news for Central Michigan is the losses have been largely the result of self-inflicted wounds. The Chippewas rank near the basement of the FBS with a -6 turnover margin this season, and if they can improve that, the offense should be in better shape. Central Michigan has been sound in the running game with Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes leading the way, while mobile quarterbacks Jase Bauer and Bert Emanuel Jr. play strong supporting roles.

The MAC West is wide open behind Toledo. The Chippewas appear to be the second best team in the division for the time being, especially after taking out Eastern Michigan in a back-and-forth contest in Week 5. There is certainly work to be done in the secondary, which allows the eighth-most passing yards per game in the FBS. But overall, this team looks destined to return to bowl season with a favorable October schedule looming.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

Record: 3-3, 1-1 MAC

Midseason grade: C+

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Eastern Michigan v San Jose State
Eastern Michigan head coach Chris Creighton is in his 10th season holding the position, fresh off his first 9-win campaign with the Eagles.
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Eastern Michigan’s 2022 campaign was a dream season for longtime followers of the program. The Eagles hadn’t attained nine wins or won a bowl game since 1987, and both of those objectives were attained during last December’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win over San Jose State. While Eastern Michigan returned key components from that team including All-MAC running back Samson Evans, the Eagles suffered massive losses to the NFL Draft. Guard Sidy Sow and defensive end Jose Ramirez were the best at their positions in the MAC last year, and replacing that professional talent isn’t easy.

Eastern Michigan’s retooled offensive line is letting up 3.3 sacks per game, which is 10th in the MAC, and the defense is now middle of the road at generating them, attaining just 2.0 sacks for themselves — a testament to the magnitude of the Sow and Ramirez losses. The run game took a massive step backward as well, decreasing its per game output from 141 to 113 yards, good for 112th in the FBS.

But Eastern Michigan is .500 and hasn’t allowed more than 26 points this season, exhibiting the country’s 38th best scoring defense. So what’s gone well? The passing defense has been stellar, yielding just 187 yards per game on a 57 percent completion rate. That unit thrived in a 24-10 win over Ball State, a 19-17 win over UMass, and a 33-23 win over Howard of the FCS. But in order for Eastern Michigan to break above .500, it needs improvement from a 127th-ranked scoring offense which was shut out 21-0 by FBS newcomer Jacksonville State in Week 4.

Kent State Golden Flashes

Record: 1-5, 0-2 MAC

Midseason grade: C

Other than maybe Colorado or Charlotte, no program is starting from square one in 2023 more so than Kent State. After a successful tenure, Sean Lewis unexpectedly departed for the Colorado offensive coordinator job last December and a mass exodus ensued. Kent State lost loads of All-MAC talent to the transfer portal, and Kenni Burns was hired from Minnesota to rebuild the Golden Flashes.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Kent State returned the fewest starters in the country, sending out just three incumbent starters on the defensive side and zero on offense. The revamped offensive line featured a true freshman center and a guard with zero FBS snaps prior to the 2023 season, having just two collective starts across the entire line heading into August. And quarterback Mike Alaimo threw just 18 collegiate passes before transferring in from Purdue this offseason.

The lack of experience is fully evident on the scoreboard each week, and Kent State generated just one combined touchdown against its first four FBS opponents. The Golden Flashes rank in the bottom 10 nationally in a multitude of categories including passing offense, sacks, fewest sacks allowed, third down defense, and negative offensive plays allowed. They lost 56-6 to UCF, 28-6 to Arkansas, 53-10 to Fresno State, 23-3 to Miami (OH), and 42-17 to Ohio. It’s been a brutal schedule, save for the lone FCS opponent which it steamrolled 38-10, but Kent State hopes enduring this grind will pay dividends when facing teams closer to its weight class later this season.

Miami (OH) RedHawks

Record: 5-1, 2-0 MAC

Midseason grade: A

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Miami (Ohio) at Cincinnati
Miami (OH) shattered its 16-game losing streak to Cincinnati in Week 3 with a 31-24 overtime win on the road.

The RedHawks are rolling. The Miami (OH) vs. Miami (FL) was a challenging matchup for the RedHawks, but ever since losing “The Confusion Bowl” 38-3 to a similarly-named opponent, Chuck Martin’s team has been on fire. Miami made arguably the conference’s greatest statement of the season when strolling into Nippert Stadium in a raucous primetime atmosphere to stun Cincinnati in overtime — ending a 16-game skid in the annual crosstown rivalry. But it’s been more than just the Cincinnati game. The RedHawks are one of six teams to record an FBS shutout this year, and they’ve smoked their conference competition by an aggregate score of 50-3.

As suggested by that statistic, Miami is throttling opponents with a commanding defense this season. Allowing just 18.8 points per game, the RedHawks rank 30th nationally in scoring defense and second in the MAC. Matt Salopek is on track for his third-straight All-MAC season with a team-high 54 tackles, Ty Wise is ascending into the MAC’s fraternity of premier pass rushers, and defensive backs Yahsyn McKee, Raion Strader, and Michael Dowell are holding down the fort in a much-improved secondary.

Offensively, Miami has a MAC championship caliber unit as well. The headliner remains Brett Gabbert, who is in the midst of his fifth season as the RedHawks’ primary starting quarterback. Gabbert is collecting 10 yards per passing attempt with 12 touchdowns on the season, and he isn’t even required to pass as much as usual due to increased contributions from Rashad Amos and the run game. But the offensive breakout star has been FCS transfer wide receiver Gage Larvadain, who led the country in receiving yards after Week 3 — highlighted by his 273-yard, 3-touchdown performance at UMass. Overall, this is a complete team and probably the most refined in Martin’s 10 years at the helm.

Northern Illinois Huskies

Record: 2-4, 1-1 MAC

Midseason grade: C

Northern Illinois v Kentucky
NIU RB Antario Brown registered 280 rushing yards and four touchdowns in Week 5 at Akron, tying Kentucky’s Ray Davis for most single-game rushing yards in 2023.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The previous five years of Northern Illinois football were a roller coaster with highs featuring two MAC championships and lows featuring 0-6 and 3-9 seasons. The Huskies failed to defend their 2021 title last fall and instead found themselves in the basement of the MAC West in a season marred by injuries, namely to quarterback Rocky Lombardi and wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph. But Lombardi and Rudolph returned for 2023 alongside several All-MAC offensive and defensive linemen, and with a similar cast to that magical 2021 season, the Huskies’ had high hopes for a return trip to Detroit.

Everything started out perfectly. NIU defeated Boston College on the road in overtime to open the season and flew the flag in Chestnut Hill, and two weeks later, that same Boston College team nearly knocked off Florida State. But the Huskies lost four consecutive games after making a statement in ACC country, including an inexcusable 14-11 defeat to Southern Illinois of the FCS. Offense was particularly an issue during the first three games of that losing stretch, averaging just 12 points per game against Southern Illinois, Tulsa, and Nebraska.

But Thomas Hammock’s team has since shed its offensive woes. NIU recorded 26 second half points against Toledo and nearly reached game-winning field goal range during a 35-33 road loss to the MAC West favorite. And last week, the Huskies trounced Akron 55-14 thanks to 280 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns (all stemming from 45+ yards) from Antario Brown. If that offensive production can be sustained, perhaps NIU can climb out of its 1-4 start. But it’ll be tough as there isn’t a sub-.500 opponent on the schedule until November.

Ohio Bobcats

Record: 5-1, 2-0 MAC

Midseason grade: A

Ohio v Iowa State
Ohio OLB Bryce Houston ranks in the top five in the MAC in tackles (59), tackles for loss (7.5), and interceptions (2) as the leader of the conference’s best defense.
Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

Ohio is one of three 5-1 MAC teams currently riding a 5-game win streak. The Bobcats’ lone loss transpired in Week 0 at San Diego State where star quarterback Kurtis Rourke was knocked out of the game with an injury in the first quarter. In all likelihood, Ohio would be one of 15 undefeated FBS teams right now if Rourke remained in that game, considering how the team moved the ball with him under center. But instead of chasing hypotheticals, the Bobcats are simply chasing wins.

Ohio cleared the rest of its non-conference slate, taking out Florida Atlantic 14-10 and Iowa State 10-7 in defensive-oriented rock fights. And that high level of defensive play sustained into MAC play, as the Bobcats surrendered just 24 combined points to their initial conference opponents Bowling Green and Kent State. Overall, Ohio ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense with a per game allotment of 11.8 points and fourth in total defense with an average of 236 yards allowed. Only San Diego State managed 20 points on the Bobcats, which are bolstered by the strong linebacker play of Bryce Houston and Keye Thompson.

Offensively, Rourke has been through a lot with a torn ACL last November and a Week 0 injury, but he is starting to gain rhythm. In MAC play, he has six passing touchdowns and zero interceptions on a 71 percent completion rate. But Ohio is ranked 99th in yards per game right now, and this suffocating defense has been so spectacular so far that the lack of offensive production hasn’t been concerning. But Rourke is the reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year, and he is more than capable of delivering should Ohio need to chase points in any upcoming matchup.

Toledo Rockets

Record: 5-1, 2-0 MAC

Midseason grade: A-

NCAA Football: Toledo at Illinois
Toledo QB Dequan Finn has been a dynamic runner with 413 rushing yards, ranking fourth among QBs and 50th in the FBS.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Of the three 5-1 teams, not a single one is closer to perfection than Toledo. The Rockets were an improbable Illinois fourth down conversion away from snatching a Big Ten road victory in Week 1. And given the state of Illinois football since that 30-28 result decided on a last-second field goal, that opener is certainly a game the Rockets would like to have back. But Jason Candle’s team maturely responded in the aftermath and rattled off five consecutive wins to tie Ohio and Miami (OH) in both the MAC and overall standings.

Toledo has been living life on the edge a bit lately. At home, the Rockets trailed San Jose State 17-7 in the third quarter before registering two second half touchdowns to win 21-17. They similarly trailed Western Michigan 24-14 in the third quarter before igniting the offense en route to a 49-31 win. They also allowed 26 second half points to Northern Illinois and allowed another close call at the Glass Bowl in a 35-33 survival. And last Saturday, they trailed UMass at the half after surrendering 300 yards in the first 30 minutes of action.

Toledo’s defense, which is 89th in containing the run, hasn’t been in tip-top shape the last three outings, but the offense looks far more potent than the unit which won a MAC championship in 2022. The Rockets are blasting off to a MAC-best 40.8 points per game, which is good for ninth in the FBS. Only Air Force’s option attack and Liberty’s pseudo-option offense produce more rushing yards than Toledo’s 249 per game. Dequan Finn is a dual threat superstar at quarterback while Peny Boone is producing 144 rushing yards per game across his last four outings. That being said, this is an explosive offense built to surmount any deficit, and that is why Toledo is the overwhelming MAC West favorite.

Western Michigan Broncos

Record: 2-4, 1-1 MAC

Midseason grade: B-

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Iowa
Western Michigan RB Jalen Buckley registered two 190+ yard rushing games in his first five outings.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Western Michigan is one of two MAC teams breaking in a new head coach this year. Lance Taylor arrived in Kalamazoo after a one-year stint as Louisville’s offensive coordinator, looking to rebuild the Broncos back to the prestige of the P.J. Fleck era. And at the moment, Western Michigan certainly looks much farther along in this rebuild than it did after Week 3.

The first two FBS games of the Taylor era were rough. Western Michigan was annihilated 48-7 at Syracuse after scoring its lone touchdown in the first minute of the game. The following week, Iowa’s not-so-explosive offense breezed by the Broncos in a 41-10 decision. But Western Michigan has found tremendous offensive success since those two blowouts, generating 31 points at Toledo, taking down Ball State 42-24, and falling 41-28 to Mississippi State in a hard-fought second half.

Jalen Buckley is the Broncos’ breakout gem. The running back produced 557 rushing yards in his first five contests, eclipsing the 190-yard mark twice thus far. The Broncos are still working out the quarterback situation, but Old Dominion transfer Hayden Wolff posted a promising performance in Starkville and appears to be the guy going forward. But defensively is where adjustments must be made. Only three teams yield more points than Western Michigan’s 38.4 per game, and both the run and pass defense require major strides in order for the Broncos to compete with the upper echelon of the conference.