Week 7 has arrived, and with it, the advent of that most wonderful time of the year: Mid-American Conference league play!
Our intrepid writers look back on their early predictions, look ahead to the Bowl Season and ponder if the tides are turning over the long-term between the divisions. Let’s get right to it, then!
Alexis asketh: Nearing the midpoint of the season, what do you make of your preseason predictions?
James H. Jimenez: Man, I really missed the mark on a lot of my predictions. That goes to show it can be a fool’s errand to think too hard on things which are obvious.
Alex Adams has been affected by the Zips’ offensive struggle, Da’Raun McKinney has been slow to break through the lineup, and Ball State has simply cratered after some bad luck breaks. My MAC West pick (Eastern Michigan) might still make it to Detroit, but I certainly feel less confident about it with each passing day.
As for predictions which look good... Ohio was the right pick in the East as the most balanced outfit in the MAC. Kurtis Rourke is also the favorite to win POTY at present, and Scot Loeffler certainly could be in danger of losing his job if the Falcons flounder in the second half of the schedule.
Steve Helwick: I feel like Nostradamus, to an extent. I pegged Miami (OH) as my preseason MAC title pick, and the RedHawks are definitely passing the contender test early in the season. Selecting Toledo to win the MAC West wasn’t as bold, but the Rockets are also thriving with a 5-1 record — so my MAC title game prediction is very in tact, although it comes down to whether Miami defeats Ohio on Oct. 28. However, I expected Northern Illinois and Buffalo to be top five teams in the conference, and while they are off to strong starts in MAC play, brutal non-conference showings with losses to FCS competition were inexcusable.
In our preseason roundtable, my breakout players were Miami wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. and Kent State linebacker Khalib Johns. I selected the correct positions on the right rosters, and while Wilkins and Johns are having decent campaigns, Gage Larvadain and Devin Nicholson appear to be some of the best breakout candidates in the conference.
Keith Gregorski: Feeling like its a mixed bag right now. NIU looked pretty good the past few weeks but they will need a strong finish to overcome a 2-4 start to be the breakout team. BGSU’s under-the-radar offensive player TE Harold Fannin Jr. has been injured but still could have a big second half. Kurtis Rourke could still be offensive player of the year. Some defenders have had huge games but I’d change my defensive player of the year to Ohio’s LB Bryce Houston.
Drew Pearson: It’s not been great. Akron has not taken a step forward like I thought they would, and Bowling Green might actually find four wins down the stretch and make a bowl game. Akron’s injuries make them a great candidate to make a big move next season, but how many times can the goal be moved to next season?
Ohio and Toledo look good for the championship game, but Miami could crash the party. I hope all three can avoid injuries and make the title game a real fight.
Drew asketh: The MAC West has won six of the last seven MAC Championship Games and the last three in a row. Do we see the MAC East breaking the streak this year? Can they get back to a more even split in the coming seasons?
James: As always, it depends on who arrives in Detroit.
If Ohio makes it, they’ve got the balance and the pure pieces to match up well against any team which pops up out of the MAC West. If Miami makes it, their defense and special teams will drag their opponent down into the mud, which would make for a fascinating game. As long as Toledo is the champion in the West, they’re going to be the presumptive favorite until someone punches them in the mouth. If anyone else emerges? It’s open season assuming what has currently transpired in 2023 holds up.
The current trajectory does feel like momentum is swinging in the direction of the East; Ohio and Miami will pace that division for awhile, while Buffalo seemingly has superpowers come league season. Even BGSU and Akron aren’t always easy wins despite their record. The MAC West is Toledo and a lot of looming rebuilds.
Steve: Yes, this is the MAC East’s year. If the MAC title game transpired today, I would pick both Miami (OH) and Ohio to defeat Toledo. The Rockets’ offense is explosive and the best in the conference, but the three recent outings against Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and UMass certainly doesn’t have me sold on the defense. Miami and Ohio are the top two defenses in the conference and also exhibit formidable, balanced offenses with star quarterbacks Brett Gabbert and Kurtis Rourke. And in this league, defense has won MAC championships lately. 2022 Toledo, 2020 Ball State, and 2018 Northern Illinois are several examples of teams without consistent offenses that triumphed in Detroit thanks to stellar defensive showings.
But the MAC Championship Game is hardest to predict in college football once the matchup is set, as the underdog has claimed four victories in the last five matchups.
Keith: For this year, Miami or Ohio are legitimate contenders as one of the MAC’s three best teams. If Ohio had QB Kurtis Rourke last year and he wasn't injured the ‘Cats may have beaten Toledo last year.
Toledo always seems to find a way to contend most years, but Ohio and Miami will have some important personnel to replace next year so a run by the East is more cloudy.
Drew: It really comes down to one game at a neutral site so it’s hard to create long sustained success by one side of the conference. One way to do it is to have multiple championship-caliber teams in the division, like Ohio and Miami this season. No matter who makes it to Detroit either could win. In the West this season it’s really only Toledo. If they limp into the championship game with injuries or slip up and don’t make it at all, the West representative will be a big underdog. Multiple great teams is the key and this season the East has it.
James asketh: We’re already at the point where we have some concerns about making it to a bowl game for certain teams (with three teams all but assured to make it at present.) How many teams do we think make it through in the final calculus?
James: Well I can tell you who won’t be going to bowls, that’s for sure... I don’t have a lot of confidence in Ball State, Kent State or Akron to go 4-2 or 5-1 over their next six games in order to attain eligibility. Their ability to make mistakes is basically gone at this point with how strong the top of the league is. WMU is at 2-4, but their next three games are absurd and I doubt they can get out with postseason eligibility intact. I think the teams to look out for in terms of the bubble will be Buffalo and Bowling Green; their league slates will ultimately determine if the league sends five or seven teams.
Steve: Let’s do a run-through. The “Big 3” of Miami (OH), Ohio, and Toledo are locks. Central Michigan hasn’t shown consistency, but I think the Chippewas are the second-best team in the MAC West. They took down a solid South Alabama squad on the road and their recent 24-point loss to Buffalo was mainly the result of losing the turnover battle, 4-0, so preventable mistakes. Wins over Akron, Ball State, and either Northern Illinois/Western Michigan bring Central Michigan to six. And after NIU plays Ohio this Saturday, the schedule shapes up nicely for the Huskies. After the offensive explosion the past two weeks, I believe the Huskies have enough firepower to win four of their last five. That brings us to five teams, and either Bowling Green or Eastern Michigan will come through in conference play to make six.
Keith: I would guess that six teams go bowling. Six of the 12 teams are about the closest thing to a lock as you can get in terms of outlook with Toledo, Ohio, and Miami going bowling and the three teams that haven’t won an FBS game, Kent State, Akron, and Ball State not bowling needing to win five of the last six games.
That leaves six teams with at a decent to good chance. On my list of probables for bowling are CMU, EMU, and NIU. CMU needs three wins and has Akron and BSU next two weeks and Toledo the last week when the Rockets may have clinched the MAC West and be playing backups. Similar for EMU who has three wins and draws Akron and Kent State from the MAC East. NIU has the toughest needing four victories but has very winnable games versus Kent State, BSU, and WMU. The Falcons could win four more but they haven’t shown the consistency week to week so its tough to see them in. The rest are probable outs.
Drew: My locks are Miami, Ohio, Toledo and Eastern Michigan. I think Central Michigan finds three wins to make a bowl game but it’s not easy. They finish with Ohio and Toledo so they have four weeks to secure three wins. I hate to assume wins in rivalry games, so it’s going to be tight. NIU needs four wins, but with Ball State, WMU and Kent State in the final three weeks, they should only need one more.
Bowling Green’s schedule is incredibly easy in the back half. Depending on your opinion of Buffalo every game is winnable or a rivalry game. Toledo should win the Battle of I-75, but that game has been weird in the past. Bowling Green or NIU should get in, maybe both! Buffalo needs an upset and I don’t think anyone else is good enough to win four or more games in the second half. I have six MAC teams going bowling.
Which matchup intrigues you the most this week and why?
James: Honestly? This slate of games is a nightmare, and I’m sure the betting lines will reflect that. But we gotta choose one, and I guess the one I’m keeping an eye on this week is Buffalo vs. Bowling Green.
These two teams are going to be directly in each other’s way for bowl season eligibility through the rest of the year, and Buffalo in particular cannot afford a loss here. If UB loses, they fall out of the lead of the MAC East table and gather their fifth overall loss. BGSU is already 0-2, so losing here doesn’t really change their math outside of a bowl game. If they can claim a win, however, it could be a momentum builder a la 2022.
Steve: Ohio vs. Northern Illinois. The Bobcats would probably be undefeated if not for the Week 0 Kurtis Rourke injury, and they’ve decimated their MAC competition thus far, upending Bowling Green and Kent State by a combined score of 80-24. But I think Northern Illinois poses a viable threat in DeKalb. The Huskies looked like a different team the past two weeks, nearly setting up in field goal range for a chance to beat Toledo and eviscerating Akron in 55-14 fashion. Rocky Lombardi is still Rocky Lombardi. We saw his capabilities in the 2021 season and he’s excelled the past two weeks. And that Antario Brown-led run game paved by arguably the MAC’s best run blocking line could keep this closer than expected. Can Ohio’s fourth-ranked defense stifle NIU’s recent offensive groove?
Keith: I’ll go with Ohio at NIU to see who wins the battle between NIU’s rushing offense and Ohio’s rushing defense. After watching NIU lose to Tulsa earlier this year under an avalanche of self-inflicted wounds, I wouldn’t have considered the Huskies to be in the mix here. However, they have come to life the past two weeks in a close loss to MAC West leader Toledo followed by a nearly complete destruction of the Zips, 55-14. NIU can really bring it in the ground game as we saw against Akron last week against a Zips defense that was decent to that point. I’d have to watch the game again but it looked like NIU hung their hats on a handful of explosive runs which were fundamentally the same or similar plays only Akron couldn't defend it. Ohio brings the 5th best rushing defense in the nation in terms of yards allowed per game so it should be very interesting.
Drew: After Buffalo beat CMU I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. Bowling Green and Buffalo are both looking for a win in that game, but Chuck Martin has never beaten WMU. It’s a weird stat that is somehow true, and it’s definitely a clash of coach styles. Lance Taylor is very aggressive in third and fourth downs on both sides of the ball and Chuck Martin is not. Miami should put the Broncos away, but wind, rain and conservative playcalling could give the Broncos an opening.
This one’s a freebie. Post your MAC-centric take here, please.
James: It was emotional to see Robert Spillane have his time under the spotlight on Monday night during the Packers/Raiders game. Spillane was a true nose-to-the-grindstone guy on the Cotton Bowl Broncos team, and even stuck around after the departure of PJ Fleck to Minnesota. Despite being a two all-MAC backer, he had to crawl his way into the NFL, getting cut by Minnesota early after signing with them as a UDFA before signing with Tennessee as a rookie tryout. Incredibly, he made the 53-man roster— only to be cut immediately and placed on the practice squad.
His “throwback” build was what attracted Fleck to playing Spillane as a true freshman, and it also ultimately caught Mike Tomlin’s eye too, as Pittsburgh signed him in the 2019 offseason despite Spillane playing in just one career game. Spillane earning a starting role midway through the season, and latched onto the roster for four years before signing his latest deal with Las Vegas.
Now a defensive captain for the Raiders, Spillane got his chance to shine with not just one, but two majestic interceptions for Vegas in a gritty, much-needed victory. These are the stories which make the MAC so much fun to watch.
Steve: One of the most bizarre stats I reference on a yearly basis is how the MAC hasn’t produced a 10-win champion since 2017 Toledo, which finished 11-3. When looking at recent holders of the conference crown, 2018 Northern Illinois was 8-6, 2019 Miami (OH) was 8-6, 2020 Ball State was 7-1 and didn’t play enough games, 2021 Northern Illinois was 8-6, and 2022 Toledo was 9-5.
It’s such a weird trend, as almost every conference champion in the FBS produces at least 10 wins on an annual basis. Anyway, that trend is finally shattering this year because there’s a chance the MAC Championship Game has not one, but two teams that accumulate 10+ wins in the regular season alone. Miami (OH), Ohio, and Toledo look several steps above the rest of the league right now, and all three are logical candidates for double-digit win totals. If you’re wondering when the last time two 10+ win teams met in Detroit, it was the iconic 2012 MAC Championship Game when 11-1 Northern Illinois and 11-1 Kent State duked it out in double overtime fashion for a BCS berth.
Keith: Throwing out some good vibes and positivity to some of the MAC’s programs like Akron and Ball State who are not having the success in the win column they had planned. I hope they find a new gear in MAC play and get some things done. Akron particularly had a bad luck week last week with the loss of QB DJ Irons and the blowout loss to NIU. Akron is better than what we saw last week especially on defense and I hope they rebound.
Drew: The early standings don’t mean much, but it feels right. Half of the MAC East is undefeated. Miami, Ohio and Buffalo are each 2-0 while Bowling Green, Kent State and Akron are 0-2. A clear line in the quality so far that may have been predictable. The West is almost the opposite. Toledo is the only 2-0 team, Ball State is the only 0-2 team and everyone else is in a 1-1 soup. I think I can rank the 1-1 teams but almost nothing from that group would surprise me.
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