Hey there everyone!
It’s time once again to approach Ye Olde Roundtable and consider the MAC season as we look forward to Week 8, and ask questions about the future of the conference. This week sees a handful of reader submissions, which will go first. You can always send your own by using #AskethYORT on Twitter or supplying your own in the comments.
(To answer HST2point0’s question: we scheduled the submission call tweet to go out at 11 p.m. instead of 11 a.m., so I had to write the tweet manually; I wrote in Saturday instead of Sunday due tot the rush... whoops! We all make mistakes sometimes.)
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
John S. asketh: What do you think changed for the NIU offense? Was Rocky’s hand injury the only reason for the lack of offense in games 2-4?
James H. Jimenez: A hand injury certainly won’t help you when trying to run an offense as a quarterback, but there’s a number of other factors which have helped the Huskies as well. The obvious factor is Lombardi’s health; he brings something to the table that’s hard to quantify or replicate. Another factor involves the run block game figuring out how to unlock itself; NIU’s success has coincided with the emergence of Brock Lampe and Antario Brown’s increased performance. A shuffle in the defense has also allowed NIU to start forcing turnovers. Nate Valcarcel has especially been a revelation, with a four-game forced turnover streak to help guide the Huskies.
NIU is predicated on ball control and turnovers, and when those two things are functioning, they’re winning. Simple as that.
Keith Gregorski: I think the hand may have played a part but i think the running game behind the offensive line and fullback Brock Lampe has really gelled. NIU’s rushing game is hard to completely stop as they showed last week where they hit for 134 rushing yards and a 53-yard rushing score against an Ohio rushing defense that has been one of the Group of Five’s best so far this year.
Against Akron, they used fundamentally the same play repeatedly, but the Zips just couldn’t beat NIU’s blockers or get to or hold their gaps.
A key also is the offense as a whole has cut down on the self-inflicted wounds over the last few weeks which was a huge factor in losses like the one to Tulsa.
Drew Pearson: I’ve heard the Northern Illinois Huskies described as a random number generator and so far that seems pretty accurate. There’s a good Husky team and a bad Husky team and I’m not smart enough to figure out why each one shows up. Nonetheless, the offensive performance against Ohio wasn’t great but it was good enough to be opportunistic and the previous two weeks were outright good performances. I’m still confused by NIU and have been since the preseason. Lombardi’s health could definitely be an explanation, but I don’t think it’s everything that’s going on in Dekalb.
Ryan Venable asketh: Do you think the MAC will be endlessly cyclical of emerging teams coming and going about every 3-4 years? It seems like that’s the timeline of a team to have a window to with the championship before they go away for a few years and resurge again.
James: This has historically been the case for the MAC, back when NIL and the transfer portal didn’t really affect the waters very much. The cycle of progress was to get someone in, build in years 1 and 2, be competitive by three, then win in the fourth year. Plainly put, that’s going to be hard to do now.
I think it’s still good policy to expect the old 3-4 year cycle when hiring on someone to a job, but the timeline of competitiveness has sped up as such where older, more traditional builds are going to be very difficult to justify. I’m not sure what that means for the MAC — or the NCAA— at large, honestly. It’ll take at least a decade to figure out.
Keith: That very well could be the case but I’d like to see how things play out in the transfer portal area over the long haul. Having a sub-unit or two on offense or defense that projected to be subpar in the following year and hurt a teams’ chances can now be fixed in the offseason, especially in the skill position groups.
Drew: Maybe. That is the historical cycle of MAC teams and it’s usually revolved around either a coach or a group of players. The players graduated and the coach headed off to another higher profile job. I’m not sure how true either of those statements is anymore.
Players have more agency than they’ve ever had, and that means Jaylen Reed transfers to Michigan State and Carson Steele goes to UCLA. The work done to win games in the MAC seems to be diminished in value by other decision-makers as well. Everyone acknowledged that Kent State is a difficult job, but Sean Lewis left for a coordinator job after getting to the MAC Championship Game. Jason Candle was on the shortlist to be Mario Cristobal’s offensive coordinator at Miami.
Coaches and players will always be ambitious for levels of football higher than the MAC but I can’t tell how the transfer portal era and the reduced value of MAC head coaching experience will change the power dynamic.
Alexis: The conference is in a funky position. As (I think) I’ve alluded to before, we need to wait for the final forms of the college football superstructure to settle first, whether that’s a super league or a breaking of the FBS into two divisions or what. As it stands, it’s extremely hard to predict anyone’s future. Everyone’s flying by the seat of their pants.
Jay sayeth: I would love to see them move that game after thanksgiving to Week 0. You would get good crowds, good weather. Give the championship teams two weeks to prep.
Doth thee agree?
James: I’d be down. Attendance for the Black Friday games have always been pretty bad, and players deserve better than their senior days being in front of mostly-empty stadiums on a holiday weekend. Opening up Week 0 also allows the MAC to either put up an early conference game or find unique non-conference opponents, which allows more freedom for schools in scheduling.
Two weeks for the title game would be nice as well, especially if you’re going to keep the weeknight games intact.
Keith: I like teams playing in Week 0 versus the Thanksgiving week but I’d have to think more on how that would play out. I think I’d like it if another conference were involved so its a non-conference game. Asking teams to start the season in conference play is tough especially with the parity in the MAC; could be a critical loss there that the team wasn’t ready for.
Drew: I’m all for it. Two weeks to prepare and reduced injury risk right before the championship game is a good thing. Let's take it one step further and make it a straight replacement for Thanksgiving week. All conference games during the midweek. The first college football anyone gets is the [Insert Sponsor Here] #MACtion College Football Kick-Off!
Alexis: I’m into it. Let’s go. I hate Week Zero games but if it means teams will be playing in front of actual crowds, and more time to prepare for the conference title, I’m fine with it.
Toledo and Miami match up this week in what could well be a preview of the MAC title game come December. What are you most looking forward to in the contest and how do you think it’ll go down?
James: I had a feeling this would be an important contest when the calendar came out, and boy howdy has that proven right so far. What I’m looking forward to is if Toledo’s defense can show up against Miami’s offense; they’ve been ma step backwards from last year’s unit and looked mortal at times; a positive performance in this circumstance would be vital for them. Miami’s defense has been fantastic— but they also haven’t played very many big-time programs either. Going up against one of the better offenses in the league should be a good firetest. This is a must-win for both sides and the vibes around it feels like a potential coronation; with Miami being the hosting side, I think they’ll have the inherent advantage.
Keith: Wow, what a great game, can’t wait. What I’m looking forward to is how Miami’s excellent defense holds up the MAC’s best rushing attack. Rockets runner Peny Boone looks transformed over the offseason and is fifth in the nation with 113 yards rushing per contest. Toledo overall is fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game with 243 yards. Can Miami’s 58th-ranked rushing defense slow Toledo’s ground attack?
When Miami has the ball, can QB Gabbert and company continue to get things done through the air with some explosive plays against a great Toledo secondary?
Drew: The Miami defense might be the best defense in the MAC, but I think Toledo will find a way to score points. They have too many weapons to be totally shut down. Peny Boone, Dequan Finn, Jerjuan Newton and Junior Vandeross are all more than enough to keep the RedHawk defense busy. Miami has Brett Gabbert and receivers to stretch the field, but I think Toledo finds a way to win a close game where both score more than 25 points. Should be a fun one!
Alexis: Wheeeeeew. I really, really don’t know. Miami’s kinda surprised me by being a lot stronger than I thought they’d be. I still think Toledo’s got what it takes for the MAC title, though, and this is the game for either team to prove me wrong.
Which matchup intrigues you the most this week (besides Toledo/Miami) and why?
James: Hey, if I told you EMU and NIU are both 2-1 in the MAC West and one game out of the lead, would you believe me? Well, it’s true dear reader, and they play each other this week. These are two of the strangest teams in the conference, with extremely uneven performances and the inability to win (or lose) games in a normal fashion. By every metric, EMU should be one of the worst teams in the country but have managed to find wins more often than not. NIU’s horrid start to the year seems to no longer matter as they’re rolling in league play, looking nothing like the team who lost to Southern Illinois. Both teams defy all logic. What happens when you make them play each other?
Keith: I think the Ohio versus WMU game to see how the Bobcats offense fares. The ‘Cats were shutout in the second half of last week’s NIU game which is not what you want to see heading into a Miami game in two weeks that may decide the MAC East. Its not panic time over one half of football but it certainly is hard to not have some concerns so far based on how the year has gone especially with an offense that hasn’t been able to crack 4.0 yards per tote with its running back rotation. This is especially true for an offense priding itself on a running game and play action passing.
Drew: The Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois game is a great opportunity to learn about both squads. Which NIU shows up? The Boston College and Ohio winners or the team that lost to Southern Illinois? I thought EMU would be a challenger for the MAC West title and they've been shakier than expected. They still control their own destiny unless CMU is the team to beat in the division, which seems unlikely. This is a classic 50-50 game that will shape the division race for both teams.
Alexis: Ohio needs to win this game against the Broncos, and needs to win big.
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