Let’s get right into a chock-full Roundtable:
We’re still early in the MAC season at this point, with the last of the non-conference games finally coming along this week. What have been your impressions at large of the conference so far as we enter Week 6?
James H. Jimenez: It’s still a fairly top-heavy conference, but even the top of the charts has shown some humanity recently, suggesting the MAC is once again going to be a pack of rabid wolves in 2023. While there were no Big Ten wins, the conference still pulled down four major Power Five wins in the non-conference season and nearly had several more. League play has also shown the 2023 campaign will be fairly ridiculous, with Buffalo 1-0 in the MAC East to tie Ohio and Miami for the division lead, while Toledo has had to stave off two separate bottom-feeders in NIU and WMU to scrape a 2-0 MAC West lead.
At this point, even just one MAC loss could be dangerous for a team hoping to get to Detroit; two losses could even doom your postseason. That’s the sign of a fun conference.
Steve Helwick: My primary takeaway is there’s a clear big three, and that’s going to result in less parity than we typically see in the MAC. Miami (OH), Ohio, and Toledo all started the season 0-1 but each team bounced back in a poised fashion, and I could see any of those programs taking the MAC title with equal probability. Based on what we’ve seen so far from that triumvirate, I don’t expect those teams to lose much other than when they play each other. But on the flip-side, the league is extremely bottom-heavy. Akron, Ball State, Buffalo, Kent State, and Northern Illinois all sport 1-4 records, and it’s hard to determine which one, if any, can salvage the season in conference play.
Keith Gregorski: The year has really hit me as strange so far. When I think about filling out the power rankings each week there are some really good teams at the top three, a team or two like CMU who are making strides and everyone else is a battle for the last few spots in the rankings. At its best with three quality wins over Iowa State, Cincinnati, and Georgia Tech, the conference has looked good. When all is said and done this year, the MAC could end up with a team or two pushing for a top-25 bid.
Drew Pearson: Better than I thought. Last season had me wondering if the MAC was falling behind in the arms race that is college football. They might be, but a 2-1 record against the Big XII and 2-2 against the ACC is better than I thought the conference would do. It’s a bummer that the Big Ten streak ends after eight shots at keeping it alive, but the top of the MAC has been solid.
Alexis Baker: It’s been a weird, weird year. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. I thought Ohio and Toledo would be a lot stronger than they are, and Miami and Akron to be a lot weaker than they are. Everyone else is simply fighting for an identity, and some are progressing faster on that front than others.
Now that we’re near the halfway point of the season, which teams have been the most surprising and the most disappointing when compared to your original expectations for them?
James: Honestly, there’s not a lot of teams I look at and think they’re overrated or vice versa. That said: Western Michigan has seemed to have found something at the right time, even if their record may not indicate it. Once they settled in on offense, both sides of the ball have been able to put down some really nice games and stay competitive. The same cannot be said for Buffalo. Despite returning a lot of the contributors which made a run at the MAC East division title in 2022, they have been abysmal so far. They’ve had some simply unacceptable results and even in a win, happiness can’t be found. It took a quarterback injury and some special teams luck in overtime to get one over and finally stop being winless.
Steve: Most surprising, I’ll hand it to Bowling Green. The Falcons saw another program-boosting win last weekend, scoring 38 unanswered points on the road at Georgia Tech to register a double-digit victory. Bowling Green also fought Michigan respectably, keeping that game as close as 7-6 in the middle of the second quarter before injuries struck and the third-string quarterback checked in. Honestly, the Falcons could be 3-2 with a win over undefeated Liberty if they threw three or four instead of five interceptions Week 1.
Most disappointing belongs to Northern Illinois and Buffalo. I expected both teams to post winning records this year, and they each squandered games to FCS competition in Week 2. Northern Illinois was devoured by the injury bug last year and I thought the return of Rocky Lombardi and Trayvon Rudolph would revert the team back to 2021 caliber. And Buffalo seemed strong on paper with Cole Snyder returning for his second season as starting quarterback, alongside defensive standouts in Shaun Dolac and Marcus Fuqua. Those 1-4 records are certainly jarring, to say the least.
Keith: In the MAC East, I figured Ohio would be good with the returning players but I have been impressed by Miami so far. I thought the defense would still be good, which it is, but the offense is better than I thought it would be at this point. The receiving corps was especially an unknown with the loss of Mac Hippenhammer, but WR Gage Larvadain is dominating and the running game is better than last year.
In the MAC West I was hoping to see more from NIU than 1-4 given their returning offensive players but until last week in a close one versus Toledo the Huskies have been consumed by a glut of self-inflicted wounds especially like in losses to mediocre Tulsa. Hopefully the close Toledo loss is a sign of things to come.
Hats off to Western Michigan who seems to have found some footing early in a big win last week over Ball State.
Drew: If you can’t tell by the articles I write, I’m a Western Michigan alumnus. My homer bias is showing a little bit but WMU is better than I thought they would be. After the coaching change was made and some key players transferred, I thought the Broncos were in big trouble. I thought a two-win season was in the works and they’ve got two wins before October. I’ve seen them in ESPN bowl projections, which I think is a bit of a stretch, but they have some winnable games left on their schedule.
Buffalo. What is going on in New York? I’m not making a judgment about head coach Mo Linguist but the backward slide this year has been surprising. They might be just fine in conference play, but they need six wins in the conference to go bowling. I haven’t seen that level of play from them.
Alexis: Western Michigan has bounced back from a couple of dismal weeks in a truly spectacular way. This is a team I ranked dead last the last time I did power rankings, and since then they’ve made progress in a really big, badly needed way. Northern Illinois is the impulse favorite for biggest disappointment, but they can’t really be the biggest disappointment if they’re falling from a ledge about ten feet above the canyon floor. I’m more disappointed in Buffalo, who I thought was a favorite for fourth in the conference.
Earlier this week, Conference USA started playing their conference games during the weeknights as part of their new deal with ESPN. Typically, the MAC does not start their weeknight games until late October/early November.
How do we feel about 1) CUSA encroaching on the weeknight territory and 2) about the state of MAC football on weeknights?
James: I’m interested if there will be an audience for the programs the CUSA has to offer on the weeknights so early in the season. Other conferences have largely let the MAC keep the novelty of weeknights up to this point for a myriad of reasons, but CUSA believes this is a way for them to re-invent themselves after nearly getting plucked for parts two offseasons ago. If football is on, people will watch, but for how long? As for the MAC, I think they’ve found a rhythm which works for them with weeknights which works for most parties, but Saturday afternoons will always be popular in our part of the Midwest. It might be worth re-evaluating the long-term plan when their TV deal comes up once again, especially as CBS and The CW look to be getting more aggressive with negotiating deals.
Steve: I’m such a football junkie that I love midweek CUSA games. Give me 49 straight days of college football, because the MAC wasn’t going to play these early and mid-October weeknight games anyway.
(Side note: I covered Sam Houston’s first-ever FBS home game for our sister site Underdog Dynasty, and my main takeaway was this new-look CUSA certainly needs television exposure and the money that comes with it, as the remaining programs were the ones the AAC and Sun Belt skipped in the latest round of conference realignment.)
But as for midweek MACtion, it rules and always will. I’m not a MAC alum and haven’t lived in MAC country, but becoming enamored with midweek games when I was in high school is the reason I’m in my eighth year with this site. Midweek MACtion is a beloved brand at this point, and although I get the gripes from an attendance standpoint, the conference shouldn’t alter an iconic identity which has persisted for a decade and counting.
Keith: I have a lot of mixed thoughts on this both questions in this one. On how I feel on CUSA encroaching, that has crossed my mind but I don’t think it will ultimately diminish the phenomenon that is MACtion. The football junkie side of me though is happy to have football available as much as possible. With all the MAC to watch, I wouldn't have watched the CUSA games on last night if they were on Saturday or even on replay, but I did watch them in the background yesterday to see what the new FBS Jacksonville State was about.
For question two, I know the community has mixed feelings about MACtion. On one hand, i find them to be something special to look forward to. Throw a few logs in the fireplace and watch any MAC teams duke it out in primetime. However, I understand the folks who want games on Saturdays so they can have more gamedays to enjoy. I’ve heard a good amount of very positive feedback from the Ohio fans that the rivalry game this year is on a Saturday so they can attend. Based on what I’ve heard, the Saturday rivalry game is the most important.
Drew: I’d love to see data that the midweek games have elevated the profile of the MAC programs, and what that elevation means if it has. I understand that the value of the TV deal comes from providing inventory for ESPN Tuesday through Thursday, but is it worth empty stadiums? Some of the MAC teams would have good turnouts on Saturdays and that’s great for building a football community that turns into a brand networks care about.
Personally, CUSA can have the weeknights if they want them. I say that as someone who doesn’t know the math or how feasible it is to walk away from MACtion. I would love full MAC stadiums on Saturdays in November when the conference stakes are ramped up.
Alexis: I despise weeknight games from the perspective of both a former player (yes, it was only high school, but still), a(n aspiring) journalist, and an advocate for the labor rights of athletes... and honestly, as someone who enjoys more sports than just football, a fan as well. We’re at the point where, unless you’re the MAC, weeknight games feel like a desperation move, especially in regards to Conference USA. Unlike the MAC, CUSA has a reputation as a sort of Superfund site for the FBS, a collection of programs unappealing to other conferences for various reasons and FCS upgrades. The issue is that the MAC started playing on weeknights when they had the same few teams for the last couple of decades. C-USA hasn’t really been able to keep a happy, consistent base. I don’t think it’s going to work and I think the conference is doomed to destruction in a few years anyway.
Which matchup intrigues you the most this week and why?
James: I feel like these two teams inevitably find their ways in front of my eyes every week, but NIU vs. Akron is the game of the week for me. These two teams both badly need a league win to keep afloat in very tight races— and to give the team a proof-of-concept performance to help move them forward overall as programs. This will be a true “who wants it more?” type of matchup.
Steve: It’s Bowling Green at Miami (OH). The Falcons’ massive win at Georgia Tech has me excited for what this team can truly achieve. The passing game has been erratic from week to week, but when Connor Bazelak is on, Bowling Green looks like it can rise into MAC contention status. So how will they fare on this upcoming test? Miami is the team I’ve picked to win the conference since our first roundtable in August. The RedHawks defense showed its might last week at Kent State, and the aerial combination of Brett Gabbert and Gage Larvadain, assisted by a stronger run game, makes Miami a fun and balanced unit to watch.
Keith: I’d have to say BGSU vs. Miami. The implications for the MAC East race are huge here. i’m also very interested to see if maybe this is a moment the Falcons turn the corner as a team. The last few weeks, BGSU head coach Scot Loeffler has very plainly stated that the Falcons can only take the next step if they find consistency. After a 38-7 loss to Ohio followed by a 38-27 win/beat down of Georgia Tech, Loeffler said, paraphrasing, that he wanted to see if the Falcons can bring it in back-to-back weeks to show that consistency. I want to see it too. Although this would be two tough road wins beating GT then Miami I’d like to see if the Falcons can do it.
Drew: Bowling Green at Miami has my attention. Bowling Green is coming off a stunning upset of Georgia Tech that no one saw coming. Miami has been good this season and looks like the only real threat to Ohio in the East. I think I know how this one is going to go, but maybe Bowling Green’s win isn’t an aberration. Maybe the have something cooking this season.
Alexis: Bring it on, Northern Illinois vs Akron, show me what you got. This could be a Certified MACtion Classic or a game that feels like it belongs in that Other Midwest Conference. Extremely sad about DJ Irons, but I want to believe he’s not all Akron has. And Northern Illinois has one last chance to prove to me they’re not the worst overachievers in the FBS.
This one’s a freebie. Post your MAC-centric take here, please.
James: The commercial clock situation this year has been on the minds of many college football fans. It’s one thing to to be subjected to it at home on the couch, with the laptop open for stats and the like. It’s a whole other experience on the ground, as I was on location for the CMU/EMU game this week. Minutes felt like hours out there; I remember lots of down time when taking pictures on the field, milling around just kinda waiting for something to happen. You could feel the energy start to wane in the crowd whenever the man in the red hat trotted out.
It was even more apparent in the press box, as at one point I looked down and saw the clock on a stick set to say 2:45 and sighed out loud, knowing these breaks used to be 1:30 or 2:00 flat in the days of yore. I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of not being there in person for a few years or what, but it did feel very different, and I’m not sure it’s for the better.
Steve: The Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback sneak is becoming a hot topic of discussion in the football world. It has been increasingly implemented at the collegiate level as this season has progressed, and that trend will likely continue. The first team I saw frequently incorporate the concept of pushing the QB on a sneak was Western Michigan, which always sent a tight end in motion to shove Kaleb Eleby into the end zone during the Tim Lester era. Eleby rarely ran outside the pocket yet finished with 13 career rushing touchdowns because of this play. I never saw it fail for the Broncos, and they should be hailed along with the Eagles as innovators for this concept.
But my question is, why isn’t this every team’s third-and-one or fourth-and-one strategy? For instance, Houston is 0-of-4 this year in fourth-and-one situations, and the Cougars have a six-foot-five, 241-pound quarterback that should be able to convert with ease. But they haven’t tested a QB sneak. And Arkansas ran a slow developing handoff out of shotgun on fourth-and-one last week with a six-foot-three, 247-pound quarterback at its disposal, failing to convert by making things more complicated. I don’t understand why the Eagles or Western Michigan QB sneak concepts aren’t universally utilized to gain that one yard. Unless you mishandle the snap or commit a false start, it works automatically.
Keith: Gonna thrown in a rant here that college football should not be calling unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on touchdowns where the offending team does not taunt the opposing side. I’ve seen it multiple times this year most recently in Ohio’s week four win versus Bowling Green. While there were plenty of legitimate personal foul calls made in the heated BGSU v. Ohio contest, the penalty called on Ohio defensive back Roman Parodie is the kind that should never be called (for a replay, see the 55-second mark here).
On the play, the BGSU runner was stripped by linebacker Bryce Houston which defensive back Parodie alertly corralled on a scoop and score of 28 yards. With no BGSU player in the vicinity looking at what was to happen, Parodie spun the ball on the ground in the back of the endzone while his teammates jumped around in celebration. And this is a penalty-really? For young men at this level football is probably a full-time job in preparing to make that play so can we let them celebrate the fruits of their labor for 10 seconds when they do something amazing in a way that doesn't taunt the other team?
Drew: I miss going to games. Before I went to college, I went to WMU games as a fan and then as a student. There are a lot of things about the gameday experience that I miss, but the biggest thing is being able to see the whole field as the play develops. I couldn’t make the commitment to be at every game, but now I’m outside the footprint and can’t make any. What I wouldn’t give for a mid-day tailgate and a 3:30 p.m. kick on a cool Saturday in the fall.
Alexis: I would love to actually cover the MAC as a credentialed journalist so please, MAC schools, schedule a game against Washington so I don’t feel bad rooting for you!