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2023 MAC Championship Game Storylines: Miami (OH) RedHawks

The MAC Championship Game is usually kind to underdogs. Does this trend continue for Miami?

MAC Championship - Central Michigan v Miami Ohio Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Ford Field opens its doors Saturday morning for the annual MAC Championship Game. This is the venue’s 20th edition of the event, and fittingly, this year’s matchup is identical to the first-ever MAC Championship Game at Ford Field.

Toledo and Miami (OH) square off for the MAC title for the first time since 2004. Both teams have qualified, and won in Detroit, with their current head coach. Toledo is the reigning MAC champion, winning recent conference titles in 2017 and 2022, while Miami (OH) returns to Ford Field for the first time since claiming the throne in 2019.

The 2023 MAC Championship Game between Toledo and Miami (OH) kicks off at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN in Detroit.

In preparation for the game, let’s look at three storylines for Saturday through a Miami RedHawks lens:

Chuck Martin’s second title

MAC Championship - Central Michigan v Miami Ohio
Miami (OH) head coach Chuck Martin led the RedHawks to a MAC championship in 2019. On Saturday, he looks to claim his second.
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Since the MAC Championship Game launched in 1997, not many coaches have claimed the conference throne on multiple occasions. One of them is Toledo head coach Jason Candle (2017, 2022), who seeks his third MAC title this weekend. The five other coaches to accomplish this include Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey (2014, 2018), Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren (2011, 2012), Central Michigan head coach Butch Jones (2007, 2009), Toledo head coach Tom Amstutz (2001, 2004), and Marshall head coach Bob Pruett (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002).

Miami head coach Chuck Martin can become the seventh member of this multi-time MAC champion club. The RedHawks claim three conference titles in the MAC Championship Game era — 2003, 2010, and 2019. Martin — tied with Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton for longest tenured head coach in the conference — was hired prior to the 2014 season and coached the RedHawks to that 2019 title, defeating Central Michigan, 26-21.

This season marks just the second time Martin brought the RedHawks to Detroit for the championship. With a victory, he can join Candle as the only other active MAC head coach with multiple titles. If the RedHawks pull through, they would also rank second in the MAC in conference championships since 2010 with three, only trailing Northern Illinois’ five.

Backup QB vs. Toledo, round two

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Miami (Ohio) at Miami (FL)
Miami (OH) will start Aveon Smith at quarterback for the fifth-straight game. Smith is filling in for Brett Gabbert, who is out for the year with a leg injury.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The starting quarterback from Miami’s 2019 MAC championship season remains on the roster — and he still exhibits status as a redshirt junior. However, Brett Gabbert won’t record the start Saturday, or even suit up in uniform for the highly-anticipated game. When Miami battled Toledo in Oxford, OH in the regular season on Oct. 21, Gabbert suffered a season-ending right leg injury and exited the game on a stretcher wearing an air cast.

It was a devastating and emotional moment for the team, and Gabbert successfully underwent surgery in the following days. The next Saturday, the RedHawks were tasked with regrouping to face the next toughest opponent on their MAC schedule — Ohio. It was a de facto MAC East title game, as the RedHawks and Bobcats held significant leads over the other divisional opponents. Instead of Gabbert, Miami trotted out its experienced backup quarterback Aveon Smith and stunned Ohio in a commanding 30-16 victory, setting up a likely pathway to Detroit. Smith has remained the starter ever since and will make his fifth consecutive start Saturday for the MAC title game.

Facing a backup quarterback isn’t unfamiliar territory for Toledo. Last season, MAC Offensive Player of the Year Kurtis Rourke suffered a season-ending ACL tear three weeks before the MAC Championship Game and Toledo wound up facing Ohio’s backup CJ Harris. This marks the second consecutive year a backup will fill in for an injured All-MAC quarterback in the conference championship. However, Smith possesses substantial experience for somebody in this position.

Gabbert played just four contests in 2022, causing Smith to make nine starts for Miami including the Bahamas Bowl. In two seasons, Smith has started 14 times, posting a 9-5 record in those games. The RedHawks’ offensive MO shifts when Gabbert is out of the lineup, becoming more run-oriented thanks to the backup’s mobility. Smith rushed for 181 yards this year and surpassed the century mark twice as a runner in 2022. As a passer, he’s only attempted 20 passes in seven of 14 starts.

Last year, Ohio’s defense provided its backup quarterback many opportunities in a 17-7 low-scoring slugfest. Miami, which ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense and recorded two shutouts in conference play, looks to do the same to provide optimal comfort for Smith and the offense Saturday.

Detroit, where underdogs thrive

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 MAC Championship Game
Miami (OH) defeated Central Michigan as 6-point underdogs in the 2019 MAC Championship Game.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In October, Toledo and Miami (OH) met in the regular season for the first time since 2011. The matchup 12 years in the making resulted in a 21-17 victory for the Rockets. Miami seeks vengeance, but the oddsmakers aren’t too optimistic about the RedHawks’ chances of exacting revenge and lifting a trophy at Ford Field.

Miami is currently 8-point underdogs to Toledo. This is the second largest spread in the past five seasons, only trailing 2020 when Buffalo was favored by 13 over Ball State.

But the MAC Championship Game is where underdogs thrive, especially compared to all other conference’s title games. In the past five seasons, four underdogs have won in Detroit.

  • 2022: Toledo (-3.5) defeated Ohio, 17-7
  • 2021: Northern Illinois defeated Kent State (-3.5), 41-23
  • 2020: Ball State defeated Buffalo (-13), 38-28
  • 2019: Miami (OH) defeated Central Michigan (-6), 26-21
  • 2018: Northern Illinois defeated Buffalo (-3), 30-29

In fact, Toledo is the only team immune to upsets in the MAC Championship Game over a 6-year timeframe. The Rockets are responsible for the last two times a favorite emerged victorious, upending Akron in 2017 and Ohio last December.

Meanwhile, Miami pulled off an upset in 2019 over Central Michigan as 6-point underdogs, and in 2010, the RedHawks stunned Northern Illinois with an even more significant spread as 18.5-point underdogs. The RedHawks look to use that Detroit magic once again and continue the trend of upsets, regardless of what the prognosticators think.