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Ye Olde Roundtable: Hustle Belt staff predicts the 2023 MAC football season

The Hustle Belt staff predicts conference champions, breakout teams, star players, and more!

James H, Jimenez

Hello, Hustlers, we’ve finally made it!

August 26th is the official launch of the season, when Ohio travels to sunny San Diego, California to take on San Diego State at Snapdragon Stadium for a (local) mid-day tilt in Week 0. As per tradition, we’ve gathered around some of our chattier writers and asked them a few questions ahead of the season.

You’ll see some familiar names here, but there’s also a new voice in Alexis Baker, who joined our staff earlier this month! Please give them a nice welcome by reading and sharing their content as the season progresses.

With all that out of the way, let’s get right into it:

Who will be the breakout team in the MAC for the 2023 season? On the contrary, which bowl eligible team from 2022 takes a tumble?

Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): Northern Illinois is going to return to MAC West contention. The Huskies were severely bitten by the injury bug last year, losing quarterback Rocky Lombardi for the majority of the season and star wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph for the entirety. Northern Illinois exhibits plenty of All-MAC talent on the roster, as well as veterans who were members of the 2021 championship run. There’s more than enough weaponry in the trenches and skill positions, and a return to bowl eligibility should be expected.

On the contrary, I think Bowling Green slides back a step. While the Falcons lost longtime quarterback Matt McDonald, there are other areas of concern I have for the 2023 squad, namely in the trenches. Over half of the starting offensive line must be replaced and they no longer have Karl Brooks’ pass rushing abilities — the foundation to the majority of defensive success last year. There are still aspects I’m high on such as the linebacking corps, but I’m not sure if it’ll be enough to find six wins in an improving MAC East.

James Jimenez: The MAC is well-known— notorious even— for its parity, but I look at a team like Ball State and wonder if they could make a push. The Cardinals were certainly a team who got the bad end of one-score games in 2022; of their seven losses, four of them were by a touchdown or less. They lose Carson Steele, but they gain fellow all-MAC back Marquez Cooper, retain much of the offensive line from last year on offense, and maintain an underrated defense filled with talent in both the back end and the middle of the field. If they get some better turnover luck and learn to close games, the Cardinals were punchy enough against the contenders (Toledo and EMU) to make it close in 2023.

In terms of regression, the extremely obvious answer is Bowling Green. It was a feat just to make the show in 2022, as the Falcons had to go on a big winning streak just to be eligible due to a slow start to the season, and the roster has only gotten less recognizable for talent. This isn’t to poo-poo the arrival of Connor Bazelek or the return of Davon Ferguson; it’s just difficult to find wins on the schedule as the MAC East has gotten stronger in recent years.

Alexis Baker (@deergodwhy): Now, that depends on how you define ‘breakout’. Do we mean a middling-to-bad team last year that’ll come out of the woodwork to make a bowl? If so, that’s hard to predict in an any-given-week league like the MAC. My personal picks are either Ball State, who manages to improve just enough to squeak in and grab the conference’s fifth or sixth bowl slot, or Central Michigan, who takes a big step forward from a disappointing 2022 and finishes in the top third of the conference. Right now? Gut feeling tells me Ball State is more likely.

As for which team that made a bowl last year that won’t this year? That’s a little easier to guess. I don’t know if Bowling Green or Buffalo can sustain the momentum needed to clear postseason leather. Both have bled a bunch of important pieces and there’s only guesses as to whether they can be one of the teams this year to pick up the pieces and play a total package this year. I think Buffalo’s gonna be a bit worse than Bowling Green, so I’ll say Buffalo.

Drew Pearson (@DPearson88): I like Akron to make a jump this season. Now, I don’t mean they are going to compete for the East, but I trust Joe Moorehead to figure out how to score points with quarterback DJ Irons and wide receiver Alex Adams. Add in a former five-star running back from Florida, and a pair of defensive transfers from power five conferences and it’s not hard to see the Zips climbing out of the basement.

Bowling Green won six games last year by a combined 37 points. Only one game was by more than a possession, and the only loss that was close was to FCS Eastern Kentucky. Their -113 point differential is very telling. Two big losses came to UCLA and Mississippi State which is hard to hold against any MAC team but they also got smoked by three MAC East teams. Even if the point differential gets better this season, it’s unlikely that their record will improve.

Keith Gregorski (@keith_gregorski): I’m going with Northern Illinois for my breakout team. NIU finished 3-9 last year including a drubbing at the hands of the Akron Zips 44-12 to end the year but I think the 2021 MAC champs bounce back, at least doubling the 2022 win total to become bowl eligible. NIU gets a key part of their passing game back from injury in QB Rocky Lombardi and WR Trayvon Rudolph which should make a big difference.

I don’t see a lot in the way of tumblers this year. I don’t know if Ohio will post back-to-back ten-win seasons, but they are title contenders. I say Bowling Green has the biggest shot of taking a step back out of bowl eligibility after losing a lot of key players including QB Matt McDonald and multiple key defenders.

Which under-the-radar players, one offensive and one defensive, do you see having a breakout season in 2023?

Steve: On offense, Joe Wilkins Jr. seems bound for a breakout campaign. Miami (OH) landed Wilkins in the transfer portal from Notre Dame, where he caught 11 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. And quarterback Brett Gabbert loses his top receiver in Mac Hippenhammer, who dominated the RedHawks’ receiving categories last year. Hippenhammer, like Wilkins, was underutilized at his previous school, but Hippenhammer quickly broke out upon transferring from Penn State. Expect a similar arc from Wilkins, who could rise into Miami’s No. 1 receiver spot this year.

On defense, I’ll go with Kent State outside linebacker Khalib Johns. Johns would probably have an All-MAC selection under his belt if he remained healthy last season. But in four games prior to a season-ending injury, he made a massive impact with 21 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and four sacks — and those four games included matchups against Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia.

James: It’s really strange to call someone who led their team in receiving (850 yards, nine touchdowns) and was one of the MAC’s best passcatchers in 2022 a breakout candidate, but I legitimately do feel that Alex Adams has a chance to truly establish himself this season. He had an excellent chemistry with DJ Irons and absolutely ate conference foes alive once he got his feet under him. The former LSU Tiger is a matchup nightmare, showing excellence in both contested catches and creating separation, making him a true danger at the X position. If he can repeat or better his 2023 efforts, he’ll be on the NFL radar.

On defense, I have some curiosity about fifth-year junior transfer Da’Raun McKinney. The former South Dakota Coyote arrives in Mt. Pleasant to help supplement a cornerback room which is filled with talented, but young, contributors. He could be a much-needed senior presence in the room, and a good contributor as an outside or subpackage corner as well. The five-foot-ten, 200 lb. River Rogue, Michigan native was one of the Coyotes’ surest tacklers in his tenure, finishing seventh with 43 tackles, four pass break-ups and an interception in nine appearances (seven starts) in 2022. He’s the smallest corner, but he’s also a sure and hard hitter, which could give CMU an element which wasn’t on the roster last season.

Alexis: I like Alex Kasee, the incoming freshman kicker for Ohio. As special teams enters a strange period during the evolution of the American rules sport, having a good, consistent offensive specialist is incredibly important, especially for such a talent-rich and promising team like the Bobcats. I predict one XP miss at most and a minimum 85 percent success rate on field goals within 45 yards. Backup option if Kasee doesn’t get the starting position: Brett Gabbert. I have no idea how under-the-radar a fifth year quarterback who’s landed on the All-MAC list and won a conference title can be, but in a conference headlined by Toledo, Ohio, and even Eastern Michigan, Gabbert can be the determining factor as to Miami’s viability this year in the parity wars.

On the defensive side of the ball, I’m keeping my eye on Kent State’s Khalib Johns, outside linebacker. He posted a promising statistical array during the Golden Flashes’ Power Five onslaught last year, but suffered a season-ending injury; I think he could be a rare bright spot on a Kent State squad that’ll be fighting for its life to stay above the conference floor.

Drew: I’m going to be a little bit of a homer here and say Jehlani Galloway from Western Michigan is set to have a great season. He was the #2 receiving option behind Corey Crooms last season in a dreadful passing attack. Crooms is gone and the new offense is likely to be built around getting the ball quickly to receivers on the outside. A transfer quarterback with two seasons as a starter under his belt should be able to distribute the ball reliably, and Galloway stands to benefit.

On defense, Corey Suttle was a rotational player for Miami on the defensive line and still managed six sacks. He seems to be a pass-rush specialist but should see the field more in 2023, which should drive his sacks and tackles for loss up. He appeared in all 13 games for the RedHawks but only started four. He’s poised to put up huge sack numbers if he gets the snaps.

Keith: Offensively, I like tight end Harold Fannin Jr. of Bowling Green to be a breakout guy. As a true freshman last year, Fannin Jr. was a red zone threat rushing and receiving and with second-team all-MAC performer Christian Sims off to pursue an UDFA opportunity with the LA Rams, Fannin Jr. is poised to grab some of Sims’ prolific production.

Defensively, I say Ohio Bobcats free safety Walter Reynolds, who transferred in for the 2023 season from Holy Cross. Reynolds was highly productive and experienced at the FCS level with 43 starts and has a good shot to make a splash on a defense where he’ll have plenty of opportunities to shine.

Which head coaches have the most at stake in 2023? Also, do you see any coaches at risk for being poached by another program, à la Lance Leipold in 2021?

Steve: Last year felt like a make-or-break year for Scot Loeffler. Bowling Green finally snapped its six-year bowl drought, which felt like a necessity in order for Loeffler to see his fifth season. Still, the Falcons finished below .500 at 6-7, and now, the mission in Bowling Green should be to return to bowl season with a winning record — a feat which has not been accomplished since 2015.

College football is not going to let Chris Creighton keep getting away with this. Unfortunately for Eastern Michigan, Creighton’s success will be acknowledged soon — likely by a program in Big Ten country, as he has won three of his last four against that conference. Also, he’s responsible for the only MAC over Pac-12 regular season win in history after taking out Arizona State last September. Last fall was Creighton’s best work to date with a 9-4 season and the program’s first bowl win in 35 years. Eastern Michigan was a doormat before he arrived, and it’s hard to see him continue to push the envelope of possibilities in Ypsilanti before a Big Ten check comes calling.

James: The only coach who’s seriously on the hot seat is Scot Loeffler. Most of the other coaches in the MAC have either recently signed extensions or just started their tenures, which narrows down the list considerably. His teams haven’t had a winning record since he took over the program, and other teams in the division considered their peers have surpassed BGSU in that time. Add in the hiring of Derek van de Merwe as athletic director in 2022, and that seat is smokin’.

We talk about a guy who could get pilfered every year and it almost never happens because hiring practices have largely changed over the last five seasons at the Power Five level. (Sean Lewis was the exception which proved the rule when he left for Colorado for a demotion this offseason.) I know most would say Chris Creighton here, but I think he’s at EMU ‘til they build his statue there. I think Miami head coach Chuck Martin could get a serious look at Northwestern if his team reaches its potential this season, but like Creighton, he might be just as content to stay around.

Alexis: Well, I’ll answer the second question first, since it’s a bit easier. If either Toledo or Ohio win more than 10 games this year, their coaches might be subject to poaching. If either team goes to a major bowl game, those chances increase, and if either goes to a New Year’s Six bowl, they’re practically guaranteed. Now the question is, do teams like Jason Candle or Tim Albin more? Colleges might like Candle’s experience. Much like his starting quarterback, Albin could be attractive to the Canadian Football League, having coached both Rourke brothers and served under CFLer Jim Burrow. But it’s all about how successful their programs are this year, and particularly how their stars progress.

As for the first question...well, the bottom of the conference barrel programs all have relatively new or brand new coaches, unlikely to get canned after an atrocious campaign. Kent State and Western Michigan both have new coaches walking into bad situations. It’s hard for me to see any coaches getting fired, unless Buffalo or Ball State or Bowling Green really just stinks it up this year, so bad they feel like they have to reset. So if their jobs aren’t at I’d say that still goes to Joe Moorhead, to show that he can pick up a program that’s 5-37 over the last four seasons and make something out of it, at the extremely least.

Drew: If Toledo does what they should do and wins the MAC, Jason Candle seems eager to capitalize on that. He was rumored to be the leading candidate to take the Miami (FL) offensive coordinator job during the offseason but ultimately stayed in Toledo. He seems willing to play the carousel and another MAC Championship year might get him the job he wants.

Scot Loeffler would help himself out greatly with another bowl season in Bowling Green. As I talked about earlier, the team could improve but not have a better record. The Falcons were dominated in five of six losses and eeked out six wins. If they don’t get better and the distribution of points is more consistent, the record could look pretty ugly in Loeffler’s fifth season.

Keith: Thomas Hammock probably has the most at stake even though he signed an extension in 2021. The lead Huskie did guide the crew to a MAC title but three of his four seasons were of the losing variety and the overall record since his arrival is 17-27. Also, they are coming off a 3-9 campaign and back-to-back losing seasons would be brutal. Yet, like I said, I think the Huskies rebound to bowl bound from a 2022 that was less than profound.

I don’t see any strong candidates for poaching with the best bet being Buffalo’s Maurice Linguist, who could be a rising name as a coach under 40 years old if the Bulls can win the East or otherwise have a big year. Head coaches at projected 2023 contending schools like Ohio, Miami, Toledo, and EMU seem to be happy where they are and most of the other schools may not see enough of a jump in 2023 standings to be poached.

Miami (OH)’s crunch time win over Northwestern extended the MAC’s streak of 16 consecutive seasons with a win over the Big Ten (excluding the 2020 pandemic-abbreviated schedule). Does that streak extend to 17, and if so, which MAC team is defeating a Big Ten opponent?

Steve: Googles ‘Northwestern football schedule.’

Well, it’s going to be a bit more challenging this year without the Wildcats, which are currently in the midst of some turmoil due to an unexpected offseason coaching change. I wrote about this subject back in June, and labeled Toledo’s Week 1 matchup at Illinois as the best bet this season. The Fighting Illini lose three star defensive backs which were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, as well as workhorse running back Chase Brown. I’m very 50-50 about this game, but given Toledo’s All-MAC laden secondary, I think Dequan Finn and the offense can do enough to emerge victorious in a low-scoring bout. So, to answer the question, yes, the streak extends to 17.

James: This is admittedly a bit of a homer pick, but it feels like Michigan State is a little vulnerable vs. CMU in 2023. Central Michigan was able to maintain composure defensively against Penn State in part because of good secondary play last year, forcing the Nittany Lions to depend on the run. Such a flow worked for PSU on that day, but MSU is less of a sure thing on the ground. The Spartans were 111th in the NCAA in rushing offense, and had a pedestrian passing attack (58th) which lost several of its biggest pieces this offseason. Of course, CMU would need very young and inexperienced offense would have to play mistake-free in this scenario, but if Donte Kent and the gang can lock down the outside and deep middle, MSU will have to rely on a run game which was less-than-stellar to try and grind out a win. That can create some weird situations, and you never know what could happen if you take advantage of it.

Alexis: Toledo can take Illinois. It’s a cruel twist of fate that Iowa is up against Western Michigan and Indiana has to play Akron, because in a just world those are takeable games; Iowa merely requires a 21st century offense to beat it, and Indiana got into shootouts with Idaho and Western Kentucky last year. Beyond that, the Big 10 slate is brutal this year.

Drew: Mo Linguist has done a great job maintaining the Buffalo identity and keeping the Bulls a competitive MAC outfit. Buffalo has a shot against Wisconsin in week one. Wisconsin has a new coach and an offense that is going to be very foreign to the Badgers. Phil Longo intends to run an air raid offense in Camp Randall and Buffalo might be able to take advantage of unpolished play in their first game.

Keith: Yes, at least one win. Eastern Michigan has been getting it done against the Big Ten in the last half decade or so and could beat Minnesota. With all the WMU players that transferred to the Golden Gophers after 2022, it might feel to EMU like the Broncos are on the schedule twice this year.

That being said, I like Toledo over Illinois because I think the Rockets return more ready to hit the ground running than an Illinois squad breaking in a new QB and secondary.

Who do you predict wins the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards?

Steve: MAC Offensive Player of the Year will be a repeat winner. Kurtis Rourke was undeniably great last season. He checked off the efficiency box, completing 69.1 percent of passes while wielding a 25-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also checked the explosive box, as over half of his games featured over 300 yards, with 537-yard and 427-yard masterclasses mixed in there. And he’s a decent runner. His ACL tear last November could lead to uncertainties, but overall, I trust Rourke to retain this dominant form as a senior.

For the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, I’ll take Shaun Dolac. The Buffalo linebacker led all FBS players in solo tackles last season with 97 and he finished second in the nation with 147 tackles. And that’s complemented by 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, seven pass deflections, and three forced fumbles — all in his first season as a starter. The Bulls must replace 120 tackles of production after losing linebacker James Patterson this offseason, and I expect Dolac to take full control of this defense and post monstrous numbers on a weekly basis.

James: To say anyone else but Kurtis Rourke here would require turning in my sports journalist card. The only thing which would hold Kurtis back at this point is a slower-than-anticipated recovery from an ACL tear suffered back in November, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue as of yet, as he’s expected to start in Week 0. Rourke’s combination of wily footwork on the scramble and a rocket arm makes him dangerous anytime he holds the ball— which he does on every offensive play.

Defensively, I have a soft spot for Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell. The six-foot, 196 lb. Floridian had a true breakout season in 2022, finishing the year with 41 stops, including 3.5 tackles-for-loss, five interceptions and a league-leading 20 pass break-ups. His 25 total passes defensed led the NCAA, and his incredible timing saved Toledo’s skin more than once to boot. Mitchell had plenty of interest from Power Five teams in the offseason, with his NIL valuation in the triple-digits, but he opted to stay for his final season. I’ve got to respect that type of dedication. Shaun Dolac is probably the likely favorite, but if Mitchell can repeat his 2022 effort, he could become the first defensive back since 2000 to win the award.

Alexis: It’s Kurtis Rourke’s to lose for OPOY. The Ohio passer has the potential to build on last year’s promise if the recovery from the ACL injury is smooth. He’s already on prospect watch from CFL fans. The younger brother of Nathan Rourke is a salivating prospect indeed, especially if his ceiling is higher than his brother’s. Fresh blood is badly needed in a league where the same three or four guys are getting passed around every other year, and Nathan leaving for Jacksonville stung a lot of fans north of the border. If Kurtis shows out, he not only has a MAC OPOY to his name, but a promising career ahead of him in professional football, with several fanbases already fighting for him before he’s played a single down this year.

For DPOY, let’s go with Marcus Fuqua. I love this guy. He tied at #1 in the FBS for interceptions in 2022 and had a whole picnic basket of lovely statistics to go with lunch. I think he builds on it in 2023. He will be the X factor to keep Buffalo’s defense glued together and out of the MAC cellar altogether this year, giving better teams headaches like he did last season. Will he get serious NFL interest? Unsure, leaning unlikely, but that’s more because of the G5 Tax than anything he hasn’t done. He’ll definitely get interest from someone, though. He has too much talent to just go completely through the cracks.

Drew: It has to be Kurtis Rourke. He led the MAC in yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and completion percentage in 2022. Ohio is going to put the ball in his hands often this season and he has a full complement of playmakers to work with. Ohio’s offense will be a force in the MAC and it all starts with Rourke.

On defense, I like Dallas Gant from Toledo to go from a very active volume tackler to a force in the backfield. He averaged more than eight total tackles a game and had 5.5 tackles-for-loss. The linebacker will be a senior leader for the Rockets defense and play like one.

Keith: Offensively, gotta go with Ohio’s Kurtis Rourke to repeat for the first time since NIU’s QB Jordan Lynch took home the hardware in 2012 and 2013. Rourke, also the reigning MAC MVP, seems to improve every year and is surrounded by an offensive line returning four of five starters and a loaded offensive skill position group.

Defensively, historically, the defensive backs don’t feel the love here with the last win by a DB being in 2000 by Akron’s Dwight Smith and it took him ten interceptions that year to do it. So, looking at the front seven, the powers that be like electric sack numbers and Ohio’s DE Vonnie Watkins could rack up a bunch this year, but I’d say Buffalo’s do-it-all linebacker Shaun Dolac as he’ll have another eye-popping statistical campaign like he did last year.

The MAC Championship Game takes place the first weekend of December at Ford Field. Which teams meet in Detroit and who emerges with the conference crown?

Steve: Miami (OH) over Toledo. Rule No. 1 I’ve learned from my first seven seasons covering the MAC: never pick last year’s champion to repeat. Nobody has won consecutive titles in Detroit since 2011 and 2012 Northern Illinois, and there is too much parity in this conference on an annual basis, even though I love Toledo’s returning talent. The Rockets should boast the conference’s best defense with stars like Dallas Gant at linebacker and Quinyon Mitchell at cornerback, but I think Miami (OH) is quietly a super well-balanced squad.

Brett Gabbert has flown under the radar due to an injury-riddled 2022, and he’s equipped with a veteran line, a versatile running back corps, and some intriguing transfers at receiver. Miami also returned plenty of pieces from a 35th-ranked scoring defense, and that well-roundedness is going to result in its first MAC championship since 2019.

James: I am going to zig when others zag here, and say Eastern Michigan takes on Ohio in the MAC title game. I know that’s a lot of green and white, but hear me out. EMU stunned an Arizona State team into firing their head coach, got a great start in the early season, and was co-champion of the West. They were essentially foot-for-foot with the Rockets all season, only faltering against Toledo in the final minutes. If that game ends differently, we might be talking about defending MAC champion Eastern. They return most of what made that work, have some of the MAC’s best special teams play and arguably upgraded at QB as well; don’t count them out.

As for Ohio, when you have the reigning OPOY, anything can happen. This team isn’t just Kurtis Rourke, though. Sieh Bangura returns after a breakout 2022 campaign to steady the backfield, while the second level of the Bobcats defense returns some of the best linebackers and defensive backs in the conference. Ohio proved in 2022 they’re a well-balanced and disciplined team who can match up well with just about anyone they face, and that’s dangerous to go up against.

Alexis: Toledo-Ohio, and Toledo takes it.

Drew: I generally think the MAC is too homogenous in talent level for anything to be a foregone conclusion before the season starts. Still, the Ohio Bobcats and the Toledo Rockets just have too many small advantages across the board to not pick them. It can get weird in an instant but I like the chalk. I hope this is the year that both teams make it to the championship game healthy and we get a banger of a game in Detroit. Ohio has been the bridesmaid too many times in recent history and this is the year the break the streak.

Keith: Although there are legitimate contenders in 2023 like EMU, Miami, and Buffalo, I see a rematch from last year, Ohio versus Toledo, with the Bobcats winning this one. Ohio and Toledo return a lot of what made them contenders last year but the return of the MAC MVP QB Rourke in the title rematch gives Ohio the edge.

The MAC hasn’t seen a team crash into the rankings at any point of the season since 2020. Does a MAC team land in the AP Poll or College Football Playoff rankings in 2023?

Steve: No. The conference features way too much parity. For instance, the MAC hasn’t featured a conference champion with double-digit wins since 2017 Toledo. The 2020 season, where Ball State and Buffalo both finished in the final AP Poll, was an anomaly because conferences like the SEC and Big Ten played exclusively conference-only schedules, and the MAC was shielded from those non-conference matchups.

Toledo has the best chance should it beat Illinois in Week 1, as the schedule shapes up nicely for the Rockets following that matchup. Ohio, the only MAC team to attain 10 wins last year, has several decent yet beatable non-conference opponents in San Diego State, Florida Atlantic, and Iowa State. If the Bobcats can clear that and start 6-0, 7-0, maybe. But that’s a big if.

James: As I say most, if not every year, no. And as I say every year, fair or not, the MAC does not have a great reputation amongst AP or CFP pollsters, so it’ll be an uphill climb for any team from the conference to get attention, even a good one.

Toledo did get four votes in the preseason poll, so they’re technically on the radar, but as soon as they lose a game, that’ll become irrelevant. Though, that being said... if they don’t, the schedule falls fairly favorably, so they could make a run in the 15-25 range. Same goes for conference mate Ohio if they can get off to a hot run to start the season.

Alexis: Toledo and Ohio could. The question is whether the pollsters are kind enough to Toledo’s out of conference schedule to rank them higher than 2023 Group of Five heavyweights like UTSA, Boise State, and Tulane. But if the Rockets get a fair shake, we could be looking at a top 15 spot there. If Kurtis Rourke builds on his promise in 2022, Ohio could make a run at it too, and their out-of-conference schedule is a little bit more pollster-friendly (Iowa State, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic, Long Island). I expect Eastern Michigan to get votes at the very least, but Toledo and Ohio are the conference’s best shots at a big bowl game in 2023.

Drew: There are two scenarios to get a MAC team ranked. Ohio draws a tough San Diego State defense in week zero and Iowa State may be a mess dealing with some player discipline issues, but they are a P5 roster. The schedule is weak which helps them start with a good record but also hurts them to break into the rankings. Toledo needs to get over 2022 Big Ten darling Illinois in week one and then keep rolling. I don’t see an undefeated streak long enough from either team to make it happen. So, unfortunately, no.

Keith: I say Toledo has the best shot to crack the Top 25 if they can beat Illinois because the rest of the schedule to start the season plays out where a 6-0 or 7-0 start is possible, and, given the Rockets begin the season not too far outside the top 25, that winning streak would probably do it. I think an Ohio top 25 run is less likely than Toledo but it could happen. If it does, I see it happening to finish the Bobcat season as the non-conference has some three competitive games which are far from a certainty.