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2023 MAC Football Power Rankings: Preseason/Week 0

Spoiler alert: Toledo tops the chart for the preseason rankings.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Toledo Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, it’s football season.

As the calendar turns from August to September, our eyes turn in the direction of our beloved conference, and it comes time to analyze it from top to bottom. The people demand rankings, and by God, we’ll give the people rankings.

There’s particular intrigue centered on the defending champion Toledo Rockets, who could get some AP and College Football Playoff votes depending on their performance over the year, while the bottom half of the table is once again a narrow fight, with the 5-12 slots a slobberknocker which will take time to truly resolve— if it ever does.

Before we get into the numbers, we should let you know these rankings were done under the assumption Ohio was 0-0; the Bobcats played in Week 0 action, losing 20-13 in a game where QB Kurtis Rourke went down early with an ankle injury.

Without further ado, let’s get into this week’s rankings:

12. Kent State Golden Flashes

  • High vote: 10 (once)
  • Low vote: 12 (five)
  • Average vote: 11.66

The departure of Sean Lewis to take the offensive coordinator job at Colorado under Deion Sanders sent shockwaves around the conference, with over a dozen notable players transferring out of the program in the offseason as a result of the move. It was such an exodus, not a single offensive starter from 2022 remains on the roster.

Kenni Burns has a helluva challenge in front of him in that sense, and it’ll be a true Year Zero situation as the team tries to rebuild the culture. They’ve still got some pieces, namely Khalib Johns, but this Kent State squad will look more like Kent State teams of old — at least for this season.

11. Western Michigan Broncos

  • Unanimous #11

WMU is in a similar situation to KSU, though not as urgent. Tim Lester departed after underperforming his contract, with the Broncos never securing the MAC West division or breaking the eight-win ceiling in his tenure. The floor fell out in 2022, as a fairly competent defense couldn’t compensate for a lack of talent on offense in a miserable 5-7 campaign.

Lance Taylor, who has had plenty of Power Five coaching experience as a recruiter and assistant, hopes to bring a different voice into the room after having retained several coaches from the previous regime.

10. Akron Zips

  • High vote: 9 (once)
  • Low vote: 10 (four)
  • Average vote: 10.16

The Zips were one of the most curious teams in the MAC in 2022, with box scores and game summaries which suggest they were closer in more games than one might have thought in Year 1 of the Joe Moorhead era.

They finished 2-10, but were in seven games decided by nine points or less, so they could have improved on that record with a lucky bounce here and there. The Zips will have to reload defensively after losing several major contributors, but the offense, which was 19th in the country through the air in 2022, returns largely intact with some major additions in the backfield. They might not stay in the double-digits for long this season.

9. Ball State Cardinals

  • High vote: 5 (once)
  • Low vote: 10 (once)
  • Average vote: 8

The Cardinals were one of several teams who were in the fight for the MAC West title in 2022, giving Toledo hell in their late year matchup before fading late to the Rockets’ offensive firepower. It was a loss which took the wind out of their sails, as they wound up finishing 5-7 on a three-game losing streak to end the season and take them out of bowl eligibility.

Outside of Carson Steele’s departure for UCLA and the additions of Kent State RB Marquez Cooper and Texas State QB Layne Hatcher this offseason, this roster largely stays the same, suggesting they could make another run with the right results.

8. Bowling Green Falcons

  • High vote: 6 (once)
  • Low vote: 8 (twice)
  • Average vote: 7.33

Bowling Green was one of the surprise stories of the 2022 campaign, finding the right gear late in the season and securing that all-important 6-6 record to secure a bowl game for the first time since 2015.

There’s skepticism the feat is repeatable, however, with many of the pieces who helped BGSU get there departing in the offseason, and a lack of proven talent in plenty of other spots. But then again, maybe that run at the MAC East title last season was a turning point mentally for what had been a laughingstock program. This will be a wild card team until they have a few games under them.

7. Central Michigan Chippewas

  • High vote: 4 (once)
  • Low vote: 9 (once)
  • Average vote: 6.83

CMU had outsized expectations in 2022 and didn’t deliver, going from a 9-4 campaign in 2022 where they shared a split of the MAC West title to a 4-8 run in 2022.

Everything which could go wrong did go wrong for a young roster which looked overwhelmed at points in the season, whether it was injury, bad play or otherwise just bad luck. It was a year so riddled with various tortures, head coach Jim McElwain freely admitted in fall camp media sessions it was the worst campaign he’d ever undergone as a head coach. Now they have to try and turn the page.

Historically under Coach Mac, CMU seems to do well in odd years, and there’s certainly enough upside on the roster to give fans hope if they start with positive momentum. The question is if they can reach their potential.

6. Buffalo Bulls

  • High vote: 4 (once)
  • Low vote: 8 (once)
  • Average vote: 6.16

Buffalo is another team that’s hard to get a read on. The Bulls were in the running for the MAC East in 2022, thanks to elite playmaking ability on the defensive side of the ball. But a team can’t operate on turnover luck alone, a fact which was surely emphasized in spring and fall camps.

The offense returns most of their major names, with former Rutgers transfer Cole Snyder at QB and the dynamic duo of Mike Washington and Ron Cook Jr. giving the unit stability. The defense returns All-MAC linebacker and player of the year candidate Shaun Dolac as well, with the opportunistic Marcus Fuqua patrolling the backfield.

They’ve got the pieces to make a run; the question is if they can put it all together in a consistent fashion, something they struggled with in 2022.

5. Northern Illinois Huskies

  • High vote: 4 (twice)
  • Low vote: 9 (once)
  • Average vote: 5.83

Yes, the Huskies were one of the worst teams in the MAC in 2022, but hear us out: Rocky Lombardi and Trayvon Rudolph are back in action after severe injuries, and the young unit has a year of battle-hardened experience behind them. Going into last season, NIU was a favorite to repeat assuming their health was there, and they’re still largely the same team as before.

Their schedule is very favorable, with very winnable games against Boston College, Tulsa and Nebraska in the non-conference season, while hosting conference powerhouses Ohio and Eastern early in the MAC slate.

They’ll have to stay out of the injury tent, it’s true, but at their height, the Huskies are one of the most dangerous teams in the MAC due to their athletic upside, veteran experience and depth at key positions.

4. Miami RedHawks

  • High vote: 2 (once)
  • Low vote: 8 (once)
  • Average vote: 4.5

The Miami RedHawks just don’t go away, do they?

Try as we might to find issues with their roster construction and general playstyle, you can’t deny that it works for them. This season sees the return of a healthy Brett Gabbert after his back-and-forth battle with an injury to his non-throwing arm suffered in their opener vs. Kentucky last year, which will be a major boost to Miami’s prospects despite a lack of proven names at the skill positions.

This team is most certainly built on their defense and special teams, and 2023’s roster will be no different, as the RedHawks return all three starting defensive linemen, their star linebacker in Matt Salopek and four of their five players in their secondary for a scoring defense which was one of the NCAA’s best in both points per game (22.6; 34th) and in turnover margin (+10; t-12th).

Graham Nicholson and Dom Dzioban also return to their specialist spots for a unit which is one of the most consistent in the MAC as well. Miami will be a solid matchup for anyone in front of them.

3. Eastern Michigan Eagles

  • High vote: 3 (five)
  • Low vote: 5 (once)
  • Average vote: 3.33

The Eagles were two minutes from achieving the unbelievable task of clinching the MAC West title as a solo contender for the first time since 1987 late in the season, but a late Toledo rally led by backup QB Tucker Gleason snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It was a bitter pill to swallow after their Herculean effort to get there, but this is no longer the EMU team of a decade ago.

Make no mistake, the Eagles are the dark horse of the MAC, with three extremely solid units who are capable of executing the gameplan to perfection against teams in front of them. They’ll have to find capable replacements for the since-departed Jose Ramirez, Sidy Sow and Dylan Drummond (who are all currently NFL prospects), but optimism is in the air in Ypsilanti, as the offense and defense returns a lot of senior talent to lead the group.

Samson Evans, Austin Smith, Tanner Knue, Joe Spiracio, Chase Kline, Jesus Gomez and Mitchell Tomasek are just a few of the names who are potential or current All-MAC prospects to return in 2023. Can they finish the job they started in 2022?

2. Ohio Bobcats (0-1)

  • High vote: 1 (once)
  • Low vote: 3 (once)
  • Average vote: 1.5

The Bobcats are yet another one of the teams who found defeat at the hands of the Toledo Rockets in a crucial moment in 2022, but theirs was perhaps the most unfortunately-timed, as they lost in the MAC title game by 10 points about three weeks removed from Kurtis Rourke tearing his ACL.

The 2023 campaign had an inauspicous start, with a soul-sucking loss to San Diego State after another injury to Rouke early in the contest. Despite that, the optimism is very high for the unit as long as the younger Rourke continues to lead the ship.

Ohio is one of the more veteran-laden units in the MAC, especially on defense, with Vonnie Watkins, Keye Thompson, Bryce Houston, Justin Birchette and Torrie Cox Jr. all returning in 2023 to lead a defense which was one of the country’s best in creating scoring opportunities (+12 turnover margin; t-8th in NCAA). Offensively, Rourke will have plenty of weapons to look for, with Sieh Bangura and O’Shaan Allison in the backfield and First Team All-MAC receiver Sam Wiglusz running routes.

For the ‘Cats, execution will be king. They look to rebound vs. FCS Long Island this week.

1. Toledo Rockets

  • High vote: 1 (three)
  • Low vote: 2 (three)
  • Average vote: 1.5

Who else but the Rockets would occupy the top spot?

Toledo was, to put it simply, the best team in the MAC for most of — if not all — of 2022, and once again project to be the best team in the MAC for 2023, helped in part by the return of young gunslinger Dequan Finn and a dangerous defense filled with contributors at all three levels.

Toledo returns four of their five starters the offensive line, their top running back and both starting receivers for an attack which collected an average of 402.6 yards per game on average, one of just three MAC teams to reach the 400-yard threshold in 2022 (Ohio and Kent State.)

Defensively, they’ll have to find replacements for Desjuan Johnson, Dyontae Johnson and Jamal Hines on the defensive line, but they still return seven starters from a defense which ranked 17th in total yards (326.2 yards per game on average), including three First Team All-MAC prospects in linebacker Dallas Gant, cornerback Quinyon Mitchell and safety Maxen Hook.

They’re the team to beat in the conference until further notice.

Anonymized ranking

Akron Ball State Buffalo Bowling Green Central Mich Eastern Mich Kent State Miami NIU Ohio Toledo Western Mich
10 6 7 8 9 3 12 4 5 1 2 11
9 10 4 7 8 5 12 2 6 3 1 11
10 9 5 8 7 3 12 4 6 1 2 11
10 9 6 8 7 3 12 4 5 2 1 11
10 9 8 7 6 3 12 5 4 2 1 11
12 5 7 6 4 3 10 8 9 2 1 11

Did we get it right? Did we get it wrong? Be sure to sound off in the comments section below, or at us on Twitter @HustleBelt!