The non-league season is winding down, and with a chance to breathe as there’s only six games this upcoming week, we decided to ask our readership if they had any burning questions on their minds.
And boy did you!
We ended up with a full sheet of missives over a day before our anticipated deadline, so thank you for being so quick and eager with your submissions! We’re hoping to maybe do so again soon, so keep an eye out for future call-outs.
Let’s get right into a chock-full Roundtable:
Crimson Quarry asketh: Can the Bears draft DJ Irons?
James: I mean, that’s up to Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles, but sure, why not? CBS Sports color analyst Ross Tucker was pretty adamant that DJ Irons was one of the best QBs he had evaluated last season, and it’s easy to see why. Irons has prototypical size at six-foot-four, 215 lbs., and a strong dual-threat style-of-play which is attractive to modern football scouts.
I personally don’t think he’ll get drafted unless he has a season for the ages, but as a project UDFA, he’s fairly attractive. He’s toolsy and has size, but needs some work with trusting the pocket, processing reads and being more accurate downfield. If that sounds familiar, it should; he’s essentially store-brand Justin Fields at this point in his development.
Keith: Yep, they could but Irons really is in the mold of Justin Fields with the dual threat ability and the Bears seem to be trending towards pocket passer with Fields. Maybe they can start building an “Akron West” if they can reunite Irons with current Bears offensive coordinator and former Akron QB Luke Getsy.
Drew: Sure they can. They could draft me if they wanted to. I don’t watch quarterback play with a discerning enough eye to tell if that would be a good idea, but his play does remind me of Justin Fields. He’s best on the run and can hit the big pass. He will take a bad sack occasionally trying to make something out of nothing, but he’s the best available for Akron right now.
Chris Hedjuk asketh: How [do you think] Kenni Burns’ rebuilding of Kent State is going (players and cultures) and what you think the biggest need is for next year to get back to winning like we did with Sean Lewis?
James: We’re only four games in to the Burns regime, and as far as I can tell, they’re taking a very similar messaging front to what Sean Lewis used to preach. Lewis’s focus early on in the build was his players being FAST (fun, accountable, smart and tough), while Burns has opted for a more team-oriented message of growth and team integrity. But otherwise, these two coaches seem to want to build in a similar way.
Burns also inherits a similar build to what Lewis inherited, with a myriad of departures and little else in the cupboard. It’l take at least two or three seasons to get this roster back to being a competitive unit, but there’s some promising aspects of the roster KSU fans can take heart in, particularly the offensive line and running backs.
It’ll sound pretty reductivist to say, but they simply need more talent and more time to show what they’re fully capable of. We’ll get an idea of this team’s mettle in the conference season, and more of an idea of the kind of player they hope to attract in recruiting as the year goes on.
Keith: I like what Kenni Burns brings to the table as respected assistant under PJ Fleck. Burns brought a vision for his squad in his motto GRIT (Grow, Respond with Integrity Together), which it think is apropos for this Golden Flashes team. It may take Burns longer to get on track than Sean Lewis as Burns has to replace significantly more players but the upside of major change is that Burns can build the roster with the people of integrity he wants to develop. I think to get back to winning they just need time. The core on offense is coming together with the RBs, QB, a few WRs, and the O-line so continuing to develop there while sprinkling in a few key transfers should help the Golden Flashes get back to scoring in bunches next year.
Drew: Kent State is always going to be a tough place to win. Even taking over after a successful run by Sean Lewis, the roster reset through the portal and needs to be built back up. Recruiting is always going to be the key, but building the systems around the players that they are able to get is going to be important. Kenni Burns needs to be a good enough coach to be flexible on the systems they want to run to maximize their effect. Specifically, this team needs the lines to develop or find linemen in the portal to run the way they want to. Realistically, if any athlete from high school or in the portal wants to play at Kent State sign them and figure out their best use later.
David Polaski asketh: At this point, how hot do you think Mike Neu’s seat is getting?
James: I’ve had Mike Neu on the hot seat going back even to that 2020 season they won it all. They hadn’t qualified for a bowl game up to that season, never winning more than five games, and I have the suspicion that if BSU hadn’t won the MAC title in the COVID year, he would have been fired. Instead, Neu earned an extension. They haven’t done much of note since, floundering in their 2021 title defense campaign with a 6-7 finish, then won five games last season; a full regression to the mean.
Neu needs to win games and do it fast. The West is simply too competitive to stay pat at this point. Ball State may choose the “adapt or die” approach if they miss the postseason or get a low-rung bid again.
Keith: I think Neu is OK for now but we’ll see how the rest of the schedule plays out. Last week’s 40-3 loss against Georgia Southern was very unexpected— not the loss to the favored Eagles so much, but more so the being so completely destroyed at home. My takeaway from the post-game press conference was that Neu challenged his team to be better. With an overall down MAC West so far this season, there seems to be a good share of winnable games to get around .500 which is enough to keep Neu in 2024.
Drew: I’ve always been a little down on Mike Neu but Ball State’s patience was rewarded in the COVID season with a MAC Championship. I think that we are seeing that the 2020 season was full of blips for programs, good and bad, so maybe that championship doesn’t hold the same weight as others.
No matter what, he’s entering his eighth year at Ball State and established coaches and systems shouldn’t bottom out the way they might this season. They’ve had a tough schedule to start, but being non-competitive against Georgia Southern isn’t good. They need 5-3 in conference to go bowling and I’m not sure they can pull that off. Is that the line for moving on? It seems logical but Ball State might show more patience.
RedHawk Review asketh: Who would have the better resume for a NY6 spot if they got to 12-1 as MAC champs: Ohio or Toledo?
James: I would personally say Ohio has the better resume if we’re only taking into consideration this season, but the powers that be in the College Football Playoff polling have traditionally been skeptical of “Group of Five” teams and how they’re selected. Remember, WMU, UCF and Cincinnati all had to prove their worth over multiple years before even being considered for such a spot. Given that, Toledo would have the edge as two-time defending champions with just one loss in this particular scenario. Even then, however, the spot would likely go to someone else from a perceived stronger conference. (Which, given the precedent I just established is pretty unfair, but that’s life.)
Keith: Great question. I think it could be Ohio based on non-conference schedule and having potentially the best unit. In non-conference, Toledo came up just short in a loss to Illinois in week one while Ohio beat Iowa State, who may turn out to be a quality win. While it is unclear how the Cyclones will finish, they do have a very good defense and the loss to Ohio triggered a change in offensive philosophies last week to highlight passing in a win over Oklahoma State.
Outside of Miami, Toledo, and Ohio the league has looked pretty shaky so far. Toledo drew Miami from the East so they also have to play one of the MACs best squads. The way things are going, the best win of the year for each squad could be the winner of the MAC championship game. If the schedule is a wash in separating the teams then I’d go with best unit which is Ohio’s defense so far being ranked in the top 10 nationally in many categories.
Drew: Tough call. Toledo’s only loss would be to Illinois and Ohio’s would be to San Diego State, but with a power five win over Iowa State. It depends on what the playoff committee values when making their rankings. Ohio’s best win would be Iowa State, and Toledo’s would be... Ohio in the MAC Championship game? Ohio would have the worst loss as San Diego State doesn’t seem to have it this year. Personally, I give it to Ohio but Iowa State could help them out by not being 2-10 this season.
Hail to the Victors asketh: Who are the top three quarterbacks in the MAC since 2003?
James: Ben Roethlisberger is certainly the default answer here given his eventual pro pedigree, but I’ll toss out a couple different names here to differentiate.
Dan LeFevour, while being a bit of a homer pick, is an obvious one. He brought CMU from a MAC afterthought to one of the darlings of “small school” ball, with 15,911 total yards (12,905 passing, 2,948 rushing, 58 receiving) and 149 total touchdowns over four seasons as a starter, and propelled them all the way to a #25 ranking in the AP Poll.
It’d also be remiss to leave out Jordan Lynch, a former Heisman finalist who left NIU as one of the best rushing-first QBs to ever grace the field, with 4,343 yards and 48 TDs on the ground to pair with 6,209 yards passing and 51 TDs through the air.
There’s a lot of names to consider for the third spot, but I think Logan Woodside deserves a shout here. The former Toledo gunslinger had one of the best individual passing seasons ever recorded in the MAC in 2016, with 4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, and finished his career with 93 passing scores while completing 65.1 percent of his passes as a three-year starter.
Keith: Miami’s Ben Roethlisberger is the best, guiding his 2003 squad to a 13-1 record with 4,500 yards passing and 37 touchdowns that year. Second, I’d go with CMU’s Dan LeFevour. While his skills did not translate to the pros like Roethlisberger’s, he led his squad to three MAC title games racking up over 15,000 yards receiving and rushing. If we are talking about MAC careers only, LeFevour might be tops. Third I’d go NIU’s Jordan Lynch. Guy had a magically 2013 where he finished third in the Heisman voting and ran for over 1,900 yards.
Drew: If we’re saying since Ben Roethlisberger, it’s hard to go wrong with CMU’s Dan Lefevour, NIU’s Chandler Harnish and BGSU’s Matt Johnson. As a Western Michigan grad Lefevour still gives me the cold sweats. He could win a game however he needed to and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes his last season in Mount Pleasant. Chandler Harnish walked so Jordan Lynch can run. Harnish was the better passer, but could still take off and ran for more than 1,300 yards his senior season. His 68 passing touchdowns give him the edge to me.
Matt Johnson’s run at Bowling Green wasn’t as long as the other two but his peak season was incredible. In 2015, he passed for 4,946 yards with 46 touchdowns. He threw six touchdown passes in an upset win over Maryland and had a three game stretch where threw 15 touchdowns in 109 attempts for 1,337 yards and one interception. He was dominant that season.
Patrick Reaves asketh: What will it take for the MAC to get national recognition again (ex. Early 2000s BG/Miami, 2016 WMU)?
James: In the words of the immortal Al Davis: “just win, baby.” That’s really about it.
The formula to success in terms of being a Group of Five team (and by extension, a conference) has been to have multiple stable programs with strong foundation and performances in order to secure the fabled “strength of schedule” necessary for national attention. MAC teams have to win in recruiting at a local level, find the right transfers and build stable and/or innovative programs which lift the lower rungs of the table into being competitive.
The world has changed a lot in 20 years— hell, even in just seven years— but the way to get eyes remains the same. For the MAC in general, they cannot be a three-team league with a cannibal middle-table like they have been over the last five seasons.
Keith: I think there is a lot to like this year if Toledo or Ohio can run the table. Each squad had a week one loss so if each runs the table until the MAC championship the winner would be 12-1 on a 12-game winning streak. Also, the championship winner could be a win over a team that has double-digit wins. Short of runs by Ohio and Toledo like that it would be wait until next year.
Drew: I think what would really help is for one (or more) quarterback to supernova in the conference. If there is a MAC quarterback putting together 350+ yards per game, running or passing, that would pull eyes onto the MAC. That’s the kind of play that can give power five teams problems and pull some upsets. 2003 Miami beat Northwestern 44-14, and 2016 Western Michigan beat Illinois 34-10. The MAC needs to get a team that isn’t squeaking by low level power five teams. They need to control the game and be the definitively better team. It’s getting harder and harder to build that in the MAC, but people like watching quarterbacks that can hit medium passes consistently.
The Streak is over. As we wax nostalgic on what was and what could have been, which of those MAC triumphs over the Big Ten in the past 16 seasons ranks best in your mind? Or if not best, then your favorite?
James: The definitive one surely has to be Toledo vs. Michigan in 2008, right? That’s the upset I always have in my head when I think of Big Ten/MAC upsets. Even realizing it wasn’t a gangbusters Michigan team, Toledo still quieted down the Big House and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.
As for a personal favorite, Central Michigan vs. Iowa in 2012 will always be a top-five CMU game for me and one of the wilder B1G-MAC upsets in general. It was a back-and-forth contest which saw the Chips take a 23-14 lead into the half before Iowa rallied all the way back to reclaim the lead late in the fourth quarter. CMU scored in a do-or-die situation to on the next possession, but failed on a two-pointer to tie the game. So they had to onside kick for any hope of winning. Not only did they recover it, but Dave Harman nailed a 47-yard field goal at the gun to win it. I was a sophomore at CMU at the time, still getting acquainted with football and this was the first time I could celebrate such an upset victory. It’ll always stick in my heart.
Keith: My favorite was Ohio’s 2012 win over Penn State 24-14. Ohio won the second half 21-0 in route to the victory. Outside the question perhaps but hats off to EMU for winning three straight years and WMU for winning two in one year (2016, beat Northwestern and Illinois).
Drew: Akron beating the eventual Big Ten West Champs Northwestern takes the cake for me. The upset came out of nowhere. The game started like any other Big Ten-MAC matchup. It was 21-3 at halftime and Northwestern had the game under control. Then it got weird. Akron scored 36 second-half points with three defensive touchdowns and some bombs by quarterback Kato Nelson. It was wild, back-and-forth fun that ultimately meant nothing for either team’s season.
Which Week 4 matchup intrigues you the most and why?
James: A bit of a strange one here, but I’ve got Akron vs. Buffalo as my game of intrigue. These are two teams with a combined one victory on the season, and also two teams who have been competitive in every one of their contests. Cole Snyder and DJ Irons are two of the better QB prospects in the league to boot. This is a must-win game for both sides; Akron could show notable growth with a win here, while a Buffalo win would show a survival instinct and allow them a leg up in the MAC East race over other teams.
Keith: I’m looking forward to the intrigue that is about to play out at InfoCision Stadium this week when Buffalo heads to Akron. The Zips had a tough non-conference but has shown signs of improvement and nearly knocked off Indiana. Will the Zips start to put it together? Also, if the Bulls lose this week they drop to 0-5 and the seat starts to get hot for the head coach.
Drew: Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan has serious rock fight potential. Eastern Michigan wants to get into rock fights and Central Michigan can be dragged into one. I think these two teams could end up next to each other in the standings, and whoever is on top might be decided right here.