Mid-American Conference 2023 preview
While there has been massive realignment in college football in recent years, the Mid-American Conference has remained incredibly stable. The current 12 football teams have all been members since 1998, when Buffalo joined. The last to leave was Marshall in 2005.
Toledo beat Ohio 17-7 in the MAC Championship Game last December and is the +170 favorite to repeat at DraftKings Sportsbook. Ohio is the favorite to repeat in the East Division and is the +280 second choice to win the annual title game in Detroit. Other top contenders appear to be Buffalo (+650), Eastern Michigan (+800) and Miami (OH) (+850).
The next tier with some upside is Northern Illinois (+1600), Central Michigan (+1800) and Bowling Green (+2200). Remember that even though Toledo was expected to contend for the MAC title last year, Ball State won it at 10-1 in 2022 (predicted in the VSiN College Football Betting Guide), and Northern Illinois the year before that in 2021, despite only having an Over/Under season win total of 4 after going 0-6 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The even longer shots are Ball State (30-1), Akron (35-1), Western Michigan (50-1) and Kent State (150-1).
Being a Group of Five conference (aka “mid-major”) in the transfer portal/NIL era, the MAC loses a lot of top talent to Power Five programs. But the upside is that the conference does attract some players that fall through the cracks at the big schools and move to the MAC to increase their playing time and exposure.
Of course, one of the best things about betting on the Mid-American Conference is the midweek primetime “MACtion” games on ESPN in November, when teams get the rare chance to play in front of a national audience.
The second year of head coach Tim Albin’s tenure was a huge success. The Bobcats won seven more games than in 2021, as they went 9-3 in the regular season and 7-1 in the MAC to win the East Division. Ohio did lose the MAC Championship Game to Toledo, 17-7, but then rallied for a 30-27 overtime win over Wyoming in the Arizona Bowl. Expectations are high this year with 15 returning starters, assuming QB Kurtis Rourke is able to play after his ACL tear late last season.
Rourke was the 2022 MAC Offensive Player of the Year as he was 244 for 353 for 3,256 yards and 25 TDs with just four INTs in 11 games, while adding another 249 rushing yards. Even if Rourke doesn’t return in time, the offense should be in good hands with backup CJ Harris, who filled in admirably down the stretch, including winning Arizona Bowl MVP honors for leading the comeback victory.
Leading rusher Sieh Bangura (1,078 yards, 13 rushing TDs) also returns after earning MAC Freshman of the Year Honors. In addition to taking pressure off the QBs with the ground game, Bangura also contributed to the air attack with 27 catches for 226 yards and two more TDs. But the cupboard isn’t empty in the receiving corps, led by senior WR Sam Wiglusz (74 receptions, 883 yards). Oft-injured WR Tyler Walton’s return adds more depth, as well as JUCO transfer Jailen Hammer.
The offensive line is a concern with no all-conference candidates, but the Bobcats have so much talent in the so-called skilled positions that they should be able to overcome that as long as the line doesn’t commit too many penalties.
It’s hard to knock a defense after a team wins nine games and its division, but the fact is the Ohio offense definitely carried the defense last season. The “stop unit” allowed 28.3 points per game and a MAC-worst 6.2 yards per play, so it was up to the offense to win several shootouts.
However, the defense did come up with some stops when needed, so there is hope for improvement. The defensive line is a weakness, with just DE Vonnie Watkins returning. The strength of the D is probably the linebacking corps, led by Keye Thompson and Bryce Houston, while the secondary has the right to improve and adds Walter Reynolds, who had five INTs for Holy Cross last year.
As the defending division champs, Ohio should definitely battle Miami (OH) for MAC East supremacy. They have a tough road opener on Aug. 26 as 3.5-point underdogs at San Diego State and also face Florida Atlantic (which Ohio beat 41-38 last year) and Iowa State (which pummeled Ohio 43-10 last year), but if they can get just one win from those three games, they’ll be in great shape to go Over their win total of 7.5 as they get their biggest hurdle to the East tiel, Miami (OH), at home on October 28 and don't have to face MAC West favorite Toledo, at least not before the MAC title game again.
Pick: Over 7.5
Miami (OH) Redhawks
Miami had high hopes heading into last season with QB Brett Gabbert, the conference’s Freshman of the Year in 2019, expected to lead the RedHawks back to MAC prominence. However, he suffered an upper-body injury in the season-opening loss to Kentucky and only played in three more games before being shelved for the season. Still, there was enough talent that the team, led by the defense, went 6-6 and earned a bid to the Bahamas Bowl, which it lost 24-20 to UAB. With a healthy Gabbert, the RedHawks should challenge Ohio for the MAC East title.
Without Gabbert, the younger brother of NFL QB Blaine Gabbert, Miami’s offense finished 11th in the MAC in scoring. He only threw four TDs last season with no interceptions, so the hope is he returns to the form that saw him throw for 2,648 yards in 2021 with 26 TDs and just six INTs.
Backup QB Aveon Smith led the RedHawks with 533 rushing yards and six rushing TDs last year, but second-leading rusher Keyon Mozee (471 yards, two TDs) could see more of a role. Kevin Davis (19 catches) gives Gabbert an option out of the backfield. Coach Chuck Martin also picked up former South Carolina RB Rashad Amos in the transfer portal.
The receiving corps also has to work in new faces, with junior TE Jack Coldiron (24 catches, 286 yards) being the top returning target. We’ll see who steps up from the newcomers. The top options look like former Notre Dame WR Joe Wilkins Jr. (two TDs in limited play, especially shortened by injury in 2021) and Southeastern Louisiana slot receiver Gage Larvadain (96 catches, 1,252 yards, seven TDs).
The defense stepped up to fill in for the loss of the RedHawks' star QB, allowing a MAC-low 22.6 points per game to keep Miami in nearly every game.
The RedHawks will have to replace leading tackler Ryan McWood, who they lost to graduation after seven years in the program. But Matthew Salopek (124 total tackles) and Dominic Nardone are expected to fill that role in the linebacking unit, with defensive ends Corey Suttle (six sacks) and Caiden Woullard (four sacks) adding experience on the defensive front. They lost safety John Saunders Jr. in the transfer portal to Mississippi, but Jacquez Warren (two INTs) and Ambe’ Caldwell return, while Miami will need their young cornerbacks to be quick studies.
A lot of MAC schools have tough opening games playing Big Ten teams in their nonconference season lid-lifters, but Miami (OH) might have the toughest of all with a game against its namesake, Miami (FL). DraftKings has the Hurricanes listed as 17.5-point home favorites. The RedHawks also face a tough Cincinnati program but should pick up wins over Massachusetts and Delaware State before the MAC season begins. Conference wins should come against Kent State, Bowling Green Akron and Ball State. Miami will get Toledo and Buffalo at home, so if they can pick up a win in one of those games, they should be able to get Over even if they’re unable to win at Ohio on October 28 in a game that should decide the MAC East. If you think they win that game, you might want to grab Miami now at +850 to win the MAC, as they’d probably be heading to the conference championship game.
Pick: Over 6.5
The Bulls were an incredibly streaky team in 2021 as they started with three straight losses to Maryland, Holy Cross and Coastal Caroline, then won five in a row over Eastern Michigan, Miami (OH), Bowling Green, Massachusetts and eventual Mac champion Toledo (their highlight of the year). Then, they lost three straight to Ohio, Central Michigan and Kent State (the low point) before beating Akron to get bowl-eligible at 6-6 and beat Georgia Southern 23-21 in the Camelia Bowl.
Quarterback Cole Snyder threw for 3,030 yards with 18 TDs and eight INTs, as the Bulls averaged 28.5 points per game. He has a solid line in front of him led by All-MAC left guard Gabe Wallace.
The running game is in strong hands (and legs) with Ron Cook Jr. and Mike Washington both returning after running for 600 or more yards last season and being part of the passing game.
The rest of the receiving corps needs to step up as Justin Marshall and Quian Williams (both caught more than 60 passes last year) ran out of eligibility, and Jamari Gassett left in the transfer portal for Florida A&M. Fifth-year senior Marlyn Johnson is the top returnee with just 17 catches for 133 yards last season. A promising red-shirt freshman is Nik McMillian, who caught four passes for 134 in the spring game.
Buffalo’s “stop unit” was anything but in 2021 and needs to improve after allowing 26.7 points per game. The Bulls allowed just seven points to lowly Bowling Green and UMass but were pretty much lit up by everyone else to keep the team from reaching its potential.
Linebackers Shaun Dolac (147 total tackles, 4.5 sacks) and safety Marcus Fuqua (seven INTs) were first-team All-MAC, so they have something to build around. The defensive front also has some solid returnees—Daymond Williams (4.5 sacks) and Jaylon Bass, George Wolo and CJ Bazile played all 13 games last year. The other positions need help with their depth, though coach Maurice Linquist was very active in the transfer portal this offseason.
It’s not often I would recommend Over season win totals for the top three teams in a division, but there is a clear divide between the haves and have-nots in the MAC East as Buffalo should contend with Ohio and Miami (OH) for the division crown. I have the Bulls as a cut below the other two, though they do get to host Ohio on November 7 before having to visit Miami (OH) the following week. They might need to do better than 1-3 from a tough nonconference schedule of Wisconsin, Fordham, Liberty and Louisiana, but they should be able to rack up enough wins against the MAC also-rans to get Over their number if they can just pull an upset along the way.
Pick: Over 6.5
Bowling Green Falcons
Bowling Green had an up-and-down season in 2021 and fittingly ended 6-6, though the Falcons did become bowl-eligible after an upset of eventual MAC champion Ohio in the next-to-last regular season game before losing 24-19 in the Quick Lane Bowl. The prospects for 2022 aren’t as high as they lost starting QB Matt McDonald to graduation and several players in the transfer portal while having a couple of years of lowly-rated recruiting classes.
Backup QB Camden Orth (three TD passes, one rushing TD) did play in 10 games last year, including throwing for 191 yards in the bowl loss, but he’s in a battle with former Missouri and Indiana starter Connor Bazelak (more than 7,000 passing yards and 36 TDs in 29 starts over four seasons). Coach Scot Loeffler has a tough call and said the competition will continue into the fall.
Sophomore RB Terion Stewart led BGSU with 412 rushing yards in 2021 but missed last season with personal issues. His return should help the running game, though the major concern is the offensive line, which did add some transfers from Power Five conferences but also had several returnees nursing injuries during spring practice.
Tyrone Broden (32 catches, 506 yards, seven TDs) transferred to Arkansas, but the Falcons return top receiver Odieu Hiliare (58 catches, 747 yards, six TDs) and is also deep at tight end, so there is some talent to improve on last year’s 23.5 points per game (ranked No. 97) if the offensive line develops.
The defense allowed a whopping 32.5 points per game last season (ranked No. 113). There was a silver lining as the Falcons had a school-record-tying 38 sacks and were tied for No. 13 in FBS. However, that was with Karl Brooks (10 sacks last season and 27.5 to rank No. 3 in BGSU history), and he’s off to the NFL after being selected in the sixth round by the Packers. The best returning lineman is Anthony Hawkins, but he’s a nose guard and not as much of a threat to get to the QB.
Linebacker Demetrius Hardamon is the leading returnee with six sacks, but the Falcons have several more holes to fill. One interesting returnee is Davon Ferguson, who transferred to Georgia Southern but returned to BGSU. That would help, along with JUCO transfer Marquette Harris at linebacker and returnee Brock Horne (49 total tackles, two sacks).
Bowling Green won six games last season, but it’s hard to see it get back to bowl eligibility this year. The nonconference slate has just one winnable game against Eastern Illinois, as the Falcons have to visit Liberty, Michigan (at the Big House) and Georgia Tech. It’s hard to find MAC wins with Ohio, Miami (OH), Buffalo and Toledo on the schedule. They would need to sweep the other also-rans (Akron, Ball State, Kent State and Western Michigan) to get close to their season win total.
Pick: Under 4.5
Akron obviously had an atrocious 2022 season at 2-12 with a -13 turnover margin (ranked No. 128 in the nation) and only wins against St. Francis (Pa.) and a down Northern Illinois team. There is a little hope for improvement with coach Joe Moorhead (Oregon, Mississippi State, Penn State, etc.) entering his second season with the program as he continues to add players to run his offense. However, that might not matter if the defense doesn’t improve on its 33.5 points allowed average.
DJ Irons showed improvement under Moorhead’s direction, throwing for 2,606 yards and 10 TDs while adding another 314 yards and four TDs on the ground, but he did miss spring drills with injuries. Jeff Undercuffler Jr. (791 passing yards, five TDs, five INTs) took the spring snaps, so we’ll see who starts in the fall.
No matter who’s running Moorhead’s offense, Akron surprisingly ranked No. 18 in the nation last season, though not too surprising since the Zips were almost always playing from behind. That also led Moorhead to try to improve a running game that averaged just 89.6 yards per game (last in the MAC and No. 125 in the country). They might have found their running back in Lorenzo Lingard Jr., formerly of Miami (FL) and Florida (Florida Player of the Year in 2017), or perhaps Drake Anderson, formerly of Northwestern and Arizona.
Last year, LSU transfer Alex Adams filled the stat sheet with 63 catches for 856 yards and nine TDs to be named All-MAC. It looks like his running mate will be Dakota Thomas, a transfer from Western Kentucky (another pass-happy program), who impressed during spring practice.
The Zips lost 20 players to the transfer portal, but no departure was as surprising as All-MAC linebacker Bubba Arslanian announcing after spring practice that he was passing up his final year of eligibility. That’s a huge loss for a defense that already allowed 33.5 points a game last season (No. 1117 in the nation) and 406.2 yards per game (No. 91).
After all the departures, safety Nate Thompson is the leading returning tackler (73 last year) and linebacker Antavious Fish is the leading returning sacker (just two). Moorhead’s reputation as a developer of NFL talent (albeit on the offensive side of the ball) did bring in a decent amount of help in the transfer portal. Division II’s DE Ahmad Rabah (18 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss at American International) and DT Terray Jones (8.5 sacks at Tennessee State and a reported standout at spring practice) could make the most immediate impact.
The Zips’ win total is obviously low, but it’s still hard to find enough winnable games, even with that confidence-win over Northern Illinois late last season. They probably can’t beat Temple, Kentucky or Indiana on their nonconference schedule, and we can’t say they’re a lock versus an FCS program like Morgan State. (We’re sure they see Akron as a winnable game.) And it would also probably take a sweep of other MAC also-rans (Bowling Green and Kent State) to even sniff the Over on its win total.
Pick: Under 3.5
Kent State Golden Flashes
Kent went 5-7 last season, falling just short of bowl eligibility, so there was some talent. However, all four first-team All-MAC players left via the transfer portal, as well as three second-teamers and two third-teamers. We haven’t seen an exodus like this since, well, Exodus. And then, head coach Sean Lewis left to be Deion Sanders’ offensive coordinator at Colorado. In fact, our VSiN colleague Steve Makinen points out that the Golden Flashes have the fewest returning starters in the nation at four, including none on offense.
Quarterback Collin Schlee threw for 2,109 yards last season with 13 TDs and just five INTs, but he left for UCLA. Tommy Ulatowski appeared to be the front-runner after spring practice, but the competition reportedly remains open.
One bright spot for Kent State late season was the running game, which averaged 202.1 rushing yards per game (No. 22 in the nation, rare for a team with a losing record). Marquez Cooper led the team with 1,326 rushing yards and 13 TDs, but since we know there are no returning starters, we know he transferred (to MAC rival Ball State). There is hope, however, with Xavier Williams (1,431 career yards) returning after missing last season, plus Kansas transfer Ky Thomas (826 yards, six TDs in 2021 at Minnesota).
The receiving cupboard is even more empty as five pass-catchers left the program, led by All-MAC WR Devontez Walker (North Carolina). The top returnee is Trell Harris (13 catches, 136 yards, one TD), with first-year coach Kenni Burns trying to find more replacements.
The defense, which was middle-of-the-road last season, allowed 29 points per game (ranked No. 89) but was just as decimated by the transfer portal.
At least the defense has more players that played supporting roles or earned starts later last season, led by defensive tackle CJ West (4.5 tackles for loss), linebackers Khalib Johns (four sacks) and Khali Saunders (1.5 sacks), plus cornerback DJ Miller Jr. (four passes defended).
First things first, remember that we’re required to make an Over/Under season win total with each team preview, but that doesn’t mean we’re actually betting it. There’s plenty of other betting action to be had this college football season to give any thought on whether Kent State goes Over or Under the insanely low betting total of 2.5 wins. Having said that, we still have to think the Under is more likely to hit with the program basically starting from scratch. If you think you see a win or two on Kent’s schedule, you’re probably better off betting the single-game moneyline(s).
Pick: Under 2.5
DraftKings has Toledo as the +170 favorite to repeat as MAC champions after going 7-5 last year (5-3 in the MAC West) during the regular season, then defeating Ohio 17-7 in the conference title game and beating Liberty 21-19 in the Liberty Bowl. In seven years under coach Jason Candle, Toledo is 54-32 (62.8%) and looks poised to continue that success with 16 returning starters.
The Rockets averaged 31.3 points per game (No. 45 in the nation) last season, led by second-team All-MAC QB DeQuan Finn (2,269 passing yards, 23 TD passes, 632 rushing yards, nine rushing TDs), who is just a junior. He is protected by a strong offensive line led by All-MAC first-teamer Nick Rosi with other returning starters in center Devan Rogers and guards Vinny Sciury and Kendall Major, along with incoming transfers Rod Orr (Florida State) and David Nwaogwugwu (Rutgers).
There are also plenty of other returning skill position players, with leading rusher Jacquez Stuart (770 yards, four TDs) and leading receiver Jerjuan Newton (53 catches, 830 yards, nine TDs), who was second-team all-MAC. Senior Devin Maddox added 39 receptions and has more than 100 in his career at Toledo.
The defense also did its part last year, allowing 25.1 points per game. That doesn’t sound too great (Remember, that stat is skewed by the 77 points the Rockets allowed to Ohio State.), but it was good enough for a MAC defense when the offense averages more than 30 points per game.
Four first-team all-MAC defenders return in linebacker Dallas Gant (116 total tackles), cornerback Quinyon Mitchell (led the nation with 25 passes defended) and safeties Nate Bauer (61 total tackles, two INTs) and Maxen Hook (82 total tackles, two INTs).
Senior Terrance Taylor wasn’t all-MAC last season, as he played just three games due to injuries, but he’s expected to lead the pass rush along with Adrian Woliver (4.5 sacks).
Being the defending conference champion with heightened expectations comes an inflated Over/Under season win total at nine games. Don’t forget the Rockets only went 7-5 last season despite winning the MAC, and they’re going to have a target on their back. They also open the season as 11-point road dogs at Illinois, and it’s going to be tough to get to the 10 wins needed to win the Over bet. Eight wins looks more likely (or nine for the push).
Pick: Under 9
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Eastern Michigan had a very successful 8-4 regular season in 2022 and went 5-3 to tie for first in the MAC West, but they lost the tiebreaker due to their 27-24 loss against Toledo. The Eagles went on to beat San Jose State 41-27 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Respected coach Chris Creighton has plenty to continue that momentum with 11 returning starters, though QB isn’t one of the positions.
Troy transfer Taylor Powell threw for 2,111 yards last season and 16 TDs, but he’s gone. Austin Smith is expected to take over after starting four games last year and coming off the bench to upset Arizona State. Smith threw for 774 yards and added 255 more rushing yards, as he’s more of a dual threat than Powell and could actually improve the offense.
No matter who is under center, the Eagles’ offense will likely be led by former Iowa RB Samson Evans, who carried the load for 1,166 yards and 15 TDs last season, with Jaylon Jackson (13 receptions) expected to be used as the “change-of-pace” back. The right side of the line returns with G Alex Howie and T Brian Dooley.
The top returning receiver is third-team All-MAC WR Tanner Knue (45 catches, 632 yards, nine TDs), but EMU needs to replace graduated Hassan Beydoun and Dylan Drummond (82 combined receptions for nearly 1,000 yards) Former Indiana WR Javon Swinton could fill one of those roles, while WR Hamze El-Zayat is a graduate student at EMU who was a three-year starter at Fordham and caught a 58-yard pass from Smith in the spring game.
The Eagles’ defense allowed 28.5 points per game last season and caused the offense to have to win a lot of shootouts, but the defense helped by leading the MAC with 13 INTs (paced by three by rover Joshua Scott). Punter Mitchell Tomasek also helped the D by leading the conference with a 44.1-yard average.
EMU suffered a huge loss with the graduation of Jose Ramirez, last year’s MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Ramirez had a school-record 12 sacks (including a single-game, school-record four vs. Western Michigan) on the way to being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April. No one returns with more than 1.5 sacks. DT Peyton Price is the best returning defensive lineman. Chase Kline (team-leading 91 total tackles) and Joe Sparacio (89 tackles) lead the linebacking corps, while the ball-hawking secondary is very deep.
Eastern Michigan has a chance to get off to a great start with a soft nonconference schedule. The toughest test is the Big Ten’s Minnesota. But don’t forget, the Eagles shocked the Pac-12’s Arizona State last September, which helped lead to Herman Edwards losing his job. Their toughest MAC road games are probably not until November at Toledo and at Buffalo, but by then, they might already be over their win total of 7. And if Smith continues to develop, they could be playing for the MAC East title in Toledo.
Pick: Over 7
Northern Illinois Huskies
Northern Illinois has been among the MAC’s most dominant programs since the turn of the century and especially in the last dozen years, with five conference championships in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2021. They have also gone to bowls games an even dozen times since 2004, including the 2013 Orange Bowl after the 2012 season when they were No. 15 in the BCS Standings at the end of the regular season. The program stayed competitive for the rest of the last decade until the pandemic shortened 2020 season when the Huskies went 0-6. They then bounced back with the shocking 2021 MAC title before taking a step back in an injury-riddled last year at 3-9. Which NIU team do we get this season?
The Huskies averaged only 182.7 yards passing in 2022 (ranked 114th in the nation). Of course, it was a devastating loss when former Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi, who led NIU to the 2021 MAC title, suffered a knee injury in the third game of the season. He was off to a pretty good start, completing 66.7% of his passes for 645 yards and five TDs with just one INT. His replacements threw just 12 TDs the rest of the season with 13 INTs.
Lombardi’s return alone (he threw for 2,597 yards in 2021 with 15 TD passes and added 473 rushing yards and another nine TDs) would give NIU fans hope for a return to the top of the MAC, but the Huskies also get back 2021 second-team All-MAC WR Trayvon Rudolph (51 receptions, 892 yards, 17.5 yards-per-catch average, seven TDs), who missed all of last season. Leading receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz (26 catches, 432 yards, six TDs) also returns, and the Huskies added 6-4 WR Davis Patterson, who had 42 catches for 661 yards and five TDs the last two years at James Madison and Notre Dame College (OH).
More good news: The running game, which was the main reason for the 2021 MAC title, still averaged 190.4 yards per game last year (No. 34 in the nation), even without the threat of Lombardi. In addition, the entire starting line is back in addition to RB Antario Brown (680 rushing yards, seven TDs).
During NIU’s success early this century, the defense was often the team’s calling card, but that wasn’t the case in the title run of 2021 when the offense had a lot of shootouts, and it was worse last season.
The defense was strong up front and was No. 52 in rush defense, but ranked No. 100 against the pass and allowed a whopping 32.8 points per game (No. 114). Defensive tackles Devonte O’Malley and James Ester earned all-MAC recognition for clogging the middle, while O’Malley also tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks.
Two of the top four tacklers from last season return in safety CJ Brown and linebacker Jaden Dolphin. No. 2 tackler Daveren Rayner transferred to Kentucky, and CB Eric Rogers left for Rutgers, but coach Thomas Hammock added some transfers to fill some holes, including LBs Keshon Artis (Virginia Tech) and Tyler Jackson (Lamar), among others.
NIU coach Hammock has already shown the ability to rebuild quickly after a poor season, and that should happen again as long as the Huskies can avoid major injuries, unlike last year. NIU opens as 10.5-point road underdogs at Boston College in the season opener and then has other nonconference games against Southern Illinois, Nebraska and Tulsa. A 2-2 start would have them well on the way to winning above their low total of 5.5, but a 1-3 start wouldn't be a death knell as they have several winnable games on the MAC schedule with Akron, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Western Michigan and Kent State, though they do get a tough draw with their MAC opener on the road at conference favorite Toledo.
Pick: Over 5.5
Central Michigan Chippewas
Just like Northern Illinois, who Central Michigan tied for the MAC West Division title in 2021 but lost the tiebreaker, 2022 was a disappointment as the Chippewas fell to 4-8 (3-5 in the MAC West) to fall short of bowl eligibility a season after beating Washington State in the Sun Bowl. Coach Jim McElwain (24-21 at CMU) is well-respected and expected to get the program back in MAC contention, but a lack of overall talent at the skill positions makes that look unlikely this season.
Central Michigan lost all-MAC wide receivers Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan after the 2021 season and are still trying to recover. Dallas Dixon, who was expected to step in, had his season cut short by injuries and only caught six passes for 96 yards in two games. The leading returning receiver this season is Jalen McGaughy, with just 20 catches for 313 yards and two TDs.
It didn’t help that the QBs battling for the starting job are dual-threats, but their regarded more as runners than passers: Jase Bauer (435 passing yards, 312 rushing yards last season) and Bert Emanuel Jr. (eight passing yards and no TD passes, 496 rushing yards with seven TDs). Marion Lukes is the leading returning rusher with just 323 yards last year and three TDs.
Reason for hope comes from a strong offensive line led by third-team all-MAC guard Deiyantei Powell-Woods, plus both tackles return in Davis Heinzen and Brayden Swartout.
If the Chippewas get back to bowl eligibility and/or contend for the MAC title. It’ll probably be because of their defense. CMU was 69th against the run and 57th against the pass, though it has to do better with takeaways, as the Chippewas only had six fumble recoveries and four INTs all last season.
The top defensive players are two–time, first-team All-MAC defensive tackle Robi Stuart and first-team All-MAC cornerback Donte Kent while safety De’Javion Stepney was third-team. Leading tackler Kyle Moretti (94 total tackles, three sacks) also returns at linebacker, as do the No. 2 and No. 3 tacklers in safety Trey Jones and LB Justin Whiteside, so there is a solid core for McElwain to work around.
Central Michigan has a tough nonconference schedule, including opening as a 14.5-point underdog at Michigan State on Friday, September 1. The Chippewas also have a September 16 date at Notre Dame. However, they had a relatively soft early MAC schedule, so if whoever emerges at QB can improve during the season and the offense can do its share along with the defense, CMU could already be above their win total of 5.5 by the time it closes the regular season at MAC division favorites Ohio and Toledo on November 15 and 24, respectively.
Pick: Over 5.5
Ball State Cardinals
There was hope for David Letterman’s alma mater to return to its 2020 MAC-winning form, but Ball State had its second straight losing season at 5-7 last year (3-5 in the MAC West) despite starting 2-1 in conference play. The Cardinals went 1-4 down the stretch with the only win over lowly Kent State, including losing the last three games with a chance to become bowl-eligible. Now, they have to rebuild even more after suffering big losses in the transfer portal.
Nearly every MAC team loses talented players to the Power Five, but Ball State was hit harder than most as it lost QB John Paddock (2,719 passing yards last season. 18 TDs) to Illinois and RB Carson Steele (1,556 rushing yards, 14 TDs) to UCLA. At least coach Mike Neu was able to get Marquez Cooper (1,331 yards, 13 TDs, second to Steele in the MAC) from Kent State.
The QB job is reportedly still open with last year’s backup, Kiael Kelly (who only threw one pass all season), trying to hold off transfer Layne Hatcher, who has 10,090 career passing yards at Arkansas State and Texas State after red-shirting his freshman year at Alabama.
The offensive line returns three starters, and the Cardinals have two solid tight ends in Brady Hunt and Tanner Koziol (combined for 81 catches, 871 yards, and 12 TDs last season), but the wide receiving corps is inexperienced, with the top returnee being Nick Presley (six catches, 35 yards).
Ball State’s pass defense allowed just 216.1 yards per game (ranked No. 49 in the nation) to keep the Cardinals in most games, but they lost three defensive backs — Nic Jones, AJ Uzodinma and Jaquan Amos — to the NFL Draft that combined for 167 tackles, six INTs and 24 pass deflections. Those will be hard to replace, and Neu was still searching for answers after spring ball.
The front seven is now stronger, led by linebackers Clayton Coll (team-leading 110 total tackles) and Cole Pearce (85 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, team-leading five sacks). Lineman Tavion Woodard and Sidney Houston Jr. tied for second on the team with four sacks.
The Cardinals have a brutal start to the season with road games at two SEC teams, opening as 26.5-point road underdogs at Kentucky and then traveling to defending national champion Georgia. If they’re not totally run over, they have a chance to bounce back against Indiana State and Georgia Southern. Ball State’s upside this season is probably to be a middle-of-the-road MAC team, but with the Over/Under season win total set so low at 4.5 wins, the play is on the Over with enough winnable games on the schedule, especially Western Michigan, Bowling Green and Kent State. And if the QB situation is resolved, another upset or two is possible.
Pick: Over 4.5
Western Michigan Broncos
Coach Tim Lester suffered his first losing season at Western Michigan last year at 5-7 (4-4 in the MAC West) and lost his job, replaced by Lance Taylor, who has a big rebuilding job ahead of him. Help could be on the way with a QB who transferred as a graduate student after spring drills were completed, but the transfer portal also left a lot of holes.
Western Michigan’s QB room got more crowded. Jack Salopek, Treyson Bourguet and Mareyohn Hrabowski, who all took snaps last year, were battling for the starting job during spring drills. After that was over without first-year coach Lance Taylor announcing a decision, Hayden Wolff transferred from Old Dominion after throwing for 2,908 yards last season and 18 TDs with six INTs.
The Broncos’ offense, which averaged only 19.0 points a game last season (ranked No. 118 in the nation), is also trying to replace top RB Sean Tyler (1,027 yards, seven TDs) and leading WR Corey Crooms (57 catches, 814 yards, five TDs), who both transferred to Minnesota. There’s also a battle at RB between last year’s backup, Zahir Abdus-Salaam (just 100 yards, no TDs) and Virginia Tech transfer Keshawn King (6.0 average per carry last season).
Jehlani Galloway (28 catches, 344 yards) and Anthony Sambucci (20 catches, 276 yards) are the leading returning receivers.
The Western Michigan defense was better than the offense last season, but not by a lot, as it still allowed 24.1 points per game. But it also has to overcome some losses as Ryan Selig transferred to Minnesota; overall, four players who earned All-MAC honors are gone.
The leading returning tackler is cornerback Keni-H Lovely (48 tackles, one sack, four INTs, one TD), who was third-team All-MAC. The only other returning starter is defensive end Marshawn Kneeland (37 tackles, 1.5 sacks), but several players saw significant time as backups that are expected to move into starting roles.
The Broncos open against St. Francis (PA), but then have a brutal rest of the nonconference schedule at Syracuse, Iowa and at Mississippi State. They also have to open MAC play on the road against defending conference champ and this year’s favorite, Toledo. Most of their other tougher games are also on the road (at Ohio, Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois). It’s hard to find enough wins unless everything goes right in Lester’s first season.
Pick: Under 4.5