MAC college football preview: Best bets, live underdogs

THE FAVORITE: BUFFALO

Buffalo and Ohio are the 3-1 co-favorites in the MAC championship game future book at the Westgate SuperBook, but we give the edge to the Bulls. Why? Because of an offense led by running back Jaret Patterson (1,799 yards rushing and 18 TDs last year) and a defense that returns seven starters and allowed just 21.3 points per game. No other team is as balanced as Buffalo, but the Bulls will have to hold off defending MAC champion Miami (Ohio) and Ohio to claim the East Division and get to the MAC title game. Toledo and Central Michigan, the top teams in the West, are 6-1 to win the conference title game, as they appear to be a cut below.

 

LIVE DOG: BALL STATE

The Cardinals are 10-1 to win the championship, and that looks like good betting value. Ball State led the MAC with 463 yards and 35 points per game last season, and expect more of the same. Quarterback Drew Plitt and the offense should be able to keep up with anyone on the conference-only schedule against a lot of defensively challenged teams. The Cardinals should also be worth a play anytime as underdogs or short favorites.

 

DEAD MONEY: AKRON

It’s hard to think of any MAC team as a dead dog, since the league’s motto should be: “Any team can beat any other team on any given Saturday … or Tuesday … or Wednesday.” But the Zips are the exception to the rule. They went 0-12 SU last year and an even more embarrassing — considering how many points they were usually getting — 1-11 ATS. Bet on the ZIps at your own risk.

 

BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD

All six MAC openers, Nov. 4

MACtion makes its 2020 debut in a big way as all 12 teams open Wednesday night, Nov. 4, in six interdivision games before the teams play a five-game intradivision schedule. The best game will probably be Ohio at Central Michigan.

Miami (Ohio) at Buffalo, Nov. 10

Defending MAC champ Miami (Ohio) visits Buffalo, this year’s favorite, to highlight a Tuesday night MACtion tripleheader. Another tripleheader follows the next night.

 

Ball State at Toledo, Nov. 28

MAC West favorite Toledo hosts our dark horse, Ball State, in what shapes up as part of a mini-round-robin tournament for the West title the last three weeks of the season. Ball State visits Central Michigan the next Saturday before Toledo hosts Central Michigan on Dec. 12.

 

MAC East

 

Akron

 

Akron played for the MAC championship in 2017. Just two years later, the Zips were the only winless FBS team. Akron was favored in just one game last year and lost that contest to UMass 37-29. QB Kato Nelson returns for his senior season, but his offensive line was a disaster last year. The Zips allowed an FBS-worst 58 sacks, and the running game averaged only 1.7 yards per attempt. If Nelson has enough time to throw, the wide receivers should be a strength. Leading receiver Nate Stewart (529 yards and three touchdowns) is back, and Jonah Morris was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Morris was the Zips’ third-leading receiver in 2018. Jeremiah Knight and Michael Mathison each had 31 receptions a year ago. Six defensive starters return, but the Zips allowed over 36 points per game and lost only one conference game by single digits. Akron hosts Bowling Green on Dec. 5 in what will likely be a matchup of 0-4 teams. If the Zips win, 2020 will be an improvement from 2019.

 

Bowling Green

 

Bowling Green won the MAC championship in 2015, and the Falcons have not won more than four games in a season since. Coach Dino Babers departed for Syracuse in 2015. Mike Jenks replaced Babers, went 9-27 and was fired after the 2018 season. Last year, the first under Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green went 3-9 with two MAC wins. The Falcons will start Boston College transfer Matt McDonald at quarterback. His top target will be TE Quintin Morris, who led Bowling Green with 55 receptions, 649 yards and four receiving touchdowns. The Falcons return six starters on defense but lost four of their top six tacklers. Bowling Green allowed 38.6 points per game and over 7 yards per snap. After bringing in the second-best recruiting class in the MAC, according to 247 Sports, expect a lot of freshmen to get playing time as Loeffler rebuilds. The Falcons upset Toledo last year and open the season Nov. 4 at Toledo. Bowling Green could be an underdog in all six games. The lone toss-up will be Dec. 5 at Akron.

 

Buffalo

 

Lance Leipold enters his sixth year as Buffalo’s coach after leading Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater to six national championships in eight years. The Bulls are the favorites in the MAC East after posting back-to-back winning seasons. Buffalo has one of the best running-back duos in the country. Jaret Patterson ran for 1,799 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. In the regular-season finale, Patterson had 298 yards on the ground and scored six times. Kevin Marks is Patterson’s backup. Marks rushed for 1,035 yards and eight touchdowns. Matt Myers began last season as the starting quarterback but was lost for the season due to an upper-body injury after five games. Kyle Vantrease replaced him and completed 58% of his passes and threw eight TD passes. Both are back. Defensively, the Bulls’ seven returning starters include Malcolm Koonce and Taylor Riggins, who had nine and 8.5 sacks, respectively. Buffalo allowed just 21.3 ppg in 2019. The Bulls host defending MAC champion Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 10 and visit Ohio on Dec. 5. The RedHawks and Bobcats are the biggest threats to Buffalo in the MAC East. With two dominant running backs and productive edge rushers, the Bulls should be playing for the MAC championship for the second time in three years.

 

Kent State

 

Kent State won its final three regular-season games in 2019 and qualified for its first bowl since 2012. In the Frisco Bowl, QB Dustin Crum outdueled future first-round pick Jordan Love as the Golden Flashes beat Utah State 51-41. Crum threw for 289 yards, rushed for 147 yards and accounted for three touchdowns. He is back for his senior season and is likely the top quarterback in the MAC. Crum rushed for 707 yards and threw 20 touchdown passes with just two interceptions last season. His top target, WR Isaiah McKoy, returns. McKoy led the Golden Flashes with 872 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Kent State has three starters back on the offensive line and added Kansas State transfer Bill Kuduk. The defense returns six starters but allowed 244 yards per game on the ground. The schedule is backloaded. With Crum at QB, the Golden Flashes have a good chance to start 3-0 against Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green and Akron. We’ll learn whether Kent State can contend for a MAC title Nov. 28 at Buffalo.

 

Miami (Ohio)

 

Chuck Martin left as a Notre Dame assistant to take over a winless Miami program in 2014. In his sixth season, the RedHawks defeated Central Michigan last December to win their first MAC title since 2010. Miami had some good fortune in 2019, finishing 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The RedHawks were outgained by 6 yards in MAC games. Miami returns 10 starters on offense, including QB Brett Gabbert, Blaine’s younger brother. Gabbert started all 14 games, completed 55% and threw 11 touchdown passes with eight interceptions. Similar to Buffalo, Miami should rely on a pair of strong running backs. Jaylon Bester rushed for 741 yards and 14 scores in 2019, and Tyre Shelton had 587 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Miami’s top four receivers return. Jack Sorenson was Gabbert’s top target, catching 44 passes for 568 yards and four touchdowns. Miami’s sack leader, Bart Baratti, is gone. But DE Kameron Butler (nine TFL, 5.5 sacks) is back, and the RedHawks’ leading tackler, LB Ryan McWood, will anchor the defense. The secondary should be the strength of Miami’s defense with CB Emmanuel Rugamba (85 tackles, eight pass breakups, INT), FS Sterling Weatherford (98 tackles, 10 pass breakups, INT) and rover Mike Brown (56 tackles, four INTs). Miami’s schedule is challenging from the start. The RedHawks open Nov. 4 with improved Ball State, visit Buffalo on Nov. 10 and host Ohio on Nov. 17. If Miami escapes those three games undefeated, the road back to the MAC championship game should be smooth sailing.

 

Ohio

 

It’s a toss-up between Ohio and Miami for the second-best team in the MAC East. With Ohio QB Nathan Rourke gone, Miami may have a slight edge. Former Nebraska coach Frank Solich is entering his 16th year leading the Bobcats. Ohio has won the MAC East four times under Solich but has never won the MAC championship. Solich’s squads have been very consistent in the win column, however, posting 11 straight bowl-eligible seasons. Replacing Rourke will be the biggest question mark. His younger brother Kurtis seems to be the favorite to win the starting job, but UNLV transfer Armani Rogers could see plenty of snaps. With the contrasting styles of Rourke and Rogers, Solich might use a two-quarterback system. The offensive line lost three All-MAC players in Austen Pleasants, Marques Grimes and Steven Hayes. Leading rusher O’Shaan Allison (869 yards, six TDs) and the Bobcats’ top six receiving targets are back. Defensively, Ohio returns a handful but loses safety Javon Hagan. He led the Bobcats with 102 tackles last season and finished his career with 316 tackles and six interceptions. And two returning starters, LB Dylan Conner and CB Marlin Brooks, opted out of the 2020 season. The uncertainty at quarterback and defensive losses leave the Bobcats slightly behind Miami and Buffalo. The Bobcats open on the road against reigning MAC West champion Central Michigan. Ohio visits Miami on Nov. 17 and hosts Buffalo on Dec. 5.

 

 

 

MAC West

 

Ball State

Ball State, in rural north-central Indiana, is probably best known as the alma mater of former talk-show host David Letterman. However, more people should see more of its games on TV this season and the school could get more well known if it contends for the top of the MAC West, which appears more wide open than the MAC East. Ball State averaged a MAC-best 463 yards and 35 points a game in 2019, and a lot of key players return, including promising senior QB Drew Plitt. The bad news is the defense gave up an average of 425 yards and 31 points a game, leading to a non-bowl season of 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the MAC. But the Cardinals lost their last three games by four or fewer points, so a little improvement from the defense, which includes two All-MAC candidates in CBs Antonio Phillips and Amechi Uzodinma, means Ball State might compete for the MAC West title. Playing just a six-game schedule, Ball State opens Nov. 4 against defending MAC champ Miami (Ohio). It will be a tough game, but it should help Ball State find out where it sits in the MAC pecking order. And even if the Cardinals lose, it won’t count in the MAC West standings. Ball State then gets to start the MAC West part of the schedule against Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois, both projected for the bottom of the division, before key games against division favorite Toledo on Nov. 28 and top contender Central Michigan on Dec. 5.

 

Central Michigan

 

Jim McElwain turned around the program in his first year. His team went 8-6, including 6-2 in the MAC, and won the West title before losing 26-21 to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC championship game. To catch magic for a second straight year, McElwain has to replace graduated QB Quinten Dormady, and redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson appears to be the front-runner. Whoever McElwain chooses will have a top threat in WR Kalil Pimpleton (MAC-leading 82 receptions and 894 yards last season), who is also a punt-return threat. RB Kobe Lewis also returns after a 1,000-yard season. But it might be the defense that gives the Chippewas the best chance to repeat in the West. All-MAC LB Troy Brown is the star of a unit that ranked No. 2 in the league last year and had 30 sacks and 13 interceptions. A strong line also returns, with DT Robi Stuart and DE LaQuan Johnson leading the group. CMU opens Nov. 4 against crossover opponent Ohio and then gets into the MAC West. The schedule-makers look like they’re on to something as the Chippewas’ final two games are Dec. 5 against Ball State and Dec. 12 against Toledo — and those three teams appear to be the top contenders for a berth in the MAC title game.  

 

Eastern Michigan

 

The Eagles have gone bowling three of the last four years, but that will be tough this season. They look like the weakest team in the MAC West. Eastern Michigan opens with a winnable game Nov. 4 against Akron. Then the MAC West schedule starts Nov. 11 against Ball State, Nov. 18 against Toledo and Nov. 25 against Central Michigan, the three teams regarded as the best in the West. Star QB Mike Glass is gone, and it looks like Preston Hutchinson will try to replace him. Hutchinson threw for 357 yards vs. Western Michigan in relief of Glass last season, so he has some upside, though he’s said to be battling with Southern Utah transfer Chris Helbig. But the offense doesn’t figure to offer much help, and the Eagles probably will at least start with a committee of running backs. EMU’s bigger problem is the defense, which allowed 6.1 yards per play and over 30 points per game last year. Just five defensive starters return.

 

Northern Illinois

 

NIU has been the class of the MAC, with five MAC West titles and 12 bowl appearances in the last 16 years, including the 2013 Orange Bowl. But coach Thomas Hammock went 5-7 in his first season in 2019, and it doesn’t look any more promising in 2020, as four starters transferred in the spring. Ross Bowers has the inside track as the starting QB after battling four transfers and two freshmen in training camp. The Huskies have three of their top four receivers back, though that’s not saying much as Cole Tucker led the team with just 38 catches for 531 yards. The backfield is also full of players looking to replace Tre Harbison, who transferred to Charlotte, and the offense also lost center C.J. Perez and tight end Mitchell Brinkman. The defense lost two key linemen as Matt Lorbeck and Jack Heflin transferred to Iowa. Though the all-MAC schedule comprises just six games, it looks like a long season. NIU opens Nov. 4 against MAC East favorite Buffalo and then gets top West contenders Central Michigan on Nov. 11 and Ball State on Nov. 18.

 

Toledo

 

The Rockets were the MAC favorites last year but stumbled to 6-6, 3-5 and were left out of a bowl game for the first time since 2013. Senior QB Eli Peters will probably win the starting job, though he was still in a battle last week with Carter Bradley and Dequan Finn. But the offense starts with All-MAC RB Bryant Koback (1,187 yards last year) and running mate Shakif Seymour (741 yards) behind one of the best lines in the conference. And the line should be even better with the return of All-MAC center Bryce Harris, who missed 2019 with a knee injury. The more pressing concern is a defense that allowed a whopping 6.6 yards per play and 32.2 points per game and has seven starters back. That’s the task for highly regarded co-defensive coordinators Vince Kehres (Division III power Mount Union) and Craig Kuligowski (Miami and Alabama). Toledo will have a chance to jell as it opens Nov. 4 against Bowling Green and then plays Western Michigan on Nov. 11 and Eastern Michigan on Nov. 18 before facing its main MAC West rivals in the second half of the shortened six-game season — Ball State, Northern Illinois and Central Michigan.

 

Western Michigan

 

When trying to figure out the top and bottom teams in the MAC West, the Broncos are the hardest team to play. It’s among the most wide-open divisions in college football, so while we’re leaning toward Western Michigan in the bottom half, don’t be surprised if the Broncos contend. They should roll over non-division Akron in the Nov. 4 opener, but then we’ll know if they’re contenders as they have to face Toledo on Nov. 11 and Central Michigan the next weekend to start the abbreviated MAC West race. Last year Western Michigan looked like it was heading to the MAC title game before a 17-14 loss to Northern Illinois derailed those plans. QB Kaleb Eleby started in 2018 and lost the job to Jon Wassink, but Eleby should regain the role with more experience. Eleby does have a strong offensive line, and his No. 1 target should be Skyy Moore (team-high 51 catches last year, 802 yards, three TDs). The thing that could help elevate the Broncos’ chances is a defense that was No. 2 in the MAC last season and features LB Treshaun Hayward, who could be the top defensive player in the conference, and DE Ali Fayad (6.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss). The MAC isn’t usually known for defense, but if that unit is strong enough to keep the Broncos in games, especially early in the season, it could make them contenders.

 

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