Fresh off of a bowl victory, and with Brett Gabbert back under center, Miami enters the season with plenty of confidence and a few opportunities to pull an upset in September
The Miami RedHawks enter the year coming off of a 7-6 season that can only be described as “what could have been.” Of Miami’s six losses, four of them came by five points or less. If a few plays had gone their way, the RedHawks would have found themselves Detroit for the MAC Championship game. As it stands, year nine of the Chuck Martin era begins with QB Brett Gabbert still under center, which is certainly cause for optimism. On the other side, an unproven defense could cause issues if young talent doesn’t step in to fill the shoes of the departed Sterling Weatherford and the other veteran leaders of the unit.
Regardless of roster construction, a bowl game is always the expectation in Oxford. This years’ non-conference slate will give this young squad a chance to prove themselves in September. The new contributors will have to grow up fast, as Miami visits two Power Five foes over the first month of the season.
Saturday, Sept. 3: Miami @ Kentucky Wildcats
Though traditionally known as a basketball school, and with good reason, Kentucky has become a consistent winner over the last decade under head coach Mark Stoops. Last year saw the Wildcats finish 10-3 (5-3 SEC), with their final victory coming by way of a 20-17 win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. Stoops is now only two wins away from passing Bear Bryant for the all time wins record at the school, and with two 10 win seasons in the last four years, the Wildcats are in the middle of perhaps their most successful stretch of football in program history.
Last year, Penn State transfer QB Will Levis fit perfectly into the Wildcats offense, throwing for 2,826 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing 66% of his passes. Though his 13 interceptions are a bit of a concern, Levis is drawing first round hype for the 2023 NFL Draft. Levis also proved to be adept on the ground, rushing for 376 yards and nine scores. He presents a true dual threat that will gave the RedHawks defense all they can handle.
Joining Levis in the backfield will be senior running back Chris Rodriguez, Jr., who is entering his third year as the starter and is coming off of a 1,300 yard, eight touchdown season. While Levis and Rodriguez will give the Wildcats a powerful tandem in the backfield, the offensive line is a question mark. Of all of the position groups on this roster, this is the unit with the most turnover. First team All-American tackle Darian Kinnard is gone, as is First Team All-SEC performer Luke Fortner at center. This is a team that averaged almost 200 yards per game on the ground last year, good for 25th in the country, and the offensive line was the genesis of that. This is the one major concern on offense for Kentucky.
Defensively, there are some holes left by departed veterans at all three levels. On the defensive line, First Team All-SEC defensive end Josh Paschal was taken by Detroit in the second round of Aprils’ NFL Draft. On the backend, linebacker Marquan McCall and safety Yusuf Corker have both moved on. There are some things that this unit will need to figure out. The linebacking corps is still strong, with super seniors DeAndre Square, Jacquez Jones and Jordan Wright giving the Wildcats plenty of veteran experience in the middle. Three starters must be replaced in the secondary, and Brett Gabbert may be able to take advantage of this inexperienced unit.
Saturday, Sept. 10: Miami vs. Robert Morris Colonials
Robert Morris is an FCS program in a bit of a transition period. Long members of the Northeast Conference, the Colonials left for the Big South in 2020 and completed their first full season in the league last fall. Even prior to moving conferences, this is a program that has struggled as of late. Since making their first-ever FCS playoff appearance in 2010, RMU has endured 10 losing seasons in the last 11 years, including three seasons with two wins or less.
This current version of the Colonials is coming off of a 4-6 campaign, which included a 45-0 loss to Central Michigan in September. Bernard Clark is in his fifth year as head coach, and he did earn NEC Coach of the Year in 2019 before RMU departed the conference. This, coincidentally, coincided with the Colonials only winning season of the last decade.
A new quarterback must be found after George Martin’s graduation. It’s always tough replacing your passer, and that task becomes even harder when there is no clear cut answer or succession plan. That appears to be the case here, as nobody on the current roster has attempted more than four passes in their college career. Junior Anthony Chiccitt would appear to have the inside track after serving as the backup last year, but that is yet to be determined. Last years’ leading rusher, Alijah Jackson, has also departed, leaving the Colonials with some serious holes to fill on their offense.
Robert Morris is picked to finish last in the six team Big South, and it appears another long season could be in store for the Colonials. Of course, you never want to look past a game, but the RedHawks will have a decided talent advantage in this match up.
Saturday, Sept. 17th: Cincinnati vs Miami (Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati)
As a fan of the MAC, this, to me, is one of the most underappreciated rivalries in college sports. The Victory Bell is the oldest and most contested non-conference rivalry in all of college football, with the Bearcats and RedHawks having met 125 times. Though Cincinnati is currently on a 15 game win streak in the series, the all time tally stands at 59-59-7. With the Bearcats coming off of a College Football Playoff appearance, Miami fans would love nothing more than to knock of their rivals from down the road and re-take the series lead.
Coach Luke Fickell has worked wonders in his five years on campus, culminating with last years playoff berth and a National Coach of the Year award. Though the Bearcats still have a roster with a ton of talent, there are some key departures here.
QB Desmond Ritter had been the Bearcats starting quarterback since 2017, but he is no longer on campus. He leaves some huge shoes to fill, having compiled a 44-6 record as a starter. It will be interesting to see who gets tabbed as the starter here, because there are a few options. First up is sophomore Evan Prater, who was the highest rated recruit in program history when he signed in 2020. He only attempted 11 passes last year, though you’d have to think that his pedigree will afford him the opportunity to prove himself. The other option is a name that MAC fans know well: former Eastern Michigan QB Ben Bryant. Bryant’s story is an interesting one: after starting his career at Cincinnati, he transferred to EMU last spring. After starting 11 games for the Eagles and throwing for 3,100 yards, he’s returned to southeast Ohio in the hopes of taking over the starting role. This will be an interesting competition to watch.
Last years’ leading rusher, running back Jerome Ford, also departs after rushing for 1,319 yards and 18 touchdowns. Ryan Montgomery is the leading returning rusher, having gained 314 yards last year on a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. Another name to watch here is Corey Kiner, a Cincinnati native who began his college career at LSU before transferring home. As a freshman last year in Baton Rouge, Kiner carried the ball 79 times for 324 yards and two touchdowns. Both Kiner and Montgomery figure to feature in the backfield.
Replacing this much talent at the skill positions can be challenging, but Bearcats fans can take solace in the fact that all five offensive lineman return. Between them, this offensive line has made 107 career starts, and they figure to make life much easier for whoever is lining up behind them.
Defensively, it’s a similar story: there’s a lot to replace here, though talent does remain. This is a unit that had six players drafted in Aprils’ NFL Draft, led by cornerback Sauce Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders.
At linebacker, Miami fans will recognize former RedHawk Ivan Pace, who transferred to Cincinnati this off-season and figures to step into a starting role. Perhaps his decision was partially swayed by his younger brother, Deshawn Pace, who was Second Team All-AAC last year and will join with his brother to make a formidable linebacking corps.
In the secondary, Cincinnati loses perhaps the best cornerback duo in the country in Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant. Senior safety Ja’Von Hicks provides some veteran leadership, but there is youth at every other spot here. Sophomore’s Todd Bumphis and Bryon Threats both saw spot duty last year, but their role will increase considerably this season. If there is one weakness on this team, this is it. Gabbert and company may be able to take advantage here, so long as the Miami offensive line can keep him upright. This is always a fun game to watch, and should be appointment television if you’re a MAC fan.
Saturday, Sept. 24: Miami @ Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern has been an interesting program to watch in recent years. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has done great things in Evanston (109-90 in 16 years), but the Wildcats have struggled mightily with consistency as of late. After making the Big Ten Championship game and finishing ranked 10th in the country in 2020, the Wildcats backslid badly last year, finishing 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten). That included a season ending six game losing streak, in which the Wildcats lost by an average of 22.8 points per game.
The struggles last year started with an anemic offense, which averaged only 16.6 points and 321.6 yards per game. Those numbers were good for 125th and 116th in the FBS, respectively. Former South Carolina transfer QB Ryan Hilinski figures to be the starter under center after seeing action in five games last year and throwing for 978 yards. His numbers last year were not great (54% completion, three touchdowns, four interceptions), and there will need to be improvement here. He will have some help in the backfield, as the top three running backs return, including former Bowling Green RB Andrew Clair. Evan Hull led the way last year, with 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns on 196 carries.
The bright spot of the offense could be the offensive line, where four starters return. This line was an issue last year as younger players were expected to step into the starting lineup. Left tackle Peter Skoronski was an All-Big Ten performer last year and figures to be the leader of this group. If the Wildcats want to improve on offense this year, it will start up front.
Defensively, the 2021 Northwestern team was a bit of an aberration. This is a program that has been known for tough, hard nosed defense under Fitzgerald. Last year, this wasn’t the case, especially on the ground. The Wildcats gave up 216.5 rushing yards per game, and 5.3 yards per carry last year. Not good. Defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performer last year and is back for his senior season. In the middle, Fitzgerald added three grad transfers to help solidify things, and Pitt transfer Wendell Davis, Jr. was brought in to solidify the linebacking corps.
The secondary is the strength here, with three cornerbacks returning who saw significant game action last year in AJ Hampton, Cameron Mitchell, and Rod Heard II. At safety, Coco Azema emerged as a playmaker and led the team with four pass break ups.
While Miami may be out matched in the talent department against Kentucky and Cincinnati, this feels like a more even playing field. As you might guess, this has been a trendy upset pick over the summer, and MAC teams have gone into Ryan Field and won before (Western Michigan in 2016 and Akron in 2017 come to mind). This may be the RedHawks’ best chance to pick up an upset in the non-conference schedule. If Chuck Martin’s squad can earn a victory in Evanston and enter MAC play at 2-2, the RedHawks will be positioned well and will have every opportunity to return to the MAC Championship game for the first time since 2019.