Our writers predict the breakout and breakdown teams, the MAC champion, and more in this team-focused peek through the looking glass.
The 2021 Mid-American Conference season is less than two weeks from launching. The 2020 campaign produced a mixed bag of results. On the bright side, Ball State and Buffalo garnered recognition for the conference with bowl victories and historic finishes in the final AP Poll. On the downside, the pandemic-riddled season forced many teams to miss games due to COVID cancellations and also deprived us of compelling non-conference matchups.
With normalcy returning to the sport, 2021 is certain to be a more thrilling year to be a college football fan. In honor of the season’s return, the Hustle Belt staff previews the 2021 MAC football season:
Who will be the breakout team in the MAC for the 2021 season? On the contrary, which team with a winning record in 2020 takes a tumble?
James Jimenez (@AVKingJames): It’s really hard to pin down exactly, since six games can be a very small sample size to choose from. (And that’s assuming you even got six games in the first place!)
But in terms of one team I’d look out for, it’s probably Central Michigan. It sounds really strange to say, considering they won the division two years ago, but as someone who was on the field for that historic season, it was certainly a case of peaking too soon. Last year was a humbling, and closer to what the team probably was when Jim McElwain took over. This season will be the first with a team that’s mostly made up of Mac recruits, and that’s generally been the best season for McElwain-led teams in his past. Even with the loss of Kobe Lewis to a knee injury, they still have a excellent RB room capable of 1,500+ yards, an elite offensive line, one of the best havoc-producing front sevens in the country, and all-MAC level special teams, which should all only improve as the season progresses. If the Chips can figure out their passing game, they’ll surprise a lot of people.
A team I would look to take a step back is Buffalo. The MAC East is more wide open than it’s been in years, with both Kent State and Miami looking to be serious contenders in 2021 after being unable to show their true potential in 2020. Buffalo will be under a first-year head coach with no prior experience in Maurice Linguist, and without talilsman RB Jaret Patterson, who was a bit of a do-everything back for the Bulls throughout his career. Kevin Marks will be a capable replacement, but there’s no denying that one-two punch will be missed. For Buffalo, their potential descent wouldn’t be a result so much of a step backwards in production, as the talent is certainly there to make a run. I just believe there are two teams better than them at present, and at least one who could surprise them in their own division alone.
Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): Miami (OH)’s win total on several betting websites is shockingly as low as 4.5, so I’d say the RedHawks qualify. We barely got a taste of the 2020 iteration of Miami, as the team only appeared in three games. Although the 2019 squad won the MAC, it barely skated above .500 with 8-6 as its final record. I expect this to be the best version of Miami in the Chuck Martin era. Brett Gabbert already showed signs of progress as a sophomore last season, and he operates with a horde of talent at receiver and tight end. The running back duo of Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton returns after missing a season, and the front seven led by Ryan McWood should be one of the stronger units in the MAC. Over 4.5 wins is a lock, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Miami return to Detroit.
On the contrary, Buffalo is in a difficult situation. The Bulls lost their entire coaching staff to Kansas, thus causing a mass exodus of transfers. The strengths of Buffalo’s game normally lie within the offensive line, defensive line, and running backs. All-world halfback Jaret Patterson turned pro after producing unfathomable numbers. Three o-linemen must be replaced and Eddie Wilson and Ronald McGee depart from the defensive line. While a handful of talented players like running back Kevin Marks and middle linebacker James Patterson return to campus, there’s just too much personnel turnover to expect this team to return to the AP Top 25.
Dave Drury (@DDrury86): Alright, maybe I’m an optimist here but I think the Huskies have a chance at shocking a lot of teams. Yes, they’re young. Yes, the vast majority of the roster only has six collegiate games under their belts. But there is a lot of talent there, especially at running back and wide receiver. And with quarterback Rocky Lombardi transferring from Michigan State to NIU, the Huskies should have a solid passing attack. However, even as an optimist, I think it’ll be another year or two before the Huskies will be competing for a MAC title.
As for teams that will take a tumble, Buffalo has to be the unanimous choice here. With Jaret Patterson graduating to the NFL and their whole coaching staff and a slew of players transferring to Kansas to follow former coach Lance Leipold, the Bulls will surely struggle to produce the same numbers they have over the past few seasons. It also wouldn’t shock me to see Ohio slip some under new coach Tim Albin but not to the same extent as Buffalo.
Keith Gregorski (@keith_gregorski): I think most of the teams that were good in 2020 will be good in 2021. Ohio and Miami had a very small 2020 sample size (three games) so I think one of those are fit to surprise as both will be good teams. The Bobcats have a massive offensive line, multiple All-MAC candidates at the “skill positions,” and a lot of defensive talent, albeit inexperienced in spots. I think the Bobcats have some MAC All-Stars about to emerge defensively and, if the unit comes together in 2021 like I think it will, Ohio will be in Detroit in 2021.
Buffalo will probably not match last season with the loss of players and coaches but really do return a ton of talent on defense that could keep them in the MAC East race in players like James Patterson, Kadofi Wright, Aapri Washington, and Taylor Riggins. Yet, with the loss of a lot of o-line and RB Jaret Patterson, the days of beating teams like Akron by 49 points where the starting QB had seven total passing attempts are probably long gone. Buffalo will need some new stars in the passing game to emerge to prevent a drop in the MAC East.
Alan Rucker (@AlanRucker): My distinguished colleague from Texas has it absolutely right. Miami and Buffalo are heading in opposite directions and should see their stock rise and plummet respectively, for the same reason: stability (or lack thereof). We all know in this conference that it’s all about riding the wave or avoiding the trough of performance, retention, and consistency. Both these teams this season are prime case studies of what happens when those things occur in divergent ways.
Zach Follador (@zach_folly): I really think this is the year that Western Michigan gets over the hump. After four straight lukewarm seasons, Tim Lester has a very talented and deep team this year in Kalamazoo. Obviously, D’Wayne Eskridge will be hard to replace on offense, but QB Kaleb Eleby and RB La’Darius Jefferson will be operating behind one of the most veteran offensive lines in the MAC. There are some questions on defense, but I think this offense will be one of the best in the conference. While Ball State and Toledo are the popular picks to win the west (justifiably so), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Broncos knock one (or both) of them off.
As for a team that will disappoint, I hate to agree with everyone else, but Buffalo is in a bad place heading into this year. After losing basically their whole coaching staff late in the offseason and being decimated by the transfer portal, the Bulls have to replace more production than just about any team in the MAC. There are still some capable performers on offense, such as veteran QB Kyle Vantrease and RB Kevin Marks, but the Bulls lost more talent than any other team in the conference this season. When I look at their schedule and their roster, I can’t help but feel it will be tough for them to reach a bowl this year.
The 2021 MAC non-conference schedules are loaded with teams from Big Ten country, as well as several SEC and ACC matchups. In games against these conferences, which wins are most likely for the MAC participants? (Here is a good graphic to check all schedules at once)
JJ: I’ll keep it brief: there’s only a handful of contests I could see as upset specials. The best chance would be either Kent State over Maryland or WMU over Pitt. Other games of note could include Buffalo vs. Nebraska, CMU vs. Missouri, and Kent State vs. Penn State.
SH: Excluding the 2020 season which disabled non-conference scheduling, the MAC currently rides a 4-year streak of attaining at least one Big Ten win. It will happen, but it’s a matter of selecting the correct one. The best chance is Kent State over Maryland in Week 4. Two sleeper picks that I wouldn’t pick outright, but I think are possible, include Miami (OH) at Minnesota in Week 2 and Buffalo at Nebraska in Week 2.
DD: There are certainly a few contests that could be very close – WMU vs. Michigan, Ohio vs. Syracuse, and Kent State vs. Maryland are the three big chances. But for some reason, I think the Huskies have a chance at shocking Georgia Tech this season as well. And Huskie QB Rocky Lombardi has already beaten the Wolverines once… which is good news for NIU fans when the Huskies head to the Big House in Week 3.
KG: I like WMU over the Michigan Wolverines. With a 2-4 record in 2020, with one off those wins being a triple overtime win over Rutgers, Michigan football is officially a mess until further notice. The Broncos will ride into Ann Arbor in week one with a polished offense, including MAC offensive MVP candidate Kaleb Eleby, and could stun the Wolverines.
Ohio has a real shot to beat Syracuse, and the Bobcats may even be favorites. The Orange travel to Athens coming off a disastrous, injury-riddled 1-10 campaign in 2020. Syracuse has some seasoned playmakers like WR Taj Harris, but a young roster on the whole leaves the Orange ripe for the picking against the Bobcats in Week 1. The Bobcats could also beat Northwestern.
AR: The easy pick as noted is Kent State over Maryland, but I’ll have my eyeballs and potentially my wallet on Miami/Minnesota, Ball State/Penn State, and as crazy as it sounds, Western Michigan versus Michigan. Inevitably all those will go chalk and there will be some crazy stunner. Toledo over Notre Dame, perhaps? Nah…. couldn’t be. Could it?
ZF: My pick here is going to be Ohio over Syracuse. The Bobcats get a rare non-conference game against a P5 opponent when the Orange travel to Athens in week one, and Syracuse is not in a good place as a program right now. Former Bowling Green coach Dino Babers seemed to have Syracuse on the right track after a 10-3 season in 2018, but it’s been all downhill since that point. After a 5-7 season in 2019, the Orange bottomed out with a 1-10 campaign last fall, Babers’ seat is as hot as any coach in the country, and I believe that Ohio has enough returning talent to knock off the Orange at Peden Stadium to open the season.
The MAC Championship Game takes place the first weekend of December at Ford Field. Which teams meet in Detroit and who emerges with the conference crown?
JJ: Kent State over Western Michigan. At some point, the MAC West dominance will have to end, and I think it’ll be the Golden Flashes who will manage to kill that dragon. KSU’s offense is unbelievably good, as has had the habit of making good defenses look silly and making bad defenses look even worse. Speed kills in today’s college football, and the Flashes have it in spades. WMU is set up for a prime “revenge tour” year after blowing a huge opportunity to win the division in 2020 against eventual MAC champion Ball State; this team was three points away from a trip to Detroit, and they bring back most every starter from that team.
SH: Kent State over Ball State. Ball State wins the West division for the second-straight year. The Cardinals return nearly every starter on the roster, and their defense features five 2020 All-MAC players — including all four starting linebackers. Kent State defeats Miami (OH) in the final week to clinch the East for the first time since 2012. Dustin Crum continues to lead the Flashes to over 40 points per game, and with the potency of this offense, I predict Kent State claims supremacy in the MAC for the first time in 49 years.
DD: Kent State over Toledo. I don’t see Ball State repeating here. I think we’ll see Kent State roll through the MAC East and make it Detroit and then Toledo sneak in from the West. The Rockets have a more difficult path, with Ball State, CMU, and WMU all being strong competitors but somehow they find a way this season. However, the Golden Flashes take home the title in a shootout with the Rockets.
KG: Western Michigan over Ohio. After back-to-back second place finishes, I like Western Michigan to get over the hump this year and win it all. Toledo, WMU, and Ball State are all right there in the West, but I think little things like having Ball State at home could be the difference for WMU. It took a huge comeback for the Cardinals to beat WMU last year and I think WMU will remember the feeling of losing that one and look for payback.
I pick Ohio to win the East. Ohio has some youth in the defensive front seven but also has one of their overall most talented rosters in several seasons. With a competitive non-conference schedule to get everyone on the same page and hone their skills, Ohio should be one of the better MAC East teams by conference play.
AR: Ball State over Miami (OH). The hunter becomes the hunted and we see a back-to-back appearance for the Cardinals of Muncie. Who they’ll be taking on is a crapshoot, but I’ll go with Miami. The powers that be in the MAC have been trying to wrangle these two as natural rivals since I was in college, so it seems fitting and appropriate that they meet in the final MAC game of the season. RIVALRY RENEWED!
ZF: Kent State over Ball State. I’m going to go with Kent State versus Ball State, with Kent State pulling out the victory. I think this will be a great match up between the two best QB’s in the MAC, and I think the Golden Flashes simply have too much fire power on offense for the Cardinals to handle. This will be a high scoring game, but ultimately I think Dustin Crum will lead Kent State to the MAC Championship.
The 2020 season was quite historic for the MAC, as two teams — No. 23 Ball State and No. 25 Buffalo — finished ranked in the final AP Poll. Does a MAC team land in the AP Poll or College Football Playoff rankings this season?
JJ: Gonna go ahead and say “nah.” Having two teams make the AP Poll at season’s end in 2020 was a pleasant surprise, but I don’t think it’s indicative of any real paradigm change. For instance, the Sun Belt placed two teams in the preseason Top 25, with Ball State being the lone team to receive votes, showing that voters believed their run to be a fluke. Any MAC team will have to do the most in order to crack the AP Poll, much less the College Football Playoff poll, which has famously underrated MAC teams time and again.
SH: The AP Poll is so much more feasible than the College Football Playoff committee poll for MAC affiliates. The two teams most likely to crash the rankings are Kent State and Ball State, but both teams face early-season challenges in Texas A&M and Penn State, respectively. I’d expect a 12-2 record needed to qualify for the final AP Poll and given the parity of this conference, I’ll say that does not happen.
DD: Sadly, I don’t think we’ll see a MAC team make the AP Poll or CFP rankings this season. Kent State and Ball State have the best chances but, unless they can upset a few P5 teams – Kent State plays Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland while Ball State plays Penn State – I don’t see either getting any respect in the polls.
KG: I think WMU, Toledo, or Ball State could win enough games to get an AP Poll ranking by season’s end if one of the teams can find a way to beat the other two. Ohio has a puncher’s chance of getting an early AP Poll ranking if they can go 4-0 in non-conference, with games against the ACC and Big Ten opponents and 23rd ranked Louisiana. Back-to-back games physical road games vs. Louisiana and Northwestern is a tall order for the Bobcats, but each non-conference game is winnable and three of the four non-conference wins would carry some level of poll influence.
AR: Is it probable? Probably not. For all intents and purposes, it’s going to take a team running the table in the non-conference schedule and then punishing people in the conference season. That’s how Ball State in 2008 was able to land some national eyeballs in both polls and pundits. I would think the 2021 version of the Cardinals is the best chance for the MAC to land a team in the rankings, but that’s under a big assumption that the Cardinals shock Penn State and then run the table in the MAC. It’s a tall order but possible, and about the only chance for the Mid-American Conference crew to get their shot at poll notoriety before season’s end.
ZF: I would love to see it, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s likely. I think there are enough quality teams in the MAC this year that everyone will have at least one conference loss. Kent State has the best chance, having three road games versus power 5 teams in the non-conference schedule. The unfortunate reality is that a MAC team will need to have no more than one loss in a typical year to be ranked. With how balanced the conference is this season, I don’t see that happening.
Our analysts were so eager to talk the season, we had to split our roundtable up in two! Check out the next edition next week for the staff’s thoughts about individual accomplishments and storylines.