The season, so soon after starting, is almost already over. We look at the storylines as the MAC title game looms in the distance.
It’s hard to believe, but we’re very nearly to the end of a 36-game regular season schedule in the Mid-American Conference!
Usually at this point, we find ourselves getting ready for the impending MAC Championship Game and getting caught up in the bowl projections. But, of course, it’s the year of COVID-19, and that has, unfortunately, wiped away much of what is normal.
This means instead, we find ourselves in the thick of a divisonal race in which one side has already been decided by cancellation math, and crossing fingers that the ever-changing bowl landscape keeps MAC teams in consideration.
But all said, football was still played, which means there’s opinions to have about the action in front of us! We’re in Week 5 of 6 in what has been a strange season to say the least, so we got together to talk about the previous month of action and talk about the good, the bad and the ugly in our questionnaire below.
(Editor’s note: these questions and answers were compiled prior to Friday’s announcement regarding the cancellation of the Buffalo vs. Ohio game.)
In the penultimate week, there’s only two undefeateds left, with Buffalo in the East, and Western Michigan out west. With the road to Detroit seemingly clear, is there a possibility of either team managing to slip up once— or even twice?
- Jordan Rinard, Miami writer: To me, Buffalo has the clearest path to Detroit out of the two. Even without the cancellation of the Ohio game, UB is head and shoulders above anybody in the East at this time. The West is much more interesting with WMU, BSU, and the like.
- Keith Gregorski, general contributor: Assuming no more COVID-19 cancelations, think WMU has the tougher road. Buffalo will be favored vs Ohio but even if Ohio wins, as the Bobcats still would need to beat a 3-1 Kent State team next week while Buffalo has Akron. 4-0 WMU could beat EMU this week and still lose the West Division if Ball State wins out, as the Cardinals play WMU the last game of the season and would have the tiebreaker if they beat WMU.
- Dave Drury, NIU writer: The Bulls should cruise past Ohio and I’m legit scared (and very excited) to think about what kind of bomb Jaret Patterson is going to hit Akron with. So, no, I don’t see the Bulls slipping up at all here. However, WMU has EMU and Ball State remaining and, while they should have no problem with the Eagles, those Cardinals have been rather pesky this year and are playing quite well. It wouldn’t shock me to see Ball State upend the Broncos but I think Eleby and Co. have enough firepower to outlast BSU.
- James H. Jimenez, creative director and CMU writer: It’s Buffalo’s division to lose in the East. They’re simply too good to stop at this moment. In the West, it’s still WMU’s division to lose as well, though they did manage to do that last season with a bad loss to NIU which allowed CMU to sneak back in. They are rightly the favorite as a 4-0 undefeated, but there’s the slimmest of chances that could change in a heartbeat. Still, I’m pencilling in Buffalo/WMU in Detroit.
If one of those teams do slip up, which teams are the ones most set up to be able to take advantage of such a blunder?
- JR: BSU is a dangerous team in the West. They really should be unbeaten right now, and should head into the season finale in WMU with one loss. There aren’t many teams in the MAC that can match their offensive talent with Plitt, Hundley and company, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Cards win the West.
- DD: The winner of this weekend’s game between Ball State and CMU would be in prime position to take advantage. Yes, Western already beat the Chips but if CMU can beat Ball State and then the Cardinals take out WMU, that would leave the Chippewas in first place. Conversely, if Ball State wins out…they win the West.
- KG: The teams most in position to take advantage of the blunder in the West would be the winner of the CMU/Ball State game this week if WMU loses its final two or if the Cardinals wins its last two games. Ohio could win the East by winning the last two games, so if Buffalo loses to Ohio, that could be the end of the title race for Buffalo.
- JHJ: I hate to sound like a homer here, but WMU has shown a concerning propensity in the last two games of letting teams creep back into the proceedings late. EMU and Ball State, their next two opponents, have a tendency to keep games close and force teams to play down (or up) to their level most of the time. If WMU can keep the emotional tide steady and depend on what they know to work, they should be fine. But if they don’t, this week’s Ball State and CMU would suddenly prove to be the division-defining game.
Miami, due to COVID cancellations by Ohio and Kent State, are no longer eligible to defend their MAC title as reigning conference champions. Will that taint the season in any way? What are your feelings about whether or not the MAC should allow the RedHawks to seek other games? Does Miami have a legitimate beef with the way 2020 went?
- JR: I mean, this season was going to have an asterisk by it anyway, but it sucks to not really have a chance to defend your title. There weren’t enough games to really develop the young players that they have in a meaningful way, either. David Sayler has been trying to get something lined up for Dec. 5, but it’s unlikely. This season feels like a missed opportunity for Miami and the MAC in general.
- DD: I could see why the RedHawks would be upset, should Buffalo lose a game that is. But the Bulls already put a beatdown on Miami and, in a normal year, the head-to-head record would still favor the Bulls…so no, I don’t think they have a legit beef. However, I would be totally okay with Miami seeking out another opponent to play. If you can safely get a game in, why not try to? It’s a waste to have all these guys ready to play and then not play.
- KG: I think the only real way the MAC East race would not be at least slightly tainted is if Buffalo wins the MAC East with a 5-1 record or better. Miami lost to Buffalo so Miami would be on the outside looking in anyway unless Buffalo loses two.
- JHJ: I’ve been on record saying that Miami’s crown was fairly lucky in 2019, as I felt that Buffalo was the more deserving team in the East, so feel free to tell me to jump into the nearest Great Lake if you’re a Miami fan. But I think Miami’s chance of a repeat effort was going to ulitmaltely be doomed from the start, even in a “normal” season. Buffalo is simply too well-built to be trifled with, and proved as much by blasting the RedHawks when they met up this season in a result that reflected the final score. That was the game they needed to win the division, and they did not. Simple as. If there’s a beef to be had with the MAC, it’s that the lack of flexibility from a conference scheduling standpoint didn’t allow them another shot to maintain a title defense. (Though, two opponents cancelling games certainly didn’t help at all. Blame the government’s terrible job of handling the pandemic for that one.)
Jaret Patterson is far and away the best player in the MAC, and perhaps the first potential Heisman candidate since Jordan Lynch (for 6) almost a decade ago now. What are your personal thoughts about Patterson’s historic season? Will he be able to at least have a seat at the table when all is said and done?
- JR: As great as he’s been, I don’t see him being a Heisman finalist because there’s just not enough games for the Bulls. It would have made a world of difference if the MAC had a longer schedule and one or two non-conference games. The league office really screwed its schools and players in that regard.
- DD: He should be at the table when this season is over. He’s fifth in the nation is rushing but the four guys ahead of him have played NINE (OR MORE) GAMES to his FOUR!! His 8.6 yards per carry is the most by a running back in the NCAA and his 16 touchdowns are second only to Alabama’s Najee Harris. How can he not have a seat at the Heisman table? Those are insane numbers when you factor in just how few games he’s played.
- KG: Patterson is a rare player and should be given Heisman consideration. According to watching the games and hearing his coaches and teammates talk about him, he is everything you would want: a great practice player, leader, workhorse (67 carries in the last two weeks). Patterson is also reportedly humble, appreciative of the contributions of his teammates to his success and has a strong passion to win the MAC this year. His numbers are also off the charts. No player we know, regardless of conference, has ever posted a 300 and 400 yard game in back-to-back weeks.
- JHJ: If Jaret Patterson doesn’t at the very least find himself amongst the Heisman finalists, that should be considered an absoute injustice. He’s proven over the arc of his career to be easily one of the best talents to ever come out of the MAC, and has broken countless school, conference and NCAA record en route to posting some of the best numbers we’ve seen from a running back since the immortal Barry Sanders. When you consider Patterson;s number vs. some of the current Heisman peers, it cannot be understated he’ll finish the season with 4-6 games under his belt, and will still have favorable numbers compared to them. If you’re “embracing the chaos” of the pandemic season, you’re not leaving him out for things he cannot control.
Patterson isn’t the only bright spot as an individual talent. What are some other players you think are underlooked in the conference thus far?
- JR: This might come off as bias, but I think we’re really underselling how great Brett Gabbert is for this league, partly because we haven’t seen that much of him this season. He got knocked out early in the season opener, and came back against Akron this week to lead the nation in QBR. Remember, Akron gave a team like Ohio fits so they’re not awful. Who know what this team could’ve been with a healthy Brett all season, but he’s done more than show that he’s an elite player in the MAC.
- DD: D’Wayne Eskridge, WMU wide receiver, has played great so far. Same with Ball State’s Yo’Heinz Tyler and Tyrice Richie for NIU, who leads the MAC in receptions and is third in the NCAA with 9.75 receptions per game.Dustin Crum for Kent State has also had a really good season – passing for a MAC-leading 1181 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s also only thrown two interceptions and been sacked just three times!
- KG: Although NIU is struggling overall at 0-4, WR Tyrice Richie has been a bright spot. Richie leads the MAC with 39 catches. WR Justin Hall, Ball State, is second in the MAC with 27 catches and has 775 all-purpose yards. Bowling Green’s sophomore LB Darren Anders is on a trajectory to be a very strong player and is third in the MAC in tackles on a struggling defense. I agree with Frank Solich who identified WR Isiah Cox as a player who might fly under the national radar.
- JHJ: For the homer pick, I’d like to shine a light on CMU defensive end Troy Hairston Jr. Hairston is third on the team in total tackles (27) after taking over for LaQuan Johnson (Achilles,) second in tackles-for-loss (8) and team leader in sacks (3.) He’s been effective at genetrating pass rush pressure, with three QB hits, and has also picked up a forced fumble and a recovery in games thus far in four games. Those are ridiculous numbers for a defensive end. Leaguewide, NIU’s Tyrice Richie has really jumped out at me, leading the MAC in receptions (39) and posting at least two 100+ yard games. EMU’s Preston Hutchison is proving to be sneaky good in a league full of great QB prospects, as well. Hutchison has 13 total touchdowns and 1,274 total yards to average 318.5 as the do-everything option. Most of his interceptions have come in situations where he’s dragging EMU to a comeback, but if he can cut down on that, he’ll be dangerous moving forward.
As we near the end of the season, which teams have been the most surprising? The most disappointing?
- JR: Really been surprised by Ball State. Were it not for an ill-advised pass in the opener, we could be talking about an undefeated Cardinal team that makes for an interesting matchup for UB in the MAC title game. Ohio has been kind of underwhelming this season. They had a lackluster showing against Akron and just haven’t looked like Ohio this year. Obviously, the cancelled games haven’t helped their case either.
- DD: Kent State has been the most surprisingly successful team in the East, even with that loss to Buffalo. And Ball State has been playing really well in the West.The most disappointing, for me, would obviously have to be NIU. There were a few games that seemed winnable/close that the Huskies just fell flat in. And Toledo’s 2-2 record is a little surprising as well, as they’re always the frontrunner in the West.
- KG: I think WMU is clearly better than what I gave them credit for at the beginning of the season. Eastern Michigan is 0-4 but could easily be 3-1 if a few plays had gone its way. EMU just cant seem to win those close ones.
- JHJ: I really was down on WMU and BSU coming into this season, given their past history of bottling wide open opportunities, but here they are sitting at the top of the MAC West division at a combined 7-1 record. WMU has been especially surprising, as this was a team which had clear execution and discipline issues in 2019 suddenly looking impervious to emotional changes in 2020. For most disappointing, it has to be Miami. The defending champions, and a favorite to compete for the MAC East division that brought back all their pro prospects after the season rebooted, they should have been primed to at the least give Buffalo a run. They didn’t, crumbling before Buffalo and posting okay results vs. Akron and Ball State otherwise. It’s a tad disappointing they won’t get a full run due to COVID, but I just don’t think they had the juice this year.
Finally, which games are you looking forward to this weekend?
- JR: This game won’t get a ton of love, but BG/Akron is a big deal for both schools. Akron is closer to being competitive than the Falcons are, but a win for either program would be huge for morale. You almost feel bad for Loeffler though as BG has nothing to work with, and fans need to know that it’s ok if it ends up being more of a Chuck Martin-style rebuild as opposed to PJ Fleck.
- DD: That NIU/Toledo rivalry is the game I’m watching. I love the hatred NIU has for Toledo and, hopefully, one day the Rockets will feel the same way towards the Huskies – resulting in a trophy game (hint, hint).Also the CMU/Ball State game could have some implications in the MAC West and should be a good matchup too.
- KG: CMU vs Ball State. The Cardinals can make a statement here against a very good CMU team and set up a MAC West division title game against WMU the following week. Buffalo vs Ohio. Buffalo is the strong favorite to win with Patterson having over 900 yards in four games and Ohio’s defense allowing a 100 yard rusher in each contest. If Ohio’s defense can hold Patterson and Marks to less than 200 yards, Ohio could surprise here. Bowling Green vs the Zips- someone is going to get a win this year.
- JHJ: I don’t know about y’all, but I’m going to be knee-deep in the primordial stew which will be the Akron vs. Bowling Green game on Saturday, even with my beloved Chippewas in a must-win situation vs. Ball State. Both of these teams have been hard-scrabble units which haven’t had a lot to enjoy in recent years, and seeing one of them pull out a victory will be a great result regardless of who ultimately comes out with it. Will it be an ugly game? Oh, undoubtedly. But will it be an emtional game with a lot on the line? Certainly. I happen to think that will bring out the best in these players, even if the talent isn’t perfect.