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Beyond the Empire: Hustle Belt brings the #MACtion

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As is tradition, Off Tackle Empire reached out to some team sites across the SB Nation footprint to get a sense of what other people think leading into 2015. One of those beautiful sites is Hustle Belt, the home of MACtion, B1G paychecks, and teams who are probably better than our bottom tier. With a whopping fourteen games between the two conferences, it was only appropriate to get a checkup on the happenings in the Rust Belt and figure out who is going to be good, what players we should know, and who is going to beat a B1G team this year.

Hustle Belt's managing editor Alex Alvarado was kind enough to humor me and answer a bunch of questions. You should follow him on twitter, go read Hustle Belt, and then come back here and read what he has to say.

1. Let's get this crazy train started. The MAC is currently ruled by Northern Illinois. With five championship trophies in a row, the Huskies have generally been the class of the conference. Unfortunately, that has not necessarily translated into breaking into the national conversation as of late. In fact, by many accounts, you could argue that 2014 was a less than great year for the conference as a whole. There were brief moments of excellence, but no end-to-end act that really set the conference apart. Looking towards 2015, is there any team that can dethrone NIU? Is it possible for that team to break into the larger national conversation?

Alex: Absolutely, you can't talk about #MACtion unless you're talking about Northern Illinois, and rightfully so. Five straight years of going to the MAC Championship game: they've earned the right to have the biggest targets on their backs. However, I don't think they'll be the ones to win the West. That division is pretty tough with both Toledo and Western Michigan and the talent that they have, but it'll be a dog fight once November rolls around. Toledo was my personal favorite to win the MAC back in February and I'm sticking to my guns here. Solid defense, great depth at the skilled positions on offense, but they just need to prove that their offensive line isn't as big of a question mark as everybody's giving them to make a run at the title.

Get this -- Toledo has the best player in the MAC in Kareem Hunt, he was 10th in the nation in rushing last year and could've been higher up on that list had he not missed three games; 30 of their players needed surgery last year, they had to have a wide receiver (albiet, came into UT as a quarterback) play most of the game against NIU under center, where they came up just just 3 points shy in the game that ultimately sent NIU going to Detroit over them.

2. The Big Ten and the MAC are tied together in scheduling about as heavily as any two conferences. Now, as we discussed last year, a lot of that is a paycheck thing. The funny thing is that the paycheck thing does not preclude MAC teams from getting feisty and winning a few. By my count, 2015 has 14 matchups between the Big Ten and the MAC, with the MAC even hosting a few games. Instead of previewing each one, how about giving me the game you think will be most entertaining, the game you think will be the biggest bloodbath, and the game - or games - you see the MAC coming out on top.

Alex: One game that I'm excited to see is when Michigan State comes to Kalamazoo to face off against Western Michigan. I know people have been pinching their pennies just to get a ticket to this game and the timing couldn't be any more perfect. While MSU has the best college football team in the state, the Broncos have been on the up-and-up so there's plenty of intrigue there. Also, P.J. Fleck.

I don't know why, but I'm just really excited to see what Kent State could do. Last year was a mess, and it's not easy playing a full season when a fantastic friend and teammate dies right before the season, but this year the team should be less distracted and a little bit more talented & mature. I'm looking forward to their game against Illinois, but they've also got a good shot against Minnesota. In any case, they'll hopefully be beating an ex-MAC head coach.

3. It seems like the MAC has a ridiculous amount of returning talent on offense. At each of the major skill positions, I can count at least four or five returning players that made impacts in 2014 and are poised to be even better in 2015. Without leading you too much, give me some of the guys we should be watching out for this year. Who do you see as the early leader for OPOTY? Will any one player from the MAC give the Heisman ceremony a run?

Alex: After seeing Jarvion Franklin rise up from being a third-string running back right before the season started to being the first player to win both MAC Freshman Player of the Year & MAC Offensive Player of the Year awards in the same season: I feel shameful for answering this. But I'm a thirsty trick and will gladly play your silly rules.

Kareem Hunt is my personal favorite to win it. I think Drew Hare is well-coached, a solid leader and is just another great QB to play at NIU: somewhat of a tradition at this point. Maybe the most under-appreciated offensive athlete is Alonzo Russell, 6-foot-4 wide receiver for Toledo that's been an All-MAC performer the last three seasons. There's probably not anybody that's Heisman-worthy right now, but I'll say that Hunt is the closest thing to earning any hype for that sort of prestige.

4. Last year, right around this time the P5 decided it was going to force the issue on cost of attendance. In something of a response/retaliation, the G5 conferences explained the difficulties they had in competing in this new world. While not completely against the idea, it seemed like there was a lot of 'calling to arms' about what this would do to NCAA football as we know it. A year has passed and you're starting to see just what these rules will look like. From your point of view, has anything really changed in the past year? How do schools in the MAC feel about this new world?

Alex: I think the biggest thing for the MAC teams is knowing that nobody's going to go to games if he or she feels like their teams won't come out on top. Which I get it: purchasing a ticket is a gamble. When it comes to getting national or local attention, when it comes to going to the College Football Playoff, when it comes to getting people in the stands, it all just boils down to providing the best competition on the field. If you're not producing a watchable product, then nobody's going to want to watch it.

I also think the shift of making more games presented on television takes away from the desires of wanting to purchase a ticket. When I was a student, I'd say that going with a bunch of your friends to the games and losing your voice by the second quarter earned some of my favorite memories while in college and I'd advocate the same to any student that has pride in his or her school to get more people to go to the games. However, not everybody lives near these venues. I know a bunch of fans of these teams still have a passion for their team, but they live in a different time zone. Hell, sometimes when it's just an ugly day outside and there's still football to be played, but if I have the option to sit on my couch and avoid the weather and still enjoy my team, then I guess it's good to have options.

5. Okay, so this is how we always end it. We've talked about players we like and teams we think can dethrone NIU, but I'm putting you on the spot. Who plays for the MAC Championship and loses their coach to Illinois? Oh, and just for funsies, who will be the worst team in the MAC this year?

Alex: I've got Toledo and Bowling Green both going to the MAC Championship game. I've flipped a coin and it landed on it landed on heads both times, so it was nice knowing you, Dino Babers.

Worst team is not Eastern Michigan because I love my school and I'm a homer that walks in blind faith. I think Miami might slip to being the worst team in the MAC because there's just not enough their on offense to make me believe in them. Or Central Michigan because screw those guys.


Again, huge huge thanks to Alex for stopping by. Again, go follow him on twitter (@ARAlvarado13) and don't forget to read Hustle Belt this season. They are a solid site and do really good coverage.