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Beyond the Empire: Big Ten Non-Conference Previews — MACtion Remains Magic, Pt. I

11 games, and there’s only one Akron...but potential for upsets? Here’s what to expect when America’s heartland conferences meet:

Western Michigan v Northern Illinois Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

You know it, you love’s MACtion.

With the Big Ten starting with a heaping helping of conference play in Weeks 0 and 1, there are fewer non-conference games to preview right away...but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to give you a primer!

Need to know who’s this year’s Akron-over-Northwestern upset? Want a taste of the shenanigans Eastern Michigan will get up to against a Big Ten team in 2021? We’ve got a multi-part preview of the Big Ten versus the MAC, thanks to our friends at Hustle Belt! Please make sure you’re giving them a click and a follow on Twitter, because it really is the class of dedicated MAC athletics coverage...well, really anywhere on the internet.

We’re joined today by Hustle Belt manager James Jimenez, here to talk to us about how the MAC fared in a truncated 2020, storylines across the conference in 2021, and the looming specter of realignment throughout the Great Lakes (and beyond)!

Part I: The State of the Conference

OTE: So...uh...2020 happened! Not exactly a banner year for humanity in general, but the constant that is MACtion sure kept on giving — what a season for, of course, the Buffalo Bulls, but the MAC CHAMPION Ball State Cardinals. With Frank Solich retiring at Ohio, the 2019 ascendancy of Kent State, and Lance Leipold leaving the Bulls for [/checks notes] [/seriously?] Kansas, what are the conference-wide narratives we’re looking at coming into 2021? Is it just the Wild, Wild (Mid-)West again?

James Jimenez: Before we go on to the 2021 outlook, I wanted to touch on last season briefly.

I can’t recall a season which I both loved and dreaded covering so much as the shortened 2020 campaign. It was a time of transition for us as a blog, even before taking into account everything else that was happening. We had assumed football wasn’t going to happen, since the MAC had been very proactive in being one of the first conferences to declare their sports cancelled for their respective seasons. Just covering the games was hard as it was, with the mental uncertainty of if a certain game was going to be played or not and having to adapt to it; trying to find new ways to reach audiences while staying informative. I couldn’t imagine being a player or a coach in this situation, and feel like you’re waiting for the whip of the world to descend upon you and take your season away at any time. The fact that it did happen is a testament to the discipline, strength and tenacity of these student-athletes and coaches. Having the opportunity to highlight the MAC in a pandemic year, and introduce new fans to the controlled chaos of #MACtion when everyone was inside their houses trying to make sense of a nonsensical world, was a delight.

I think the college football world appreciated the Best Little Conference In The Midwest more than ever last season, and I am excited to see about the growth of the conference from here.

With all that said: the 2021 season is full of storylines.

In the East:

  • All eyes are going to be on Ohio, as Tim Albin will replace his longtime mentor in Frank Solich. Albin has been Solich’s right-hand man dating back to their days together in Nebraska, so it will be interesting to see what sort of mark Albin leaves on the program, both on and off the field. Ohio is a program which has finally shed its decades-long reputation of being a laughingstock and is now firmly entrenched as a traditional “dark horse” team. That’s good, but one of these days, they’re going to have to get over that hump. Perhaps Albin can find that extra little thing which takes Ohio from a dark horse to a legitimate contender. We’ll certainly find out once he takes to the sidelines.
  • Buffalo is going to be in a very similar, though not exact, situation as Ohio going into this season. Lance Leipold shocked everyone by departing late in the coaching carousel to replace Les Miles after his ouster at Kansas, leaving Maurice Linguist, who was last with the Dallas Cowboys as a defensive backs coach, to fill the void. Unlike his successor, who was a multiple-time champion at the D-III level, Linguist will be a head coach for the first time at any level. He’ll certainly have some pieces to work with, as Buffalo is the defending division champion. I cannot help but to wonder how he’ll perform under that pressure— and how it’ll look once “his” guys start to come in.
  • Kent State’s ascent cannot go ignored. Sean Lewis has gone from a little-known assistant under a former MAC coach to one of the biggest (literally and figuratively) names in the G5 coaching scene, having brought the Golden Flashes to the pinnacle of sustained success for a program that’s been a traditional afterthought. He’s got one of the country’s best QBs in Dustin Crum leading the way, and an offense which has proven nearly impossible to keep in front of you— especially with Isaiah McKoy’s breakaway speed. 2021 is the year the Flashes have had circled for a while, and I think they’ll be a dark horse to win the division.
  • A team that’s been lost in the shuffle of storylines has been the usually-thorny Miami RedHawks. Unable to defend their 2019 division title due to COVID, Miami will be on the warpath to prove that their 2019 performance wasn’t a fluke. They return two capable backs to the lineup after injury in Tyre Shelton and Jaylon Bester, one of the country’s more dependable security blankets in Jack Sorenson and former MAC Freshman of the Year Brett Gabbert (yes, brother of Blaine), so they certainly won’t lack for firepower.
  • Both Bowling Green and Akron will have similar storylines. In the midst of rebuilds, the Zips and Falcons will look to prove they’re indeed capable of growth. The Zips will have talisman back Teon Dollard to depend upon in the backfield, and Bubba Arslenian patrolling the middle of the defense, so they’ll be competitive. Bowling Green, on the other hand, will struggle as they once again churn the rosters. Former Michigan man Scot Loeffler has his work cut out for him, as the Falcons are in Year 2 of executing a complete cultural change after Mike Jinks left the program pretty much devoid of belief.

In the West:

  • Ball State came out of nowhere to win the MAC in 2020, riding a dominant offense to the title, while also gutting out two huge wins against Western Michigan and Toledo to box them out of the divisional race. They had a reputation of losing close ones when it mattered prior to last season, so the reversal of fortune was a huge validation of their hard work. Now, they’ll have a target on their back as they’re no longer an unknown commodity. Ball State returns the vast majority of their 2020 starting lineup, ensuring they’ll be a favorite to repeat their performance.
  • Western Michigan fell apart when it mattered in 2020, losing both the games they needed to win to secure the division, which has been a pretty big theme in the Tim Lester era. PJ Fleck’s replacement, who has been the highest-paid MAC coach since his hire, hasn’t produced nearly the same results. In fact, they haven’t appeared in the MAC title game since 2016, even despite graduating several of their alumni into the NFL. The 2021 season sees WMU once again the third horse in a two-horse race, and they’ll have to do a lot to disprove the narrative around them. Thankfully, they can lean on dual-threat QB Kaleb Eleby and RB Sean Tyler on offense, and DE Ali Fayad, LB Zaire Barnes and S AJ Thomas defensively, to make a run at the division.
  • Toledo, much like division peer WMU, has also tended to underperform their preseason expectations under Jason Candle. Granted, the last two seasons have been adversely affected by injuries, but at some point, you still have to perform, and the Rockets simply find ways to lose at the most inexplicable times. They were chosen to finish second in the division to Ball State, who they lost to by three points in 2020, but on paper, this group could contend for the MAC, with all-MAC HB Bryant Koback leading the charge behind one of the best offensive line units in the country. This will be a pivotal year for Candle, as they staff went under a full shake-up two seasons ago. If they can’t get to at least 7 wins with the amount of talent they have, it could be tough to be convinced he’s the right person for the job.
  • Central Michigan is in the catbird seat if something goes terribly wrong at the top of the table. With an offense sporting several NFL-worthy offensive linemen and all-MAC performers at all three receiver spots, the Chippewa offense is a quarterback away from an elite unit which could spell trouble for any opponent they face, even with the recent season-ending injury to RB Kobe Lewis. It certainly helps that they have one of the most dangerous front sevens in the game as well, with MAC co-defensive player of the year DE/OLB Troy Hairston and OLB Troy Brown Jr. leading the attack. It’ll take some upsets to climb the ladder, but CMU is perfectly capable of a run— as shown when they won the division in 2019, a year removed from finishing 1-11.
  • Good news: Eastern Michigan has climbed out of anonymity! Bad news: They’re having a hard time climbing out of obscurity! Much like Kent State in the East, EMU has done a successful job of climbing out of backmarker status to once again be competitive. However, unlike Kent State, EMU hasn’t come close to sniffing the top of the table. Part of it is that they’re in the perpetually difficult MAC West, but there’s been plenty of opportunities squandered in the past by questionable playcalling and time management, and that ultimately falls on the staff. Coincidentally, that’s the storyline this year, with Chris Creighton once again a likely candidate for the coaching carousel. If EMU can turn those three-point losses into three-point wins and get above seven wins, that will be a significant deal, not only for the Eagles, but for Creighton. They certainly have some great talent on both sides of the ball, including former Oklahoma transfer HB Darius Boone, QB Preston Hutchison and DE Turan Rush, but they’ve never quite won a game running away. They’ll have to learn how to do that if they want to be taken seriously as a contender.
  • Northern Illinois is no longer the power they once were, but honestly, that was probably inevitable. The decade-plus run they had with Joe Novak, Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and Rod Carey was simply amazing in retrospect, changing a perpetual underdog into a known national brand. But nothing gold ever stays, and NIU fans have had to learn this the hard way. (Extremely sorry for this pun,) Thomas Hammock, a former NIU running back who played under Novak, understands the condition of the roster, and their focus has been bringing a culture of accountability off-the-field and an aggressive, hard-nosed persona on the field. That’s a clear deviation from the Carey regime, which had settled on its laurels and conservative approach to the game. They went 1-5 last season playing mostly freshmen and sophomores, and will be riding the youngsters once again in 2021. They’ll be a very intriguing watch, as Michigan State transfer QB Rocky Lombardi is expected to lead the young pups, most notably HB Harrison Waylee, who broke out at the tail end of last season.

OTE: I dunno if y’all have heard, but realignment is apparently A Thing again. Hooray. But for as unstable our favorite Tuesday Night Football can be, the MAC as a conference has been relatively stable over the last 10 years.

Do you see the MAC hopping back on the merry-go-round any time soon? Give me your fantasy predictions and then tell me what you think actually happens: Is it finally time for North Dakota State to the MAC? Does Marshall make its return?

JJ: I’ve been on record saying the MAC won’t be making any significant moves in EXPANSIONPALOOZA 3: THE THIRD ONE, but I’m not going to deny that the conference will likely at least explore the various scenarios, much like they did with the coronavirus response last year.

The conference’s stability is notorious; it had several failed experiments when it tried to chase the “market share” game in recruiting Temple (Philadelphia), UMass (Boston/Amherst) and UCF (Orlando) as affiliate members, as those affiliates simply didn’t mesh with the rest of the conference’s core ideas. To say the least, scrambling to just grab teams with no thought behind it would not be in the conference’s best interests.

In an ideal world, I want the MAC to stay as it is. I am of the belief you don’t fix things that aren’t broken. I think this is also the way that the MAC sees itself, and I really respect it. It’s a very grounded and reasonable tack to take in an increasingly unreasonable college football landscape.

However, if you’re giving me the space to play fantasy commissioner, my first plan of action would be to call up North Dakota State and South Dakota State. You’ll likely have to move Toledo (good) and Eastern (bad?) to the East to make it work, in likelihood, but it could be worth it to bring in two programs of that caliber into the fold. Zig when everyone zags; instead of focusing on money and market share, go get two of the best teams and add them to your roster. The Sun Belt has certainly ridden that philosophy to success recently, as Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern have all proven to be invaluable additions to the strength of that conference in recent years.

Thanks, James! Stay tuned for Part II of the B1G-MAC Beyond the Empire Previewpalooza tomorrow afternoon, including...dear God, could Nebraska lose to a MAC team?