2021 Mid-American Conference Preview

COVID-19 impacted the MAC very hard as no team completed more than six games. Buffalo ran through league opposition until falling to surprising Ball State in the MAC Championship.

The MAC only placed two teams in bowl, with Buffalo and Ball State both posting wins. The Western division of the MAC looks loaded with three or four teams with reasonable expectations to go bowling in 2021. The East race looks equally wide open with four teams fixing their sights on the crown.

With lots of super seniors returning, it looks like another year of fun and unpredictable MACtion! The G5 Gurus picks for the MAC are presented below.

MAC East

Kent State (1)

What to know:

The Golden Flashes were the highest scoring team in FBS in 2020.  Although there were only 4 games to observe, there were lots of things to like about what Sean Lewis is building at Kent State.  Dustin Crum posted a ridiculous 192.7 QB rating and averaged nearly 300 yards a game passing.  If the Golden Flashes defense can rise to the occasion, 2021 could be a season to remember for Kent State. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Keep the offense rolling.  While Crum was amazing, the Golden Flashes were far from one dimensional.  323 yards a game passing and 289 yards a game rushing.  Granted two of the four games were against lower tier MAC teams, it was still an impressive showing.  With nearly everyone back, look for the show to continue in 2021. 
  2. Defense.  As great as the offense was, the defense kept many games interesting be surrendering 38 points and over 400 yards per game.  They were bulldozed for 663 yards (515 rushing) and 70 points by Buffalo.   Stopping the run needs to be a priority for the Golden Flashes. 
  3. Navigate the opening schedule.   With road games against Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland in their first four games, Kent State could easily be staring at a 1-3 start.  Staying healthy and focused will be key as they begin MAC play on October 2. 

Buffalo (2)

What to know:

The most dominate team in the MAC in 2020 still could not close the deal in the MAC Championship.  After destroying all their competition by 19 points or more, the Bulls fell flat against Ball State in the MAC championship.  Their only blemish in a 6-1 season.  Losing coach Lance Leipold very late in the process hurts.  However, there is a lot of talent coming back on both sides of the ball that makes the Bull a dangerous team once again in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Late coaching change.  After Les Miles was forced out of Kansas, the Jayhawks reached out to Leipold in late April as their new guy.  The Bulls made a great hire by bringing back Maurice Linguist from Michigan.  It is asking a lot for a coach to take the reins so late but having familiarity with the program will help Linguist. 
  2. Running back production.  One half of the “one-two” rushing attack of 2020 is gone but Kevin Marks (6.6 yards per carry) returns.  The offensive line lost two starters in the transfer portal and will need revamping to repeat the sterling production of 2020. 
  3. Defensive line.  The 2020 edition of the Bull’s defense was aided by the ball control offense.  However, the wide margins of victory resulted in nearly 60% of opponent’s points (prior to the MAC championship) coming in the fourth quarter when starters were resting.  In short, it was hard to gauge just how strong the defensive unit was.  For 2021, the defensive line will be a place to watch.  Continuing to get pressure on opposing QBs and improving against the run will be a key for the Bulls to make a run at the MAC East tile again. 

Ohio (3)

What to know:

The Bobcats are an intriguing team.  With only 3 games in 2020, it is a bit difficult to project where this squad could go in 2021.  Longtime coach Frank Solich (16 years and 11 bowl appearances) retired.   However, longtime assistant coach Tim Albin will steady the ship and begin a new era for the Bobcats.  A solid set of starters return fueling optimism in Athens Ohio.

3 things to watch:

  1. New Era.  With Solich gone, Tim Albin the offensive coordinator under Solich for all 16 seasons, takes the reins.  With this type of continuity, we wouldn’t expect a drop-off in performance, but it does bear watching. 
  2. Generating a pass rush.  Four sacks in three games is one thing to be concerned with.  However, the fact that two of those games were against struggling MAC teams amplifies the concern.  There are some strong passing attacks in the MAC.  Being able to get pressure on the QB will be key for the Bobcats to rise in 2021. 
  3. QB rotation.  The air and ground QB rotation of Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rogers will likely continue in 2021.  How Albin balances this rotation could be a key to the Bobcat’s fortunes. 

Miami (Ohio) (4)

What to know:

As with Ohio, there are only 3 games to reference from 2020.  One of those was an impressive 38-31 win over eventual MAC champion Ball State.  It would prove to be the only loss of year for Ball State.  Tons of talent return on both sides of the ball, buoying enthusiasm for a run at the MAC East title. 

3 things to watch:

  1. QB Rotation.  Brett Gabert and AJ Mayer shared the role in 2020.  Both are back for 2021.  Will one win the job outright or will we see a repeat of the rotation in 2021?  Regardless, Miami needs similar production from the position to make a run.
  2. Balanced attack?   The Redhawks lead with the pass.  The running game was barely adequate.  There is some talent in the backfield for 2021.  Being able to generate a consistent running game will greatly enhance the Redhawks ability to move the ball through the air. 
  3. Early road tests.  Three tough road games in the first four games of the year will test the Redhawks.  While anything better than 1-3 would be asking a lot, the key is to remain healthy and learn how the new pieces fit.   Three manageable conference games to start the conference slate could allow the Redhawks to gain some momentum before facing Ball State. 

Akron (5)

What to know:

It was another tough year for Zips fans.  At least the Zips broke a 21 game losing streak with a win over Bowling Green.  While it may be asking a bit too much for the first winning record since 2015, there is hope for more improvement in coach Tom Arth’s third year. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Offensive line improvement.  Starting four freshmen in 2020, the Zips struggled to protect the QB.  The entire starting line is back for 2021 and there is reason to believe this group will be much improved with a year of experience and a full practice regiment under its belt.
  2. Passing game?  Aside from the Ohio game, the Zips didn’t muster more than 154 yards passing in a game.  4 touchdown passes total against six interceptions won’t help either.  Zach Gibson will be back for his sophomore year.  The Zips need him to show significant improvement over 2020 to have a chance to get a few more wins. 
  3. Stopping the run (or at least slowing it down).  The Zips defense allowed over 41 points and 248 yards rushing a game.  Allowing 6.3 yards a rushing attempt is not going to get it done in the MAC.  10 starters return, so there is hope the experience and improved depth will translate into better production. 

Bowling Green (6)

What to know:

How was 2020 for the Falcons?  Their scoring offense AND defense was ranked 127 out of 128 teams in FBS.  In other words, an 0-5 record and an average margin of defeat of nearly 34 points a game. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Get some points on the board.  11.4 points per game is bad.  Considering about half the points came in the fourth quarter against reserves makes it even worse.  The Zips were able to run the ball, averaging nearly 185 yards per game.  However, they struggled to turn any production into points. 
  2. Generate some turnovers.    The Zips generated 1 turnover in five games, while giving it away 11 times.  The secondary needs to step up in a big way after getting zero interceptions in 2020.  With four starters back this should improve but will be dependent on #3 below.    
  3. Get a run defense.  When you give up 310 yards rushing a game, teams rarely need to throw it.   Given the leading tacklers from last year transferred out, this is a major work in process. 

MAC West

Toledo (1)

What to know:

The 2020 Rockets finished 4-2, with two 3-point losses to Western Michigan and Ball State.  A balanced offensive attack returns most of its starters and will be supported by defense returning all eleven starters from a solid unit in 2020.  In other words, the Rockets are loaded are seemed poised to reassert themselves in the MAC west. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Can the defense stop the top tier offenses?   The Rocket’s defense held up in most games but struggled against very good offenses from Western Michigan and Ball State.  With 11 starters and most reserves back, this is an area that needs to improve in 2021.
  2. Lose the turnover bug.   The Rockets turned the ball over 2 or more times in their final 4 games and ended the year with a minus 3 margin.  A top tier team can’t turn the ball over at this rate and expect to win the close ones. 
  3. Favorable schedule.  The Rockets travel to Notre Dame the second game of the season.  Aside from that, they will be favored or very slight underdogs in every remaining game.  The potential to do something special is there for the taking. 

Ball State (2)

What to know:

Ball State was one of the feel-good stories of the 2020 season.  After losing their opener, the Cardinals ran the table, denying Buffalo the MAC title and steamrolling San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.  With 20 starters and both kickers returning, the Cardinals are looking to repeat the magic in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Turnovers.  The Cardinals were a plus 8 in turnover margin in 2020, getting 10 interceptions and 7 fumble recoveries.  This translated into wins in close contests.  They will need similar production to repeat the formula of the 2020 season.    
  2. Ground attack.  The Cardinal’s ground game was good at times in 2020 but struggled at times after Caleb Huntley went down with an injury.  With an experienced line, the ground game should see an increase in production in 2021.    
  3. Navigate the opening schedule.  An FCS opener flows into away games against Penn State and Wyoming.  This is followed by a HUGE MAC West showdown at home with Toledo and another tough home game against Army.  It is conceivable the Cardinals could have 2 or 3 losses before getting into the meat of its conference schedule. 

Western Michigan (3)

What to know:

Western Michigan was one of the most fun teams to watch in all of FBS in 2020.  The offense put up crazy numbers, averaging almost 42 points a game.  The defense made it interesting as well by giving up 34 a game.  Dynamic quarterback Kaleb Elerby returns along most of the offensive line and a slew of key skill players.   Can the defense improve to allow the Broncos to challenge for the MAC West title?

3 things to watch:

  1. Defense improvement.  With ten starters returning, there is hope the Broncos defense can step up to the challenge in 2021.  They only held two opponents under 30 points last year and struggled to generate turnovers (one fumble recovery and two interceptions).   In the two season-ending losses the Broncos surrendered 3 TD passes in both games. 
  2. Receiver production.  D’Wayne Eskridge moved on to the pros and now the burden falls to Jalen Moore and Syy Moore.  Both are more than capable, but depth behind them is a bit of a concern. 
  3. Can Kaleb repeat?  Kalen Elerby was electric in 2020.  A 194.9 passer rating (third best in all of FBS) with 18 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.  Something close to this performance in 2021 could lead to bigger and better things for the Broncos. 

Central Michigan (4)

What to know:

The 3-3 2020 season had the potential for so much more for the Chippewas.  Two close losses to good Western Michigan and Toledo teams prevented Central Michigan from climbing in the MAC West.  21 starters return for 2021, so there are high hopes for a return to the top of the MAC for the Chippewas. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Quarterback battle.  Incumbent Daniel Richardson will be battling Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon.  It won’t be a surprise to see both earn playing time over the course of the season.   Regardless, there is a strong receiver and running back core returning that should take the pressure off whoever is the QB. 
  2. Slow down the opponent’s passing game.  The Chippewas surrendered nearly 300 yards per game, including 3 games in which they gave up over 365 yards.  The Chippewas did come up with 8 picks, but need to generate more pressure up front to help against those teams that can sling it. 
  3. Keep drives alive.  Central Michigan only converted 28% of third downs and allowed their opponents to convert 45%.  This lack of conversion put even more pressure on the defense.  Improving on third down will be critical for the Chippewas to improve this year. 

Eastern Michigan (5)

What to know:

Except for the Toledo game, the Eagles were very competitive during a 2-4 campaign in 2020.  Three losses came by an average of six points.  The Eagles have been maddening for their fans, hovering around .500 every year since 2015, but never truly breaking through.  Could 2021 be the year?

3 things to watch:

  1. Running game consistency.  In three of their four losses the Eagles rushed for under 100 yards.  Going back to 2019, in their wins the Eagles averaged 157 yards against 87 yards in their losses.  Needless to say, the running game plays a big role in the Eagles ability to compete. 
  2. Another MAC QB battle.  Incumbent Preston Hutchinson had a solid 2020 but faces a challenge from Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant.  4 of the top 5 receivers remain, so the passing game should be healthy for 2020. 
  3. Take care of non-conference business.  Three of Eastern Michigan’s four non-conference games are very winnable.  A winnable MAC opener at Northern Illinois and the Eagles could be starting at a 4-1 start.  The back half of the Eagle’s MAC schedule will be tough, so a hot start will be critical to returning to the bowl season in 2021. 

Northern Illinois (6)

What to know:

From 2010 through 2014, the Huskies won 11 or 12 games every season.   Eight-win seasons in 2015, 2017, and 2018 were offset by five-win seasons in 2016 and 2019.  But the bottom dropped out in 2020 as the Huskies dropped to 0-6.   The offense moved the ball (367 yards a game) but seemed to struggle to score points.  This issue coupled with a horrid defensive year surrendering 39 points and over 418 yards a game sealed the winless season.  Lots of talent returns fueling hopes for a return to respectability in short order.

3 things to watch:

  1. Defense maturity.  The 2020 Huskies were a very young defense.  10 starters return and other help has arrived via the transfer portal.  There is real hope with the experience and a normal off-season program, the defense will improve quickly. 
  2. New Quarterback.  Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi will likely be the starter for the Huskies after starting the first six games for the Spartans in 2020.  While the passing game wasn’t awful in 2020, it needs more pop to take the pressure off the running game.     
  3. Get a ground game.  The great Huskie teams earlier in the decade were known for a strong running game, averaging well over 200 yards per game.  2020’s 123 yards per game was the lowest in the program since 1998.  To get back on the winning track, the Huskies need to show the ability to run the ball. 

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