(This is the third in a series previewing the Group of 5 conferences based on their O/U win totals, as provided by Draftkings. For the AAC Preview, click here. For the Conference USA Preview, click here.)
Amidst all the talk of conference realignment sits the MAC. They almost exist in their own little world, aren’t looking to hurt no one (except the occasional mediocre Big 10 team). No additions required. No subtractions addressed. It’s easy to forget about their existence, but you shouldn’t, because the conference (MACtion in particular) is hella fun.
Doing a gambling/preview column for the MAC is probably foolish, because if there is anything that you can predict about the conference, it’s that it will be unpredictable. But here goes nothing. (Based on Draftkings projections as of July 16.)
Toledo (O/U 8) – Differing minds can disagree (and I do), but based on win totals, Toledo is considered the favorite in the MAC. They have an exciting quarterback in sophomore Dequan Finn and led the conference in scoring while having arguably the top defense in the conference, giving up 21.8 points per game. Pretty good for a conference that had MACtion games in the 40s on the reg.
When making predictions on Win-Loss totals in a conference as generally wide open as the MAC, the non-conference schedule is vital. Looking at Toledo’s schedule, their first 3 games are at home against Long Island and UMass, then go to Columbus to take on Ohio St. Let’s safely assume a 2-1 record, that’s where things get interesting. Following their game against the Buckeyes comes a difficult 3-game stretch at San Diego St., at home against Central Michigan and at Northern Illinois. Going 3-0 during that stretch is asking a lot, and going 0-3 is not likely, but not impossible. The back half of the schedule is filled with swing conference games. Going to Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan offers no gimmies.
To be honest, 8-4 feel pretty spot on. San Diego St. is definitely a game that can go either way depending on what the Aztec offense looks like, and I don’t think the Rocket offense is best one in the conference, but having a defense you can trust carries a lot of weight. Having said that…Stay Away.
Central Michigan (O/U 7.5) – I tend to have a “Ride or Die” team in every G5 conference. Here’s is my MAC Ride or Die.
Here’s what I know. The Chippewas were a one-point loss to NIU away from finishing the season having won their last 8 games, all with a freshman at quarterback (Daniel Richardson) and running back (Lew Nichols). Both return, with a year of seasoning under coach and noted shark lover Jim McElwain. (I’m kidding. I think.) That combo could be one of the most dynamic in all of G5.
As fired up as I am about the offense, I’m decidedly less so about the defense. CMU returns just three starters – a DT and both Safeties. There’s a chance you see a lot of shootouts, but I think the offense will try to use ball control to mitigate any issues the D has, especially early on as they gel.
Looking at the schedule, it’s certainly not easy, especially to start, but the road games are more winnable than they sound. They open the season at Oklahoma St., which doesn’t sound great until you remember that the last time they went to Stillwater they won (30-27 back in 2016). They won’t be intimidated. Following that, they get two winnable home games against South Alabama and Bucknell, before trying to play Giant Killer again, going to Happy Valley to play Penn St. Following that is a game at Toledo that could go a long way to determining who wins the MAC West. 2-3 is likely, but don’t rule out something better. Following that is a nice three game stretch at home against Ball St., at rebuilding Akron and at home against a tricky Bowling Green squad. They do have to travel to Northern Illinois before closing at home against Buffalo, Western Michigan and at Eastern Michigan.
It stands to reason with the O/U set at 7.5 that road games at Oklahoma St., Penn St., Toledo and NIU provide four losses and erase any wiggle room for the over. But they aren’t losing all 4. This is the best team in the MAC, they’ll figure out a way. Ride or Die. Take the Over.
Eastern Michigan (O/U 6.5) – Bowl teams that return almost everything on offense except their quarterback are the hardest for me to project. If EMU still had Ben Bryant at the helm instead of him transferring back to Cincinnati, then you may be talking about one of the conference favorites. He was replaced by Troy transfer Taylor Powell. If it is even a lateral move, the Eagles should be more than fine on offense. Just throw it to Hassan Beydoun and get out of the way.
The problem is defensively. The Eagles ranked 113 in rush defense, giving up almost 200 yards a game. It’s conceivable my 40 year old ass could run behind an offensive line of five of my closest friends and still move the chains against EMU. Imagine what someone like Lew Nichols can do if they don’t get that fixed.
Looking at the schedule, it does set up pretty nicely. Home games against Eastern Kentucky and UMass should be wins, and their road trips are at rebuilding Arizona St. and Louisiana. I’m not saying EMU will win those, but if there was ever a time to knock off one of those teams, this September is the time to do it. The West Division is almost inarguably the stronger of the two divisions in the MAC, and the Eagles have things lined up perfectly, getting Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and Toledo all at home and projected bottom tier teams Akron, Ball St. and Kent St. all on the road. While I don’t think that’s exactly how the division will shake down, it’s all Eastern could ask for. 6.5 is a very tricky number, so with that I would Stay Away.
Miami OH (O/U 6.5) – I know I have said this a couple times already, but THIS might be the best team in the MAC.
Sure they finished 5-3 last year. Not exactly mind blowing, but did you know their three conference losses were by a grand total of 4 points?! (One point losses to Eastern Michigan and Kent St. and a two point “blowout” at Ohio.) Potential Conference POY candidate Brett Gabbert returns, along with outstandingly-named receiver Mac Hippenhammer. He is joined by transfers in from Indiana and Kentucky (Miles Marshall and Tre’Von Morgan respectively) who could really make this offense hum. The defense should be ok at worst, returning six starters from a D that gave up a respectable 23.1 points a game last year.
If you are looking for that game where a MAC team beats a previously mentioned mediocre Big 10 team, look no further than Sept. 24, when Miami travels to Northwestern. They may need to get that win because they also travel to Kentucky and host Cincinnati (along with hosting Robert Morris) in the non-con. They do play in the more manageable MAC East, so there is no Toledo or Central Michigan to be found, but at Bowling Green and at Northern Illinois won’t be easy. Draftkings set the number at 6.5 I really, for a team that seems far and away the best in their division, this feels like a no-brainer. Take the Over and lock it in.
Northern Illinois (O/U 6.5) – Your defending MAC Champions everybody!
It took almost halfway through this preview to get to the conference champs, and I’m not sure why. The Huskies return all-conference quarterback Rocky Lombardi and key pieces on an offense that was fourth in the nation at rushing offense. Starter Jay Ducker did transfer to Memphis but RB Harrison Waylee and four starters on the O-Line return. They’ll be fine.
The Huskies return 8 starters from a D that will remind no one of the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs, but brings back their entire starting secondary and most of their defensive line. I would expect improvement from a defense that ranked 120 against the run. (Seriously, between this Rush D and Eastern’s, Nichols must be licking his chops.)
Draftkings set the number at 6.5, thinking that the conference champs were simply on the right side of a lot of close games last year (every conference game was decided by 8 points or fewer). But the other side of that coin suggests that a team that finished -6 in the turnover department shouldn’t have won as many games as they did. The defense will continue to improve and there will be a regression to the mean somewhere. The schedule actually lines up pretty nicely, as the Huskies have a non-con with games against Eastern Illinois, at Tulsa, home against Vanderbilt and at Kentucky before starting conference play at rebuilding Ball St. Kentucky is the only game there that looks overly daunting, and if things break right, they could have 4 wins by October 1. That’s before games at Ohio, at home against Akron to finish the season and a bunch of swing games throughout.
I don’t think they are going to repeat, but when you have who may be the best QB in the conference, you have a chance every game. This is a better than .500 team. Take the Over.
Western Michigan (O/U 6.5) – Much like I couldn’t quite understand why Vegas set the win total for NIU at 6.5, I can’t quite understand why they did the same for Western Michigan. But for the Broncos, that confusion is for a very different reason.
WMU loses quarterback Kaleb Eleby, orchestrator of an offense that finished 12th in the nation in productivity. They also lose starting running back Sean Tyler and receiver Skyy Moore, a, early-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s a lot of offensive firepower that’s not going to be in Kalamazoo. And they get thrown into the fire early on, with a September schedule that has road games at Michigan St., Ball State and San Jose St. and a home game against a Pittsburgh team they beat last year. The only gimme is against New Hampshire.
The Broncos are going to have to depend on a defense early on that was pretty good last year (especially against the pass) but lost a lot of key pieces on that side of the ball as well. This just feels like a rebuilding year for Kalamazoo and not at all like a year where they win at least 7 games. Take the Under.
Ball St. (O/U 5.5) – I’m from Indiana. I had friends that went to Ball St. I wanted to go there. I have partied there. So I have a soft spot in my heart for #ChirpChirp Nation.
But what the hell is this team?
Last year they were one of the preseason favorites in the conference after finishing 2020 7-1, but sputtered to a 6-6 record. This year they turnover a lot of that roster including at quarterback, where Drew Plitt is no longer in Muncie. I’m just not sure there is a lot to get excited about….which is exactly when Ball St. is at its best.
Plitt is replaced by senior John Paddock, who has been the backup for the past three years. His experience will be helpful, because the offense should be ok as long as mistakes are limited. Running back Carson Steele and receiver Jayshon Jackson are pretty nice weapons to have at your disposal.
Defensively, the Cardinals only return three starters, but it is one at each level. So there is solid building blocks to work with. But again, not overly exciting and maybe downright scary considering they begin the season at Tennessee.
Assuming an 0-1 start, the good news is there are more games they should win than there are should lose. Connecticut and Murray State at home and at Georgia Southern are the remainder of the non-con. There is also a conference game Week Two at home against Western Michigan that it would behoove of the Cardinals to win, as the month of November contains three road games at Kent St., Toledo and Miami (OH) that will be challenges. I don’t see a 6 win season, but I have been surprised by this team before. So my recommendation is to Stay Away.
Buffalo (O/U 5.5) – It’s easy to say last year was an anomaly.
Head coach Lance Leipold left Buffalo for Kansas last April, a little later than most coaching positions are filled. As a result, the Bulls didn’t have as much time to get a new coach in (they hired from within, which they may have done anyway) and/or a new system implemented. It all felt like they were learning on the job.
This year’s team loses starting quarterback Kyle VanTrease (transferred to Georgia Southern) and running back Dylan McDuffie (transferred to Georgia Tech). So while the offense loses a lot of major players, they do return a lot of experience, as 10 of the 11 projected starters are seniors.
I actually really like what the Bulls bring back on defense. They return probably the best defensive player in the conference in linebacker James Patterson and their entire defensive line. If their secondary can gel (it has several incoming transfers) then this defense could be really good.
Draftkings set the win total at 5.5, and with a September schedule that has them going to Maryland, Coastal Carolina and Eastern Michigan in three of their first four games, that may feel optimistic. But the back half of the schedule is very manageable, with games at UMass, at Ohio and home against Akron and Kent St. This feels like one of those teams that starts off slow, then gets hot at the tail end of the season (like Central Michigan or Miami last year). They will be better than last year, but the non-con may not let the schedule reflect it. Stay Away.
Ohio U. (O/U 5.5) – You know how Eastern Michigan is a quarterback away from being really good? Well Ohio may have that quarterback…but not much else.
Theoretically, it’s not the worst thing in the world for an offense that struggled to score to lose all but three members of the offensive line and quarterback Kurtis Rourke. And a defense that finished 104 in the FBS in total defense returns eight starters, so they should be improved. But without an identity that they haven’t really had since Frank Solich was coaching, will it matter? And where are six wins coming from? A non-con that has Ohio going to Iowa St. and Penn St. don’t help. They will need to win the 50-50 games. Games like Florida Atlantic, Buffalo and Bowling Green at home, and don’t lose all your road games. And for the love of God, they better beat Akron at home.
Nothing is a given with this team. But to expect at least a three game increase from 3 wins last year to six this year is asking a lot. Take the Under and lock it in.
Kent St. (O/U 5) – You know how sometimes there is a team with a low O/U that will take you on an absolute ride? I give you the 2022 Kent St. Golden Flashes.
Gone from an offense that was third in the nation in rushing and fourth overall is quarterback Dustin Crum. However, returning are running back Marquise Cooper and receiver Dante Cephus, two of the best at their positions in all of the Group of Five. Those are nice toys for presumed new starting quarterback Collin Schlee to work with. I think the offense will be fine. That’s the good news. Now the bad.
The defense is an absolute trainwreck, finishing 116th in the country in both rush defense and pass defense last year. It speaks to how good the offense was that they won the MAC East despite that. (That’s right. Kent St. did win the MAC East. People forget that.) You want more bad news? The non-conference schedule includes road games at Washington, at Oklahoma and at Georgia, not to mention games at Miami (OH) and at Toledo. That’s just mean.
If you want to win money, Stay Away. But if you want to ride a roller coaster, I won’t blame you. October and November (just in time for MACtion) will be entertaining.
Bowling Green (O/U 3.5) – What am I missing here?
A team that brings back the most starting experience in all of the FBS went 4-8 last year. They are last year’s “team that beat a mediocre Big 10 team” by going to Minnesota and winning 14-10. They have a gimme against Eastern Kentucky, so that means 3 more wins with a schedule that includes road games at Akron and at Ohio and home games against Marshall, Buffalo, Western Michigan and Kent St. Road games at UCLA and at Mississippi St. are daunting, but there are wins to be had and 3.5 could look laughably low when all is said and done this season. Take the Over and don’t think twice about it.
Akron (O/U 2.5) – Akron has been terrible the past few years, but there is some good juju on the way.
The Zips hired Oregon OC Joe Moorhead. He inherits a sophomore dominant offense that took their lumps last year, including quarterback DJ Irons, and adds the 1,000-yard Pittsburgh receiver that didn’t win the Biletnikoff Award, Shocky Jacques-Louis. Sure, there is work to be done defensively, and after a confidence-builder against St. Francis (Pa.), the schedule has three consecutive road games at Michigan St., Tennessee and Liberty.
I think the Zips will get someone in conference, but will they get two? I’m not so sure. I think we see marked improvement this year, even if it doesn’t show in the win column. Stay Away, but enjoy the juju Zips fans.
Overs – Central Michigan, Miami (OH) (Lock), Northern Illinois, Bowling Green
Unders – Western Michigan, Ohio (Lock)
Stay Aways – Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Ball St., Buffalo, Kent St., Akron
1. Miami (OH)
2. Bowling Green
3. Kent St.
1. Central Michigan
3. Northern Illinois
4. Eastern Michigan
5. Ball St.
6. Western Michigan
So there is my deep dive into the Mid-American Conference. As you can see, this is not the conference for Regular Season Win Futures, but a hell of a lot of fun if you bet the Overs in point totals. If you use any of my recommendations, feel free to tweet me what your bet is (@justincripe). And if you are the parlaying type, we will probably become best friends.