Relative stability has been the MAC’s calling card for most of its existence. Ohio is the only original member, but half the membership is part of the group that formed the league’s nucleus in the early 1950s and three others joined back in the 1970s. The last three have been around for two decades or more. While it has rarely been spectacular or at the forefront of college football, MACtion has nonetheless been an indelible part of the midwestern college football landscape. And for a moment there it looked like it might link with its Mountain West counterparts to really change college football’s power structure.
Back in 2012 an odd confluence of twists and turns allowed Northern Illinois to bust the BCS and play in the Orange Bowl, vaulting the MAC to a new level of prominence as the first mid-major east of the Mississippi to earn a spot in one of the big games. Since then, NIU had the chance to really upset the BCS in its final season in 2013, going undefeated through the regular season but getting upset by Bowling Green in the conference championship game to miss out on a big-time bowl. The game since then has become a matter of the Huskies and Falcons trading punches in Detroit every December, with NIU winning the 2014 game and Bowling Green making it two out of three last season.
Along the way the dominance of these two teams — and the tendency for league members to beat up on one another to the point of ruining national contention possibilities — has masqueraded the depth that has been building up in the league. Toledo lost both its games last year by five points apiece, ended the regular season with the best winning percentage in the conference, and yet failed to beat out NIU for the MAC West title due to both losses coming against the other 6-2 teams in the division. Western Michigan has looked like an awakening challenger as well… but then again, the same has been said before about Ohio and others. Can a surprise contender break the NIU-Bowling Green stranglehold on the conference?
Let’s dive in and assess the MAC pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
6. Buffalo — Lance Leipold knew what he was getting himself into when he left Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater for the Buffalo job, and in his first season with the Bulls he lost more games (seven) than he did in eight seasons with the Warhawks. But Buffalo showed improvement from Jeff Quinn’s tenure, despite a largely bare cupboard that remains thin; Leipold’s team returns the least experience in the MAC in 2016. While the defense should remain at least average, though the sudden death of defensive end Solomon Jackson during spring term put football into clear perspective for this team. Even if the defense does its job, though, coming close to bowl eligibility in year two will be tough with only three returning offensive starters. The loss of John Kling, second-team All-MAC left tackle in 2015, will be especially tough to mask. An easy schedule — the toughest test is a trip to Boston College — opens the door for hope, and an inexperienced roster coping with the loss of a teammate could either rally to reach the postseason or collapse further back in the division.
5. Kent State — Four years ago, the Golden Flashes came into the MAC Championship against NIU as the higher-ranked of the two teams and could just as easily have been the conference’s first BCS Buster. Instead, after the double-overtime loss Kent State lost Darrell Hazell to Purdue, Paul Haynes took over the team, and the past three years have resulted in steadily diminishing returns. Since that 11-3 season in 2012, the Flashes have won just nine games over the following three years. This year is the make-or-break season for Haynes and Kent State, as they return the most experienced team in all FBS and are anchored by a disruptive defensive front seven that can keep the team in most games. Now they just need to find a quarterback, especially with trips to Penn State and Alabama sandwiched around two FCS games (only one which can count as a win toward bowl eligibility) in September. If the offense can at least become competent, focusing on its run game, Kent State could surprise some teams in MAC play — but it will still be an uphill battle to become bowl eligible.
4. Miami (OH) — Six years removed from their last conference title, the RedHawks have showed slight but steady upward trajectory under third-year head coach Chuck Martin. Of course, when you’re hired after a 0-12 campaign, anything is improvement, and with just five wins in his first two seasons Martin needs to continue that upward trend toward bowl eligibility in a fairly-open division. The offense returns nine starters and nearly 85 percent of last year’s production; unfortunately, that group produced one of the worst offensive seasons in FBS in 2015. Billy Bahl should be better as a sophomore in his first full season as the starter, though he loses left tackle Trevan Brown and center Brandyn Cook from the line. The defense was serviceable if unspectacular, getting pressure up front but faltering on the back end, and will need new talent to rise quickly. Just like 13 years ago, when the RedHawks missed out on a BCS berth under the old top-six stipulations, they’ll open at Iowa — the one team that bested them that season. They also face Western Kentucky and Cincinnati out of conference and could be behind the 8-ball by the time MAC play starts.
3. Akron — The preseason PRS rankings really love the Zips, in large part because of a solid 2015 defense and the experience of head coach Terry Bowden. But Akron returns little in the way of experience on its roster, losing seven starters on each side of the ball from last year. All five offensive line starters are gone, as are five of the team’s starting front seven on defense. Bowden and his staff have their work cut out to keep Akron postseason eligible in 2016, and the talent available in terms of what has been recruited isn’t very inspiring. With three possible division/conference winners (Wisconsin, Marshall, and Appalachian State) on their non-conference schedule, the Zips did not set themselves up with much margin for error. Drawing Toledo and Western Michigan in cross-division play further limits the ceiling for this Akron team, which could still return to a bowl game for the second straight year but which is more likely to regress back to a 5-7 level they experienced in years two and three of the Bowden era.
2. Ohio — When the Bobcats hired Frank Solich a dozen years ago to take over as head coach, it felt like Ohio was on the verge of big things. In his second season, they won the MAC East but lost to Central Michigan. Though they’ve been back to Detroit twice more for the title game, though, Ohio has yet to win a single MAC title under Solich. Last year the Bobcats returned to a bowl game for the sixth time in seven years after being snubbed at 6-6 in 2014, but the team loses a lot of experience from its roster and could take a step back from eight wins. They should still be bowl eligible, though, thanks to a schedule that provides the opportunity to enter October and conference play at 3-1 (a trip to Tennessee the only likely loss) and which avoids both NIU and WMU in cross-division play. If they can get past Bowling Green on October 8, the season finale against Akron could be for another trip to Ford Field to face the West champ.
1. Bowling Green — Of course, the Falcons will have something to say about Ohio’s bid to return to prominence in the MAC East. A lot will depend on whether Mike Jinks can keep the momentum rolling as the new head coach, just like Dino Babers did after Dave Clawson left for the Wake Forest job in 2013. Gone too are prolific quarterback Matt Johnson, tailback Travis Greene, and last year’s two biggest threats at receiver. The offense will at least have four of its five starting linemen back, only right guard Alex Huettel no longer with the Falcons, and the building blocks are there to keep the machinery rolling. The defense was just as pivotal to BGSU’s successes over the past few seasons, though a deep cornerback position is tempered by the loss of both starting safeties. Bowling Green plays right off the bat at Ohio State, and the lack of other Power Five opportunities will make them less likely to remain on the national radar, but Jinks’ team should push once again for the division title.
6. Ball State — Muncie isn’t the easiest place to get recruits… then again, no place in the MAC is exactly a destination spot for high schoolers. And now Pete Lembo has jumped ship in a lateral-at-best move to Maryland, where he is not head coach but offensive coordinator. Enter Mike Neu, a former Ball State quarterback, to try to establish a baseline of respectability at the longtime MAC doormat. The Cardinals return most of their defensive talent, which given the numbers doesn’t seem like a boon but which should translate to better numbers thanks to the experience gained. The offense was never the problem for Ball State, as Riley Neal went through growing pains as a freshman quarterback but should be better in his second season as a starter. The offensive line took a massive hit in losing four of five starters, but with their toughest game coming at Indiana this year it shouldn’t be a terrible rebuild for New and crew. That doesn’t mean the Cardinals will go bowling in 2016, but they should revert back a little closer toward .500 this year.
5. Eastern Michigan — Eastern Michigan hasn’t been bowling since 1987, and the streak of futility is likely to span three full decades by the time this year is over. But there are reasons for optimism as well in Ypsilanti, beginning with the fact that no other team returns as much offensive line experience in the MAC. This should mitigate the loss of tailback Darius Jackson. They do have back starting quarterback Brogan Roback, though he will have to work with a new crew of receivers. Defense has been EMU’s biggest issue, though, as that unit has allowed at least 28 points in 21 straight games dating back to 2014. Chris Creighton and his staff have their work cut out for them if the Eagles are going to see any chance at improvement in 2016. Unless they catch lightning in a bottle, the most that Eastern Michigan can probably hope for this season is four wins — which would still be one more than Creighton has won in his first two seasons combined at the helm.
4. Central Michigan — A decade ago, the Chippewas began a run of three MAC titles in four years under first Brian Kelly and then Butch Jones. Both left for higher-profile jobs, and the program sputtered and stagnated under Dan Enos for four seasons before he left to take a step down in position as offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Now John Bonamego is hoping his first season in charge provides a steppingstone upward rather than downward as he tries to guide CMU toward its third straight bowl appearance. The Chippewas return one of the more experienced rosters in the MAC this year, though they lost two starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Visits to Oklahoma State and Virginia offer differing levels of challenge against Power Five competition, while CMU also has to play at Northern Illinois and at Toledo in back-to-back weeks of conference play. It certainly isn’t 2006 all over again, but Bonamego’s team has the potential to at least keep up the school’s bowl streak in 2016.
3. Northern Illinois — As long as Drew Hare is healthy, NIU has a shot at contending for a conference-record seventh straight MAC West title. The Huskies return six starters on each side of the ball, though many of the losses come along the respective offensive and defensive lines and could prove disproportionately impactful. Rod Carey’s crew somehow beat the teams they needed to beat last year, knocking off Toledo by five and Western Michigan by eight en route to the division title, but beyond a secondary that nabbed 22 interceptions on the year the Huskies were rather pedestrian in 2015. This year there are no Power Five tests for Northern Illinois, which will instead play Wyoming and San Diego State from the MWC and South Florida from the AAC along with FCS Western Illinois in non-conference play. The mid-September dates with the Bulls and Aztecs in particular will determine whether this year is a contender or a pretender year — though maybe it won’t, if NIU can once again just win the right games on their schedule.
2. Toledo — The Rockets probably have the most to feel aggrieved about last year, with their two defeats coming by ten combined points against the only two opponents against whom losing would have such a disproportionate impact. By performing so well without any discernible return, though, it made it that much easier for head coach Matt Campbell to bolt for Iowa State — who will come to the Glass Bowl on September 19 for a showdown. Unfortunately for the Rockets, not only did they lose their head coach but also more experience than any other team in their division. Though they lose Phillip Ely at quarterback, Toledo returns 2014 starter Logan Woodside to ease the burden on new head coach Jason Candle. As a result the team should not have any appreciable dropoff at the position. More troubling is the loss of eight defensive starters and more than half of the team’s 2015 tackles. With not only the Cyclones but also Arkansas on their early schedule, the newcomers will have to gel quickly together to have a shot at contending for MAC and Access Bowl honors.
1. Western Michigan — In a conference of wild shootouts, Zach Terrell is no stranger to flinging the football. He’ll be playing with a receiving corps that mostly returns from 2015, along with Jarvion Franklin in the backfield, and Terrell will also operate behind a line that returns four of its five starters from last year. Of course, the one loss is all-conference left tackle Willie Beavers, which could be a bit problematic on Terrell’s blind side if Elliot Jordan can’t fill his shoes at the position. The defense loses five starters, which could be a boon in the end if the replacements improve on last year’s mediocre performances by the unit that hamstrung their chances at a division crown. Road trips to face Northwestern and Illinois in September set up WMU for a year in which they could challenge not just for the division but also for the Access Bowl bid among the Group of Five schools. A trip to Detroit and a shot at the MAC title could come down to the Black Friday battle with Toledo…