PHOTO: Ball State Daily

CLEVELAND, OH — Before the 2020 college football season got under way, the Mid-American Conference took a preemptive strike and was going to move its games to the spring due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

In the fall, the MAC reopened to play later in the season, which it did with  a six-game conference schedule. Even though it was a shortened season, there were surprises, the biggest being Ball State. After losing their opener to Miami, the Cardinals won their last seven games including the Western Division title before shocking Buffalo in the Championship Game and San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl finishing with a top 25 ranking.


Buffalo was an offense that just could not be stopped especially their running attack as they easily won the Eastern Division before being surprised in the title game by Ball State however rebounding to defeat Marshall in the Camellia Bowl and a top 25 final ranking as well.

The conference begins its 75th season with the start of the 2021 season. What will be the storylines as the 12 teams begin the road to Detroit and the 2012 MAC Championship Game presented by Rocket Mortgage?

Will BSU continue its momentum from a season ago in a highly competitive Western Division. Will Kent State be one of those surprise teams to come out of the East or will Buffalo continue its dominance in the division? And what of teams like Toledo, Central Michigan, Miami, and Western Michigan will they be heard from this fall?

Here is a look at MAC Football in season 2021.

 

AKRON: Over the past two seasons, the Zips have had one of the youngest teams in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision. As head coach Tom Arth heads into his third season, the Blue and Gold look to make the step toward the road back to relevance and respectability.

UA will have some pieces on both sides of the ball especially on offense where Kato Nelson is healthy after almost two seasons of assorted ailments. He will have good running game in Teon Dollard who rushed for over 111 yards in the 2021 season. The defense will be led by Bubba Arslanian who is one of the top tackles not only in the MAC, but in the entire FBS. Akron opens the season on September 3rd at Auburn

 

BOWLING GREEN: Like Akron, the Falcons are looking to get back on the winning ways as Scott Loeffler begins this third season. BGSU still has some growing pains on offense especially at QB. Look for Matt McDonald to start under center for their season opener at Tennessee.

The running game is led by Teriom Stewart who led the team with 295 yards rushing a season ago. The defense was devastated by graduation they will be young but look for Anthony Hawkins to be one of the players to watch for along with LB Darren Anders

 

BUFFALO: In 2020, the Bulls were simply a team that could not be stopped offensively and was strong defensively easily winning the Eastern Division before they were upset by Ball State in the MAC Championship Game but rebounded by defeating Marshall in the Camellia Bowl.

There is a new man in charge at UB as Maurice Lingquist who spent last season as co-defensive coordinator at Michigan as well as a stint in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys taking over for Lance Leipold who left to take the head job at Kansas. The Bulls open the season at home against FCS member Wagner on September 2nd at home before traveling to Nebraska.

The offense does not have Jaret Patterson who is trying to make the Washington Football Team, but they do have the other half of that explosive backfield from a season ago in Kevin Marks who was talked into not transferring. He rushed for 741 yards and seven touchdowns.

At quarterback, is Kyle Van Treese who completed 62 percent of his passes in 2020 for 1326 yards with seven touchdowns and only three interceptions. The defense will be led by senior LB James Patterson who and 63 total tackles (29 solo) and Kadofi Wright 17 total stops (10 solo)

 

KENT STATE: A season ago the Golden Flashes were on a roll winning seven straight games dating back to last season having one of the best offenses in college football.

However, all that ended with a 70-41 loss at Buffalo and then losing their final two games due to the pandemic. KSU is favorite to win the Eastern Division however they have one of the toughest season openers going to Texas A&M

Head coach Sean Lewis who recently received a three-year contract extension has a loaded squad arguably the best KSU team since their 2008 campaign that won the East and took eventual champion Northern Illinois to the overtime in the MAC Championship Game.

The “Flash First” offense will be by senior Dustin Crum who has had two outstanding seasons in 2020 he completed 74 percent of his passes throwing just two interceptions. Their running game is solid with Marquez Cooper while the strength of the defense is their linebackers Kaesean Gamble, Mandela Lawrence-Burke, and Brandon Coleman

 

MIAMI (OH): The Redhawks played only three games in 2020 due to the pandemic, however they had a 2-1 record with one of those wins coming over Ball State the only loss the Cardinals would suffer all season.

Playing so few games last season there are many question marks for head coach Chuck Martin beginning his ninth season in Oxford and his squad when they open the season against arch rival Cincinnati on September 4th in the battle for the victory bell.

The Hawks have a competition at quarterback with AJ Mayer and Brett Gabbert battling for the job. The running game that was a problem a season ago returns Jaylon Bester who did not play in 2020. In 2019 led the team with 741 yards. The defense will be led by DE Kameron Butler who had 5 ½ sacks a season ago.

 

OHIO: Bobcats football will have a new look in 2021 as Frank Solich stepped down after 18 seasons in Athens due to health reasons. Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin was named head coach. Even though there is  change at the top do not expect any falloff of intensity and drive from the Green and White who opens the season on September 3rd  when Syracuse comes to Peden Stadium

The Cats offense will again be led by Sophomore QB Kurtis Rourke the younger brother of Bobcat great Nathan who is in the CFL and a running attack led by De’Montre Tuggle who had 644 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019 and Armani Rogers who comes from UNLV. while the defense will be led by DB Jamison Collier and S Jarren Hampton

 

WESTERN DIVISION

 

BALL STATE: The Cardinals opened 2020 with a loss to Miami. From then they won their last seven games including a three-game stretch where they beat Toledo, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan to win the Western Division then surprising Buffalo in the MAC Championship Game then dominating San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.

BSU opens the season at home against FCS opponent Western Illinois before road games at Penn State and Wyoming.

As head coach, Mike Neu begins his sixth season in Muncie most people know they are the hunted not the hunter in the highly competitive Western Division. The offense is led by Drew Plitt who completed 66 percent of his passes for 2164 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Plitt has one of the best receivers in the FBS in Justin Hall who had 49 catches for 665 yards in 2020. The Cards defense will be led by Brandon Martin, Jaylin Thomas, and Christian Albright.

 

CENTRAL MICHIGAN: While all the talk has been on Ball State and Toledo in the Western Division, make sure you don’t sleep on the Chippewas.

Head coach Jim McIlwain beginning his third season after the Western title and the MAC Championship in 2019 is back for another shot at the crown.

The offense has one of the best wide receivers in the country in Kalil Pimperton who had receptions for yards. The man at the controls should be Daniel Richardson who completed 55.4 percent of his passes a season ago.

The defense will be led by S Willie Reed as well as LB George Douglas and Troy Brown. CMU opens the campaign on September 4th when Missouri comes to Mount Pleasant.

 

EASTERN MICHIGAN: The Eagles suffered a setback in 2020 going 2-4 which stopped the momentum that head coach Chris Creighton was building in Ypsilanti. The Green and White look to rebound in 2021 beginning the season at home on September 3rd against FCS member Saint Francis (PA) then the next week it is onto Wisconsin.

EMU will do so offensively QB Preston Hutchinson who completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,657 yards and 12 touchdowns. The rest of the offense is young look for WR Hassan Beydoun to be a main piece. The defense will be led by senior DT Michael Smith.

 

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: 2020 was a long hard season for the Huskies s they went 0-6 their first winless season since 1990 when they went 0-11-1.

It may not have shown in wins however head coach Thomas Hammock beginning his third season in DeKalb does have pieces to get NIU back on track. The Huskies open 2021 September 4th at Georgia Tech then home to Wyoming

A big part of the offense will be QB Rocky Lombardi the transfer from Michigan State. Lombardi will have the Huskies two top running backs in the fold with Erin Collins and Harrison Waylee as well as his top receiver in Tyrice Ritchie who had 53 receptions a season ago.

The defense will be led by CB Jordan Ganley and LB Kyle Pugh

 

TOLEDO: One team you never count out in the West is Toledo. The Rockets came up a little short in 2020 going 4-2 but were there in the hunt for the title before they lost to Ball State. Head Coach Jason Candle beginning his sixth season has UT loaded for the season. The Rockets open at home against FCS Norfolk State before traveling to South Bend to battle Notre Dame.

The offense is led by RB Bryan Roback who rushed for 522 yards last season and scored four touchdowns. The offense also has a big play WR in Isiah Winstead and Bryce Mitchell. The QB? Look for Carter Bradley who led UT to a pair of wins to close the season as the starter. The defense will be led by LB Dyontae Johnson who had 47 total tackles and a sack along with DT Desjuan Johnson.

 

WESTERN MICHIGAN: The Broncos went 4-2 last season and still had a chance to win the Western Division title as they lost in the finale to Ball State despite having a Cal-Stanford type play at the end. Nevertheless, head coach Tim Lester has a balanced squad that will open the season on September 4th traveling east on interstate 94 to face Michigan.

The WMU offense is led by QB Kaleb Eleby who Elerby who completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,715 yards with 18 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Even though D’Wayne Eskridge has gone to the NFL, there is still WR Skyy Hall who had 24 catches a season ago. The defense will be led by DE Ali Fayad who has 19 ½ sacks over his three seasons.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS: One thing you can say about MAC Football is competitive. Unlike some of the other conferences 10 of its 12 teams have played in the Championship Game at least once.

The questions are KSU and BSU are the pre-season favorites will they continue their play from a season ago. Will Toledo and Central Michigan and even Western Michigan or Miami come up to challenge or will there be a total surprise squad

That is one of the reasons why this conference in football is so much fun.

E.

 

 

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