2016 NCAA Football Preview: Mid-American Conference

August 31, 2016

I made a mistake on Sunday, falsely proclaiming that the Big Ten Conference preview was the only one that people would read anymore.

I forgot all about MACtion. I apologize, loyal readers.

Let’s take a look at the Mid-American Conference.


The most exciting football you’ll watch on a Tuesday night in mid-November has a pretty good chance of coming from the Mid-American Conference. Then again, the most exciting football you’ll watch all year has a chance to come from this conference as well, as the MAC has taken its fun slogan (MACtion) and backed it up with really close games and high octane football over the past decade or so.

The college football landscape has changed dramatically over the years, which is why it is somewhat amazing that a conference with the relative clout of the MAC has managed to stay so steady. Nine current members of the league have been full-fledged members since 1973.

In the past calendar year, however, there was some turnover. The University of Massachusetts, who broke into the FBS level with the MAC in 2012, decided to leave the conference in favor of independence after just four years.

Massachusetts leaving does not appear to be a sign of things to come for the league, though. The nucleus of the conference appears safe, meaning that we should see plenty of MACtion for years to come.

College Football Playoff Contenders


Fans of the underdog will need to look elsewhere for a College Football Playoff dark horse, because it won’t be found in the Mid-American Conference. The league has some talent returning, and nine of the 12 teams are projected to start a junior or senior at quarterback, which is a good sign for a conference where graduation and experience level can drop a team from bowl bound to cellar dweller in a matter of two seasons.  But there is school in the MAC capable of earning enough votes to climb through the rankings to become a true Playoff contender.

The closest that this conference will get to the Playoff is having a team that upsets one of the contenders from a Power 5 conference.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Kent State

The Golden Flashes are exactly the kind of team that you see make a surprising run in the MAC every few years. Kent State has won a total of nine games in the last three seasons, a byproduct of a rebuilding cycle that ensued shortly after the team’s most successful season in school history in 2012. But in 2016, the team brings back lots of starters on both sides of the football (including the entire offensive line) and play a manageable schedule after opening with two of its first four games against Penn State and Alabama on the road.

If the offense can come together with the anchor as its experienced offensive line, the Golden Flashes are a team that could orchestrate a surprise return to a bowl game in 2016. It is possible that the only non-returning starter on the offense is the quarterback, which is highly important considering Kent State runs a spread offense. If things come together behind center, this team finishes above .500.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Zach Terrell, Western Michigan senior quarterback

It’s between Terrell and Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush as to who is the best pure passer in the MAC this season, so since Terrell has a better offense around him he’ll be the one most likely to earn all the accolades. The senior showed good poise in difficult games early last season, holding his own against Big Ten bullies Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. Additionally, he finished third in the conference in passing yards despite throwing for nearly 100 fewer passes than the two men ahead of him.

With an easier out-of-conference slate and a stable of senior wide receivers to throw to, expect much of the same production from Terrell in 2016. The Broncos were a bit of a disappointment in the MAC last season, finishing tied for first in the West Division and missing out on the conference title game after being the clear favorite to win it in the preseason. Having Terrell back behind center gives Western Michigan another great chance to compete for a conference title.

Jordan Johnson, Buffalo senior running back

There are a few other returning running backs in the MAC that rushed for more yards than Johnson last season, but none of them had a running mate who also finished in the top 10 in the conference in average rushing yards per game. Johnson shared the load with former All-MAC selection Anthone Taylor but will see the majority of the touches in 2016. Expect the yards per game to go up as Johnson will be the focal point of an offense that must replace former starting quarterback Joe Licata.

Johnson’s size allows him to be a physical back, but he also has some speed that allows him to breakaway for big gains as well. His best performances matched up well with Buffalo’s success – when Johnson had at least 14 carries last season, the Bulls were 3-1. It will likely be a rebuilding year for Buffalo, but Johnson should have at least that many carries in every game he plays in 2016.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Western Michigan at Northwestern (September 3)

The Broncos began last season with a Big Ten squad and ended up looking pretty decent for over a half. This year, Western Michigan’s opening opponent is from the same conference but isn’t predicted to contend for a College Football Playoff bid. In other words, this is a game that the MAC school could realistically win.

It will be interesting to see how Western Michigan’s offense fares against a Big Ten defense that should be one of the better ones in the conference this season. The Broncos have some NFL-caliber talent, especially at wide receiver in Corey Davis, and could give the back end of Northwestern’s defense real trouble. The Wildcats won’t have the most potent offense in the country, either, so Western Michigan’s defensive concerns may not be a major factor in this one.

San Diego State at Northern Illinois (September 17)

The Aztecs could make a claim as the best team outside of a Power 5 conference this season, but before anyone will buy that they will need to beat a tough Northern Illinois squad on the road. The Huskies have been one of the most consistent non-Power 5 performers for over a decade, so this is a fun matchup on paper alone.

Two of the better running backs in the country will square off in San Diego State’s Donnell Pumphrey and Northern Illinois’s Joel Bouagnon. The Aztecs figure to be a very strong defense against the run, but its unknown whether the Huskies can say the same, needing to replace a large portion of its front seven. The running game will probably be the deciding factor in this one so if Northern Illinois isn’t up to the task, Pumphrey could be a major thorn in the home team’s side.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Northern Illinois at Western Michigan (October 8)

A rematch of the game that determined the 2015 West Division champion may again be the deciding factor in which team is headed to Detroit in December. This time the Broncos will get the Huskies on home turf, but that will matter very little if the one of the country’s top offenses is able to muster fewer than 20 points as it did in last year’s battle.

It’s really quite remarkable that Western Michigan was able to post over 350 passing yards, hold Joel Bouagnon to fewer than 100 yards rushing and still end up losing last year’s game 29-17. As weird as it sounds, if the Broncos are able to do those two things again in this year’s matchup, it’s difficult to imagine them losing again.

Akron at Ohio (November 22)

The Zips have a favorable MAC schedule this year, facing what will likely be their toughest competition at home with the exception of the Bobcats. Frank Solich’s team is consistently a MAC title contender and will be gunning for the top spot in the East Division again along with Akron. This is the season finale for both teams and it could very well decide the division.

Solich is known for putting together strong defensive units, and this year’s Ohio squad appears to be headed back to the top of the conference in terms of defensive numbers. If Akron wants to win this game, quarterback Thomas Woodson is going to need to avoid the multitude of blitzes that the Bobcats will bring. This was a low scoring matchup in 2015 and if Ohio gets its way, the 2016 edition will be no different. It’s unclear whether Akron has the offense to prevent that from happening.

Conference Predictions

East Disivion

1. Ohio (8-4, [5-3])

2. Kent State (6-6, [4-4])

3. Akron (6-6, [4-4])

4. Bowling Green (4-8, [3-5])

5. Buffalo (4-8, [2-6])

6. Miami (Ohio) (3-9, [2-6])

West Division

1. Western Michigan (9-3, [6-2])

2. Toledo (8-4, [6-2])

3. Central Michigan (9-3, [6-2])

4. Northern Illinois (9-3, [6-2])

5. Ball State (4-8, [3-5])

6. Eastern Michigan (2-10, [0-8])

Championship Game (Ohio vs. Western Michigan)

Winner: Western Michigan

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