2023 NCAAF: Mid-American Conference Preview

August 26, 2023


Plot twist: despite all the activity going on nationally regarding conference realignment, the Mid-American Conference has remained entirely intact, all the way down to maintaining its East and West divisions.

The conference has been decimated in other ways, however; most notably, by the transfer portal, where the rest of the country has learned that the proverbial ‘Cradle of Coaches’ league is also a pond stocked full of talent willing to move after a successful season at a MAC school. Programs such as Ball State and Kent State, in particular, were hit hard by this relatively new phenomenon.

At the same time, the impact of the portal goes both ways. Former three, four and even a handful of five-star guys looking for a new start have found their way to a MAC campus in preparation for the 2023 season.

Whereas continuity and experience has long been an important advantage for title contending teams in the MAC, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that luck with the transfer portal will also have a measurable impact on the development of this league and its tendencies.

Teams I Like


The Rockets are the defending MAC champion and bring back a lot of pieces on both sides of the ball, so the expectation both inside and outside the locker room will be a repeat performance. While the defense is solid to say the least, all eyes will be on second-team All-MAC quarterback Dequan Finn, his experienced offensive line and the cast of talented skill position players at Finn’s disposal.

The conference slate seems manageable, and by that time the Rockets should be battle tested anyway, traveling to Illinois to kick off the season then welcoming San Jose State’s potent offensive attack two weeks later. Nothing less than a return trip to Detroit will be seen as a success in 2023.


Similar to Toledo, the Bobcats feel that they return enough complementary pieces to a capable offense that a trip back to Detroit in December should be within reach. Quarterback Kurtis Rourke has been named the starter ahead of the season opener against San Diego State, which is good news on the heels of an ACL tear that ended his 2022 campaign in late November. Along with Rourke, MAC Freshman of the Year running back Sieh Bangura will be a handful for opposing defenses.

Ohio must go on the road to face stiff MAC competitors Northern Illinois and Buffalo, but have the talent to navigate these challenges successfully.

Ball State

The Cardinals were hit extremely hard by the transfer portal, a story not unique in the MAC but unfortunate for a program that was seemingly on the cusp of a breakthrough last season. ‘Opportunistic’ is a good word to describe Ball State, however – while it lost running back Carson Steele and his 1,556 rushing yards to UCLA, it grabbed fellow MAC foe Kent State’s Marquez Cooper, the conference’s second leading rusher behind Steele, to take his place.

If things come together at quarterback and on the defensive front, Ball State could break through to the postseason and potentially even flirt with a conference title game berth.

Not High On

Miami (Ohio)

The Redhawks have been a consistent performer under Chuck Martin, who to his credit has produced a winner in a place where it was not commonplace since Ben Roethlisberger before Martin arrived. The team is built around a stout defense, however, and it appears offense will win the day in the conference this season.

Miami isn’t devoid of offensive prowess – quarterback Brett Gabbert is serviceable when healthy, but that if is important. He is oft injured and without him the team will rely too much on its defense to be a true title contender, which is what the expectation for the program seems to be in 2023. This is a call to sell that stock.

Players to Watch

Kurtis Rourke, Ohio quarterback

The younger Rourke has made a solid case to avoid ever being called ‘Nathan’s little brother’ again on Ohio’s campus in Athens. Before tearing his ACL last season late in the year, Rourke was the Bobcats’ most valuable player and directing them towards the MAC title game.

With an offseason to rehab and confidence in the running game behind him to soften up the middle of defenses, Rourke can focus on honing his passing skills, which were already very good before the injury (25 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions). A conference OPOY award is not out of reach for Rourke.

Marquee Cooper, Ball State running back

Unfortunately for Kent State, the Golden Flashes’ loss is Ball State’s gain. Cooper saw an opportunity in Muncie with the departure of the conference’s leading rusher Carson Steele, and should pick up right where Steele left off (Cooper was, after all, the conference’s second leading rusher).

While Ball State will look to employ a balanced offensive attack, expect Cooper to carry a heavy load early as the Cardinals continue to develop their quarterback situation. Cooper isn’t as physical a runner as Steele, but is quick enough to reach the second layer of a defense quickly.

Games to Watch (Non-Conference)

Iowa State at Ohio (September 16, 12 PM ET)

A rare occasion when a MAC school will host a Power 5 program isn’t the only surprising aspect about this game. Given Iowa State’s performances in 2022, the Cyclones will be the team looking to come away with a victory thanks to a strong defensive performance.

San Jose State at Toledo (September 16, 7 PM ET)

The Trojans visit the Glass Bowl in what should be one of the better Group of Five non-conference matchups of the season. Chevan Cordiero and Dequan Finn will trade punches offensively in a game which should feature a lot of touchdowns.

Games to Watch (Conference)

Miami (Ohio) at Ohio (October 28, TBA time)

Best case scenario, Brett Gabbert stays healthy and this game is instrumental in deciding the East division title. Worst case scenario, this is a fun regional rivalry game in which both sides (and their fans) really don’t like each other.

Eastern Michigan at Toledo (November 8, TBA time)

If the Eagles grow into a more balanced offensive attack (they’ll be run heavy early as things settle at the quarterback position), Eastern Michigan has a chance to vie for the West division title. It is expected that said title chase will run through Toledo as well.



  1. Ohio (9-3, [7-1])
  2. Buffalo (9-3, [6-2])
  3. Miami (Ohio) (8-4, [5-3])
  4. Bowling Green (4-8, [3-5])
  5. Akron (2-10, [1-7])
  6. Kent State (1-11, [0-8])


  1. Toledo (9-3, [6-2])
  2. Northern Illinois (7-5, [5-3])
  3. Eastern Michigan (8-4, [5-3])
  4. Ball State (7-5, [5-3])
  5. Central Michigan (5-7, [4-4])
  6. Western Michigan (2-10, [1-7])

Conference Title Game

Ohio vs. Toledo

Conference Champion: Ohio

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