This season will be unlike any other for the Mid-American Conference. After being the first Football Bowl Subdivision conference to postpone its season back in August, the MAC has returned and will play the first week of its six-game season Nov. 4.
It’s going to be a tough, albeit short, road to Detroit for the conference championship. Many of the teams on this list have the potential to win the conference this year. Throw in the unpredictability of 2020, and we could see one of the most thrilling title races ever.
Before the season starts, let’s take a look at which teams have the best chances on paper of making it to Ford Field.
Here’s The Post’s week zero power rankings.
Fresh off the heels of its first bowl win in school history, Buffalo is primed for a big 2020.
The Bulls were voted most likely to win the conference in the MAC media poll and for good reason. Star running back Jaret Patterson is returning, and so is most of the defense that was ranked No. 1 in the conference last season.
Patterson, a junior, was one of the best running backs in college football last season. Despite failing to eclipse 100 yards for the first three games in the season, Patterson took off once he became the key piece of the Bulls’ offense. He finished the season with 1,799 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns — second of still active NCAA running backs.
On the other side of the ball is a defensive juggernaut who is bound to have offensive coordinators up late. Buffalo allowed a conference low 21.3 points per game last season. Returning is Patterson’s twin brother, James, who’s one of the team's best run stoppers. The defensive line made up of Taylor Riggins, Malcolm Koonce and Eddie Wilson will be fierce.
Buffalo is the most complete team in the conference and has the fewest number of questions to answer. Teams don’t have a full season to figure the Bulls out, and that could play a major role in the team’s chances of winning the title.
After a limp 1-11 season in 2018, Central Michigan cleaned house and rearranged the coaching staff to re-ballast the program. The Chippewas surpassed expectations by rocketing to an 8-6 record and became MAC West champions for the first time since 2009. Central Michigan’s quick rise to the top of the MAC West in 2019 wasn’t expected, but what is yet to be seen is if it can be maintained.
One of Central Michigan’s vital offensive assets will be junior running back Kobe Lewis. Lewis managed to rush for 1,074 yards in his sophomore season, or about 42.3 percent of the Chippewa’s total rushing yards in 2019.
Supplemented by a receiving corps headed by first-team all-MAC selections Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan, the Chippewas have an offense prepped to outpace the rest of the MAC West.
The defense finished last season averaging 27.8 points and ranked fourth in the MAC for total defense. Starting defensive lineman Jacques Bristol has opted out of the season due to COVID-19, and starting linebacker Michael Oliver has graduated. While not a dramatic loss for the Chippewas, the losses will surely be felt.
The defending MAC champions have a tough journey ahead on the road to a successful title defense. The RedHawks start the season with a brutal three-game stretch against Ball State, MAC-favorite Buffalo and then Ohio in the annual edition of the Battle of the Bricks. Most teams would break under a schedule like this, but Miami’s experience could help it make it through the rough stretch.
The RedHawks return 10 of their 11 offensive starters from the year before. Most notably is Jaylon Bester, who rushed for 741 yards and 14 touchdowns. Not to mention starting quarterback Brett Gabbert is back for his sophomore year. A seasoned RedHawk offense should be able to hang with conference’s best, while the defense can once again help Miami pull off close, gritty wins like they did last year against Ohio, Northern Illinois and Akron.
The year 2020 is shaping up to be a turnaround year for Toledo after a disappointing 6-6 season in 2019.
Junior running back Bryant Koback is the cog that keeps Toledo’s offense turning. Ranked 29th in the nation for his 1,187 rushing yards, Koback will be a necessity if Toledo wants to succeed this season.
A receiving corps developing around senior Bryce Mitchell is sure to find its form this season. Mitchell hadn’t received much attention during his first two seasons before becoming Toledo’s leader in receiving yards (679), touchdowns (four) and second on the team for average yards per reception (19.4).
The Rockets were picked to place first in the MAC West in the preseason coaches’ poll and second in the media poll. With the assets they’ve inherited from last season, and assuming another late season skid doesn’t happen, it’s hard to disagree.
The Bobcats have the talent to be at the top of this list by the end of the season, but there’s too many questions to answer first. For one, who’s the quarterback? Is it Kurtis Rourke? Is it Armani Rogers? It could be both of them. Until Ohio figures out its quarterback situation, the offense will not be able to operate at full capacity, which could be a concern for its defense.
Ohio struggled with tackling early last season and could be in for those same problems again. Key losses such as Javon Hagan, Dylan Conner and Marlin Brooks will force some of the more inexperienced guys to step up. And who knows how long the process could take for guys like Jeremiah Wood or Alvin Floyd to become accustomed to a starter’s role? There’s only six games this season, so a feeling out process is going to have to be brief.
One area Ohio’s always been able to count on is special teams, but even that unit is a question mark. New kickers, punters, long snappers and returners all need game time experience.
Mike Neu returns for his fifth year as Cardinals head coach in 2020, coming off a 5-7 record that was much closer than it appeared on paper. The last three of Ball State’s losses were all decided by fewer than five points, and the Cardinals led the MAC in total offense last season.
Quarterback Drew Plitt will be returning after a monumental redshirt junior season, where he totaled 2,918 passing yards, the fifth-best single season for a quarterback in Ball State history. Junior receiver Justin Hall and graduate Antwan Davis will bolster Plitt’s capabilities, while rushing juggernaut Caleb Huntley will provide support on the ground.
What will hinder the Cardinals, as it routinely has in the past, will be their defense. Aside from the three games lost by fewer than five points each, the defense gave up 31.4 points per game and 424.7 total offensive yards per game. Most of the defense will be returning to potentially right what went wrong last season.
Since winning the MAC back in 2016, Western Michigan has had three mediocre six-loss seasons under Tim Lester. The Broncos enter the season having lost some big names on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the Broncos said goodbye to running back and MAC Offensive Player of the Year LeVante Bellamy, a seasoned quarterback in Jon Wassink as well as tight end Giovanni Ricci. On defense, Western Michigan lost Drake Spears at linebacker and Justin Tranquill at the safety position.
Kaleb Eleby will be a fresh face under center for the Broncos this season. Eleby, a redshirt sophomore, has limited experience after playing under a three-year-starter in Wassink but has a solid group of returning receivers to look for.
In 2019, the Broncos had the best defense in the MAC West, allowing only 25.9 points per game. They return with MAC Defensive Player of the Year Treshaun Hayward. Hayward’s breakout year as a junior proved him to be one of the best at his position not just in the MAC but in college football as a whole.
The Broncos open the season on the road against Akron but have a tough three-game stretch with Toledo, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois in the proceeding weeks.
Last season seemed like it would be another subpar year for the Golden Flashes until a win over Buffalo sparked a three-game winning streak and the team’s first bowl eligible season in eight years. Coach Sean Lewis enters his third season with the Golden Flashes and hopes to carry last years’ experiences and momentum into this season.
Dustin Crum returns at quarterback after a monster junior season in 2019 with 2,625 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. He was also the leading rusher for the Golden Flashes with 707 yards.
While Kent State featured a solid run game last season thanks to a strong offensive line, lack of protection saw Crumb sacked 38 times and cost valuable scrimmage yards for the Golden Flashes.
While Kent State returns three linebackers with experience, the Golden Flashes lack depth in the backfield after losing Qwuantrezz Knight and Jamal Parker.
A 6-7 season in 2019 left the Eagles with a good foundation and room to improve for 2020.
Preston Hutchinson takes the place of Mike Glass III at quarterback. Hutchinson only started once last season but strung together 462 passing yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback will have four of his receivers returning along with him.
The Eagles also graduated their leading rusher Shaq Vann and lost running back Willie Parker, who opted to leave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eastern Michigan has a lot of room for improvement. Last year, the Eagles gave up 30 points or more in seven of its 12 games, six of which were losses.
Much like Central Michigan, the Falcons have a coaching staff that is entering its second season. Unlike the Chippewas, it will take a bit longer to reach the top of the mountain.
Bowling Green ranked near the bottom in the MAC for both offense and defense last season. However, the Falcons were among the youngest teams in the MAC in 2019, which can lead into players down the road with plenty of experience. 2019 was also coach Scot Loeffler’s first time in his 23-year coaching career at the helm of a team.
A young team and a new staff is hard to swallow, but it will have a nice aftertaste a few years down the line once the players mature and Loeffler finds what works for the Falcons.
The starting quarterback spot has busted open for redshirt junior Matt McDonald, who followed Loeffler from Boston College after the 2018 season. Loeffler was the quarterbacks coach for the Eagles, and having McDonald as Bowling Green’s starter might be the most comfortable option.
The key word for the Huskies’ season is “new.”
The Huskies will be presenting almost an entirely new team to the MAC. Northern Illinois lost seven players to the transfer portal and graduated nearly the same number.
Northern Illinois has also added three transfer quarterbacks and two freshman quarterbacks to their depth chart. Ross Bowers will be starting for the Huskies, but with the addition of so many quarterbacks, that could be subject to change.
Defensively things are shaky as well. The Huskies lost Matt Lorbeck and Jack Heflin through a transfer to Iowa. The defense will, however, return five linebackers and a backfield composed of transfers and familiar faces like Dillon Thomas.
Northern Illinois may have one of the tougher schedules in the West. They’ll see MAC-favorite Buffalo at home in its first game. Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Toledo most likely won’t be easy games for the Huskies.
If there’s one thing most of the MAC can agree on, it’s that the Zips are bad.
Akron went 0-12 in Tom Arth’s first season as head coach, and year two looks to still be a rebuild. But one coach in the MAC actually chose the Zips to win the conference. It’s not unlikely, and who knows if the vote was a joke, but tease or not, the Zips want to be competitive this season. They have some guys who could turn heads in this shortened season.
Kato Nelson returns for his redshirt senior season. Fans may remember when Nelson led the Zips to the MAC East title in 2017 as a redshirt freshman. He remembers what it’s like to win and could be the guy Arth needs to lead the young squad to success.
Only Bowling Green was worse on defense than Akron last season. Optimists can point to the returning nine starters as a positive, but the three who didn’t return were the best of Akron’s difficult situation. Whoever steps in for MAC first-team linebacker John Lako will have his hands full, leading a defense full of sophomores and freshmen.