Who’s Your MAC Daddy? Previewing Opening Night in the MAC

With all eyes in the United States on the upper Midwest tonight, what better time for the Mid-American Conference to make its 2020 debut?

That’s right, MACtion makes its return to the gridiron tonight with the first of six games for each of the 12 members of the conference.  If you’re wanting a cherry on the MAC sundae, for the first three weeks of the season all games will come on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, leaving us with some combination of college and NFL games coming on every day during the week for all of November.

If that’s not a nice reward after Election Day 2020, I don’t know what is.

If you have no clue what teams to back or what players to watch, let this opening guide be your crash course introduction into the beauty that is the MAC.  Let’s jump right on into tonight’s slate of games.

Eastern Michigan at Kent State

Spread: Kent State -4.5 (-108)
Total:
O/U 65 (-113/-108)
Time/TV:
6:00 PM ET, ESPN+

The Eastern Michigan Eagles (6-7, 3-5 MAC in 2019) kickoff the 2020 MAC season with a road date against the Kent State Golden Flashes (7-6, 5-3 MAC in 2019). 

Eastern Michigan enters this contest in what could amount to a rebuilding season for the program as Eagles coach Chris Creighton will need to replace his starting QB Mike Glass (3,169 yards, 24 TD, 11 INT) along with the top four rushers from 2019 and the top pass-catcher from a season ago in Arthur Jackson III. 

That’s a lot of talent for any team to replace but even more so for an Eastern Michigan program that has needed several seasons to rise from the ashes of being one of the worst college football programs in the country, but if anyone has shown the ability to make chicken salad out of, well, you know, it’s Chris Creighton, as the Eagles coach has posted winning seasons in two of the last four years after EMU went without a winning season for nearly 20 years.

Replacing QB Mike Glass for Creighton’s Eagles’ will be junior Preston Hutchinson who has one start in his career, a fantastic 31-of-36 for 357 yards, and three touchdowns in a win over Western Michigan.  Hutchinson will also be playing under a new offensive coordinator as Aaron Keen left the team to become the new head coach at Washington University in St. Louis.  Chris Creighton will assume the play-calling duties for EMU this year, and with all the new starters throughout the Eagles offense rust could enter the equation at the early onset of the season.

Meanwhile, Kent State will begin their season with a little more continuity on the offensive side of the ball, in particular, due to the return of senior quarterback Dustin Crum (2,622 yards passing, 20 TD, two interceptions).  Crum is a legitimate NFL prospect and also Kent State’s leading rusher (707 yards, six touchdowns in 2019) and Kent State’s success ultimately will depend on his arm and legs.

Crum will have the added luxury of the return of leading receiver Isaiah McKoy, however, the Golden Flashes will need to replace their remaining top-three receivers from a season ago in addition to Kent State’s best running back from a season ago in Will Matthews.  Beyond that, Kent State does at least return four starters to their offensive line, however, the lone starter that will not return to the team this season is that of center Nate Warnock who was widely considered as the Golden Flashes best offensive lineman from a season ago.  With Kent State’s high tempo offense, this could be something to keep an eye on early.

Defensively both units face many challenges, as is often expected in the Mid-American Conference.  Neither side has much to boast about at all on that side of the ball, and both defenses enter the 2020 season where they lost their best talent to graduation. 

Currently, oddsmakers slightly favor the home side Kent State at -4.5 and with each team facing a whole myriad of questions entering the game, I am going to lean on the side of experience here and back the Golden Flashes to cover behind the play of arguably the best QB in the conference in Dustin Crum. 

Prediction: Kent State 34, Eastern Michigan 24
Best Bet:
Kent State -4.5 (-108)

Western Michigan at Akron

Spread: Western Michigan -20.5 (-110)
Total:
O/U 53 (-109/-112)
Time/TV:
6:00 PM ET, ESPN3

Western Michigan looks to build off a successful 2019 campaign that saw the Broncos post a winning season (7-6 overall, 5-3 MAC) and reach a bowl game for the fifth time in six years, unfortunately falling 23-20 to Western Kentucky in the First Responder Bowl.  The loss was WMU’s eighth bowl loss in nine tries, so while the Broncos have figured out how to have success inside the MAC, they’ve yet to have that success replicate during bowl season.

Western Michigan enters the 2020 season facing quite the challenge in filling the shoes of 2019 MAC Offensive Player of the Year RB LeVante Bellamy (1,472 yards rushing, 23 TD) along with the graduation of starting QB Jon Wassink (3,097 yards passing, 20 TD, 8 INT).  The Broncos led the MAC in 2019 with 13 players receiving All-Conference honors, including a conference-high six first-team selections. 

WMU will need to replace four of those players, and also saw other roster losses on the defensive side of the ball as well. 

If there’s a team for Western Michigan to get settled into the 2020 season with their many personnel changes, they couldn’t have asked for a betting opponent than the Akron Zips.  Akron enters the abbreviated MAC season on a 17-game losing streak dating back to 2018, and they finished the 2019 season at a woeful 0-12 overall while covering a spread just a single time all season (1-11 ATS).  Akron became the first college football team to ever begin a season 0-10 ATS.  Quite frankly, if you weren’t auto fading the Zips last season you were leaving a lot of profit on the table.

In the free-scoring Mid-American Conference, the Zips hit levels of ineptitude few schools have reached in college football.  Akron averaged only 10.5 points per game a season ago while failing to score more than seven points in seven of 12 games.  They averaged 1.8 yards per carry.  They couldn’t block.  They couldn’t do much of anything right.

Defensively, the Zips were actually a fairly respectable unit, especially considering how woeful their offense was.  However, the team does lose their lone two All-Conference selections from the 2019 season in LB John Lako and DB Alvin Davis, along with five of their top eight tacklers from a season ago.  To say the cupboard in Akron is bare would be kind, this is a very bad football team in the making once again.

While many schools would be annoyed at their college football schedule being cut in half from 12 games to 6, the MAC is probably doing Akron a favor here.  The MAC featured six schools in 2019 that finished with a winning record.  Five of those teams are on Akron’s schedule in 2020.  The likelihood the Zips go two straight seasons without a win is very high, and the Zips’ struggles begin this evening in kind.

Western Michigan rolls and covers the big number.

Prediction: Western Michigan 41, Akron 13
Best Bet:
Western Michigan -20.5

Ball State at Miami (OH)

Spread: Ball State -0.5 (-108)
Total:
O/U 56 (-110/-100)
Time/TV:
7:00 PM ET, CBS Sports Network

In what looks to be the biggest toss-up of the evening, Ball State goes on the road to meet 2019 MAC Champion Miami-Ohio. 

Ball State comes into the 2020 MAC season with the potential to be a real sleeper to win the conference as they return 17 seniors and add five grad transfers to a team that finished 5-7 a season ago but had three conference losses come by a combined eight points. 

The Cardinals are led by their senior signal-caller Drew Plitt (2,918 yards, 24 TD, 7 INT in 2019) who was instrumental in Ball State leading the conference in scoring in 2019.  The offensive line boasts four senior starters with only their right tackle Danny Pinter (Colts 5th round pick in 2020) not returning to the team this season. 

Ball State will start senior Caleb Huntley (1,275 yards, 12 TD) at running back while getting back three of their top four wide receivers from a season ago.  If there’s a team well-equipped to hit the ground running in an abbreviated six-game season, it could very well be the boys from Muncie.

Meanwhile, the Miami-Ohio RedHawks begin their MAC title defense also returning multiple starters to each side of the ball.  The RedHawks, however, were almost a polar-opposite from the Cardinals as they were actually on the bottom end of the conference offensively. 

Freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert looked like a freshman in his rookie season as he threw for just over 2,400 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions a season ago, and much of the RedHawks success in 2019 was attributed more to the play of their stingy defense than anything tied to offensive accolades.  That being said, Gabbert was uniquely clutch in close games a season ago, as Miami-Ohio would go 5-0 in games decided by one possession or less. 

With Miami-Ohio starting four true freshmen on offense a season ago, one would assume there’s only one way to go up from there, but if the RedHawks offense is as stagnant this season as it was a year ago, we could very well see those one-possession games begin to go the other way.

In looking over this matchup, I think a senior-laden roster coming off a run of unfortunate luck (three losses by a combined eight points) is more likely to start the season off well than one still accruing experience playing college football.   I am predicting Ball State will use the best offense in the conference to score a big opening road win.

Prediction: Ball State 37, Miami-Ohio 23
Best Bet:
Ball State -0.5
Bonus Bet: Ball State -6.5 Alt Line (+180)

Ohio at Central Michigan

Spread: Ohio -3 (-107)
Total:
O/U 54.5 (-113/-108)
Time/TV:
7:00 PM ET, ESPN2

Believe it or not, Frank Solich enters his 16th season at Ohio University when the 2020 season begins Wednesday night, and his Ohio Bobcats (7-6 overall, 5-3 MAC in 2019) could be in a position to play for a Mid-American Conference title by the time this six-game abbreviated schedule is in the books.

Ohio will start their season on the road against Central Michigan, who was one of the best stories of the 2019 College Football season.  The Chippewas (8-6 overall, 6-2 MAC) had one of the best single-season turnarounds in college football history when they would win the MAC’s Western Division and qualify for a spot in the MAC Championship game after finishing the 2018 season with a 1-11 record.

First-year coach Jim McElwain along with offensive coordinator, and former MAC star, Charlie Frye revitalized a lifeless offense and took the MAC by storm in their first year behind a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis.  Ward has since graduated from the program, leaving Lewis as the starter in 2020.

Both teams enter tonight’s game with a lot of questions at quarterback.  Ohio enters the 2020 season losing three-year starter Nathan Rourke to graduation, leaving UNLV transfer Armani Rogers and Rourke’s younger brother Kurtis as the two options under center for the Bobcats.

Meanwhile, for McElwain’s Chips, JUCO transfer David Moore started the first four games for CMU a season ago before being suspended for the rest of the season for a banned substance, leaving McElwain to turn to former Vols transfer Quinten Dormady.  Dormady played well in relief of the suspended Moore, but like Nathan Rourke, graduated from the program in 2019.  With David Moore’s status still up in the air as the NCAA has yet to clear him, McElwain will need to turn to true freshman Daniel Richardson to run Frye’s pro-style offense.

While the offenses try to work things out with their various personnel changes, the advantage in this game could come down to what defense can get more stops and win the turnover battle.  Every indication entering this game is that Central Michigan has the edge here.

Ohio’s rush defense left a lot to be desired a year ago for Solich and company, as the Bobcats gave up nearly five yards per carry and ranked 94th against the run in 2019.  Central Michigan, on the other hand, was one of the best units in college football against the run a year ago.  The Chippewas defensive line even led the nation in tackles for a loss.  They’re the real deal. It just so happens that most of this unit returns in 2020.

While each offense goes through the pain of shaking off months of rust and replacing talent that’s since graduating from the team, each defense should be further along in getting back up to game speed.  I think the under is a very solid play here considering the state of each team’s roster and will avoid trying to pick a side here.

Prediction: Ohio 24, Central Michigan 23
Best Bet:
UNDER 54.5

Buffalo at Northern Illinois

Spread: Buffalo -14 (-108)
Total:
O/U 52.5 (-109/-112)
Time/TV:
7:00 PM ET, ESPN2

The Buffalo Bulls (8-5 overall, 5-3 MAC in 2019) are your consensus favorite to win the 2020 MAC Championship as we head into tonight’s season opener and they hit the road to start their season as two-touchdown road favs when they meet Northern Illinois (5-7 overall, 4-4 MAC) on Wednesday. 

The Bulls are your short-favorites for good reason, they enter 2020 coming off their first bowl win in school history – a 31-9 Bahamas Bowl blowout of Charlotte – and closed out the 2019 season winning six of their last seven games, all of which came by 19 points or more.

Buffalo returns their potent tandem at running back with Jaret Patterson (1,799 yards rushing, 19 touchdowns) and Kevin Marks Jr. (1,035 yards rushing, 8 touchdowns) along with starting quarterback Kyle Vantrease, though the Bulls are a run-first, second and third team. 

While the Bulls do not throw the ball often when they do throw the ball their offensive line is outstanding at keeping their quarterback’s jersey clean as they boasted the lowest sack rate in 2019.

Defensively Buffalo may have the best front seven in the entire conference, highlighted by their bookend rushing duo of Taylor Riggins and Malcolm Koonce.  Expect every quarterback on Buffalo’s schedule to be under duress early and often in 2020.

Northern Illinois on the other hand enters the new season going through a rebuilding period of sorts.  The Huskies went 5-7 a season ago but will have 11 new starters on a roster that finished in the bottom 25 in both total offense and defense in 2019.  66 underclassmen in all will make up the Huskies roster, giving them one of the youngest teams in the conference.  

Defensively NIU will return only five starters from a season ago, though they return two senior linebackers in Lance Deveaux and Kyle Pugh.  They will be beyond busy this evening in trying to keep up with the relentless Buffalo rushing attack.

In a normal 12-game season, NIU is a team that would have potential to grow as the season went on, becoming more dangerous with each passing week, in a six-game season though, the lack of experience is going to pose a very real challenge to the Huskies this season.

Look for the Bulls to cruise in their season-opener and never truly be tested all throughout.

Prediction: Buffalo 41, Northern Illinois 17
Best Bet:
Buffalo -14

Bowling Green at Toledo

Spread: Toledo -24 (-113)
Total:
O/U 63(-112/-109)
Time/TV:
8:00 PM ET, ESPNU

The last game of the night incidentally also has the largest point spread of the evening, as Toledo (6-6 overall, 3-5 MAC in 2019) plays host to Bowling Green (3-9 overall, 2-6 MAC) as 24-point home favorites.

If you’re wondering why a 6-6 Toledo team is favored by 24, it’s because Bowling Green is really bad at football.  How bad were they exactly?  In 2019, out of 130 possible schools, the Falcons ranked 128th overall offensively and 124th defensively.  Quite frankly, the fact they won three games a season ago is a miracle in itself, though games against Morgan State and Akron certainly helped.

Ironically enough though, their other win of the 2019 season came against this very Toledo team last October when Bowling Green would hand them a stunning 20-7 loss after being outscored 201-27 the previous four games.

As a result, revenge could be on the menu from the Glass City tonight.  After nine consecutive winning seasons, the Rockets failed to climb above .500 a season ago despite having the 19th best rushing attack in the country.  Toledo gets their dual-headed monster at running back with the return of Bryant Koback (1,187 yards, 12 TD) and Shakif Seymour (741 yards, five touchdowns), and that could be all the Rockets really need tonight against a freshman-laden team that didn’t add much of anything to an already talent-deprived roster as it is.

I think Bowling Green has potential to be the worst team in college football this season.  There is simply nothing on this roster to get excited about, and a terrible loss a season ago will provide all the motivation Toledo needs to put this game out of reach early.

Prediction: Toledo 52, Bowling Green 20
Best Bet: Toledo -24 (Would buy down to -23.5)