At the beginning of the 2019 season, the usual suspects were bandied about as possible MAC champions. Ohio? Toledo? Buffalo? It would be fair to say that very few would have predicted that the two finalists to win the MAC title would be the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks and Central Michigan Chippewas.
Miami (7-5, 6-2 MAC) won five straight conference games from mid-October to mid-November to claim the MAC East Division. The RedHawks led Ball State 27-14 last week before fading in the second half of an eventual 41-27 loss. It is certainly not the way Miami would prefer to enter the MAC Championship Game. This will be the RedHawks' fifth appearance in the conference title game (initiated in 1997) and their first since 2010. They are 2-2 in the MAC Championship Game including a 35-10 loss to Central Michigan in 2007.
The Chippewas (8-4, 6-2) come into this game about a touchdown favorite and with some momentum as a 49-7 throttling of Toledo in their regular-season finale extended CMU's winning streak to three in a row and more importantly secured the MAC West title. Considering the rapid turnaround orchestrated by Jim McElwain in his first year as the Chippewas' head coach (CMU went 1-11 in 2018), there is some concern that the recently minted MAC Coach of the Year may not be in Mount Pleasant long.
When asked earlier about Central Michigan, McElwain stated, "This is a great place... We've made some great friends and the people in the community, not only us but the whole staff. I can't tell you how proud I am of them and what they've really done to invest in us and our players... In the community, it's fun to go to work when you have people like that."
With higher-profile coaching jobs open, it is possible that McElwain could be a candidate. Some of his predecessors, such as Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, were able to use the Central Michigan job as a stepping stone, and perhaps McElwain will follow suit.
But for now, the focus is on this game. CMU is a perfect 3-0 in the MAC Championship Game, but this is the Chippewas' first appearance since 2009. The all-time series between this team is close, with Miami holding a 14-13-1 lead due to winning each of the past two meetings (2016, '17).
MAC Championship: Miami (Ohio) vs. Central Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
Spread: Central Michigan -6.5
When Miami (Ohio) Has the Ball
Generating offense can sometimes be a struggle for the RedHawks, who averaged 27 points per game in conference play (8th in the MAC). They are led by quarterback Brett Gabbert, who was named MAC Freshman of the Year this week. The true freshman has been the starter since Week 1 and enters this game with a 54 percent completion rate while throwing for 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Gabbert's overall numbers are somewhat due to the fact that Miami doesn't throw the ball a lot. The RedHawks have the second-fewest pass attempts (279) on the season.
Gabbert is supported in the backfield by running backs Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton, who have combined for 1,117 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Gabbert himself has three rushing scores as well. But given Central Michigan's defensive tendencies, it may be in Miami's best interests to try and make some things happen through the air. The Chippewas are second in the MAC and 22nd in the entire FBS against the run (118.3 ypg) compared to 10th in the conference vs. the pass (240.0 ypg).
When Gabbert does drop back, he needs to be on the lookout for CMU defensive lineman Sean Adesanya. The first-team All-MAC performer leads the conference with 14.5 tackles for a loss and is tied for second with seven sacks. The Chippewas have four players with multiple interceptions, led by sophomore linebacker Troy Brown's three. Brown also was named first-team All-MAC.
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
The Chippewas' offense ranks just behind Ohio in scoring in conference play at 38 points per game. Quinten Dormady pilots the attack and boasts a 67 percent completion rate, while averaging nearly 240 passing yards per game with a respectable 13:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His top target is wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton, who leads the MAC in receptions (71) and yards (771) and has six touchdowns. Pimpleton also is a weapon on special teams and was named first-team all-conference as a wide receiver and punt returner.
On the ground, Jonathan Ward has 1,056 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games played. He's just one of four players in the MAC who are averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game. CMU's balanced attack will challenge Miami's defense, which is third in the conference at 383 yards per game allowed. Statistically, the RedHawks rank higher against the pass compared to the run, and part of the reason is a pass rush that has generated 35 sacks (second in the MAC).
Doug Costin, a first-team All-MAC selection, is Miami's best defender. The senior defensive lineman is tied for second on the team with 11.5 tackles for a loss and he also has registered 3.5 sacks. He's one of six RedHawks with at least three sacks and this defense will need to put as much pressure on Dormady as possible as well as make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If there's one weakness with CMU's offense it's ball security. The Chippewas' 24 turnovers are the second-most in the MAC and include a conference-high 15 lost fumbles.
The thrashing Central Michigan gave to perennial MAC power Toledo has given the Chippewas a jolt of momentum heading into this game against Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks played well down the stretch, but CMU has too much offensive firepower to be able to keep pace with the Chippewas.