Predicting the MAC’s 2020 college football season is no easy task. After all, the league had a surprise champion (Miami, Ohio) last year and this fall is shaping up to be just as unpredictable. While there’s no clear-cut favorite, Buffalo is Athlon’s pick as the top team and the program to beat in the 2020 MAC predictions. The Bulls have one of the league’s top coaches in Lance Leipold, along with a strong foundation in place on both sides of the ball. The RedHawks and Ohio aren’t far behind Buffalo for the top spot in the East, with Kent State coming in fourth.
The outlook in the West is just as crowded. Any of the division’s six teams can make a run to Detroit, but Toledo is Athlon’s pick to win the West. The Rockets have to find a quarterback and improve on defense, but the pieces are there for a rebound season. Central Michigan is second, followed by Ball State and Western Michigan in the top four.
Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2020, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the MAC in 2020:
MAC 2020 Predictions
Led by one of the league’s top coaches (Lance Leipold), an All-American running back in Jaret Patterson, and a defense that brings back seven starters after limiting teams to 21.3 points a game, Buffalo is Athlon’s pick to win the MAC in 2020. Patterson is one half of a dynamic tandem at running back, as backup Kevin Marks (1,035 yards in 2019) returns to run behind one of the top Group of 5 offensive lines. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease (1,193 yards) was efficient after taking over the starting job following an injury to Matt Myers in 2019. Vantrease’s top target should be Antonio Nunn (49 receptions), but the passing game won’t need to post huge totals with Patterson and Marks leading the way. Buffalo’s standout defense returns plenty of star power, including ends Taylor Riggins and Malcolm Koonce (17.5 sacks), linebackers Kadofi Wright and James Patterson and safety Tyrone Hill. The month of November will be crucial for Leipold’s team. The Bulls host Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 10 and play at Ohio on Nov. 18.
2. Miami (Ohio)*
The reigning MAC champs should be in the mix to repeat for the division title. Coach Chuck Martin’s squad had some good fortune by going 5-0 in one-score games, but even with some regression there, the team itself should improve with 16 returning starters. Sophomore Brett Gabbert impressed in his first year under center, and his development should help a unit that averaged only 24.1 points a game. The offensive line ranks among the best in the conference, Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton form a solid one-two punch at running back, while Jack Sorenson and Jalen Walker lead the targets on the outside. The RedHawks have a few holes to plug at every level on defense, but this year’s group is one of the best in the conference, as Kameron Butler (5.5 sacks) is back to anchor the pass rush, with last year’s leading tackler (Ryan McWood) returning at linebacker. The secondary ranks among the best in the MAC with cornerback Emmanuel Rugamba and safeties Mike Brown and Sterling Weatherford in place. The Nov. 10 date at Buffalo looms large in the MAC East title race.
Little separates the top three teams in the East Division, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see coach Frank Solich’s squad book a trip to Detroit in December. However, in order to win the East, Ohio has to find a quarterback to replace standout Nathan Rourke. His brother – Kurtis Rourke – could be the answer. The winner of the quarterback competition inherits an offense that averaged 34.3 points a game and brings back three starters along the line, leading rusher O’Shaan Allison (869 yards), and the top six statistical receiving options from 2019. Ohio’s defense held teams to 25.8 points a contest in MAC play, and there’s a strong foundation with nine returning starters. This unit gave up 5.95 yards a snap last fall, but with the experience in place, a step forward on the stat sheet is likely. The Bobcats host Buffalo but play at Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 17.
4. Kent State
The Golden Flashes are trending up under third-year coach Sean Lewis. The program is coming off a 7-6 record last season – just the second for Kent State since 2002 – and the first bowl victory in school history. Getting back to a bowl will rest on the right arm of quarterback Dustin Crum, as the senior returns as the MAC’s No. 1 signal-caller for 2020. Crum accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense and 26 overall scores last fall. A couple of key receivers have departed, but Isaiah McKoy (57 catches) is back, and three starters return to provide optimism for improved protection (41 sacks allowed last year). Kent State’s defense has allowed over six yards a play for three consecutive seasons and stopping the run will be an issue after this group allowed 244.7 rushing yards a game in 2019. A schedule featuring non-conference matchups against Alabama, Kentucky and Penn State and road trips to Buffalo, Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois won’t provide much room for error to get to a bowl.
5. Bowling Green
Scot Loeffler’s rebuilding project at Bowling Green continues into its second year. The Falcons finished 3-9 last season but beat rival Toledo 20-7 in mid-October. Improvement in the win column for 2020 hinges on both sides of the ball showing marked progress. Offensively, Loeffler is likely to lean on Boston College transfer Matt McDonald at quarterback to spark an offense that averaged only 16 points a game and just 4.6 yards a snap in 2019. However, the return of running back Andrew Clair from injury should help, with receiver Julian Ortega-Jones and tight end Quintin Morris providing playmakers on the outside. Just two starters are back along the offensive line. Bowling Green’s defense will lean on six returning starters to improve a group that allowed 38.6 points and 242.8 rushing yards a game and 7.03 yards a snap last year. With the Falcons in rebuild mode, matching last season’s win total (three) would be a good encore for Loeffler.
The Zips were the only team at the FBS level to finish 2019 without a victory. Second-year coach Tom Arth looks like the right choice to get this program on track, but it will take a couple of seasons to rebuild the roster. Akron returns a promising quarterback in Kato Nelson (194.1 total yards a game in 2019), and he’s tasked with jumpstarting an offense that managed only 10.5 points a contest last fall. The supporting cast is under construction. Akron returns only two starters from a line that surrendered a whopping 58 sacks, and the team’s rushing attack managed just 1.8 yards per carry in 2019. The receiving corps should be a strength thanks to the return of Nate Stewart, Jeremiah Knight and Julian Hicks. Defensively, the Zips have a lot of work to do. Arth’s group gave up 5.7 yards a snap but surrendered 36.3 points a contest last fall. Six starters return, and improvement against the run (213.5 yards per game allowed) is a priority. Games against Youngstown State, New Mexico State and UMass in non-conference play provide a couple of opportunities for wins.
The Rockets are Athlon’s pick to win the MAC West, but there’s no clear front-runner for 2020. Coach Jason Candle’s squad will be looking to rebound after missing out on a bowl for the first time since the 2013 season last fall. A high-powered offense is usually a staple at Toledo and improving on last year’s offensive output (27.3 ppg) hinges on better play inside the red zone (10th in the MAC) and more consistency at quarterback. An injury to Mitchell Guadagni forced Candle to play three other quarterbacks – Eli Peters, Carter Bradley and DeQuan Finn – last fall. Peters, Bradley and Finn are back to battle for the job again, but it’s no secret the strength of the offense will be running backs Bryant Koback (1,187 yards) and Shakif Seymour (741). This duo will have a standout line clearing the way, especially with center Bryce Harris back from injury. Candle hopes new co-coordinators Vince Kehres and Craig Kuligowski get the defense back on track. Toledo allowed 32.2 points a game and surrendered 6.6 yards a snap last fall. Seven starters are back, including end Jamal Hines and safety Tycen Anderson but plenty of question marks remain going into the fall. Toledo hosts two of its top contenders from the West – Ball State and Central Michigan – and Ohio in crossover play with the East. It also misses Buffalo and Miami (Ohio).
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
2. Central Michigan*
The Chippewas were drastically better in coach Jim McElwain’s first year at the helm. After winning just one contest in 2019, Central Michigan improved its win total by seven games to finish 8-6 overall. Claiming back-to-back MAC West Division titles could hinge on how fast McElwain can find a quarterback. David Moore is suspended for the first five games, leaving Daniel Richardson as the likely starter this fall. The good news: Central Michigan plays only one MAC game in that span and still has running back Kobe Lewis (1,074 yards) and one of the league’s top receiving corps in place. Defensively, the Chippewas return one of the top lines in the conference, anchored by end LaQuan Johnson and tackle Robi Stuart. Linebacker Troy Brown is a first-team All-MAC for 2020 by Athlon Sports, with safeties Devonni Reed and Willie Reid leading the way on the back end.
3. Ball State*
Mike Neu delivered the best year of his four-season stint at his alma mater in 2019. The Cardinals just missed a bowl, finishing 5-7 and losing each of their last three games by four points or less. Neu’s team is poised to take the next step in 2020. The offense led the MAC in scoring (34.8 points a game) and brings back three starters up front, along with quarterback Drew Plitt, receiver Justin Hall and running back Caleb Huntley. In other words, scoring points won’t be a problem in 2020. But getting over the hump and into the postseason will require improvement on defense. Ball State gave up 6.03 yards a play in MAC games last fall and registered only 15 sacks. The potential is there for improvement. This group brings back seven starters, including a pair of standout cornerbacks (Antonio Phillips and Amechi Uzodinma II) and linebacker Jaylin Thomas (97 stops). The road schedule isn’t easy. The Cardinals face Buffalo, Central Michigan, Toledo and Miami (Ohio) on their own turfs in 2020.
4. Western Michigan*
The Broncos were on the doorstep of a MAC West title last season, but a 17-14 loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 26 prevented a trip to Detroit. Little separates the top four in the division, so coach Tim Lester’s group should be in the mix once again. Additionally, key games against Toledo, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan take place in Kalamazoo. New quarterback Kaleb Eleby showed promise in a limited stint as the starter in 2018 and should push for all-conference honors in his first full year as the No. 1 option. Skyy Moore (15.7 ypc) is the top target for Eleby, while Sean Tyler and Jaxson Kincaide have big shoes to fill in replace LeVante Bellamy at running back. Western Michigan’s defense gave up 35.1 points a game in 2018 but cut that total to 23.5 last fall. With six starters back – including standout linebacker Treshaun Hayward – and the addition of a couple of transfers in the secondary, coordinator Lou Esposito should build on last year’s finish.
5. Northern Illinois
Thomas Hammock’s return to DeKalb and his alma mater resulted in a 5-7 mark last fall. And the going for 2020 didn’t get any easier when four key players – defensive linemen Jack Heflin and Matt Lorbeck, tight end Mitchell Brinkman and center CJ Perez – decided to transfer at the end of the spring semester. The path to improvement starts on offense. The Huskies managed just 22.8 points a game and scored just 14 times through the air. Quarterback Ross Bowers is supported by three returning starters up front and a solid receiving corps, but there’s a vacancy at running back after Tre Harbison transferred to Charlotte. The transfer of Lorbeck and Heflin hinders a line that was slated to rank among the best in the MAC, but the linebacker unit should be a strength with Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux leading the way. Question marks remain in the secondary with four new starters for 2020.
6. Eastern Michigan
Chris Creighton is one of the MAC’s top coaches, so the Eagles should be in the hunt for their fourth bowl game in five years this fall. The schedule isn’t kind with road trips to Ohio, Miami (Ohio), Ball State and Western Michigan, but Creighton should find a way to keep this team in the mix for six victories. Junior Preston Hutchinson showed promise in a 357-yard passing performance against Western Michigan last fall and has the inside track to replace Mike Glass under center. Little experience returns at running back, but the receiving corps is a strength and three starters are back up front. After holding teams to 4.6 yards a play in 2018, Eastern Michigan’s defense regressed last fall by allowing 6.1. Only five starters are back, so Hutchinson and the passing game may simply need to outscore a lot of MAC opponents to reach six victories in 2020.
Buffalo over Toledo
*Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
MAC 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
Best RB Units
Best WR Units
Best OL Units
Best DL Units
Best LB Units
Best DB Units
MAC 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo
Pick by Mark Ross: Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo
Pick by Steven Lassan: Treshaun Hayward, LB, Western Michigan
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Treshaun Hayward, LB, Western Michigan
Pick by Mark Ross: Treshaun Hayward, LB, Western Michigan
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Lance Leipold, Buffalo
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jim McElwain, Central Michigan
Pick by Mark Ross: Lance Leipold, Buffalo
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kurtis Rourke, QB, Ohio
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Darius Boone, RB, Eastern Michigan
Pick by Mark Ross: Kurtis Rourke, QB, Ohio
Pick by Steven Lassan: Matt McDonald, QB, Bowling Green
Pick by Ben Weinrib: C.J. Parks, WR, Eastern Michigan
Pick by Mark Ross: C.J. Parks, WR, Eastern Michigan
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kent State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Ohio
Pick by Mark Ross: Kent State
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Toledo QB
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Central Michigan QB
Pick by Mark Ross: Toledo QB
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Vince Kehres/Craig Kuligowski, Co-DC, Toledo
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tyler Stockton, DC, Ball State
Pick by Mark Ross: Chris Simpson, Co-DC, Buffalo
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Ohio
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kent State
Pick by Mark Ross: Bowling Green
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Lance Leipold, HC, Buffalo
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jason Candle, HC, Toledo
Pick by Mark Ross: Sean Lewis, HC, Kent State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Miami (Ohio) at Buffalo
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Miami (Ohio) at Buffalo
Pick by Mark Ross: Ohio at Miami (Ohio)
Pick by Steven Lassan: Preston Hutchinson, QB, Eastern Michigan
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Brett Gabbert, QB, Miami (Ohio)
Pick by Mark Ross: Kaleb Eleby, QB, Western Michigan
Pick by Steven Lassan: Bryce Harris, C, Toledo
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Andrew Clair, RB, Bowling Green
Pick by Mark Ross: Andrew Clair, RB, Bowling Green