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MAC Football 2021 Predictions

Complete MAC preview for the 2021 season
Dustin Crum, Kent State Golden Flashes Football

Dustin Crum, Kent State Golden Flashes Football

After an unusual and abbreviated year, the MAC could be in for an unpredictable 2021 college football season. None of the league’s teams played more than eight matchups and some played only three contests. The limited sample size and uncertainty surrounding some programs adds another layer of difficulty to the 2021 MAC predictions.

In the East, Athlon gives a small edge to Ohio over Miami (Ohio), Buffalo and Kent State – but the top four are very close. Akron and Bowling Green are up next and are a year (or two) away from thinking about bowl consideration. The balance of power in the MAC is clearly in the West for 2021. Toledo and Ball State should be the league’s top teams, with Western Michigan and Central Michigan not far behind. The Rockets hold a small edge over the Cardinals in Athlon’s projections for No. 1 in the West. Eastern Michigan should push for a bowl, while Northern Illinois hopes to make small progress in coach Thomas Hammock’s third year after an 0-6 mark in ’20.

Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2021, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the MAC in '21:

MAC Football 2021 Predictions

East Division

1. Ohio

The Bobcats have been one of the MAC’s most consistent programs, but there's change at the top after Frank Solich retired in July. Assistant Tim Albin was promoted to head coach and inherits a solid roster for his first year on the job. A wide-open East Division should provide this program with an opportunity to return to the conference title game for the first time since 2016.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Bobcats return two intriguing quarterbacks in Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rogers. De’Montre Tuggle (403 yards in 2020) is one of the MAC’s top running backs, and Isiah Cox headlines a capable group of receivers. Three starters return up front, and Virginia Tech transfer T.J. Jackson should slide into the lineup at left tackle.

Concern: Ohio’s offense needs to generate more big plays next season, and there’s room to improve in situational offense (third downs and red zone). While Rourke and Rogers are both promising, neither has played for a full year of snaps with the Bobcats.

Incoming Transfers: OL T.J. Jackson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Ohio has finished inside of the top four of the MAC in scoring defense in each of the last seven years and paced the conference by limiting teams to 16.7 points a contest in 2020. The bulk of last year’s two-deep is back and plenty of experience is in place for coordinator Ron Collins to build on the ’20 performance.

Concern: Last season’s defensive numbers are promising, but the sample size wasn’t very large (three games). Ohio has to get better versus the run after finishing eighth in the conference last fall. Also, more pressure on opposing quarterbacks is needed (four sacks in 2020).

Incoming Transfers: DL Michael Taylor

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Miami (Ohio)

The RedHawks only played three games last season, but coach Chuck Martin’s squad is just a year removed from winning the MAC. Little separates the top of the MAC East, so expect Miami (Ohio) to be in the mix to win the division once again.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The RedHawks increased their per-play average from 4.9 to 5.97 last season and return the necessary pieces to keep this offense performing at a high level. Quarterback Brett Gabbert should challenge for all-conference honors, and go-to receiver Jack Sorenson is back after averaging 19.7 yards per catch in 2020. The backfield will receive a boost with Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton returning from injury.

Concern: Martin and coordinator Eric Koehler have to retool a bit up front with two key starters – left tackle Tommy Doyle and center Danny Godlevske – departing the program. Miami (Ohio) generated only one play of 40-plus yards in 2020.

Incoming Transfers: OL Zach Hummel

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The defense took a small step back on the stat sheet last year, but it’s hard to read a ton into the three-game season. A rebound is likely to be in order, especially with nine returning starters in place for 2021. The RedHawks led the MAC in rush defense last season. The linebacker unit is one of the best in the conference, and end Kameron Butler (2.5 sacks) should create plenty of havoc in the trenches.

Concern: Miami (Ohio) doesn’t lose much from last year’s group but will have to replace cornerback Manny Rugamba. The sample size from 2020 was small, but the RedHawks need to improve at third-down defense. 

Incoming Transfers: None

3. Buffalo

Buffalo is one of the hardest teams to figure out this preseason. This program was slated to be the team to beat in the MAC prior to coach Lance Leipold’s decision to depart for Kansas. New coach Maurice Linguist is a solid hire, but a late transition and some roster departures have added uncertainty for 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Bulls averaged 43.2 points a game and 7.3 yards per play last season, and the cupboard isn’t bare for new play-caller Shane Montgomery. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease is steady and efficient, while running back Kevin Marks Jr. ran for 741 yards as the backup to Jaret Patterson last year. Jake Fuzak and Jack Klenk are a solid duo to build around up front.

Concern: Transitioning to a new play-caller after spring practice won’t be easy. The Bulls lack proven depth at receiver, and the departures of Jacob Gall and Mike Novitsky were a significant blow to the offensive line.

Incoming Transfers: OL Jordan Johnson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Similar to the offense, the cupboard isn’t bare here. Buffalo led the MAC in fewest yards per play in each of the last two years and held teams to 21.9 points a contest in 2020. End Taylor Riggins (8.5 sacks in 2019) is back from injury, and the Bulls should have one of the better linebacker and defensive back units in the MAC.

Concern: Even though Buffalo has been stingy on defense recently, there are a lot of unknowns with the late coaching change. The transfers of Eddie Wilson and Ronald McGee depleted the depth on the interior of the defensive line.

Incoming Transfers: DL Josh Rogers; DB Adam Beck

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. Kent State

Kent State is a program on the rise, and a high-powered offense should provide coach Sean Lewis’ team a chance to win the MAC East for the first time since 2012.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: If you like high-powered offenses, then this will be the team to watch in 2021. In last year’s four-game slate, quarterback Dustin Crum powered Kent State’s offense to an average of 49.8 points a contest and 7.4 yards per play. Crum won’t lack for options, as the Golden Flashes have a couple of capable backs splitting time, and the receiving corps received a boost with Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson arriving to essentially replace Isaiah McKoy. Kent State also returns five starters along an improving offensive line.

Concern: It’s hard to find a weakness here.

Incoming Transfers: WR Nykeim Johnson; RB P.K. Kier

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Lewis and coordinator Tom Kaufman seem to be making some progress with personnel here, but the stat sheet shows a lot of work is still needed. Kent State brings back six starters for 2021 and adds a couple of players who should help right away. Also, the return of safety K.J. Sherald from injury will provide a boost.

Concern: Kent State ranked 11th in the MAC versus the run, surrendered 38 points a game and allowed 6.5 yards per snap. How much improvement can this group make in 2021? Improving against the run has to be a priority.

Incoming Transfers: DL Asher Frow; S Antwaine Richardson; S Nico Bolden; LB Juan Wallace; DL Antoine Cook; DB Heskin Smith

5. Akron

With the program entering the third year under coach Tom Arth, the Zips hope to make a significant jump in wins after a 1-17 stretch over the last two seasons. Improvement should be attainable in 2021, but a winning record seems out of reach.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Zips have a couple of options at quarterback with Kato Nelson (back from injury) joining Zach Gibson under center. The ground game should continue to improve if running back Teon Dollard (suspended due to off-field incident) plays in 2021. All five starters from last season are back in the trenches.

Concern: Offensive production hasn’t been a strength under Arth. Akron averaged 10.5 points a game in 2019 and 17.2 last fall. Can the Zips find a go-to receiver for Nelson? Will Dollard play in 2021? While all five starters are back up front, this unit allowed 26 sacks last year.

Incoming Transfers: TE Nikolas Ognenovic; RB Anthony Williams

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The unit’s top two players – linebacker Bubba Arslanian and defensive back A.J. Watts – return for 2021. Arslanian and Watts are two pieces for the defense to build around, and the bulk of last year’s two-deep is back.

Concern: Big improvement is needed. Akron gave up 41.3 points a game and 7.6 yards a play last season. The Zips also finished 10th in the MAC versus the run and last in pass efficiency defense.

Incoming Transfers: LB Jeslord Boateng

6. Bowling Green

The Falcons went 0-5 and were outscored by opponents 225-57 last season. With young players seeing significant snaps on both sides of the ball and opting to not find a quick fix through the transfer ranks, coach Scot Loeffler’s rebuilding effort is going to take another year to show results.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Running back Terion Stewart (7.9 yards per carry) is a breakout candidate for 2021. Quarterback Matt McDonald should also benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller.

Concern: How big of a jump in production can the Falcons make after averaging 11.4 points a game last year? Improving the offensive line and developing playmakers for McDonald are an offseason priority. This unit has to do a better job at limiting turnovers in 2021.

Incoming Transfers: TE Tommy Guajardo; QB Drew Gunther; WR Austin Osborne

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Eric Lewis takes over as defensive coordinator, so a fresh approach for a group that struggled last season is never a bad thing. Linebacker Darren Anders should push for all-conference honors.

Concern: Bowling Green brings back six starters, but a couple of key contributors to last year’s group departed. After giving up 45 points a game and 6.7 yards per play last season, this group has a long road back to respectability.

Incoming Transfers: DL Ali Saad; S Davon Ferguson


West Division

1. Toledo

It’s a close call between Toledo and Ball State for the top spot in the MAC West for 2021. Regardless of which team is the preseason favorite, the balance of power is clearly in this division. Assuming the Rockets find a new quarterback, coach Jason Candle’s squad can return to the top of the MAC for the first time since ’17.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: This is one of the MAC’s top offenses after Toledo finished 2020 by averaging 35 points a game and 6.4 yards per snap. Running back Bryant Koback is a first-team All-MAC selection for ’21 by Athlon Sports, and the team is loaded with talent at receiver. All five starters are back up front, and Mitchell Berg is back from injury to provide the offense with another starting option.

Concern: Eli Peters was forced to retire due to injuries, leaving Carter Bradley, Tucker Gleason and Dequan Finn to battle for the starting nod under center. Bradley showed promise at the end of last season but needs to prove he can produce over a full year. Toledo’s offense has to cut down on the turnovers after losing 12 in six games last fall.

Incoming Transfers: WR Matt Landers; QB Tucker Gleason

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Marked improvement was noticeable out of this group last season. Toledo surrendered 6.62 yards per play in 2019 but cut that total to 5.4 last fall. Also, the Rockets limited teams to 24.3 points a game – down from 32.2 the previous year. All of the major contributors are back this fall, and with additional help through the transfer portal, this defense should continue to improve on the stat sheet.

Concern: Last year’s improvement on defense is sustainable, but a six-game season isn’t a great sample size. A full 12-game slate will truly indicate how far the defense has improved. The Rockets could use a few more takeaways and more stops in the red zone (eighth in the MAC last year).

Incoming Transfers: DL Judge Culpepper; DB Ronald Delancy III; DL Cavon Butler

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Ball State

The Cardinals claimed the program’s first MAC title since 1996 with a stunning 38-28 victory over Buffalo in the conference championship game last December and capped the year by beating San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. With 17 starters returning, Ball State has a great shot to repeat as the MAC champion.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Cardinals can rely on the right arm of quarterback Drew Plitt, along with one of the MAC’s top duos at receiver Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler, to pilot an attack that averaged 34.2 points a game last season. All five starters return up front.

Concern: Pass protection (28 sacks allowed) has to improve, and the offense can be more explosive on a play-by-play basis (5.82 in 2020). The ground game averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2020.

Incoming Transfers: OL Damon Kaylor; WR Chayce Bishop; TE Casey Coll; WR Jayshon Jackson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Coordinator Tyler Stockton has this defense on the right track after Ball State held teams to 25.8 points a game last year – down from 31.4 in 2019. This unit ranked fourth in the MAC versus the run and led the conference in takeaways (17). The Cardinals return the top linebacker unit in the conference.

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Concern: Ball State cut its points allowed last year, but opposing offenses still averaged nearly six yards a snap (5.94) against this defense. The secondary was vulnerable to giving up a few big plays and top cornerback Antonio Phillips was one of the few players who departed after 2020.

Incoming Transfers: DL Jordan Ward, CB Latrelle Smith; S Trenton Hatfield

3. Western Michigan

The Broncos have finished .500 or better in each of coach Tim Lester’s first four years at his alma mater. Western Michigan has been on the doorstep of a division title under Lester and could break through in 2021 with one of the MAC’s top offenses.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Lighting up the scoreboard isn’t going to be a problem for Western Michigan in 2021. Quarterback Kaleb Eleby emerged as one of the top signal-callers at the Group of 5 level last season and four key receivers are set to return. The Broncos bring back their top three rushers and four starters along a line that was instrumental in the offense averaging 41.7 points a contest and 7.34 yards a snap.

Concern: Not much. It’s a minor concern, but the Broncos generated only one rush of 40-plus yards last season. Improving in the red zone should be a priority. Replacing No. 1 receiver D'Wayne Eskridge and left tackle Jaylon Moore won’t be easy.

Incoming Transfers: WR Bryce Nunnelly

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The stat sheet shows this defense needs some work, but the returning personnel provides hope for improvement. Linemen Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley are back, while linebacker A.J. Thomas was a playmaker (nine TFL) last season. Four starters are back in the secondary, with Pitt transfer Therran Coleman ready to step in at cornerback after missing 2020. The Broncos finished second in the MAC with 19 sacks and allowed 5.6 yards per play – not far behind Buffalo at No. 1 with a 5.2 mark.

Concern: Small improvement here to go with an explosive offense could equal a division title for Western Michigan. This unit surrendered 34.2 points a game and allowed too many big plays. Tackling machine Treshaun Hayward will be missed after entering the transfer portal. The Broncos also struggled to get off the field on third downs and inside the red zone.

Incoming Transfers: None

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

4. Central Michigan

The Chippewas claimed the MAC West title in 2019 but slipped to 3-3 in the abbreviated ’20 season. If coach Jim McElwain can find better play at quarterback, Central Michigan has a good shot to finish higher in the rankings.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Chippewas return a strong duo at running back with Lew Nichols III and Kobe Lewis in the backfield for 2021. The top four wide receivers are back, including Kalil Pimpleton and Dallas Dixon. All five starters from the line return, and this unit should receive a boost from the return of Luke Goedeke from injury.

Concern: Finding consistent quarterback play is a must. Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon – a former four-star prospect – is the frontrunner to start. The offense averaged 31.3 points a game but finished near the bottom of the MAC in third-down performance and inside the red zone.

Incoming Transfers: QB Jacob Sirmon

Previewing the Defense

Strength: If the pieces fall into place, this should be one of the MAC’s top defenses. Central Michigan brings back 10 starters from a unit that limited offenses to 5.9 yards a snap in 2020. Linebacker Troy Brown and lineman Troy Hairston are first-team All-MAC selections by Athlon Sports for ’21. The secondary is in good hands with Devonni Reed and Willie Reid at safety, and Dishon McNary, Richard Bowens III and Brian Edwards anchoring the corner spots.

Concern: Overall performance (30.2 ppg allowed) has room to improve. Central Michigan struggled in situational spots (third downs and red zone) and finished seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense.

Incoming Transfers: LB Marcel Lewis; DL Thomas Incoom

5. Eastern Michigan

This is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but Eastern Michigan has earned three bowl trips over the last five seasons. Coach Chris Creighton needs his defense to show marked improvement to contend in the West Division, but the offense should be good enough for the program to reach at least six wins.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Eagles have a proven quarterback (Preston Hutchinson) and an intriguing transfer (Ben Bryant) vying for the starting job. Regardless of who starts in 2021, the offense is in good hands. Plenty of weapons return at receiver, and James Madison transfer Jawon Hamilton should provide a boost to a ground game that ranked 12th in the MAC last year. All five starters return to provide a solid foundation up front.

Concern: It’s tough to read a ton into last year’s abbreviated season, but Eastern Michigan finished seventh in the MAC in scoring, marking the fourth straight season the program finished sixth or worse in the conference in that category. There’s room to improve on a per-play basis (5.8) and in the turnover department after losing 12 last fall. The Eagles need to develop more balance on offense.

Incoming Transfers: QB Ben Bryant; RB Jawon Hamilton; WR I’Shawn Stewart; OL Dimitri Douglas

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The main contributors on last year’s group are back, including linebacker Terry Myrick, defensive back Noski LaFleur and end Turan Rush. The Eagles led the MAC in scoring defense in 2018, so this unit isn’t far removed from productive play.

Concern: Coordinator Neal Neathery has to generate improvement out of this group this offseason. Eastern Michigan allowed 36 points a game and 6.4 yards per play last season. Also, this unit ranked ninth in the MAC versus the run and generated only nine sacks.

Incoming Transfers: DB Brandon Benson; DB Jarrett Paul; DL Dexter Manior

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

6. Northern Illinois

Everything about the 2020 season was unusual, so it’s tough to read too much into Northern Illinois’ 0-6 record. However, the Huskies are going with a youth movement under coach Thomas Hammock. The experience gained from last fall could pay off in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi provides an experienced option under center. The backfield has a couple of promising options, including Harrison Waylee and Western Illinois transfer Clint Ratkovich. Tyrice Richie (53 catches) is one of the MAC’s top receivers. Four starters return along a promising offensive line.

Concern: Northern Illinois averaged only 4.99 yards per play and ranked 10th in the MAC in scoring (24.8 ppg). The offense lost too many turnovers, struggled on third downs and failed to generate many big plays. Is Lombardi the quarterback to spark the offense? Or will Hammock turn to promising freshman Ethan Hampton?

Incoming Transfers: QB Rocky Lombardi; RB Clint Ratkovich; TE Miles Joiner

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The youth movement on the roster was apparent on last year’s defense. Several freshmen gained valuable reps in 2020, which could translate into better production this fall. Cornerback Jordan Gandy is a playmaker (seven passes defended), and the linebacker unit is solid with the return of Lance Deveaux and Kyle Pugh.

Concern: How much improvement can this side of the ball generate? Northern Illinois gave up 38.7 points a game, ranked seventh in the MAC versus the run, 10th in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 6.63 yards per play in 2020.

Incoming Transfers: None

MAC Championship: Toledo over Ohio

MAC 2021 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS

Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Dustin Crum, QB, Kent State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kevin Marks Jr., RB, Buffalo

Pick by Mark Ross: Dustin Crum, QB, Kent State

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Brandon Martin, LB, Ball State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Troy Brown, LB, Central Michigan

Pick by Mark Ross: Troy Brown, LB, Central Michigan

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jason Candle, Toledo

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jason Candle, Toledo

Pick by Mark Ross: Jason Candle, Toledo

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jacob Sirmon, QB, Central Michigan

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Nykeim Johnson, WR, Kent State

Pick by Mark Ross: Jacob Sirmon, QB, Central Michigan

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: Kent State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Central Michigan

Pick by Mark Ross: Kent State

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: Toledo QBs

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Toledo QBs

Pick by Mark Ross: Toledo QBs

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Shane Montgomery, OC, Buffalo

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Eric Lewis, DC, Bowling Green

Pick by Mark Ross: Kevin Barbay, OC, Central Michigan

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: Buffalo

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Eastern Michigan

Pick by Mark Ross: Buffalo

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Sean Lewis, HC, Kent State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tyler Stockton, DC, Ball State

Pick by Mark Ross: Sean Lewis, HC, Kent State

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Toledo at Ball State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Coastal Carolina at Buffalo

Pick by Mark Ross: Toledo at Ball State

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Terion Stewart, RB, Bowling Green

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Skyy Moore, WR, Western Michigan

Pick by Mark Ross: Ja'Shaun Poke, WR, Kent State

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Taylor Riggins, DL, Buffalo

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tyre Shelton, RB, Miami (Ohio)

Pick by Mark Ross: Jaylon Bester, RB, Miami (Ohio)

Podcast: MAC Preview and Predictions

(Dustin Crum photo courtesy of kentstatesports.com)