Recent history tells us the MAC won't lack for drama, a level of unpredictability and perhaps parity in the final standings. Since 2015, 11 of the teams in the MAC have played for the conference title and no program has gone back-to-back since 2011-12. Northern Illinois has a chance to buck recent trends as the defending MAC champion, as the bulk of coach Thomas Hammock's roster returns for '22. Toledo is NIU's biggest competition in the division, with Central Michigan headlining the next tier. Western Michigan is a step ahead of Eastern Michigan and Ball State to round out the West. Miami (Ohio) and Kent State are the favorites in the East, while Bowling Green could push for a bowl in coach Scot Loeffler's fourth year. Little separates Buffalo, Akron and Ohio at the bottom of the East.
How does Athlon Sports project the MAC for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the MAC for this fall:
MAC Football 2022 Predictions
1. Miami (Ohio)
Led by junior quarterback Brett Gabbert (2,648 yards and 26 TDs), the RedHawks should be the favorite in the East Division and return to the conference title game for the first time since '19. Gabbert won't have his favorite '21 target in Jack Sorenson, but Mac Hippenhammer and Jalen Walker are back on the outside. Also, the RedHawks return a cast of experienced running backs, and four starters return to form one of the league's top offensive lines. Coach Chuck Martin's defense brings back six starters from a unit that allowed the fewest points per game (22.0) in MAC contests last fall. However, coordinator Bill Brechin has holes to fill with the departure of ends Lonnie Phelps, Ben Kimpler and Kameron Butler, linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. and defensive backs Sterling Weatherford and Cedric Boswell. The home date against Kent State on Oct. 8 should decide the winner of the MAC East.
2. Kent State
Quarterback Dustin Crum will be missed, but his departure isn't expected to keep Kent State from contention in the MAC this year. Junior Collin Schlee impressed in limited snaps last season and is expected to replace Crum, inheriting a high-powered offense (33.0 points a game) and a strong collection of skill talent. The Golden Flashes return running backs Marquez Cooper (1,205 yards) and Xavier Williams (812) and receivers Dante Cephas (82 catches) and Ja'Shaun Poke (26). Replacing three starters along a line that allowed 40 sacks last year is the biggest concern on offense for coach Sean Lewis. Kent State's defense has been an issue in recent years and surrendered 37.6 points and nearly six yards (5.98) per snap in MAC contests in '21. Addressing a porous run defense (205.9 yards a game last year) is the top priority for new coordinator Jeremiah Johnson. The non-conference schedule features games against Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia. Surviving those three September matchups and finding a few answers on defense would set up Kent State for another run at the conference title.
3. Bowling Green
Scot Loeffler is just 7-22 in his tenure at Bowling Green, but the Falcons might be on the cusp of a breakthrough season. An experienced roster (17 returning starters) returns from a squad that went 4-8 and lost one-score games to eventual division champs Kent State and Northern Illinois. If Loeffler's team is to have that breakthrough year, the defense has to lead the way. End Karl Brooks, linebacker Darren Anders, cornerback Davon Ferguson and safety Jordan Anderson headline a strong, talented foundation for coordinator Eric Lewis. However, this group surrendered 36 points a contest in MAC play and had issues (187.8 yards) against the run. An offense with nine returning starters seems poised for a step forward after averaging only 21.4 points per matchup last fall. Quarterback Matt McDonald (12 TDs to 7 INTs) is back, along with a collection of promising skill players, including running back Terion Stewart, tight end Christian Sims and receivers Tyrone Broden and Austin Osborne. Loeffler also hopes that Memphis transfer Jakari Robinson adds much-needed stability to a unit that allowed 39 sacks last year. Both Miami and Kent State visit Doyt L. Perry Stadium this fall.
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Replacing Frank Solich in mid-July was a tough assignment for Tim Albin in his first year as head coach. With a full and normal offseason, the hope is for Albin to lead the Bobcats to big improvement after a 3-9 mark - the program's lowest win total in a full season since '03. A return to a winning record will require improvement out of an offense that averaged 22.6 points a game and struggled with turnovers, third-down offense and coming up with big gains. Quarterback Kurtis Rourke (212.8 total yards a game) has to play better, and Ohio needs a new No. 1 running back to emerge with De'Montre Tuggle departing. Finding more targets at receiver and getting better play up front are two other priorities for Albin. New coordinator Spence Nowinsky has work to on a defense that allowed 6.0 yards per play and 27.9 points a game in MAC contests last fall. Nine starters are back, but this unit ranked near the bottom of the conference in pass efficiency defense and seventh against the run. Considering the level of experience returning, this unit may need to lead the way until the pieces fall into place on offense.
Taking over a program after spring practice is no easy assignment, so first-year coach Maurice Linguist should be graded on a curve after he replaced Lance Leipold following his departure to Kansas in late April. However, improving off last season's 4-8 mark for Linguist isn't going to be easy. After losing a handful of players to the portal, the Bulls return only nine overall starters and have big concerns to address on both sides of the ball. Buffalo did mitigate some of the departures to the portal with additions from the transfer ranks, including receivers Justin Marshall (Louisville) and Boobie Curry (Arizona), quarterback Cole Snyder (Rutgers) and a handful of pickups to bolster the offensive line (Nick Hartnett, Desmond Bessent and Sidney Walker) and the defense. Left tackle Gabe Wallace is the only returner up front, but the strength of the offense should be a ground game anchored by Ron Cook Jr. and Mike Washington. Snyder and senior Matt Myers will battle to start at quarterback. Buffalo's defense should be solid in the front thanks to the return of Athlon Sports' All-MAC selections in linebacker James Patterson and linemen George Wolo, Max Michel and C.J. Bazile. Transfers Caleb Offord (Notre Dame), Jahmin Muse (Boston College) and Elijah Blades (Florida/Texas A&M) will aim to improve the secondary under new defensive coordinator Brandon Bailey.
The Zips are just 3-27 over the last three years, but the program took a big step towards improvement this offseason. The hire of former Mississippi State and Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as the program's new leader should have Akron more competitive in the MAC in short order. However, the Zips have some ground to make up after averaging only 20.3 points a game and allowing 37 in league games last fall. Moorhead improved the roster with portal additions in quarterback Jeff Undercuffler (UAlbany), running back Cam Wiley (Minnesota), wide receivers Shocky Jacques-Louis (Pitt) and Alex Adams (LSU) and defenders Tim Terry (LB), KJ Martin (S), and Victor Jones and Curtis Harper (DL). Linebacker Bubba Arslanian's return (missed eight games) is huge for a run defense that allowed nearly 250 yards (248.9) a game in '21.
1. Northern Illinois
The Huskies were one of the most-improved teams in the nation last fall after going 5-13 in coach Thomas Hammock's first two years at the helm. NIU picked up a win over a Power 5 opponent (Georgia Tech), defeated Toledo, and avenged a regular-season loss to Kent State with a convincing 41-23 victory in the MAC title game to win the conference crown. The Huskies did have some good fortune on their side (seven wins by one score), but this team brings back 17 starters and is likely to improve overall and overcome any regression in close victories. Michigan State transfer quarterback Rocky Lombardi shined in his debut in DeKalb (236.1 total yards a game) and is back to anchor an offense that averaged 32.2 points a matchup last fall. Lombardi doesn't lack for help in the supporting cast either. Northern Illinois returns one of the MAC's top offensive lines, receiver Trayvon Rudolph and a deep backfield led by Harrison Waylee and Antario Brown. Repeating as a conference champion is never easy, but the path to another crown needs improvement on defense. Last year's unit gave up 33.7 points a game, ranked 11th against the run and 10th in pass efficiency defense. Also, the Huskies surrendered 38 plays of 30-plus yards and struggled to establish a pass rush. With 11 returning starters, the experience should translate into better overall play in '22. The Oct. 8 home matchup against Toledo should decide the MAC West crown.
The talent on the roster hasn't quite matched success at Toledo in recent years. The Rockets are just 24-20 over the last four seasons and went 7-6 last fall with five losses in one score games. With a little better luck and slight improvement on both sides of the ball, coach Jason Candle's squad could end up as the best in the MAC. Replacing running back Bryant Koback is the top priority for an offense that averaged 33.4 points a game and 6.6 yards per play last fall. Quarterback Dequan Finn (2,549 total yards and 27 TDs) is a rising star under center. Also, the Rockets bring back four starters up front, along with receiver Devin Maddox (41 catches). Candle's hire of Vince Kehres has paid big dividends for the defense over the last two years. Toledo allowed 6.6 yards per play and 32.2 points a game in '19 but led the conference in fewest yards per play (4.8) and scoring defense (21.8) last year. This unit should rank near the top of the conference once again thanks to eight returning starters and experience at every level. If Finn continues to develop under center, Koback's production is replaced on the ground, and the Rockets find ways to close out games, a return to the MAC championship is within reach once again.
3. Central Michigan
The Chippewas finished 2021 by winning seven out of their last eight games, which included a 24-21 win over Washington State in the Sun Bowl. The only defeat in that stretch? A one-point defeat to eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois. Coach Jim McElwain's squad has holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but this team has enough returning to make a run at the West Division title. Running back Lew Nichols III (1,848 yards) powers an offense that averaged 32.3 points a game. Quarterback Daniel Richardson also returns, but the Chippewas must replace two standout offensive tackles - Luke Goedeke and Bernhard Raimann - and restock a receiving corps that lost two key playmakers in JaCorey Sullivan and Kalil Pimpleton. McElwain likely has greater concerns on a defense losing linebacker Troy Brown, defensive back Devonni Reed and lineman Troy Hairston II. This unit was solid last fall (25.8 points a game allowed) but ranked ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and struggled with big plays allowed (21 of 40-plus). Central Michigan won't have to play one of the projected top two (Miami or Kent State) from the East but catches Northern Illinois and Toledo on the road this year.
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4. Western Michigan
Restocking a high-powered offense (32.5 points a game) is the top offseason priority for coach Tim Lester. The Broncos lost quarterback Kaleb Eleby and receivers Skyy Moore and Jaylen Moore, along with three starters in the trenches from a unit that averaged 32.5 points a game last fall. Jack Salopek, Stone Hollenbach and Mareyohn Hrabowski are battling for Eleby's spot, and until the passing game is settled, Western Michigan should be able to lean on the one-two punch of Sean Tyler and La'Darius Jefferson (1,986 combined yards last season). Also, the receiving corps wasn't completely wiped out, as Corey Crooms (44 catches) should push for all-conference honors. Asking for more help out of a defense that returns seven starters and finished fourth in fewest points allowed (28.2) and fifth in yards per play allowed would also help the Broncos offset quarterback concerns early in the year. Linebacker Corvin Moment (68 tackles) is among the MAC's top returning defenders.
5. Eastern Michigan
Chris Creighton continued to do one of the more underrated coaching jobs in college football, guiding Eastern Michigan to its fourth bowl in six years in 2021. Getting back to the postseason starts under center. Troy (and former Missouri) signal-caller Taylor Powell steps into the starting quarterback role after '21 starter Ben Bryant returned to Cincinnati. Powell has plenty of pieces to work with around him, as the Eagles return arguably the best receiving corps in the MAC thanks to the return of Hassan Beydoun, Tanner Knue and Dylan Drummond. Five players with experience are also back along an offensive line that allowed 42 sacks last fall. Although the strength of this unit is on the outside, more balance on offense is needed after EMU averaged just 2.96 yards per carry in MAC games last season. Creighton's defense has room to improve after giving up 29.5 points and 6.2 yards a snap in MAC games in '21. Five starters - including end Jose Ramirez (6.5 sacks) - return this fall. Addressing the run defense (197.7 yards a game) is a priority, while the Eagles finished third in the conference in pass efficiency defense last season.
6. Ball State
The Cardinals are 13-8 and have made back-to-back bowl trips, but coach Mike Neu's squad has question marks to address in order to reach six victories once again. The biggest among them is at quarterback. John Paddock is the front-runner to replace three-year starter Drew Plitt under center, but the senior has attempted only 34 passes since '18. Overall, the offense has room to improve after averaging only 5.24 yards per play in MAC games and 24.1 points a contest over the entire year. If Paddock (or another QB) settles under center, there's a lot to like about the skill talent, which includes running back Carson Steele and receivers Yo'Heinz Tyler and Jayshon Jackson. Also, five starters and plenty of experience is back up front. The Cardinals allowed only 24 points in MAC games last fall and return six starters for rising star coordinator Tyler Stockton. Clayton Coll and Brandon Martin lead a solid linebacker unit, and cornerback Amechi Uzodinma II is a second-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports for '22. However, three starters must be replaced in the secondary.