The Mid-American Conference cultivated a reputation in recent years around such names as Heisman Trophy finalists Randy Moss and Jordan Lynch; NFL stars Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger; highlight-reel staples Dri Archer and Kareem Hunt.
Indeed, this is a brand of football -- MACtion, as it’s come to be known in the college football lexicon -- celebrated for its high scores and up-tempo energy. But in 2018, MACtion can be best described through the bevy of dominant defensive players back in the fold after breakout campaigns.
The nation’s top two returning leaders in sacks both hail from the MAC: Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith, whose 14 were tied for most in the FBS in 2017 (with fellow MAC product, since-graduated Joe Ostman of Central Michigan). The other is Eastern Michigan defensive end Maxx Crosby, who recorded 11 sacks to rank sixth nationally.
Add in Crosby's teammate, lineman Jeremiah Harris (12.5 TFL, six sacks in 11 games), as well as Akron’s Jamal Davis II (15.5 TFL) and clearly, the MAC has much more to watch in 2018 than explosive offense.
“A lot of the guys [who] come to the MAC are guys [who] are under-recruited,” explains Crosby, who described his own emergence as a “late-bloomer.”
“There’s always going to be guys [who] are extremely talented [and] come out of nowhere to put up big numbers,” he added.
Indeed, Crosby touches on something of a defining tradition in the MAC. Citing some of the big-name NFL stars to have previously plied their trade in the MAC, Crosby listed Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Jason Taylor (Akron) and two-time All-Pro outside linebacker James Harrison (Kent State). Taylor was a third-round NFL draft pick, despite earning All-America recognition in 1996. Harrison went undrafted.
That tradition and prevailing quality manifests tangibly in 2018, with the conference’s offense unveiling a Jolly Roger at July’s media days. The pirate flag, to be given to any MAC team scoring an upset, signifies the very underdog essence of the league itself.
No team will have quite as many high-profile opportunities to run the MAC-and-crossbones up its mast as Northern Illinois, which plays arguably the most challenging non-conference schedule in the nation.
Likewise, no player better represents a track record for the emergence of unexpected stars than Sutton Smith.
Initially a running back, Smith arrived in 2015 at a time when Northern Illinois’ multifaceted rushing attack featured a junior putting up 1,286 yards and 18 touchdowns in Joel Bouagnon, and a sophomore averaging 7.6 yards per carry in Jordan Huff. The crowded backfield necessitated a change in positions for the talented Smith to see the field, first to linebacker.
“I just went with the flow, basically,” Smith said, adding that if the coaching staff asked him “to go from running back to corner[back],” he would do so, and perform at the best of his potential.
“If the best that I do starts to click, that’s when I know they found a spot for me,” he said. “And what clicking means is producing for the team, helping out in any way that I can.”
With a bevy of pass rushers graduating after the 2016 season, head coach Rod Carey and his staff tinkered further to maximize Smith’s play-making ability.
“And that’s what we found, a little niche for me,” Smith added.
Defensive end is more than a niche for Smith. His nation-leading sack production last season earned him All-American recognition, and Smith fulfilled his wish to help the team: His presence, along with that of Jawuan Johnson (transferred to TCU this spring), produced an FBS-best 114 tackles for a loss in 2017.
Northern Illinois’ aggressive defense provides one of the cornerstones for high expectations in 2018. MAC media tabbed the Huskies to reach the conference championship game, a spot they monopolized for six consecutive seasons from 2010-15.
In preparation for lofty aspirations ahead, Smith’s built on the foundation playing running back gives him for understanding offenses. He went in-depth studying game tape and applying what he knew of offensive tendencies to a defensive perspective.
“Me being on offense, I have a lot of awareness about [schemes],” he said. “That plays in a little bit. But really dissecting what they do is what gets you your money. Getting the tells, getting the body languages... studying each person individually and athletically is a big key to this game.
“You’ve got to know exactly who you're going up against," Smith continued. "If you don't really know, you're just going with chance right there."
For Northern Illinois, the road to Detroit and the MAC Championship Game passes through Ypsilanti and Eastern Michigan’s gray-turfed Factory, Rynearson Stadium, on Week 5. A dark-horse contender, Eastern Michigan returns seven starters from a defense that ranked No. 40 in the nation in points allowed per game last season (second in the MAC behind -- guess who? -- Northern Illinois).
Maxx Crosby’s productivity a season ago can be attributed, at least in part, to something relatable for plenty of us not in the business of harassing quarterbacks: diet.
“After my redshirt freshman year, I thought I was carrying a bit too much extra weight, so my main focus was to clean up my diet,” he said. “I dropped about 20 pounds of extra weight and converted that into extra on-field drills.
“My speed [improved] a lot, and I just felt a lot faster and a lot healthier and was able to make a lot more plays," Crosby added.
For each of us aiming to improve our own dietary habits, Maxx Crosby is #GOALS. Meanwhile, Crosby and Eastern Michigan have some goals of their own heading in 2018.
The Eagles reached important milestones in each of the past two seasons under coach Chris Creighton, landing Eastern Michigan’s first bowl bid since 1987 to cap 2016; then beating a Big Ten opponent (Rutgers) for the first time in program history last season.
However, 23 points over a six-game stretch separated the Eagles from the best season in program history, and finishing out of the bowl picture. Twenty-three equaled the combined margin of defeat, in a month-and-a-half of games that featured close losses at Kentucky (24-20); at MAC champion Toledo (20-15); at 10-win Army (28-27 on a two-point conversion attempt that came inches shy of the goal line); 20-17 in overtime vs. Western Michigan; and, finally, 30-27 in overtime at Northern Illinois.
"Having six games in a row, losing by that close is obviously heart-wrenching,” Crosby said. “That stuck with us all offseason, all spring and all summer.”
If it looks like the Eagles' defense plays with an added edge in 2018, there is your explanation.
Standout playmakers pacing aggressive pass-rushes, employed with that air of something to prove, embodies what one can expect from MAC defenses. But, as Smith explains, the motivation isn't in disproving naysayers or garnering praise.
"From all the outside noise, the assumption is we have a chip on our shoulder," Smith said. "But from inside [the program], from my standpoint is, I'm playing how I play. I have a chip on my shoulder, yes, but I have other reasons why. In all reality, I believe that we can play with anybody at any time, anywhere, so long as you prepare the right way.
"There's a lot of talent spread everywhere now [in college football]," Smith added.
And a whole lot of it can be found on defenses in the MAC.
5 MAC Pass Rushers to Know in 2018
Maxx Crosby, Eastern Michigan
Crosby's breakout 2017 first began to really get cooking in SEC country, when the then-redshirt sophomore recorded two sacks at Kentucky. He finished the season strong with a pair of three-sack games against MAC opponents Central Michigan and Miami, and just one week earlier, recorded three quarterback hurries against Ball State.
"It took a few games for me to get rolling," Crosby said. "But once I got my confidence, my length and my speed are my main two things that helped me succeed on the field."
Crosby's length can be a problem for opposing offenses on pass plays; at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, he's a rangy barrier for quarterbacks to see beyond.
Jamal Davis II, Akron
Like Crosby, Davis also came on late in the 2017 campaign. He registered at least one tackle for a loss in each of the Zips' final four games, as well as four of his five quarterback hurries (including two in the bowl game against Florida Atlantic), and a forced fumble in the MAC East-sealing win over Kent State.
Offensive lines that might otherwise attempt to double-team Davis in 2018 may have to pick their proverbial poison. Not only does the Akron front seven return linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, who last season accounted for 9.5 tackles for a loss to supplement his whopping 140 total tackles. The Zips also welcome Middle Tennessee transfer Walter Brady. Before spending a season at MTSU, Brady had a monster debut season at Missouri in 2015 with seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss to earn Freshman All-American honors.
Jeremiah Harris, Eastern Michigan
The formidable defensive line combination produced at The Factory returns for another season, with Harris lining up at the other end position opposite Crosby. Harris made at least one tackle for a loss in nine of the 11 games he played for the Eagles last year.
A two-time All-MAC selection, Harris' individual masterpiece arguably came out of conference. He was a dynamo at Kentucky, notching three tackles for a loss and stripping quarterback Stephen Johnson for a fumble, as Harris barreled past a would-be blocker on Johnson's blind side.
Khalil Hodge, Buffalo
Anyone who has followed either the Buffalo Bulls or the MAC for the last few years might glean some similarities between its current standout linebacker and another former Bull named Khalil.
Current NFL star Khalil Mack became an All-American at Buffalo on his way to the pros, terrorizing opponents with overpowering physicality and tenacity on every snap. Though Hodge lines up on the interior, focusing more on run-stopping than blitzing like his predecessor, Hodge plays with a similarly tenacious style. The result is two nominations to the All-MAC team in his time at Buffalo, a staggering 277 tackles (including 154 last season, second-most in the nation), and rising NFL draft stock.
Though not a traditional pass rusher or blitzing presence, Hodge can still get into the opposing backfield with regularity. He recorded 6.5 tackles for a loss (3.5 in the final two games) and three sacks in 2017.
Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois
The 2017 All-American took naturally moving to defensive end, evident in his nation-leading 14 sacks. But Smith proved he can contribute in myriad ways for the Northern Illinois defense, also forcing three fumbles and eight quarterback hurries.
Smith's ability to also help against the run, resulting last year in 63 total tackles, gives the Huskies versatility on the defensive line few teams can match.
(Top photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan University Athletics)