It may officially be Week 10 of the 2020 college football season, but it's just the beginning for teams in the Mid-American Conference. All 12 MAC teams are set to kick things off for the first time Wednesday night to open a shortened six-game slate, and a national television audience will be on hand as the Ohio Bobcats travel to Mount Pleasant to face the Central Michigan Chippewas in a possible preview of the MAC Championship Game.
Ohio won its final three games in 2019, including a 30-21 victory over Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to finish 7-6 overall, including a 5-3 record in MAC play. Central Michigan dropped two in a row at the end of the season — a 26-21 loss to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC title game and a 48-11 blowout at the hands of San Diego State in the New Mexico Bowl — but celebrated one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in history. Head coach Jim McElwain inherited a team that won just one game in 2018 and led it to an 8-6 overall finish and a 6-2 mark in conference play. But McElwain has a long, long way to go to reach Ohio head coach Frank Solich, who became the MAC's all-time wins leader last season.
Ohio at Central Michigan
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Central Michigan -1
When Ohio Has the Ball
Record-setting quarterback Nathan Rourke may have left Ohio, but younger brother Kurtis Rourke could succeed him as the Bobcats play-caller in 2020. The elder Rourke completed 61.0 percent of his passes for 2,820 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions in 2019, and the Ohio coaching staff believes his redshirt freshman younger brother (who has appeared in only one game for the Bobcats and has yet to officially attempt a pass) has the potential to be an even better passer.
However, Nathan Rourke was an incredibly productive runner as well, logging 867 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season, which pushed his three-year totals to 2,639 yards and 49 scores on the ground. Kurtis Rourke may not be as mobile, but Solich and his coaching staff brought in someone just as dangerous in UNLV graduate transfer Armani Rogers, who ran for 1,549 yards and 18 touchdowns across 21 games — including 17 starts — with the Rebels. Limited by injury, Rogers made just five appearances in 2019 and completed 51.9 percent of his passes for 393 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions, while adding 204 rushing yards and two scores. He threw for 2,072 yards and 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions and ran for 1,345 yards and 16 touchdowns combined between 2017 and '18. We don't yet know whether Rourke or Rogers will start Wednesday for the Bobcats, but it's possible both will take snaps.
And either quarterback will have a trio of solid running backs to work with, as well as a deep receiving corps. O'Shaan Allison led the Bobcats with 869 rushing yards and scored six touchdowns as a freshman last season. The 6.30 yards per carry Allison averaged ranked third in the MAC a year ago but was second to teammate De'Montre Tuggle, whose 644 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns occurred on just 101 attempts for an average of 6.38. Julian Ross chipped in with 284 rushing yards and one TD as well. Nearly all of Rourke's favorite receivers also return, led by Isiah Cox, who led the Bobcats with 39 receptions and 663 yards, including two touchdowns, big-play 6-foot-4 target Shane Hooks, who averaged 19.81 yards on 26 catches and scored five touchdowns, which tied tight end Ryan Luehrman (28 receptions, 360 yards) for the team lead a year ago. Three starters also return on the offensive line.
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
Like Ohio, we don't yet know for sure which quarterback will start for Central Michigan, but it most likely will be redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson. Senior David Moore likely would get the nod if not for a PED suspension expected to sideline him for the first five games of the season. Sam Houston State transfer Ty Brock also is an option, but Richardson has the edge when it comes to experience in the MAC, even if it was minimal (three games, 1-for-3 passing for a yard). Brock appeared in 21 games and made 15 starts for the FCS Bearkats. In 2019, he completed 50.9 percent of his passes for 1,468 yards and nine touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
Also like the Bobcats, either quarterback will benefit from a talented and experienced supporting cast. Though Jonathan Ward graduated after running for 1,108 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019, Kobe Lewis returns after sharing the workload and posting very similar numbers, having gained 1,074 rushing yards and scoring 12 times on 182 carries for an average of 5.90 yards per attempt. Receivers Kalil Pimpleton (82 receptions, 894 yards, 6 touchdowns) and JaCorey Sullivan (57 receptions, 808 yards, 3 touchdowns) are both All-MAC performers, and Tyrone Scott was a big-play threat who averaged 17.57 yards and scored five times on 37 receptions.
Central Michigan and Ohio both ranked in the top half of the MAC in total defense last season, though the Chippewas finished higher on the leaderboard with 363.0 total yards allowed per game and 5.42 yards surrendered per play, which ranked second and third in the conference, respectively, and both ranked among the top 50 nationally. The Bobcats allowed 403.7 total yards per game and 5.95 yards per snap a year ago, which ranked fifth and seventh, respectively in the MAC and 76th and 87th, respectively in FBS.
Ohio returns slightly more in terms of experience and production, including nine starters, 76.1 percent of its total tackles from 2019, 76.5 percent of its tackles for a loss, 70.8 percent of sacks, and 76.8 percent of all havoc plays (sacks, TFLs, interceptions, pass breakups, and forced fumbles). CMU, which expected to return as many as eight starters but lost a pair of sophomore cornerbacks before fall camp, welcomes back similar numbers in terms of tackling production (69.2 percent), tackles for a loss (71.2 percent), sacks (73.3 percent), and havoc plays (63.5 percent).
The MAC is back, and two of the best and most evenly matched teams in the league will battle it out on the big stage Wednesday. The game could come down to which new quarterback has the best debut, and Ohio has two solid options to choose from in the younger brother of arguably the best ever to play at the school, in addition to a former FBS starter. Rourke, Rogers, or both, along with an experienced group of skill position players, should get the job done on the road.