One thing each MAC team can fix to help get them back to Detroit
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
*** All stats pulled from http://cfbstats.com/ ***
Do you know what I love? and I mean really, really love? I need it like I need food and air. The uncertainty that is #MACtion. The question that looms large this year: Is NIU going to repeat as MAC champions? Odds makers say no. Historically, the MAC says no. Ironically, the last time the defending MAC champions repeated was 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, the latter being the year NIU went to the Orange Bowl after an OT thriller in Detroit.
As it's well documented, the MAC is well known for mid-week games, high-scoring affairs, and broken plays that will leave every single person in the country scratching their heads. (When both teams can score 14 points inside 5 minutes of the first quarter, you know you’re in for a doozy). While there are games that each team in the MAC can expect to win before conference play, the real test is the conference gauntlet of teams. Last season, each team had one thing they could have done better to set themselves up for a trip to Detroit. Well, it is a new season, and these teams get a crack at Detroit once more.
Below, I have identified one thing each team can improve in to give themselves a shot at making it back to Detroit. Of course, this may or may not be the only thing they need to do, but these are things each team can do to improve their odds. Every current MAC team aside from Eastern Michigan has played a game at Ford Field… could this be their year?
The Zips finished last season with a 2-10 record and fired their head coach halfway through the year. Yes, many of those games were losses in blowout fashion (All but two losses were by double digits). What is interesting is that Akron had a legitimate shot at a 4-8 record. Reverse a late-game turnover against Ball State and a devastatingly close call against WMU, and Akron finishes with a better record and goes 3-5 in conference play. It's hard to say what Akron did well last year, but upon closer examination of their season and their stats, Akron did decent enough defending the air. They ranked 4th in the conference in pass defense, allowing just 218 yards per game. The ground game gave them the most trouble, where they sat dead last in the conference, surrendering nearly 250 yards a game, roughly 35 yards more than 11th place Northern Illinois. Zooming in, the Zips gave up 410 rushing yards to MAC runner-up Kent State a year ago, in what was undoubtedly their worst effort of the year. Not saying that fixing the run defense is a sure-fire way to get back to Detroit, but it's one way they can improve.
After a surprise run where the Cardinals went 7-1 and earned a MAC title in a shortened 2020 to a 6-7 record with essentially the same team a year later, Ball State has had its ups and downs. The Cardinals lacked scoring consistency in each game. 12 points against Toledo one week, 45 points against Western Michigan two weeks later. A near shut out of Buffalo to close the season, surrendering 51 points in the Camellia Bowl to Georgia State just four weeks later. Ball State has a lot of talent and returns top rusher Carson Steele, but inconsistency is what kept them from returning to Detroit. The numbers support this: In August/September, Ball State averaged 17 points per game, 10th in the conference. In October, 32 points per game, slotting them third in the MAC. November had them at 9th best in the conference, averaging 24.3 points per game. If Ball State can figure out how to score consistently and put up points, the Cardinals could be a sleeper in the West.
Bowling Green may have gone 4-8 a year ago, but a closer look at their scores suggests that they could be pretty sneaky good this year in the Mid-American Conference. Three of their eight losses a year ago were by a score, and BG returns a lot of starters from last season. The Falcons did a pretty decent job at staying in most ball games, but when things started going south, BG was playing from behind. Looking at third down conversions, BG ranked dead last in the conference, only converting 34.08%, and they finished 109th in the country as well. Things got even worse when the third down attempts did not work as, on fourth down, BG ranked 12th in the MAC and 121st in the country with a 33% conversion rate. These are missed opportunities to score points, and if you don’t score, you can’t win. If the Falcons can clean this up, they could make some real noise in the MAC East and find themselves soaring back to Detroit.
Without making excuses, as Mo Linquist and his staff had such an unusual and short turnaround period after Lance Leipold bolted for Kansas later than what might have been expected, this Buffalo team was pretty decent last year. Even after OOC play, the Bulls were sitting at 2-2, and all seemed right in the world for the Buffalo faithful. But multiple games with multiple turnovers lead the Bulls to a rough season in conference play. Buffalo came in DEAD LAST against MAC opponents, with a negative turnover margin. They averaged -1.13 turnovers per game a year ago against their conference foes, losing 6 fumbles and 10 interceptions. Not stats you can be proud of if you're a Buffalo fan. If Mo Linquist and his staff can get this team of players to limit costly turnovers, that is one step closer to getting this team back to the MAC Championship game.
The Chippewas were a single point away from taking the trip to the Motor City, so you could say for the most part they did things right last season. Looking at how things worked, I don't think you can ask too much more…right? Wrong. The Chippewas were efficient on offense until it came to the red zone. Ranking 90th nationally and 10th in the MAC, the Chippewas were one of the worst teams in the country when it came to red zone efficiency. With an 80.39% rate, most of us would take that percentage for a high school geometry class, right? Of the few things CMU did wrong, this is one they can easily adjust, even if they connect on field goals, every point matters. Leaving points on the field, especially inside the red zone is the last thing you want to do in a high-scoring MAC. Fine-tune this, and CMU could be dancing their way through the West and back to Detroit.
As the only team who has NOT played for a MAC Championship since it’s been in Detroit, the goal is obvious: Make it to Detroit. Easier said than done, but in a conference where the records are made up and the scores don’t matter, this could be the year for the Eagles. The passing offense was fantastic for EMU a season ago, but to give themselves a chance to make it to the MACCG, the Eagles MUST establish a ground game. Jawon Hamilton paced the team with 631 yards out of the backfield, and EMU rushed for 1533 yards… good for 112th in the country. Only BGSU was worse in the conference, ranking 120th on the ground a year ago. Without a true run game, opposing defenses can key in on a passing attack and leaves you pretty one-dimensional. In the MAC West where any of the teams can win the division every single year, the thing holding the Eagles back is a true ground game. If Darius Boone and Samson Evans can get more touches they could be a surprise duo to take a lot of the pressure off of whoever lines up (Taylor Powell, presumably) under center for Eastern Michigan this fall.
As a participant in last year's MAC Championship game, the Golden Flashes accomplished almost all of their goals last year. However, when you finish a season with a 7-7 record, Their issue from a year ago was getting into shootouts that their defense couldn’t keep up with. All three of their MAC losses were by three plus scores, where their opponents put up 64, 54, and 41 points. Their bowl game was a two-score loss, and Wyoming scored 52 points on the defense. The offense ranked fourth in the country last year in total offense (being spoken about in the same breath as Ohio State and Alabama), while the defense ranked 121st in scoring defense, good for second to last in the MAC. Who were they ahead of? Primary rival Akron. Kent State will be breaking in a new quarterback this season, and the defense will need to play their part if the Flashes want to take that bus ride back to Detroit this December.
The Redhawks were an overtime loss to Kent State away from their second trip to the MACCG in three seasons. They played pretty well all season long, but their biggest hiccup that kept them out of Detroit? Not winning the one-score games. All three of Miami’s conference losses were by a combined 4 points…. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and last I checked, Miami was playing football. I have three words: starting field position. On the season, Miami had just two kick returns for more than 30 yards, and just one punt return for more than 20 yards, both tied for last in the MAC. Field positioning is critical. Everyone discounts special teams until the game is won/lost on a field goal, but field position is one of the most important parts of a successful team. Northern Illinois and Kent State did this well, giving their offenses smaller fields to work with. Miami didn’t have a lot go wrong last year, but if there is one big thing that jumps off the page, then this is it. Set the offense up for better field position (defense and special teams) then there is no reason to believe that Miami can’t make it back to Detroit.
Thomas Hammock did what no one expected outside of those in the Huskies locker room: go from 0-6 to MAC Champion. Certainly, a team who won the conference has nothing to improve on, right? Wrong. Northern Illinois ranked in the top three or four in nearly every stat category for the MAC, EXCEPT for passing offense. While AJ ranked Rocky Lombardi as his top QB coming into the season, the Huskies averaged less than 200 passing yards per game during MAC play. Over nine conference games, they had the second lowest average yards per game at 193.9 yards per game (Beating only Ohio), and the second lowest completion percentage per game at 56.6% (Beating only BGSU). Not what you expect to read about the best team in the MAC a year ago. If the Huskies can improve this, it takes the pressure off the backfield and gives them a completely different dynamic to terrorize opponents with and run it back with a trip to the Motor City.
Similar to Buffalo, Tim Albin was put in a tough spot a year ago. The winningest coach in MAC history retired three days before MAC Football Media Day, and Albin had to make some fast adjustments to how the program at Ohio was run. Ohio had its fair share of ups and downs a season ago, finishing 3-9 with all three wins coming over conference foes. The offense played pretty well, but in critical moments the defense couldn’t change the tide. Ohio was tied for last in turnovers with just 9 on the season (3 forced fumbles, 6 interceptions). Conversely, Buffalo had 13 forced fumbles, and Kent State had 16 interceptions. If Ohio can get their offense back on the field via turnovers instead of opposing points, this is a team who has tools and players who can make a strong push to get them back to Detroit.
It is often argued that Toledo had the most talented team in the MAC last year, and I don't think you would find many people who would disagree with that assessment. So, how does the best team in the conference consistently come up short? The casual observer would say “the wrong side on 50/50 games, stalling possessions, critical late turnovers…” and those might all be true. The biggest reason I can point to? Penalties. The Toledo Rockets averaged 10 penalties a game a year ago, outpacing the second worst team in the COUNTRY by more than 11 penalties throughout the season. Toledo gave up 1172 yards and free yards cripple a team who could have been 12-2 but instead, they limped to 7-6. Jason Candle certainly knows the importance of not leading the country and has harped on it this off-season. If the Rockets can cut their penalties down, especially late in the game, this is a team who could find their way to the MAC title game for the first time since 2017.
Kaleb Eleby to Skyy Moore….TOUCHDOWN! That echoed all through stadiums in the MAC last season, and even against defending ACC Champion, Pittsburgh. Amazingly, even with an 8-5 record, the Broncos finished towards the top of the MAC in nearly every category. After digging, we finally found a category in which Western Michigan struggled… which might explain at least a few of their losses. Western Michigan did great on slowing drives on downs one through three. When an opponent hit fourth down (22 times last year) they surrendered 15 conversions, good for a 68% conversion rate. This ranked them tenth in the conference, beating out just Akron and Buffalo. If WMU can get off the field on those fourth down attempts, it might be the thing they need to get back to Detroit, and not for the Quick Lane Bowl.