For college football fans—especially those that gamble—nothing beats a little mid-week MACtion. This conference has quickly become the most exciting one the Group of Five has to offer, and this year shouldn’t be any different. Last year, Toledo was the team that came through with a 45-28 win over Akron in the MAC Championship.
The Rockets will once again be in the mix this year, but Northern Illinois is the favorite to win the MAC at +275. There are, however, another four or five teams that have a legitimate chance to call themselves MAC champs at the end of the college football season.
Odds to Win MAC
Northern Illinois +275
Western Michigan +700
Miami (Ohio) +800
Eastern Michigan +1400
Central Michigan +3300
Bowling Green +4000
Ball State +6600
Kent State +10000
(in order of predicted finish)
Last season, quarterback Nathan Rourke threw for 17 touchdowns and only seven picks while adding 912 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground. He’s arguably the best dual-threat QB this conference has to offer, and he’s joined by a group of talented rushers in the backfield. The fact that they all run behind an experienced O-line only makes the Ohio offense more dangerous. Defensively, the Bobcats have to replace most of their front seven. If they can competently do that, there is little in the way of them taking the top spot in the East, and they’ll definitely have a shot at a conference title.
In 6'7", 245-pound quarterback Tyree Jackson and star wideout Anthony Johnson—who racked up 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns last season—the Bulls have one of the best QB-WR duos in the conference. This passing game should be explosive, and Buffalo isn’t going to have much of a problem running the ball either. Defensively, the Bulls are expected to be a force this year. They return most of a defense that allowed just 20.5 PPG in non-overtime games last season. There’s some serious value in backing them to win the conference at +1000.
Led by two-time first-team All-MAC LB Ulysees Gilbert III, the Zips figure to field one of the MAC's better defenses this season. They allowed 26.3 PPG last year, but that number should go down with a more experienced unit. The secondary, in particular, will be a strength. Akron’s biggest question mark comes on offense, where a lack of skill-position players could hurt them. The Zips are also a bit unsteady along the offensive line. They’ll need contributions from unheralded sources.
4. Miami (Ohio)
Quarterback Gus Ragland and first-team All-MAC wide receiver James Gardner form the foundation of one of the conference's best passing attacks. With the two of them feeding off of one another, the RedHawks will be explosive offensively. They’ll just need a bit of help from the running game, which should be more than doable with 2017 leading rushers Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith both returning.. Defensively, Miami returns eight starters. The problem is that the secondary is a bit depleted, which could be an issue. The RedHawks lost a lot of close games last year, and mistakes on the backend could similarly doom them in 2018.
5. Bowling Green
The Falcons brought in a new defensive coordinator in Carl Pelini, who inherits a bad defense but a good number of experienced players. It’s entirely possible that he breathes life into the unit. As a guy that loves coaching defensive linemen, he’ll love having end David Konowalski on his side. On offense, quarterback Jarret Doege and wide receiver Scott Miller should revitalize a passing game that hasn’t been there in recent seasons. And running back Andrew Clair will look to improve on what was an impressive freshman campaign. The Falcons aren’t quite there yet, but they could be pretty good soon.
6. Kent State
Kent State’s 12.8 PPG last season was the second-worst mark in all of college football. That led to the team bringing in former Syracuse offensive coordinator Sean Lewis as its new head coach. Lewis worked under Dino Babers, which means that the Golden Flashes are going to play fast. Auburn transfer QB Woody Barrett will run the up-tempo offense, and he should help the unit—especially considering his supporting cast isn’t all that bad. Defensively, Kent State should be decent. The team’s lack of offense kept the D on the field too long last year, but the hope is that problem will no longer exist. Still, this is likely the division’s worst team.
1. Northern Illinois
The Huskies are going to be incredibly tough to beat this year, as they have playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball. 2017 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Sutton Smith is back to anchor a defense that led the nation with 8.8 tackles for loss per game, and was second in sacks per game with 3.3. He’s the archetypical end for their 4-3 scheme. On the other side, QB Marcus Childers is back after winning the 2017 MAC Freshman of the Year award. He’s going to be operating behind the conference’s best offensive line, so expect this unit to put up a lot of points. They’re the team to beat in the MAC.
With MAC Player of the Year Logan Woodside gone, the Rockets are going to need somebody to step up at the quarterback position. There’s a four-way battle for who ends up getting the start under center, but a relatively cushy job awaits the winner. With wideouts Cody Thompson and Diontae Johnson in the fold, the quarterback simply needs to get them the ball in space. And RB Shakif Seymour will also take pressure off of the passing game by setting up short-yardage situations. Last year's defense was bad against the run and excellent against the pass, and the same dynamic appears likely to play out this season.
3. Western Michigan
The Broncos have to replace their entire linebacking corps and two studs in the secondary, but there is still optimism coming from the team about the defense as a whole—even if its defensive line isn’t exactly great, either. And if the unit can find a way to be average on that side of the ball then the team could contend in the conference. That’s because the offense is going to be nearly impossible to stop, if healthy. Quarterback Jon Wassink should be in for a big year under center, and he’ll be handing off to one of the best groups of rushers in the conference, including the slippery Jamauri Bogan. There’s some value to be had in backing the Broncos and hoping they figure it out defensively.
4. Central Michigan
Running back Jonathan Ward racked up 1,489 yards from scrimmage last season, and he’ll once again be the go-to guy for the Chippewas this year. The issue is that he could be facing some stacked boxes, as Central Michigan is inexperienced at both quarterback and wide receiver. But on defense, this team should be among the best in the division. It has a good group of linebackers and a solid defensive line. If a spotty secondary can play better than expected, then this Central Michigan team might finish a bit higher.
5. Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan should field one of the better defenses in the division this season. The Eagles had the second-best unit in the conference in 2017, and they return a lot of the talent that helped them do that—including defensive linemen Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris, who combined for 17 sacks last year. The problem is that the passing game is miserable, so that defense might be spending a lot of time on the field.
6. Ball State
Last season, the Cardinals averaged only 17.9 PPG, which was the ninth-worst mark in the nation. Don’t expect that to happen again. Ball State was completely depleted by injuries in 2017, but both QB Riley Neal and RB James Gilbert are set to return to the lineup. The real issue for Ball State is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Cardinals will struggle to stop the run. In a conference full of potent running attacks, that's going to be a problem. Ball State will be more competitive this year, but it still won’t win many games.
Pick to Win the MAC: Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois hasn’t won the MAC since 2014, but I expect the Huskies to get back to their winning ways this season. They’re the most balanced team in the conference, and head coach Rod Carey knows what it takes to get the job done.
Best value bet: Buffalo
With an explosive offense combined with a defense that should be tough to score on, the Bulls have a great chance to come out of the East. And considering their ability to compete on both sides of the ball, they’d be able to keep things close against whoever wins the West. They’re worth a flier.