Booher: Anything can happen on MAC's erratic east
In no other conference is there more parity than the Mid-American Conference. Eleven of the conference’s 12 teams have played for the conference title in the last decade, with only Eastern Michigan on the outside.
This season, the MAC East in particular boasts a certain amount of uncertainty as far as who will be the champion. Because of the coronavirus pandemic granting an extra year of eligibility, nearly every team brings back most of their important pieces.
How it plays out remains to be seen, but here are my thoughts on the MAC East division following the conference’s media day.
Storyline to follow: How competitive will the Zips be in year three of Tom Arth’s tenure?
Arth enters year three at the helm with a sense of optimism. Sure, there seems to be a defined top four in this division, but he seems content on slowly assembling the necessary pieces to compete.
After suffering through a winless season in 2019, the Zips took the first step by defeating Bowling Green last season. Now, Arth and company are set on pushing the envelope further toward contention.
Kato Nelson is crucial to the Zips. He possesses athleticism necessary to be a problem for defenses, but has a history of injuries. If Nelson can stay healthy, Akron could play spoiler to a team in the top tier of the division.
Arth says: “Our guys have worked so hard and we’ve seen so much growth and development in our team. I’m just excited to get out there and see how it all comes together and the way we continue to compete. I feel like our guys are excited and they’re confident in the type of season we’re gonna have.”
Storyline to follow: Who steps up as playmakers on both sides of the ball?
The Falcons have plenty of holes under third year coach Scot Loeffler. Boston College transfer Matt MacDonald struggled through 2020, throwing one touchdown against six interceptions.
The Falcons ranked last in both scoring offense and defense while placing 11th in total offense and defense. In a unique year where almost everyone returns, it’s tough to envision their fate changing much.
One aspect the Falcons have in their favor is their youth. It may not be smooth sailing in 2021, but the youth will evolve into experience and could propel Bowling Green to the top half of the conference in the near future.
Loeffler says: “I knew that our first two years would be very difficult. Our third year, I don’t know wins, losses what we’ll see. But I know that we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know we’ve recruited some really good young football players. The problem is that we’re really young. We don’t have a lot of senior leadership, we don’t have a lot of junior leadership. These freshmen and sophomores have to learn to be the leaders on the team.”
Storyline to follow: How bad will growing pains be after late hire?
With Lance Leipold off to Kansas, Buffalo was able to lure Maurice Linguist off Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan. Linguist has taken the figurative bull by the horns, embracing the difficulty of taking the job so late in the preseason.
Losing starting running back Jared Patterson is tough, but Kevin Marks appears ready to step in the shoes of the MAC’s leading rusher a season ago. After all, Marks was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019 and averaged over 100 yards a game in 2020.
The Bulls did lose 17 letterwinners, which ranks on the high end of the conference. With several skill players returning, the offensive production should be similar to what it was in 2020. However, the defense may not reach the heights it did last year.
Linguist says: “We’re looking to do something that’s really never been done in the history of college football in terms of a brand new staff coming in 115 days before the first game … Really, we’re taking it as a day at a time approach to really just be aware of what do we need today. We lay out the plan, the vision moving forward. Every day is its own day and we’re trying to give the guys what they need for that day.”
Storyline to follow: Can the defense be good enough to complement the flashy offense?
The favorite in the MAC East, the Golden Flashes return a boatload of firepower. Chief among this firepower is quarterback Dustin Crum, a redshirt senior who is a consensus preseason first team All-MAC choice.
In four games last season, Kent State scored 199 points -- a mark that is higher than four teams who plate at least five games. Crum has legitimate dual-threat ability and is one of many returning skill players in that offensive system of Sean Lewis, who is entering year four.
Lewis has taken the Golden Flashes from the bottom of the conference to the top. The only hurdle left to clear is hoisting the trophy in December, and his may be the year to do it.
Crum says: “We’re just excited. I would say the biggest thing is just having a normal season, a full season again. Having the shortened season last year and ending on a loss and getting our last two games canceled due to covid kind of sucked to be honest. Just to have the opportunity to have a normal college football season again, I think a lot of the guys are really excited.”
Storyline to follow: Who will be the quarterback?
A year after claiming the conference crown, the RedHawks struggled to stay healthy and played just three games. The second and the third games were separated by 18 days as a result of a health and safety protocol pause put on the team.
Brett Gabbert, who led the team to the title as a freshman, went down with an injury in the season opener. AJ Mayer, who head coach Chuck Martin said came on strong during the preseason camp, showed promise in limited action. The two will presumably battle for the starting job.
The RedHawks were the only team to beat Ball State, the MAC champions, in 2020. On the flip side, they were beaten down by Buffalo. Offensively Miami is sound, but the defense lacks a little and could be the team’s downfall.
Martin says: “Obviously Brett’s been so good for us, freshman of the year, helps us win the league. But then, anybody that interviewed me preseason last year, I kept talking about AJ. Lo and behold, the first game we’re down 10 points in the second quarter to Ball State and Brett gets knocked out and AJ comes in and lights it up and throws for 300. So it’s, I would say, it’s 1 and 1A. It’s a great situation. There was a time at Miami where I didn’t have any quarterbacks so it’s nice to have two guys who have proven they can win games and play really well in the MAC.”
Storyline to follow: Will offensive production be enough to compete with the conference’s best?
Just a week prior to media day, Ohio’s head coach Frank Solich announced his decision to retire. To replace the MAC’s all-time winningest coach, the Bobcats have enlisted offensive coordinator Tim Albin.
Albin’s task will be to take Solich’s winning foundation and build a champion. Under Solich, the Bobcats were 115-82 but never won a MAC title. There are pieces in place for a run, however a lot hinges on the strength of the quarterback play.
Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rogers both return, giving Ohio a two-headed system. Rourke has the arm while Rogers brings the speed. There's an old adage that says if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none -- will either Rourke or Rogers be good enough alone to propel the Bobcats to the top?
Albin says: “With the ‘super seniors,’ the guys that have chosen to come back, they’ve basically put their life on hold to come back and be a part of something that’s special. So I think the amount of experience we have on both sides of the ball … You take that with the super senior guys, you’ve got the making of a lot of experience. We’re gonna build off of that.”