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Vosburg: MAC West is anything but clear in 2021


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With the 75th season of Mid-American Conference just a month over away, all 12 teams gathered at Ford Field for MAC Football Media Day on Tuesday.

After talking with six coaches, I feel like I got a grasp on what the 2021 season may look like in the MAC West Division. With no players losing eligibility for this season, this may be the most competitive and unique season of college football, ever.

Here’s my thoughts on the MAC West:

Central Michigan

Storyline to watch: Which quarterback gets the keys to the team?

The Chippewas are predicted to finish fourth in the preseason polls, but the team views the prediction as outside noise. The team has Troy Hairston II and Troy Brown, two of the best defensive players in the conference that anchor a stout defense. Kalil Pimpleton may be the the most dynamic player in the conference and is accompanied by a 1-2 punch with Kobe Lewis and Lew Nichols III.

If CMU can improve on its dismal 28.2 third down percentage, stay healthy and find an answer at quarterback I don’t see why this team isn’t playing in Ford Field come December. 

“I think we have really talented guys, but we have to bring those pieces together and make it whole,” said head coach Jim McElwain. “It’s really the development of our young players that will push us over the top.” 

Ball State

Storyline to watch: Can the Cardinals claim a second-straight title?

Returning 20 starters from their 2020 MAC Championship team, the Cardinals are preseason favorites to win the MAC West once again. To Mike Neu and the team, it’s viewed as a piece of paper. 

With Drew Plitt returning at quarterback behind the same five offensive linemen as 2020, the Cardinals potent offense will have to be matched by a defense that allowed the most passing yards in the conference last season, yet found a way to force timely turnovers.

The Cardinals will be a problem in the West once again, but can they repeat their 2020 success?

“We have players that have been here through good days and players that have been here through some bad days,” Neu said. “The one thing that’s consistent (with the team) is that they all know how hard it is to get to the top, make sure that each and every single day we’re bought into the process and make sure we have our best stuff each and every day.”

Eastern Michigan

Storyline to watch: Can the Eagles win tight games?

The Eagles are coached under Chris Chreighton for his eighth season. While he had a rocky start he’s guided EMU close to a .500 record over the last five years.

Creighton knows the Eagles are a hungry team that’s just missing one thing. To me it’s a compliment to quarterback Preston Hutchinson, who accounted for 77 percent of EMU’s offensive yards in 2020.

If there’s a sleeper in this conference it honestly could be the Eagles, who’ve lost 24 one-possession games since 2016. However, I see another 7-6 season with a bowl game for EMU.

“You have to have the chemistry and culture to win a championship, but it's x’s and o’s too,” Creighton said. “You have to be talented, you have to play really hard and really well consistently. We have to figure out what that one little thing is that’s going to put us over the edge.”

Northern Illinois

Storyline to watch: Can the Huskies improve week-by-week?

After a MAC Championship season in 2018, NIU has won a mere five games under third year head coach Thomas Hammock, including an 0-6 campaign last season. The main goal for the Huskies, according to Hammock, is to win games and mature throughout the season. After giving scares to Western Michigan and Ball State last season, I understand that this team still has progress to make.

The Huskies return 19 starters, but quarterback is the Huskies biggest question mark this season. In a conference with little to no turnover, it may be the worst question mark to have.

I don’t expect a lot out of NIU, but this is a team that will look a lot better in November than September.

“We want to win football games, and I think that’s a realistic expectation,” Hammock said. “I think our players expect that and we’ll work hard to meet those expectations.”

Toledo

Storyline to watch: Who wins the quarterback battle?

The Rockets enter 2021 with a quarterback duel between Carter Bradley and former CMU commit Dequan Finn. Whoever wins the battle will get the keys to an offense that returns nine starters with a winning pedigree that is Toledo.

What do I mean by winning pedigree? Toledo’s last losing season came in 2009, a 5-7 campaign that occurred when Lady Gaga began to dominate the radio.

Toledo will be a player to watch in the MAC West, especially after a 4-2 record after dropping three-point losses to WMU and Ball State.

“We have a veteran team, and when that happens we’re going to have expectations based on offseason excitement based on the nature of the beast,” said head coach Jason Candle. “It’s something we welcome and look forward to each and every year. We have high expectations at Toledo, and that’s something that is never going to change no matter who the coach is.”

Western Michigan

Storyline to watch: Can the Broncos capture the MAC West, or will they let it slip… again

The school in Kalamazoo has been on the verge of MAC West Championships for the last two seasons, yet has given them away in the final week of the season each time. Aside from cleaning up their red zone defense, fifth year head coach Tim Lester knows that the heat is on to break through the glass ceiling and play at Ford Field for a conference title in December.

The Broncos return quarterback Kaleb Eleby, my pick to win the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, who threw 18 touchdowns to only a pair of interceptions in 2020. If WMU can continue to run the ball its offense will sit near the top of the conference. 

WMU will be a contender in the west, but will they win games that matter in November will define its 2021 campaign. 

“We just have to keep growing,” Lester said. “That’s what we’ve really focused on is making sure we’re getting better. I thought we were better last year than we were (in 2019), a lot of good things happened to get us in position to be in a MAC Championship Game, but we have to finish it.”

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