Evaluating what CMU football must do to win MAC title at mid-season mark


The Chippewas defensive line awaits the snap during their game against Florida International University Sept. 25 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

Despite a pair of grueling non-conference games and long road trips to start conference play, Central Michigan football sits at .500 halfway through the season. 

With the way the Mid-American Conference is shaping up, however, the team's toughest tests are on the horizon. 

The Chippewas will play five MAC West divisional opponents over their final six games, with East Division favorite Kent State rounding out the remaining schedule. With the MAC being as unpredictable as ever in 2021, the stakes are high each time CMU takes the field. 

The road to a MAC championship was traveled by CMU in a wild 2019 season behind then first-year coach Jim McElwain. However, 2021 offers a completely new set of circumstances. 

So, what must the Chippewas do to be the last ones standing in December? 

Shore up the secondary

The most glaring weakness of the Chippewas so far has been the secondary. Teams have been able to exploit struggles in the back half of the defense so far this season. CMU has allowed 1,647 passing yards in 2021, the most of any team in the MAC and 16th most in the country.

This isn't necessarily because of bad fundamentals, as the cornerbacks have enough speed to run with defenders, but it's the ability to finish the play that has haunted the unit. 

With junior Dishon McNary out for the foreseeable future, CMU will rely on a large amount of youth to get it through. Three of the five regulars at corner, Donte Kent, Daedae Hill and Elijah Rikard, hold freshman status. The other two, juniors Richard Bowens III and Rollian Sturkey, have gone back and forth between corner and safety through their careers. 

With each game, Kent specifically looks more comfortable. He and Hill both remained on campus last season and got valuable game reps, but are still growing as they gain bigger roles. Having experienced players at the position, such as a fifth-year player in Bowens, to guide them will only help. 

Ball State and Western Michigan, two main challengers, make their respective money on offense through the air. Having a worthy defense to combat those high-flying schemes will be pivotal in the championship race. 

Count on the run game

Through six games, Lew Nichols III has looked every bit as capable of being the bell-cow running back as McElwain believed he would be. Thanks to the Detroit native, the Chippewa run game has not missed a beat after the injury to starter Kobe Lewis. 

CMU is at its best with an effective balance between run and pass at the very least. In its Oct. 9 win over Ohio, a large part of its early offense was in the run game thanks to Nichols' 186 rushing yards. Running the ball effectively diverts attention away from the Chippewas' talented wide receivers, creating more opportunities. 

Being able to run also helps to control the clock, which will be key with the quick-strike offenses within the MAC. With so many explosive offenses in the conference, being able to control tempo and time of possession is paramount. 

Expect to see more contributions from freshmen Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes as the season goes along. Nichols can't do it all on his own, but is emerging as one of the best young stars in the MAC. If the Chippewas win the MAC, he'll be a big reason why. 

Quarterback breakout

After beginning the season as a backup, Daniel Richardson has seized the starting quarterback position. He's played in all six games and was turnover free in the first five. Maybe the most promising part of Richardson's performance is the growth he has shown since 2020. 

With the Miami native at the helm, the Chippewas feel confident in dialing up all sorts of pass actions, leading the MAC in passing yards with 1,789. Richardson has proven that the offense can be just as explosive as it was in 2019, as his arm talent and ability to distribute the ball to his playmakers are where they need to be. 

Now, Richardson must take the one step further to assert himself as one of the conference's best. The MAC has been traditionally a quarterback driven league, with the best quarterback often times hoisting the trophy at the end of the year. Richardson has shown necessary athletic ability and certainly has a good enough arm, but needs to remain relatively mistake-free. 

Additionally, should Richardson go down with injury, sophomore Jacob Sirmon needs to remain ready. The Washington transfer started the first four games of the season, but struggled to make the big throws against Florida International which led to his benching. Regardless, there may come a time when Sirmon's number is called -- and he will have to deliver.