2022 G5 Preview: MAC Power Rankings
Northern Illinois is still on top, but Central and Eastern Michigan loom large, while the state of Ohio sits on the precipice of a power struggle.
This is the first of five conference power rankings this offseason, corresponding with my G5 preview series. Full team previews can be found underneath each team subhead, and also on this home page. Every preview, including the archives, is available for only $5 a month or $50 a year via the button below. If you’re already a subscriber or can’t swing the purchase but would like to support the newsletter, you can also hit the share button below.
The MAC has made a name for itself as the parity league, whether it has done so intentionally or not. It has produced six champions in seven years (Northern Illinois claimed it 2018 and 2021) after emerging from a five-year era of Bowling Green and NIU dominance and is showing no real signs of turning away from that. There hasn’t been a truly dominant coach or program (meaning multiple titles) since Dave Doeren and Rod Carey left NIU, Dave Clawson and Dino Babers left Bowling Green, or Brian Kelly and Butch Jones left Central Michigan.
There have been a few candidates – namely Ball State under Pete Lembo, Buffalo under Lance Leipold, Kent State under Darrell Hazell, Miami (Ohio) under Chuck Martin, Ohio under Frank Solich, Toledo under Matt Campbell and Jason Candle, Western Michigan under P.J. Fleck and Tim Lester – but each one has fallen short of grabbing control of the league for a variety of reasons.
Lembo’s Ball State wasn’t built to last and collapsed when star quarterback Keith Wenning graduated after a near breakthrough in both 2012 and 2013. Leipold left for Kansas following his best season with the Bulls. Hazell did the same with Kent State, jumping to Purdue. Martin and Solich settled into a rut of very solid but couldn’t ever really get out of that gear (Martin still has time, but certainly hasn’t shown much potential for that kind of leap). Campbell left for Iowa State before the talent he had accumulated fully developed, and Candle didn’t take full advantage of the situation he inherited because he’s a bad football coach, which Fleck bounced for Minnesota and was replaced by a slightly better version of Candle in Lester.
It’s the nature of the league and entering 2022, it doesn’t seem that the MAC is any closer to finding its next power unless NIU’s jump from winless to league champion behind a ton of close games in 2021 was sustainable – which it certainly could be, but may not be a great idea to bank on.
That makes power rankings and tiers for this league a very fun task. Unless just about every other FBS league, there’s not an especially defined caste system here. Bad teams can become very good in one offseason, just as title teams can fall off a cliff. Experience and coaching are so critical here that just about any optimism or pessimism about any team can be understood, no matter their recent history. Akron and Bowling Green’s awfulness of late does not determine their lots in life this season anywhere near as much as it would in any other conference.
With that said, the Outside Zone splits the MAC into fifths ahead of the 2022 season.
Undergoing a serious rebuild or on the verge of a firing.
Under the guidance of Solich, you could all but set your watch by Ohio football. The Bobcats were consistently among the MAC’s best for the entirety of his tenure. He never claimed a league title, but his teams ran the hell out of the ball, played good defense and won a lot of games because of it.
Tim Albin’s first season at the helm didn’t stray much schematically – he was the offensive coordinator for all of Solich’s run, after all – but the results did. Ohio still ran the ball and did so well, but shaky quarterback play, a lack of talent up front and on the perimeter and a disastrous defense doomed the Bobcats to a 3-9 campaign, their worst season since 2003 when Brian Knorr went 2-10. He followed that with a 4-7 season and was promptly fired.
That was Knorr’s third and fourth years as head coach, while Albin is entering only his second as the man in charge. Would a similarly bad season this season result in the same fate for Albin? The program has become accustomed to success and may not be as patient now as it was before Solich’s arrival, especially as other in-state programs are making major moves.
Albin’s best hope at avoiding that lies with quarterback Kurtis Rourke, who was a part-time starter last year and will claim the job outright this year. The brother of program legend Nathan, Kurtis is a capable runner and knows the offense, but his arm doesn’t jump off the screen and he’s without any truly impressive returning skill position players as halfback De’Montre Tuggle departs.
If Rourke turns out as well as his brother did, and if a young defense under new guidance after a pair of coordinator retirements can make a big leap, Ohio might be able to challenge for bowl eligibility.
The MAC has yet to release 2022 schedules, but nonconference matchups with FAU, Fordham, Iowa State and Penn State do not bode particularly well for that hope.
There’s no team in the MAC with fewer known commodities than Buffalo. The Bulls have turned over more than half of their roster in the year since Leipold’s departure and planning to rely heavily on transfers to fill in the gaps.
Head coach Maurice Linguist was in a year-negative one situation last year and still doesn’t have a whole lot to prove as he enters what we’re going to consider year zero, but finding at least a few young contributors who don’t immediately leave is a pretty big deal for this season. Halfback Dylan McDuffie’s exit from the transfer portal is a major win, but he’s just about the only young member of the team with any proven production, save perhaps for hybrid linebacker/end Max Michel.
There’s a chance that the bundle of P5 transfers Buffalo landed will hit and raise the floor, but it’s not a terribly high chance, especially with huge question marks across both lines and at quarterback after Kyle VanTrease’s transfer to Georgia Southern.
Holy Cross and UMass are beatable in nonconference play and Buffalo is in the easier of the two MAC divisions with automatic matchups against three of the bottom six teams in these rankings, but trips to Coastal Carolina and Maryland do not inspire much optimism, nor does expected improvement from Akron and Bowling Green – who Buffalo would have really liked to be able to count as expected wins.
Ball State Cardinals
This past season was supposed to be Ball State’s year. The Cardinals returned the vast majority of its 2020 MAC title team with the goal of repeating, but close game results and turnover luck shifted. A team that overachieved came back to Earth and finished much closer to where its talent merited, going 6-7 in 2021. Not bad, but not enough top-end talent to really compete with the league’s best for four quarters.
That returning production is gone now. Nearly 30 players have departed – many of them major contributors – and Ball State sits now as a group that will need quite a few young players to step up to avoid a very rough season.
There’s a world where Kiael Kelly wins the starting quarterback job and works as a revelation for an offense in need of playmakers but he’s not the favorite to claim that title entering spring ball. That falls instead to John Paddock, who is absolutely fine and nothing more. The offensive skill corps returns more than any other part of the team but does lose WR Justin Hall, one of the best players in program history.
That Kelly supernova potential is just about the only path to success here, because the defense is returning, generously, three players that have proven themselves as legitimate contributors – defensive end Tavion Woodard, outside linebacker Clayton Coll and cornerback Amechi Uzondinma II. Head coach Mike Neu has consistently hyped the young talent on the roster, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a youth movement season.
Good shot at a bowl game, some fun players, but not good enough to make real noise.
The easiest way to think of Akron this season is as Buffalo with a little more continuity, a more impressive class of incoming transfers and a better in-game coach. The questions of inexperience and of how incoming players will mesh remain, but the floor is a bit higher because of the presence of Joe Moorhead and because those players coming in are better than the ones Buffalo has landed.
In that group, Akron has found a capable starting halfback in Minnesota’s Cameron Wiley to pair with Jonzell Norrils next to raw but intriguing quarterback DJ Irons in the backfield; a trio of P5 pass catchers in LSU WR Alex Adams, WVU TE TJ Banks and Pitt WR Shocky Jacques-Louis; Houston OT Max Barnes; Syracuse DT Curtis Harper and Memphis DT Devon Robinson; Buffalo LB Tim Terry; Mississippi State CB Cameron Threatt and WVU S Kerry Martin.
Banks, Barnes, Harper, Jacques-Louis, Martin, Terry and Wiley have all seen at least a chunk of FBS playing time and Jacques-Louis, Martin and Terry all look like potential stars. The rest of unproven, but are immediately some of the most highly touted former recruits in the league.
If half of this group hits, Akron fills quite a few of its gaps and raises its floor significantly – even with the loss of quarterback Zach Gibson, receivers Michael Mathison and Konata Mumpfield and several other contributors to the portal.
If the majority of it hits, Moorhead’s offense clicks with Irons and a young defense takes a step forward, this could very quickly become a year-one bowl trip, especially if Akron can find a way to upset a Liberty team with a new quarterback (and maybe a new coach?) on Sept. 24.
It’s a steep drop for Western Michigan. The Broncos had a real claim as the MAC’s most talented team last season behind the strength of QB Kaleb Eleby and WR Skyy Moore, but both are off to the NFL, as is center Mike Caliendo, defensive end Ali Fayad and defensive tackle Ralph Holley. The entire secondary departs as well, and No. 2 wideout Jaylen Hall transferred to Western Kentucky.
There’s a case to be made that Jack Salopek or Stone Hollenbach will better fit the RPO-heavy offense that head coach Tim Lester runs than the big-armed Eleby did, and they will have a pair of nice halfbacks in Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson, but the offensive talent is taking a step back. The defense was already bad and doesn’t really have anywhere to go but up, though there’s a pretty good chance that it just stays bad. A team that relies heavily on outscoring opponents remaining bad on defense and taking a step back offensively is not a recipe for success.
The schedule isn’t particularly friendly either. WMU draws road trips to Michigan State and San Jose State with home matchups against Pitt and New Hampshire, while the MAC West has only one other team (Ball State) with a floor lower than bowl eligibility. Western Michigan could get to six wins if it sweeps the East, nabs two nonconference wins and wins at least one division game, but that’s a lot to ask. Four or five wins seems more likely.
Intriguing, but not likely to compete for a title without a few players or coaches seriously exceeding expectations.
Bowling Green Falcons
There are two things at the top here worth mentioning as qualifiers. Firstly, yes, Bowling Green went 4-8 last season. And yes, Scot Loeffler is the head coach.
But were it not for those two immutable facts, this would probably be a top-five team in these power rankings because there are very few teams in the entire country with more returning experience.
After a three-year build, Bowling Green has pieced together the exact team that Loeffler envisioned when he came to town. He has a veteran quarterback in Matt McDonald behind a very old offensive line, skill talent that suits the offense and a trio of all-MAC defenders in linebacker Darren Anders, safety Jordan Anderson and lineman Karl Brooks to anchor its defense around. The Falcons have secured strong transfers in positions of need and are losing only two starters – one of which is a kicker – from the 2021 campaign.
The only real questions here are Loeffler-centric. With just about any other coach in the MAC, Bowling Green looks like one of the East’s best teams entering 2022. But Loeffler has yet to prove himself as anything but an impediment, so the Falcons check in at seventh.
Miami (Ohio) RedHawks
Like Akron and Buffalo, Miami (Ohio) is the evolved version of Ball State. It loses several major contributors from a decent team – namely wideout Jack Sorenson and defensive end pairing Lonnie Phelps and Kameron Butler – but has been consistently solid for just about the entirety of the Martin tenure, and has the pieces to suggest a similar landing place this season.
Quarterback Brett Gabbert will be among the league’s best, and he has a pair of veteran receivers (plus two P5 transfers), five returning offensive linemen and an interesting stable of halfbacks. The RedHawk offense looks primed for a leap even without Sorenson and will need to make that jump to stay in the top half of the league because the defense is taking a step back after leading the team in 2021.
Butler and Phelps depart as do their primary backups; leading tackler Ivan Pace Jr. is off to Cincinnati; and every contributing safety is gone. There are enough young contributors to prevent a collapse, but Miami isn’t winning with havoc and turnovers this season as it did last year. It’ll need to win some shootouts.
Gabbert is good enough to do it, but those defensive questions keep Miami out of the upper echelon of the league, floating in a space somewhat reminiscent of the spot Western Michigan filled last season. Bowl eligible and dangerous in every game, but not good enough to beat its best opponents – likely a No. 2 or 3 finish in the East.
Teams that can win a title if they find suitable answers for one or two major questions.
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Outside of the top two, you aren’t likely to find a better offense in the MAC this season than Eastern Michigan’s, as long as the Eagles can find an answer at quarterback. Slot receiver Hassan Beydoun returns and has his eyes on the MAC leaders list for receptions and yards after nabbing 97 receptions for 1,015 yards a year ago. Dylan Drummond, Tanner Knue and Zach Westmoreland all return too for the MAC’s most experienced (and potentially outright best) wide receivers room.
Darius Boone Jr. and Samson Evans are back at halfback, and the offensive line brings back four starters. This was already a strong group last year, and another year of development for all of those pieces is only going to make things easier on the signal caller.
That’s the problem area, though. We don’t know the quarterback. Ben Bryant transferred to Cincinnati after a very good season in 2021, and Preston Hutchinson, EMU’s 2020 starter, is off to the FCS ranks. Sophomores Baron May and Austin Smith return but have little to no experience, while Troy transfer Taylor Powell joins the fold as a high floor but low ceiling option if neither of the in-house replacements are ready to go. Competent quarterback play is enough to produce one of the best offenses in school history, but that’s no given with the group available.
If Powell – or anyone else – is able to fill that void well, Eastern Michigan is going to be a total nightmare to deal with. Its defense is almost certainly headed for “bad” territory again, but shootout teams can win in this league, and EMU is as well-suited to fill that space as any other team, with Kent State dealing with some quarterback questions of its own and run-heavy offenses at both Central Michigan and Northern Illinois that will largely keep them out of the shootout category.
The final “evolved” version of another team, Toledo is essentially just a more talented version of Bowling Green.
It has all of the veteran pieces that you’d want out of a title contender, found a really nice quarterback in DeQuan Finn down the stretch in 2021, and would absolutely be a favorite in the West were it not for questions of coaching. We’ve just seen it too many times. Candle has had plenty of talented teams with Toledo and owns only one MAC title to show for it.
His tendency to hold Toledo back is the major question here. If he can stay out of the way, the Rockets are as capable of winning the league as any other team. They have the talent to field the best offense and the best defense in the league but at some point, you have to prove it on the field. Toledo hasn’t done that since 2017.
The talent here is enough to outpace just about every team in the league, but the groups with proven talent and coaching check in ahead of the Rockets. The good news is that there are only three in that group, the bad news is that Candle didn’t just take the Miami (Fla.) offensive coordinator job, so Toledo is all but stuck here.
Kent State Golden Flashes
The loss of Dustin Crum at quarterback keeps Kent State out of the top spot because it is going to need to find a solution there, but just about everything here is tremendously appealing.
The Golden Flashes return almost every piece of a top-five rushing attack with leading halfback Marquez Cooper, No. 2 Xavier Williams and No. 3 Bryan Bradford all back, joined by three starting linemen and two more backups with starting experience. Dante Cephus and Ja’Shaun Poke return on the outside, and the defense should see at least some improvement with almost complete continuity on the line and in the secondary under new coordinator Jeremiah Johnson. Kent State isn’t going to win with defense, but moving into the top 100 in most categories would be enough to support what will be a great offense with or without a quarterback.
However, if presumed starter Collin Schlee is able to play pretty closely to what Crum did in 2021 (64.1 completion percentage, 3,257 yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions; 161 carries, 703 yards), Kent State is going to run away with the East. If he’s not quite there but is competent, this is still the favorite in the East, (it’s the only member in the top five, after all) it just isn’t as likely to bridge the gap and knock off the West representative.
The best of the best. Very few if any questions, should be favorites in every league game they play except for their head-to-head matchup.
Central Michigan Chippewas
Winners in seven of their last eight games in 2021, no team finished the season hotter than Jim McElwain’s Chippewas. After Daniel Richardson took over for Jacob Sirmon at quarterback, Central Michigan became just about unstoppable. Under his guidance, the offense averaged 33 points per game and CMU lost just twice – 28-17 to Miami and 39-38 to Northern Illinois on a field goal in the last minute of play.
He returns for what is somehow only his sophomore season, as does superstar halfback Lew Nichols III and the man he took over for, Kobe Lewis, after a preseason injury ended Lewis’ 2021 campaign. Three starters are back up front, all on the interior. The loss of Kalil Pimpleton (and to a lesser extent JaCorey Sullivan) on the outside is a major one, but Dallas Dixon showed flashes of WR1 potential and Carlos Carriere arrives from Maryland to fill a second wideout spot, with the only question sitting in the No. 3 WR role.
In a league without a whole lot in the way of defensive positivity, Central Michigan still projects as one of the best even with six of its top eight tacklers departing. The Chippewas return five defensive linemen with good experience and used a shift system for linebackers, which will make replacing the pair of departing starters a lot easier. CMU will need three new safeties, but returns both cornerbacks and has a pair of young safeties who look ready to step into bigger roles. That should be enough for a top-three group along with Toledo and whichever one of Bowling Green, Miami and NIU is the least disaster-prone.
With a top-three offense all but guaranteed and one of the league’s best coaches, you won’t find a more well-rounded group in the MAC outside of DeKalb. CMU just needs a few new stars to emerge – and for Toledo to stay asleep, as every other title hopeful team needs – to claim the top spot.
Northern Illinois Huskies
The only issue with this Northern Illinois team is regression to the mean in close game situations. That’s it. The Huskies are losing only six major contributors and return 36 players with starting experience or significant playing time (including 17 full-time starters from 2021). They’re one of seven MAC teams with a returning starter at quarterback and could not ask for a better schematic fit in that spot than Rocky Lombardi. Of those seven teams, three employ coaches who have won a MAC title – Miami, NIU and Toledo.
Star tailback Jay Ducker is off to Memphis, but Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee return, complement each other nicely and both have plenty of experience. Four starters return up front, as does coordinator Eric Eidsness, who certainly knows how to draw up a running game. WR Tyrice Richie is the only major departure in the passing game as Trayvon Rudolph and Cole Tucker return, joined by a bunch of youngsters and FIU transfer Shemar Thornton. NIU averaged nearly 33 points per game last season and will almost certainly improve on that.
The defense loses one starting linebacker (Lance Deveaux) and one starting rover (Dillon Thomas) and returns everyone else. It wasn’t great at creating havoc or stuffing the run in 2021 but did field a pretty good secondary, and fixing the former two is easier than installing the latter, especially with about 10 experienced linemen and four solid linebackers.
It’s just those close games. Northern Illinois could improve across the board and still regress in the standings if tight matchups start breaking the wrong way. Or, if it plays true to the talent and coaching available, it could roll to a second straight MAC title.