Two stagnant programs, four with separation aspirations. The MAC East title fight could be one of the most intriguing in the FBS: Kent State makes a few more stops, Miami overcomes a brutal road trip, and Ohio State is just as strong as last season’s small sample size.
There is also the possibility that Buffalo is too good for the field. Lance Leipold’s Bulls won the East in 2018 and 2020 and also have a four-point lead in the division in 2019; SP+ again sees them as the favorite. Yet more than half of this division is on track.
Throughout the summer, Bill Connelly will present a different Group 5 and Power 5 division each week exclusively for ESPN+, including all 130 FBS teams. Previews include predictions for 2020 and 2021, as well as a brief history of each team in a handy chart. So far, this series has covered the conference in the eastern and western United States.
Join the team: Bowling Green, Akron, Kent State, Miami, Ohio, Buffalo.
Though short, Scott Loeffler’s second season as lead actor promised no more than the first. He is now 3-14 after an 0-5 campaign.
SP+ Grade: 125.
Planned entry: 3-9 (2-6)
- He’ll probably win: Murray State (73% chance of winning)
- Relative pulses : Akron (51%), South Alabama (41%).
- Probable losses : EMU (34%), NIU (29%), Kent State (28%), Miami (Ohio) (28%), Ohio (22%), Toledo (17%), Buffalo (11%), Tennessee (4%), Minnesota (2%).
* Probability of winning are the games where SP+ predicts a probability of winning by more than seven points, or about 65%. The losses are probably reversed, and the relative draws are intermediate games.
What we learned about BGSU in 2020
Loeffler likes tight ends. The tight ends caught 30 passes last year, while the wide receivers caught 28. Loeffler has contracted as many TEs as WRs the last two years. It would be nice to say this is a potential source of innovation, but it’s hard to do that when (a) BGSU ranks 120th in pass completion rate and (b) four of last year’s top six targets, including the top two TEs, are gone. Loeffler is looking to make his third offensive start in three years.
Pass protection is promising. The Falcons prevented big game situations, and once behind, they shined. Cornerback Caleb Biggers is a reliable tackler, safety Jordan Anderson is aggressive and linebackers Holbe Coleman and Darren Anders are among the best blitzers in the league. If there’s one reason to be optimistic in 2021, it’s Brian VanGorder’s defense.
What we didn’t learn about BGSU in 2020
Is there any real reason to be optimistic. Loeffler’s three wins include a 2019 victory over Morgan State and a winless Akron, and his 14 losses have come by at least 18 points (including a 31-3 victory over Akron in 2020). The offense is desperate, and a good pass defense only counts if the opponent is forced to pass.
History of Bowling Green in a table
1. BGSU promoted to Division I and lost only once in its first 15 seasons from 1962-65.
2. Coach Moniker’s hometown is Miami (Ohio), but BGSU hired Don Nelen for West Virginia, Dave Clawson for Ukraine Meyer, Dave Clawson for Wake Forest and Dino Babers for Syracuse. Nehlen enjoyed a good, long run before heading to Morgantown.
3. The Falcons stagnated in the late 1990s, but Meyer ignited a spark in the 2001-02 season to go 17-6, then they went 20-6 in Gregg Brandon’s first two seasons.
4. Josh Harris: QB before his time. In the 2002-03 season, Meyer-Brandon accounted for 6,238 yards and 46 touchdowns, and another 1,567 yards and 33 touchdowns with rush.
5. Things went wrong. First under Mike Jinks, then under Lofler, the Falcons have averaged two wins per season since 2017. BGSU has been in the top five of the MS+ rankings for three years in a row.
At least the short 2020 season allowed Akron to drop out: Tom Art’s Zips beat BGSU to end 21 game losing streak. 1-5 record: better than 0-6.
SP+ Grade: 122.
Planned entry: 4-8 (2-6)
- He’ll probably win: Bryant (95% chance of winning)
- Relative pulses : Temple (49%), at Bowling Green (49%), Kent State (43%).
- Probable losses : Miami (Ohio) (32%), Ohio State (26%), Buffalo (21%), Ball State (18%), WMU (15%), Toledo (13%), Auburn (2%), Ohio State (0.4%).
With five opponents ranked 110th or lower in the SP+ rankings, the Zips have a chance to win three or four games. Of course, they also have a clear and likely win, but progress is not guaranteed.
What we learned about Akron in 2020
Theon Dollard has a doll. The transfer to Juco didn’t offer much open field, but he made the most of what he got – he had seven runs for more than 20 yards and his speed exceeded 1,300 yards with 5.9 per carry in a season of 12 games. He could be the first true offensive player Art has found so far, and will likely carry a heavy load in 2021.
Defensive coordinator Matt Feeney is an aggressive guy. Akron ranked 38th in blitzes per game, and linebackers Bubba Arslanian, Brandon Bischof and Michael Scott all generated considerable pressure.
Unfortunately, the run defense was so bad that opponents didn’t have to pass if they didn’t want to; and if they did, quarterbacks found free men pretty quickly, under pressure or not. Regardless of his intentions, Akron ranked 124th in hits allowed and 125th in explosive plays allowed. Opponents not named Bowling Green are averaging 49 points per game and 8.2 yards per play.
What we didn’t learn about Akron in 2020.
Will art ever find enough differentiators? Dollar 1. The radars are good. Randy Cochran Jr’s corner backs him up. Defensive tackle Eric Bentley has his moments of disruption. But the passing game was terrible, the defense caught fire on every play they couldn’t stop, and unless QB DJ Irons’ passing game is legit, there’s no immediate salvation on the horizon.
Akron’s history in a table
1. In retrospect, keeping former Notre Dame coach Jerry Faust around .500 for seven years is quite an accomplishment.
2. Jason Taylor, Hall of Famer, at Akron (1993-96): 41 PFLs, 21 sacks, three INTs, 5.5 points per game for the basketball team … And three (football) wins in one season.
3. The Zips found a late rhythm in 2005, winning four of five games after a 3-4 start, reaching their first bowl and defeating NIU 31-30 in the final minute in the epic MAC Championship.
4. Terry Bowden has pushed the proverbial rock higher than most. He went 8-5 in 2015 and won an improbable MAC East title in 2017. Then the stone rolled down the hill.
5th Art was called up from Chattanooga in 2019; progress so far has been short-lived (as his 1-17 record suggests).
Sean Lewis’ Golden Flashes have won seven of their last eight games (three of four in 2020), but a brutal game plan – and a brutal defense – could stop them in 2021.
SP+ Grade: 111.
Planned entry: 4-8 (3-5)
Probable win* : VMI (92% win probability), BGSU (72%)
Relative draw: NIU (57%), at Akron (57%), Miami (Ohio) (56%)
Potential Defaulters: Buffalo (31%), Ohio (27%), WMU (23%), CMU (22%), Maryland (5%), Texas A&M (2%), Iowa (2%).
SP+ isn’t selling out the Golden Flashes – the updated August forecast assumes much higher production returns – but, to put it generously, this game plan is ridiculous: Teams in the top 3-35 in non-conference play, then trips to WMU, Ohio State and CMU in MAC play. Qualifying for a cup would be quite an achievement.
What we learned about Kent State in 2020
The attack is ridiculous. In 2020, this mach speed offense ranked first in the FBS in points per drive (4.0), second in kills (57%) and fourth in points per game (7.4). Dustin Crum completed 74 percent of his passes, his RB averaged 6.2 yards per carry and three linemen earned all-conference honors. Looks like they are going to 2021 with all but one.
Catcher Isaiah McCoy’s one-off outing was great, but a one-off outing you can usually handle. Lewis added that running back PK Kier of Virginia and slot manager Nykeim Johnson of Syracuse. In 2020, he ranks 44th on the SP+ offensive line.
What we didn’t learn about Kent State in 2020
Thedefense is ridiculous… In a different way. Being first in offensive points per drive is a little off when your defense ranks 119th.
The Flashes ranked 121st, 119th and 118th in defensive SP+, led by Lewis. The secondary did well, but the defense was a disaster. (The most direct evidence: Buffalo’s Jarrett Patterson, who ran for 409 yards and eight TDs against them).
Just about every player from 2020 returns, as do two injured starters from 2019. Defensive transfers Antwain Richardson (Maryland) and Nico Bolden (New Mexico) are also of interest. The unit should improve, but it’s far from good.
Know State history in a graph
1. The Don James era has been the highlight of the program. Players like Jack Lambert, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel stepped onto the field and went 9-2 in 1973.
2. A slow and steady decline reached its nadir in the 1990s. From 1989 to 2000, Kent averaged just 1.4 wins per season.
3. Even though the Flashes weren’t very good in the early 2000s, they had star power: James Harrison, future NFL receiver Julian Edelman as quarterback and future shortstop Antonio Gates on the basketball team.
4. Darrell Hazell’s team started 11-1, but lost to NIU in the MAC Championship and missed an Orange Bowl appearance. First winning season in 11 years.
5. After Hazell’s breakdown, Lewis builds something spectacular. But they will have to make a few stops along the way.
The 2019 MAC champions didn’t have much of a chance to defend their crown. The Redhawks’ season began on November 4 and ended 24 days later with a 2-1 record.
SP+ Grade: 110.
Planned entry: 5-7 (3-5)
- He’ll probably win: Long Island (99% chance to win), BGSU (72%), Akron (68%).
- Equal: Kent State (44%), EMU (40%).
- Probable losses : CMU (32%), Buffalo (31%), Ohio (27%), Ball State (19%), Army (19%), Minnesota (5%), Cincinnati (2%).
The No. 110 projection could stop this team – the experience level is high – but the Redhawks are coming off a brutal loss on the road.
What we learned about Miami in 2020
We can have a QB fight. In the first game with quarterback Brett Gabbert injured, A.J. Meyer went 16-for-24 with three TDs to lead Ball State. He struggled against Buffalo and Gabbert faced Akron in the finals, but Miami seems to have two QBs capable of leading an offense with plenty of experience.
And I mean loaded. Miami adds running back Isaiah Bowser from Northwestern and returns two 2019 running backs (Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton) who did not participate in 2020. The receiving corps consists of star Jack Sorenson, and everyone else is solid. The line should replace some solid pieces, but it’s absolutely massive – the seven returning players are averaging 6’3 , 313 pounds and have each done over 20 series.
What we didn’t learn about Miami in 2020.
Almost anything. Gabbert threw 35 passes last year. Bester and Shelton ran for 1,328 yards in 2019 and zero yards in 2020. It is impossible to get a clear picture of a team in three games, especially when some of the best players are not there. But now the Redhawks will bring back most of last year’s two-state players, who already had the best of 2019.
Miami has 10 starters back from a defense that was excellent against the run and sloppy against the pass – a year after they were good against the pass and sloppy against the run. Many players have achieved this, at least a little; can it be done in 2021?
The history of Miami in a graph
1. Bo Schembechler led Miami to success in the mid-1960s, a decade after Woody Hayes had done the same. Sid Gillman… Ara Parseghian… There’s a reason Miami is called the birthplace of coaching.
2. The peak was reached under Bill Mallory. Miami won three MAC titles in 1973-75, finished in the AP top 15 twice and went 32-1-1 with seven wins over Big Ten and SEC teams.
3. A number of high-level layoffs followed in the 1980s, but with the hiring of Randy Walker in 1990, the Redhawks began to rebound.
4. Ben Roethlisberger in 2003: 4,486 passing yards, 37 touchdowns. Miami lost to Iowa, then had 13 wins in a row and was 10th in the AP poll.
5. Under Chuck Martin, Miami went 17-20 from 2016-18 thanks to an endless string of narrow losses on paper against good teams. Since then, the Redhawks have gotten worse on paper, but they’ve won their last eight games by a one-point margin.
It happened in the blink of an eye: Frank Solich’s Redskins played one of the best running games in the country, lost to Central Michigan, beat bad teams Akron and BGSU, and that was it.
SP+ Grade: 89.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
Probable Wins*: Duquesne (98% win probability), BGSU (78%), Akron (74%), Kent State (73%), Miami (Ohio) (73%)
Relative draws: Syracuse (60%), at EMU (38%), Toledo (49%), CMU (49%), at Buffalo (37%), at Northwestern (35%)
Probable losses: at Louisiana (9%).
Ohio has almost its entire offense back, save for two depth players and seven defensive tackles, and on the schedule there is only one probable defeat.
What we learned about Ohio in 2020
Curtis Rourke – Rourke. After averaging nearly 2,500 yards per season and 900 yards on the ground during three years as the starting quarterback, Nathan Rourke handed over starting quarterback duties to his younger brother Curtis for the first time. Curtis didn’t run that often or efficiently, but he combined solid mobility with a 68% rate. Ohio ran the ball a lot, avoided a negative ground game, created a big play and thrived in the red zone. In other words, it was always an Ohio offense.
Rourke and UNLV transfer Armani Rogers, a devastating runner and questionable passer, could continue to split time this fall. With the return of De’Montre Tuggle, the great Isaiah Cox and the four starting linebackers, this offense will be dangerous again.
What we didn’t learn about Ohio in 2020.
If the dominant pass protection is due to an upgrade or an opponent. Ohio State moved up to 88th in the country in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A*), and sophomore safety Jett Elad was the best playmaker. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But the fact that two-thirds of your shots are against Akron and BGSU is a recipe for defensive success.
The loss of corner Elijah Motley hurts, but most of the secondary players return, along with ace blitzer Kye Thompson. What can they do about crime with a heartbeat?
* ALL/ONE : A number of sacks, 20 yards for touchdowns and 45 yards for interceptions.
Ohio history in a chart
1. Call Ohio UCF in the 60s. In seven years, the Bobcats went 8-3 in 1962, 0-10 in 1965 and 10-1 in 1968. All under the direction of head coach Bill Hess!
2. Led by QB Cleve Bryant, the 1968 team started 10-0 and defeated prolific Cincinnati in a classic 60-48 victory. Who said the MACtion started in the 2000s?
3. This slow decline accelerated in the 1980s. Ohio has lost 13 consecutive games and won just nine in five seasons under Bryant.
4. The rise came under Jim Grob, who developed a funky, heavy-handed offense. He went 8-3 in 1997 and 7-4 in 2000 before leaving for Wake Forest.
5. Solich, a former Nebraska head coach, came in 2005. He went 9-5 in his sophomore year and has only lost one season since. The only box he didn’t check: winning the MAC title.
Buffalo’s Lance Leipold didn’t win a major MAC award either for some reason. But if the bulls continue to rise, it’s only a matter of time.
SP+ Grade: 77.
Planned entry: 8-4 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: Wagner (99% win probability), BGSU (89%), Akron (79%), NIU (79%), ODU (75%), Kent State (69%), Miami (Ohio) (69%).
- Relative pulses : Ohio (63%), WMU (58%), and Ball State (41%).
- Probable losses : Coastal Carolina (28%), Nebraska (14%).
After a 6-1 campaign – the only loss a MAC Championship – the Bulls will take on two top-40 opponents in September and travel to BSU for the regular season finale. Cool? Yes. A big chance? In fact, yes.
What we learned about the UB in 2020
The construction of Leipold is progressing rapidly. After winning six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold made the jump to the FBS and after years of building a foundation, the Bulls caught fire. In the past three seasons, they have dropped from 105th to 48th in the SP+ rankings.
Last year, Leipold’s team was the most balanced – 49th in offense, 47th in defense. Running backs Jarrett Patterson and Kevin Marks combined for 1,813 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns (and no, that wasn’t all against Kent State), while the Bulls defense generated pressure even without blitzing thanks to ends Malcolm Coons and Eric Black.
Patterson, Coons and top receiver Antonio Nunn are gone, but 16 starters return, including quarterback Kyle Vantris and star linebacker James Patterson, Jarrett’s brother. Marks is poised for an excellent turnaround, and it looks like 2019 star DE Taylor Riggins is back after missing 2020 due to injury.
What we haven’t learned about UB in 2020.
Game Passing Ceiling. Vantriaza has been consistent as a sophomore, but when the Bulls have had to pass, it has been very good. Buffalo was 17th in standard downs, but 44th in passing downs, with minimal presence in big plays.
The MAC title game came down to third downs when Vantrease went just 3-for-6 for 23 yards and a strip sack was returned for a touchdown. UB should be great, but can the Bulls pass when needed, especially without Nunn?
Buffalo history on a map
1. UB finished at .500 or better in his first eight years in the majors, played against Holy Cross and the Colgate World Series. (1961-65 defensive line coach: Buddy Ryan!)
2. In 1970, students voted to abolish the tuition that funded the program. Football was dropped until the Bulls became a Division III school again in the late 1970s.
3. After a terrible start back in the FBS, Buffalo is starting to show signs of life under Turner Gill. They earned a string of wins in a tight battle for the 2008 MAC title and their first bowl.
4. Khalil Mack: Superman.
5. Leipold took over in 2015, and a slow build-up (13-23 in his first three years) turned into an outright blowout (24-10 in his last three), so how far can the Bulls go?
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