Free on Saturday’s Weekly MAC Football Preview: It’s Back!

College football is back. Well, it was technically back last week, but the only noteworthy thing that happened was this:

For the love of all that is good in this world, UMass, never change.

The unofficial official start of college football is this weekend, and all 12 MAC teams are in action. It’s a great week to be an underdog (or to dismantle one). It’s not the best week of MAC football in sight, but it’s the first one, and we should be celebrating.

Elon Phoenix vs Toledo Rockets

Thursday, 8/31 @ 7:00 p.m ET
ESPN3
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Extremely Low

The Rockets enter this season as they always do: loaded with expectations.

If the Rockets are to be eventual MAC Champions for the first time in a long time, you probably won’t glean that from this game, but you will get a good first look at one of the conference’s most exciting teams.

Elon was picked to finish second to last in the CAA, and that means you won’t see Logan Woodside for a full four quarters, but you may see him do something absurd like throw six touchdown passes in like 13 minutes. Most of his big weapons are back, and the backfield has over 2,000 career rushing yards back via Terry Swanson.

Swanson is an oft forgotten key to the Rockets offense, and his success as a feature back will continue to keep defensive backs guessing, opening windows for Woodside to find his weapons on the outside. Swanson’s stepped up before in Kareem Hunt’s absence, but never for a full season (Hunt will be starting for the Kansas City Chiefs). Week one could give some insight as to how it might go in 2017.

Rhode Island Rams vs Central Michigan Chippewas

Thursday, 8/31 @ 7:00 p.m. ET
ESPN3
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Low, with QB implications

Tune in not for the final score — spoiler: CMU will have more points — but rather for the palace intrigue that is the quarterback battle between future CMU great Tony Poljan and Michigan transfer Shane Morris.

Head coach Jon Bonamego has indicated each player will get equal reps this Thursday, meaning we might finally know who starts at Kansas week two (though the starter may not matter then, either). Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen, but Poljan is potentially one of the MAC’s next great quarterbacks, and even if his full-time gig is a year away, this will be a good look at what the 6'7" freshman from Lansing Catholic is capable of.

Central Michigan started the previous season out strong, pummeling Presbyterian 49–3 and going on to star the year 3–0. They even beat Oklahoma State (but don’t tell their student newspaper). But then things came undone. They were bested by a below average Virginia team on the road, then returned home to a sellout crowd that watched the Chips fall 49–10 to hated rival Western Michigan. The loss to Kent State at home was just the final indication that 2016 was a forgettable one in Mount Pleasant.

The running game needs to get off to a quick start as well.The attack led by Devon Spalding and Jahray Hayes accounted for just 115 yards per game on the ground at just 3.7 yards per carry, which tied Miami for worst in the league. Cooper Rush was able to handle the added workload as a result, but whether Poljan and Morris respond well is a big question. If they can’t get it sorted out against Rhode Island, they may never get it sorted out at all.

Buffalo Bulls vs Minnesota Golden Gophers

Thursday, 8/31 @ 7:00 p.m. ET
Big Ten Network
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Shockingly moderate because Fleck

The Bulls are the MAC’s first shot at a Power Five opponent in 2017, and they are heavy underdogs to pull it off. The chance comes against our old friend P.J. Fleck and his new set of boat rowers in Minnesota.

The Gophers return a significant portion of their offense on the ground, which is a concerning fact for Buffalo, the MAC’s worst rush defense a year ago at 5.1 yards per carry allowed. The Bulls counter with an offense depleted of most major contributors a year ago, down their top three receiving options and a 1,000 yard rusher in Jordan Johnson.

But sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson is worth the price of admission. He’s an exciting and talented passer with all the tools to be successful, and will get his first full year as a starter to prove it. He’s the future of the Bulls’ program, and if they get some pieces around him it could be a bright one. Week one against Minnesota is Jackson’s first opportunity to show the improvement he’s made in the off season against a Big Ten defense.

Charlotte 49ers vs Eastern Michigan Eagles

Friday, September 1st @ 6:30 p.m. ET
ESPN3
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Low

Eastern Michigan is going to play in some tough games in 2017, but their home opener shouldn’t be one of them.

It’s not often EMU opens as a favorite over anybody, and I can offer a reason for that: they’re usually awful. But this year the Eagles are a pretty good football team led by an experienced head coach in Chris Creighton and a star quarterback in Brogan Roback. They’ve drastically improved in defending the run, and will have one of their more talented offenses in years when healthy.

Sergio Bailey should be Roback’s favorite target in the red zone and could make an early impact in this game. Same goes for running back Shaq Vann, who unfortunately missed nearly every down of last season due to injury. The 49ers surrendered over 300 yards per game through the air in 2016, so be on the lookout for a big game for Roback and his receivers.

Key for the Eagles will be the play of their offensive line. They graduated most of their starts from 2016’s unit that was one of the best in the conference, and will need the new faces to step up of Roback and Vann are to reach their full potential and bother defenses.

Boston College Eagles vs Northern Illinois Huskies

Friday, 9/1 @ 9:30 p.m. ET
CBS Sports Network
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: High, plus QB implications!

It doesn’t get much better than MAC football in semi-prime time in a MAC stadium against a Power Five school on a network most people don’t have. This is the sort of thing we live for.

Other than being a potential Quicklane Bowl preview, the season opener against Boston College is a potential source of answers for Huskie fans and coaches as to who is going to quarterback this team into the season. Head coach Rod Carey is being coy about who will start, but it would be a shock to this writer if it was anyone other than Ryan Graham.

Carey could potentially be coaching for his job come November if his team can’t improve off last year’s debacle of a season, and he won’t have a Jordan Lynch or Drew Hare caliber talent at his disposal under center. An early win over a Power Five school could relieve much of the pressure. The Huskies are up against an Eagle defense that was one of the ACC’s best in 2016, allowing just 314 yards per game, but one of that league’s worst offenses at 4.4 yards per play. Boston College could find some success on Friday, but it won’t even be close to the best offense NIU sees all year.

It will be interesting to see how Carey manages the quarterback situation as well as running back Jordan Huff, who could be in line for feature back duties this season.

Ball State Cardinals vs Illinois Fighting Illini

Saturday, September 2nd @ 12:00 p.m. ET
Big Ten Network
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Moderate

Ball State could notch a Power Five win and finish last in the MAC West. Toledo did something similar in 2008 when it beat Michigan at the Big House, but finished second to last because Eastern Michigan.

Illinois didn’t have much luck the last time a MAC school rolled into Champaign. They were dismantled by Western Michigan in 2016 due in large part to the running game. The Broncos tallied 287 yards on the ground and four touchdowns, needing just 13 pass attempts to be victorious.

This matters for Ball State because they are well equipped to do similar damage on the ground with star running back James Gilbert. Gilbert rushed for 1,322 yards in 2016 on 5.3 yards per attempt, as explosive as anyone in the MAC. He will meet an Illinois defense that is known for surrendering yards on the ground. This is good news for quarterback Riley Neal, who may have less of a load to shoulder in the Cardinals’ first game.

Ball State has every reason on the offensive side of the ball to win this game, but keeping this from being a slam dunk upset is the other side of the ball. The Cardinals were one of the worst defenses in the MAC a year ago, especially against the pass. They have to replace their top five tacklers from a year ago (61 percent of all tackles), and could haunt them in many games, including this one.

Akron Zips vs Penn State Nittany Lions

Saturday, September 2nd @ 12:00 p.m. ET
ABC
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Moderate, Saquon Barkley

Akron could be a surprise team in the MAC East. Thomas Woodson is back and healthy for his senior season. He was top five in the MAC in passing in 2016 despite playing fewer games than most of his counterparts. Running back and Ohio State transfer Warren Ball should get a crack at a full year of carries as well. But despite all that, they are likely in for a world of hurt on Saturday.

Penn State could be playoff bound or close to it by season’s end, and unless Akron fixes their rush defense, Saquon Barkley is going to have a field day. Barkley tallied nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage in 2016, and gets a Zips defense that surrendered 281 yards to Jarvion Franklin in a single game last year.

Trying to keep that from happening in Happy Valley is MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Ulysees Gilbert. He logged 122 tackles and 7.5 for loss in 2016, and anchors a defense that brings back its top four tacklers and adds in linebacker James King, a Miami (FL) transfer. If the Zips stop the run Saturday, they could stay competitive for longer, but it’s not like Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions are slouches over the top either.

Bowling Green Falcons vs Michigan State Spartans

Saturday, September 2nd @ 12:00 p.m. ET
ESPNU
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: High, one team is bad but no idea which

Two of the most unpredictable teams in the Great Lakes region will face off Saturday afternoon in East Lansing. The Falcons are heavy underdogs, which likely has a lot to do with their drastic underachievement last season — a Notre Dame esque 4–8. This year they’ll have a full season at quarterback from James Morgan, which should translate into big yards for his favorite target Scott Miller. The running game improved over the last three games of the 2016 season as the Falcons finished strong behind the efforts of Donovan Wilson (Georgia Tech transfer) and Josh Cleveland.

The key is to find out quickly whether or not Michigan State can stop the run. If they can’t, Bowling Green is well-equipped on offense to keep this game interesting, and even find a way to win it. That is, of course, if Michigan State’s offense doesn’t take a big leap forward. Brian Lewerke will handle quarterback duties for the near future, but he may not need to do much in week one — the Spartans are loaded in the backfield.

L.J. Scott leads a running back corps that includes Gerald Holmes and Madre London. These are big backs, with Scott and Holmes accounting for 1,425 yards of rushing offense from 2016. This is one of the Big Ten’s best backfields, and the Spartans will likely lean on this combination all year.

Kent State Golden Flashes vs Clemson Tigers

Saturday, September 2nd @ 12:00 p.m. ET
ESPN
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Moderate, Clemson may score 100

Okay, Clemson probably won’t score 100, but it could get ugly quick for the Flashes. Their head coach is out on medical leave, handing the duties of head coach over to offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, and that’s usually bad for everyone except the opposing team.

Running back/wide receiver/quarterback Nick Holley will be asked to do it all, again, for Kent State this season and will probably handle most of the workload against the Tigers. The Flashes aren’t as strong on defense as we’re accustomed to, but still have some talent in the defensive backfield, namely Demetrius Monday.

Clemson are the defending champs, down one Deshaun Watson, but like most Power Five teams at that level, they’ve reloaded. The Tigers are one of the best teams in the ACC. Kent State is one of the worst teams in the MAC. There’s only one way this can possibly go.

Western Michigan Broncos vs USC Trojans

Saturday, September 2nd @ 5:15 p.m. ET
PAC 12 Network
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Off the charts, biased

The defending MAC champions take a trip out west to open the season, and they’ll meet one of the country’s best teams. USC figures to be right there in the playoff picture all year and has the presumptive number one pick in the NFL draft, Sam Darnold, running the show at quarterback. Leading rusher Ronald Jones is back for the Trojans as well, and though the offense returns just five starters, USC isn’t rebuilding anything, they’ve just reloaded.

The Broncos are in a totally different place, and whether they’ve reloaded for another MAC title run remains to be seen. One thing they have going for them in what will be a hostile environment against college football’s best is the running game. WMU is no slouch on the offensive line and features one of the top running back trios in the country between Jarvion Franklin, Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy. If they can control the line and protect their new quarterback, Jon Wassink, they could avoid any embarrassment at the hands of the Trojans.

The big question will be who Wassink will throw to. Corey Davis is irreplaceable, and the next two leading receivers are gone as well. It’s up to Keishawn Watson (sophomore) and Anton Curtis (sophomore) to carry the load and get open against a stacked Trojans defense.

On defense, WMU will have to create turnovers to keep things close. They have just the guy to do it in corner Darius Phillips, and they have the experience to make plays at linebacker, starting three seniors led by Robert Spillane. Whether or not they can keep up with USC’s speed is another thing altogether.

Miami RedHawks vs Marshall Thundering Herd

Saturday, September 2nd @ 6:30 p.m. ET
Facebook (really)
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Extremely High, Facebook novelty!

Are you prepared to watch a college football game on Facebook? They’ve selected a good one. Miami and Marshall should be evenly matched teams and two schools that used to dominate the MAC at one point in their history.

At this point, Miami’s 2016 season is well documented. No team had ever started 0–6 and finished 6–0 until Chuck Martin’s team accomplished it, and the quarterback that orchestrated the comeback should be healthy for a full season. Gus Ragland is the RedHawks’ most important player, and will take on a Marshall defense that is relying on some transfer players to bolster what was one of their worst defenses in years in 2016.

Miami’s defense, on the other hand, is one of the MAC’s best, even with the departure of J.T. Jones. The pass rush will suffer, but the RedHawks have back their top five tacklers from 2016, including corner Heath Harding, a first team All-MAC selection. He’ll be needed to counter Marshall’s receiving corps, one of the top units in Conference USA.

The RedHawk running game will play a huge roll in this game. It’s not normally their strong suit, but the offensive line is improved and will clear the way for Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young, the latter of which is probably the team’s top big-play threat on offense.

Hampton Pirates vs Ohio Bobcats

Saturday, September 2nd @ 7:00 p.m. ET
ESPN3
FOSAT Anticipation Rating: Low, why spend Saturday on this?

There are probably better, more important games to watch this weekend, but if you must watch, check in on Ohio quarterback Quinton Maxwell. The Sophomore will be handed the keys to Frank Solich’s offense, which should be the best in years. If A.J. Oullette is healthy this year, Papi White can do his thing at wide receiver, and that’s a good thing for everyone watching.

The Bobcats are slight favorites to win the MAC East, and have an outside shot at an undefeated season. That can’t happen if they lose to Hampton, which, while unlikely is entirely possible considering they lost to Texas State at home a year ago. The defense is always stifling, too. Javon Hagon was defensive freshman of the year in 2016 and safety, and he’s back and healthy. Quentin Poling was first team All-MAC and is also back. Should be a fun year for the Bobcats, at least before November.