This week, The Comeback’s college football preview focus will be on the MAC. Before we look forward to the 2017 season in the MAC, let’s take a look back at the historic 2016 season with our year in review.
The MAC is coming off a banner year, putting a team in a major bowl for the first time since 2012. It’s funny when you think about it–for all the MAC is derided as the worst Group of 5 conference (or as barely being a notch above the Sun Belt), the MAC has twice put a team in a BCS/NY6 Bowl, something neither Conference-USA nor the Sun Belt has ever done.
The MAC has twice put itself in the position of having the best “mid-major” conference champion, and in 2012 that champion was a Top 16 team in the BCS. Last year, Western Michigan followed Northern Illinois’ example, earning a spot in the Cotton Bowl by going undefeated during the first 13 games of the season. And while the Broncos were clearly not as talented as Wisconsin and never really threatened to win the game, they–much like Northern Illinois against Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl–avoided being blown out or embarrassed.
2016 started off pretty well for the MAC, with Toledo earning a win over Sun Belt favorite Arkansas State and Western Michigan upsetting Northwestern. MAC schools earned two more wins over Power 5 teams the following week, with Ohio beating Kansas and Central Michigan technically beating Oklahoma State (that might have been a bad game for the refs, but it was a great one for the MAC and Cooper Rush). The fifth and final P5 win came when Western Michigan beat Illinois in Week 3.
Five wins over Power 5 schools is not a shabby number for the MAC, and it clearly earned the conference a bit of respect last year. Once we reached conference play, the MAC was able to stay in the national spotlight, thanks to Western Michigan. The East actually had a crazy division race that went unnoticed–Miami (Ohio) was a dropped pass by Akron away from going to the MAC Championship Game after starting the season 0-6. But it was Western Michigan that earned all the national attention, all of the poll votes, and the chance to host Gameday.
I’m sure other MAC schools would have loved extra attention, but the conference as a whole cannot complain. Having a team in the national rankings (and sliding up as teams ahead lost) every week was a tremendous benefit for the conference, as was becoming the third Group of 5 conference (in as many years) to put a team in a New Years’ Six Bowl once Western Michigan successfully ran the table.
Conference Champion: Western Michigan
The Broncos rowed the boat all the way to the MAC title without too much resistance–until Ohio came out in the second half of the conference championship game and almost pulled off the huge upset. Just how dominant were the Broncos in conference play last year? Here’s a stat for you. Western Michigan trailed by more than three points in conference play (nine combined games) for 20:13, all of which came in the first half of the game against Kent State.
Game of the Year: Western Michigan 29, Ohio 23
The best game played in the conference last year was also the final one. Sure, we had tons of exciting #MACtion last year. But none of those games carried the heft of this one. Not only was a conference title on the line, but so was a spot in the Cotton Bowl (well, for Western Michigan). Ohio was clearly outmatched talent-wise, but Frank Solich’s team played its best half of the season to almost pull off a huge upset–one that the conference office was probably very glad to see not come to fruition.
The MAC, which is sometimes (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) known for its tremendous lack of bowl success this century, did not fare well at all last year. The conference is 21-46 in bowl games since 2001, with only two winning bowl seasons in that span, along with three winless ones.
It’s a little unfair to hold 2016’s 0-6 completely against the MAC. Ohio and Toledo, as they always seem to do, came up just short in toss-up games against evenly-matched Sun Belt opponents. Central Michigan was blown out by a far superior opponent, while Miami (Ohio), Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan all acquitted themselves very well against far superior opponents. 2-4 was the MAC’s best-case scenario last season, and the conference came only a few plays short of that.
Six bowl losses look ugly, and certainly won’t help the conference get any benefit of the doubt from pundits this season, but it really was not an awful bowl season for the conference.
2016 Coach of the Year: P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan)
Fleck is gone, with former Broncos quarterback Tim Lester (who just spent a successful year as QB coach at Purdue) replacing him. Fleck was the obvious choice after his tremendous revival of the Western Michigan program, culminating in the school’s first Cotton Bowl appearance.
The conference had several other impressive coaches last year, including Frank Solick (as always) and Jason Candle. Also, Chuck Martin (Miami, Ohio), Chris Creighton (Eastern Michigan), and Terry Bowden (Akron) have all done tremendous jobs taking their respective programs out of FBS’ cellar and bringing relative success.
Top Returning Offensive Player: Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo
A lot of the conference’s top offensive talent (including Zach Terrell, Corey Davis, and Cooper Rush) left last year, but Woodside is as good a quarterback as you’ll find in any Group of 5 conference. He has a rocket for an arm (I’m sorry, I had to), and is very accurate.
Woodside was second only to Baker Mayfield in FBS in quarterback rating last year, throwing for 45 touchdowns (only nine interceptions) and averaging almost 10 yards per passing attempt. Cody Thompson returns as his favorite target, so Woodside should be lighting up the stat sheets again this year.
Top Returning Defensive Player: Javon Hagan, S, Ohio
Hagan might not be a name that many college football fans know, but he’ll put up some highlights this year. The MAC might have some strong defensive linemen, but Hagan was an absolute force in the secondary last season as a freshman. He led the entire country in forced fumbles with five, and added three interceptions on top of that. He also made 50 tackles in his playing time last year, breaking out and earning the starting spot, even as a freshman. He’s had a year to get stronger and better, and I’m expecting to see a lot from Hagan this coming season.
Matching last year’s expectations will be a tough ask. Not only does the conference not have any teams as talented as WMU was last year or a coach as good as P.J. Fleck, but none of the conference front-runners have a schedule that is conducive to going 13-0 or 12-1.
Western Michigan plays both USC and Michigan State out of conference. Michigan State might have been a winnable game for the Broncos last year but probably won’t be this year. USC would be a stretch to believe they could win even last year. Toledo plays Miami (Florida) out of conference, but has a relatively favorable schedule outside of that. Ohio plays two winnable games against P5 teams (Purdue and Kansas) but doesn’t have the talent or consistency to run the conference in MAC play.
The MAC has a lot of talent this year. The conference plays a bunch of winnable games against P5 opponents (playing Kansas twice certainly helps), and MAC schools have a real chance to build up some much-needed credibility this year. Ending the season with a team ranked might be a step too far (unless Toledo can go 11-2 or better), but the MAC should certainly have a few schools spend some time on SportsCenter.