2019 MAC Football Post Mortem

The college football season is over. The season has come and gone far too quickly for me. It felt like I blinked and it was week six. With only 12 games, conference championships, and bowl games to watch, the end of season review is in order.

Now that the whole puzzle of the 2019 season is put together, let’s see what the whole picture shows. In the moment, Ball State losing to FAU and Illinois seemed like some missed opportunities. At the end of the season, those two teams ended up being Conference USA champions and an eight-win Big Ten team. Those are hardly bad losses.

EMU’s win over Illinois continues to look good

The non-conference games carry a lot of weight before the conference season starts, but some look better as the season goes on and some look worse.

It wasn’t exactly best versus best but going 0-4 against Conference USA before bowl games is not exactly impressive.

Most of the games that look worse at the end of the season than they did early were missed upset opportunities. It’s hard to hold upset opportunities against teams in my opinion, but if the MAC wants to steal games from the P5 teams, it should start with the mid-tier teams from the weakest P5 conference.

These Games Got Better

Week 3 Eastern Michigan 34 at Illinois 31

Chris Creighton has made a habit of stealing a game from one Big Ten team per season. Usually beating Illinois doesn’t earn a lot of respect, but this season Illinois was bowl eligible. That’s rare.

Illinois showed their ceiling with a win over Wisconsin and followed that up with three more wins against the bottom of the Big ten. No matter how you slice it, Illinois was better than expected this year and as that became evident, this win seemed to mean more and more to Eastern Michigan.

Week 1 Miami 14 at Iowa 38

The score is more lopsided than the game was in week one. Brett Gabbert got his first college start as a true freshman at Kinnick and had the Redhawks down ten points with 12 minutes left in the game. It felt more competitive than a 24 point win for the favorite.

Year to year it’s hard to tell what to expect from Iowa. Most seasons they finish 7-5 or 8-4 and occasionally jump up to 10 wins which they did this season. Staying in the game until the 4th quarter with a freshman quarterback against a ten win team is hardly a bad loss for a MAC school.

Week 5 BYU 21 at Toledo 28

Before going to Toledo, BYU had a road win at Tennessee and a win at home against USC. Either of those wins would be huge for a MAC program. Tennessee didn’t look so great after getting dominated by Georgia State in their opener. They got that figured out eventually though.

The Rockets scored the go-ahead touchdown inside the final minute to come away with the win at home. This win looked really good when BYU hung on to beat Boise State a few weeks later.

These Games Got Worse

Week 2 WMU 17 at Michigan St 51

Week 4 WMU 33 at Syracuse 52

Going to double up here. Western wasn’t competitive in either of these games and if both P5 teams went on to have great seasons, no one would be concerned. The problem is Michigan State was totally dominated by the top of the Big Ten and collapsed against Illinois. They held a dreaded 28-3 lead and gave it up. Their 7-6 record is better than their season felt.

Syracuse had a worse season. They did not finish bowl eligible and did not take a step forward after a great 2018 season. The Orange beat Holy Cross a week after WMU and then didn’t get another win until November.

WMU was supposed to be a top team in the MAC. When the conference’s best teams play mid-level or down P5 programs, the performance has to be better than what we saw in September from the Broncos.

Week 4 CMU 12 at Miami (FL) 17

Central Michigan had a hard time getting anything going against Miami (FL) on offense. The Chips scored a touchdown late to make it a game but failed to capitalize.

This was way before anyone knew that CMU was going to represent the West at the MAC championship game. It was also in a time when Miami (FL) had a shot to win the Coastal of the ACC.

As Miami (FL) faltered down the stretch and CMU got better and better, this started to look more and more like a missed opportunity.

Week 5 NIU 18 at Vanderbilt 24

I can give a little bit of a pass for a first-year coach against an SEC opponent. But the SEC opponent was Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt finished 3-9 this year. They lost to UNLV in the middle of the season.

NIU was going through an adjustment process but still had a roster better than UNLV this year. The Huskies punted three times in Vanderbilt territory. Every punt decision was easy. The distances to convert were 6, 12, and 29 yards so none were absolute no brainers. The opportunities were there for the Huskies to score and really pressure a shaky Vanderbilt squad but they could not execute.

Conference Play Surprises

Hands down the biggest surprise of this season was Central Michigan. The only team in the MAC West they lost to was Western Michigan. No one saw that coming. Their crossover opponents helped them pick up some wins. They drew Buffalo, Akron and Bowling Green.

The Chips absolutely stole a game from Ball State. Without pulling the comeback off in the last minute of the game, they don’t go to the MAC Championship game.

The surprise in the East was Kent State. To me, the surprise is the Golden Flashes getting to a bowl in 2019. Sean Lewis is without a doubt ahead of schedule at a historically hard place to win. Kent State needed three wins to close out the season and get bowl eligible.

The Buffalo game was the wildest MAC game this season and it’s not a contest. The Golden Flashes scored 24 points in the last 8 minutes to beat Buffalo. Crum went bananas against Ball State and threw for 369 yards and rushed for 101.

An impressive eight-point win against Eastern Michigan sealed bowl eligibility. It was a fun season for the Flashes.

Ball State was an early surprise but faltered down the stretch. They were an improved team this season but still failed to get to six wins.

Toledo was picked to win the MAC West in the preseason. That did not happen. They finished with three wins in the MAC and turned over the offensive and defensive coordinator positions. Clearly some turmoil in Toledo this season.

No Head Coaches on the Move

As of this writing, Michigan State is still an open job and could change all of this, but so far no head coaches are changing from 2019 to 2020. That’s not common. It is more expected after a year like last season when 4 coaching changes were made. In the five years previous, on average two head coaches were replaced.

A year like this might be expected after a year where three coaches were fired and one coach took a job in the AAC. Four coaching changes, or a third of the conference, is a lot of head coach turnover.

I wrote about Ball State and Mike Neu during the preseason and I thought 5-7 in his 4th year would get him fired. It did not. They were surprising during the beginning of the conference schedule, but with hindsight, those three wins aren’t great. Toledo, NIU, and EMU made up the bottom of the MAC West. Good job not being in the bottom three this season but in year 4, expectations should be higher.

Improvement Trends

I also pulled all of the SP+ ranks for the teams as a whole and for offenses and defenses for the past six seasons to identify trends. The thick black lines indicate a coaching change and bold numbers indicate a trip to the MAC Championship. The shading should be self-explanatory but the greener a box is, the better the team is relative to the MAC teams of that year.

In Ball State’s defense, this was the best team that Neu put on the field. That was pretty obvious if you watched them at all. Ohio has a trend of being the best team in the East per SP+ but getting nothing to show for it. Buffalo is on a pretty steep improvement curve, and I think that should continue.

Toledo took a huge step back on the team rating and offense and defense rankings. Coach Candle absorbed the offensive coordinator role and hired Vince Kehres as his DC. Vince Kehres was the head coach at Mount Union from 2013 to 2019 and won two D3 national titles and six conference championships. Let’s see how that skill set transfers to an FBS defensive coordinator role.

Finally getting wins in Bowl Season

This bowl season is the first one in the last four where the conference had multiple bowl game wins. Not that 3-4 is amazing but in 2018 and 2017 only Ohio won their bowl game, and in 2016 no one won their bowl game. Given the recent history, 3-4  is a great season.

I was surprised by EMU’s ability to play a close game with Pitt. They showed a lot of fight in that game, especially Mike Glass. The punches at the end of that game aren’t really something to laugh about but Glass wasn’t a problem before and apologized after the game so it isn’t too much of a big deal.

Kent State and Buffalo were fun games to watch. Central Michigan’s loss to San Diego State was surprising. The surprising part is San Diego State can score 48 points.

No matter what happened in any of the games, I still think it’s hard to pull too much meaningful information from the games.

In the postseason rewards, Western Michigan had the best offensive and defensive player and a lot to show for it.

Buffalo had 12 players selected to the All-MAC teams and eight return in 2020. As long as they can find a quarterback, I think they’ll be favorites in the MAC next season.

2020 Expectations

In the West, the traditional powers are going to make a run at the top again, each with flaws. WMU is losing a lot of starters but has a stocked roster from some solid recruiting classes, even if they’re not Fleck-level classes.

Toledo returns a solid amount of their two-deep, but has new offensive and defensive coordinators with new systems to install. Northern Illinois has a lot of growing to do. The Rod Carey system is pretty different from the Thomas Hammock system.

Eastern Michigan has been taking on JUCO players like they knew two seasons ago a bunch of starters were leaving this offseason. Ball State and CMU both return large chunks of their production but who knows what either will do with it. I have more faith in McElwain than Neu but I’ve been wrong before.

In the East, Buffalo has the best returning running back in the MAC in Jaret Patterson. He’s among eight other returning players selected to All-MAC teams for Buffalo.

Akron is set to take large steps forward, but large steps could be up to two wins. Bowling Green doesn’t return a ton but I think that Scot Loeffler has the luxury of time. If the athletic department rushes the rebuild, they will set the program even farther behind.

Miami, bare minimum, has their quarterback for the foreseeable future. With strong recruiting classes lately, Chuck Martin might have the Redhawks stronger than they’ve been in a long time.

Kent State is harder to project. They were 4-3 in one-possession games. Improvement for the Flashes might look like six wins but more comfortable. Luck could also break the other way and they don’t get to six wins. One thing seems for sure right now: Sean Lewis can figure it out with the right amount of time.

Way Away Division Races

I’m not going to make any bold February predictions but I will boil it down as best as I can. Toledo will be strong in the MAC West again, Ball State should improve again, NIU is going to learn that Rod Carey was a good coach as much as it kills them to admit it. The Michigan schools are all wildcards. Can Central repeat? Will Eastern go back to its defensive identity? Tim Lester hasn’t outright failed, but it’s hard to be happy with what he’s done to follow Fleck. Now that the team is his, does it get better?

The East should belong to Miami or Buffalo. Ohio will be strong again but they have a good quarterback to replace. Kent State was ahead of schedule in 2019. Do they “regress” or capitalize on the momentum? Akron and Bowling Green will spend another season in the rebuild process, but both should show signs of life after this year.

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