MACtion: a dash of chaos thrown in with a heaping portion of unpredictability.
Such is the recipe for the Mid-American Conference’s East Division in 2016, which lacks many of the ingredients cooking up in the West. The MAC West features a clear front-runner in Western Michigan; an established powerhouse in Northern Illinois, which boasts a record over the last six years comparable to that of Oregon and Alabama; and a consistent contender in Toledo.
The East? The East is one giant shrug emoji. Sports On Earth’s Matt Brown summarizes the preseason atmosphere of the MAC East quite nicely in just one tweet.
Just spent like 40 minutes trying to find one little mistake in MAC standings predictions. Sorry, Akron and Buffalo, you can’t both win.
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) August 19, 2016
Need further proof? Phil Steele’s preseason bible projects a three-way tie atop the division: Akron, Bowling Green and Ohio. Ditto Athlon Sports, which also predicts just a two-game gap separating stragglers Miami and Buffalo from the three front-runners.
Defending divisional and conference champion Bowling Green figures to be in the mix once more, but the Falcons’ torrid pace in 2015 might prove unsustainable in 2016.
Quarterback Matt Johnson put up Heisman-caliber numbers for the 11-win Falcons, capping an outstanding career as pupil to head coach Dino Babers. After Babers left Bowling Green for the post at Syracuse this offseason, the Falcons’ title defense is in Mike Jinks’ hands.
Jinks is stepping into his first collegiate head coaching position, and remarkably, he’s just four years removed from working in Texas preps.
He’s hardly the first recent coach to make the transition from the prep game to the FBS, and some have done so quite smoothly. Gus Malzahn, for example, went from coaching high schools to coordinating a national championship-winning offense with a Heisman Trophy quarterback at Auburn in 2010.
Nevertheless, Jinks’ portfolio stands in stark contrast to that of East Division counterparts Terry Bowden at Akron and Frank Solich at Ohio.
Including Salem, Samford, Auburn, North Alabama and now Akron, Bowden has 22 years of collegiate head coaching experience. NCAA violations and off-field issues cost him his tenure in the SEC during the 1990s, but Akron — long one of the worst programs in FBS — gave him the opportunity to return to college football’s top level.
Bowden has capitalized on that opportunity. After enduring a 1-11 finish his first year, he’s steadily built up, reaching — and winning — a bowl game last season.
With that new milestone to the Zips’ credit, the next benchmark is an appearance in the MAC Championship Game. That’s happened only once in the game’s history: 2005, when a Charlie Frye-quarterbacked team edged Northern Illinois for the crown.
Talented dual-threat quarterback Thomas Woodson shoulders the load offensively in trying to guide the Zips to that unknown frontier.
A trip to Detroit is similarly foreign to Frank Solich’s current roster, but not Solich himself.
The elder statesman of the MAC, Solich coached Ohio to MAC Championship Games in 2009 and 2011. With an experienced and stacked defense, the Bobcats could be primed for a return. Sure, defense isn’t the inspiration for the popular #MACtion hashtag, but it gives Ohio a unique identity.
Well, unique unless Kent State has something to say.
It’s been just four years since Kent State, a program with all of one bowl appearance in its history prior to 2012, came one possession away from reaching the Orange Bowl. The Golden Flashes haven’t been to the postseason since, a streak that preseason consensus suggests will last into head coach Paul Haynes’ fourth season.
However, with the most experienced lineup in the MAC, including a defense that performed admirably despite offensive inconsistency (No. 57 nationally in points allowed), Kent State might be the biggest surprise of the conference.
With no clear front-runner in the division, the conditions are conducive to a shake-up. Kent State’s got the chops to provide that shake-up, returning talented pass-rusher Terrance Waugh and defensive back Demetrius Monday, one of the most prolific pass-interceptors in the nation a year ago.
Realistically, any six of the MAC East teams can make noise. For a conference celebrated for its unpredictability, the MAC East ups the ante.