Welcome to Rotoworld's annual conference-by-conference preview of the upcoming college football season. We've never quite had an offseason like this one, as the coronavirus has not only prevented teams from going through normal spring practices and the like, it could well end up wreaking havoc on the season itself. But that remains to be seen.
In these team previews, we'll touch on the ramifications of the pandemic (relating specifically to depth charts) when needed, but by-and-large, we'll be approaching these capsules as though (fingers crossed) there will actually be a season in the fall. If there are any crucial COVID-19 updates pertaining to individual teams or conferences, we'll be sure to keep you in the loop as we go.
Projected MAC Standings
Ohio 9-3 (7-1 in conference)
Central Michigan 8-4 (6-2 in conference)
Buffalo 8-4 (6-2 in conference)
Western Michigan 6-6 (5-3 in conference)
Miami (OH) 7-5 (5-3 in conference)
Toledo 6-6 (4-4 in conference)
Kent State 4-8 (3-5 in conference)
Ball State 6-6 (4-4 in conference)
Bowling Green 2-10 (1-7 in conference)
Northern Illinois 5-7 (4-4 in conference)
Akron 3-9 (0-8 in conference)
Eastern Michigan 3-9 (3-5 in conference)
Mid-American - East
2019 record: 7-6
NFL Draft prospect to watch: DL Austin Conrad
The case for: It’s a bit weird to rank a program that loses a player like Nathan Rourke in a small conference this high, but Ohio has (at least) two things going for it: Frank Solich, and a very favorable schedule. We’ll get into the latter a little later, but let’s start with Solich. After a pretty good run at Nebraska -- a disappointment only because of impossible expectations, but a good run -- he has taken Ohio from the doldrums to a program that has had one losing season since 2007, and has made five-straight bowl games; winning three in a row. Yes, you need Jimmy’s and Joe’s as much as you need the x’s and o’s, but Solich deserves more credit than he’s gotten, and he might have a team that can win a conference title this year.
Solich helps, but there are good players here, too. O’Saan Sullivan was second in the MAC with 6.3 yards a carry as a redshirt freshman, and he should be even more involved in the offense this fall. Right behind him is De’Montre Tuggle; a more powerful runner who added 11 scores in his first year in the program. The Bobcats need to replace the bookends on the offensive line, but the interior appears set, and Brett Kittrell along with Hagen Meservy help give Ohio one of the best offensive lines among the Group of 5 -- on paper anyway.
Everything is back in the wideout and TE group; well, everything is back that matters, anyway. Isiah Cox averaged 17 yards per catch on his 39 receptions last year, and should be the go-to option for whomever is behind center for the Bobcats. Shane Hooks, Jerome Buckner and Cameron Odom give Ohio a deep -- if lack in stars -- depth of pass-catchers for the 2020 season.
Now, let’s talk about the schedule, because it’s favorable. Favorable may be too nice. The only game Ohio is likely to be an underdog in is against Boston College, and they get Ohio at home in a Wednesday MACtion affair. They do have a bit of a tricky run starting in October where they play at Miami, at Central Michigan and at Kent State -- with a homer game against Bowling Green sandwiched between -- but all of those games are winnable. On paper, everything is set up for this to be one of the best seasons for Ohio in years.
The case against: Well, that is if they can get decent play at quarterback. Rourke was not flawless, but there’s no denying he’s a big loss; he was one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. It’s possible Ohio will replace the signal-caller with his brother; redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke is considered one of the favorites for the job. There’s also CJ Harris, a true freshman who the program is reportedly high on. Drew Keszei and K.J. Minter are the “experienced” options, but experience is very much a relative term.
Also, there are some defensive question marks here; and this is a case where you sort of wonder whether experience is overrated. Dylan Conner and Jared Dorsa are solid options at linebacker, and Austin Conrad is likely to improve on his four-sack season. Still, this is a group that ranked 97th in defensive SP last year. It’s not a terrible unit and it should be better than 2019, and it doesn’t have to be an elite group to compete for the division -- and conference -- title this fall.
Vegas over/under win total: 8.5
2019 record: 8-5
NFL Draft prospect to watch: EDGE Malcolm Koonce
The case for: Buffalo started off the 2019 season 2-4 and 0-2 in conference after a 21-20 loss to Ohio on October 5 in overtime. After the game, there were very few teams more dominant -- and we do mean dominant -- than the Bulls. They won 6-of-7 games to end the year including a 31-9 shellacking of Charlotte in the Bahamas Bowl, all of the wins were by at least three scores, and the one loss was an overtime loss to Kent State where the Golden Flashes scored 24 points in the last eight minutes. Long story shorter, Buffalo was exceptional in the second half of the season, and brings back a roster that suggests they can be as good -- if not better -- in 2020.
One of the reasons Buffalo went from struggling to succeeding was that Jaret Patterson went from pretty good to pretty great. The sophomore came a single yard away from 1,800 yards in 2019 while scoring 19 touchdowns -- that includes a 10-touchdown run of two games at the end of November -- and he also showed flashes as a receiver. Patterson doesn’t have elite size at 5-foot-9, 195-pounds, but anyone who has watched him the last two years knows he’s a special talent. Oh, and behind him is Kevin Marks, who just happened to add 1,035 yards as well.
Things also got better for the Bulls when Kyle Vantrease took over as the starting signal-caller for Matt Myers. Accuracy is an issue and he doesn’t add anything in the run game, but the offense was much more efficient when he was under center. His job will be to get the ball to Antonio Nunn; one of the breakout stars for the Bulls in 2020 despite the inconsistent quarterback play. Myers was just a freshman last year and is a much bigger dual-threat, so it’s possible he gets a chance to play more in 2020. Expect Vantrease to open as the starter, however.
The offense should be solid, but the reason why the Bulls might be conference champions this fall is the defense. Malcolm Koonce and Taylor Riggins give Buffalo one of the top pass-rushing options in the country, and the two combined for 17 sacks last season. Eddie Wilson helps plug up the run, and Tyrone Hill gives Buffalo one of the best defenders in the back of the defense in the conference. There’s also James Patterson -- Jaret’s brother -- to help give Buffalo some “star” power on defense.
The case against: Ohio’s schedule is favorable for the Bobcats. Buffalo’s schedule is not. Kansas State and Ohio State are on the non-conference schedule along with a trip to West Point, so it’s very likely that the Bulls go 1-3 in non-conference games (we’re giving them a W against St. Francis (PA). They also end the year with a brutal stretch against Ohio and Western Michigan -- both on the road -- and that comes after games against Northern Illinois and Miami.
This is not a great passing league, but there are some question marks in the Bulls’ secondary, even with the return of Hill. Devon Russell is gone; one of the best corners in the MAC last year, and the Bulls are going to be counting on transfers like Keith Woetzel and E.J. Brown in the back four. With the shortened spring season, the lack of experience could be amplified.
And let’s get back to the quarterbacks for a second. Yes, Vantrease helped add more consistency on the offense, but this is a signal-caller that completed under 60 percent of his passes, and outside of Nunn, there’s a real lack of weapons at the wideout and tight end positions. It may not matter because of how good Patterson, Marks and the defense could be, but if the Bulls trail late, it’s tough to get too excited about this passing offense.
Vegas over/under win total: 7.5
Miami (OH) Redhawks
2019 record: 8-6
NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Tommy Doyle
The case for: Raise your hand if you thought Miami was going to win the MAC in 2019. You are a liar. After four middling seasons, the RedHawks finally broke through under Chuck Martin in 2019 to win that conference ring, and they should contend for it again in 2020 if things go right.
The RedHawks bring back MAC Freshman of the year Brett Gabbert -- yep, he’s the brother of former NFL quarterback/meme legend Blaine Gabbert -- and while he wasn’t statistically dominant, there’s absolutely reason to believe he’ll be a solid option for Miami in 2020. It also helps that his weapons should be among the best in the conference. Jack Sorensen is the go-to option, but Jalen Walker and James Burns gives the RedHawks as strong a group in the division. There’s also Penn State transfer Mac Hippenhammer that just adds to the depth at the position.
The Redhawks also return one of the better offensive line units, and have a possible draft pick in Tommy Doyle protecting Gabbert’s blind side. Danny Godleveske is one of the top centers in the conference, and seven players who started for the Redhawks. They’ll help open holes for Jalen Bester and Tyre Shelton, who combined for 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns; 14 of them scored by Bester. On paper, this is a quality offense.
There’s talent on defense, too; particularly in the secondary. Emmanuel Rugamba might be the best corner in the conference, and he’s joined by a player that competes for that title at safety in Sterling Weatherford. The front seven may have a few more issues -- more on that later -- but Kameron Butler should help the RedHawks get to the quarterback in 2020 after accumulating 14.5 tackles for loss.
The case against: Luck is about opportunity meeting preparation, they say. Well, the RedHawks must have been prepared for the opportunity they were given in 2020. Five of the team’s eight wins came by one score, and with all due respect to the club, it’s fair to say they beat up on some less-than-spectacular opponents in 2020. It’s just something to keep in mind, as this team might actually be better this fall and win fewer games. Yes, that is possible.
While the Redhawks return two stars in the secondary, they also lose Bart Barratti and Travion Banks from the unit, and they were a big part of what Miami of Ohio did in their conference-title run. Those two will have to be replaced if they’re going to compete with Ohio and Buffalo in 2020.
All issues, but the RedHawks’ success will be determined by Gabbert. The talent is obvious, but this is a quarterback who threw for just 2,411 yards and 11 touchdowns, and looked very much like the freshman he was in 2019. If Miami gets the same level of play from the sophomore this fall, Miami of Ohio won’t just not compete for a conference title -- they might not go bowling.
Vegas over/under win total: 6.5
Kent State Golden Flashes
2019 record: 7-6
NFL Draft prospect to watch: QB Dustin Crum
The case for: Kent State was 3-6 on November 14, and trailed Buffalo 27-6 with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter. All they did was score 24 unanswered points, win the next three games and beat Utah State in the Frisco Bowl. Sean Lewis and company did a heck of a job turning the Golden Flashes around, and he appears to have the program on the right track.
One of the key reasons that the Golden Flashes have a chance to go bowling again is that they likely have the best quarterback in the conference in Dustin Crum. After taking over for Woody Barrett, the senior signal-caller threw just two interceptions against 20 touchdowns and also added 707 yards on the ground. If he takes another step forward in 2020, he could be on the UDFA radar this spring.
Crum also has a legitimate go-to option in Isaiah McKoy, and the two were an excellent duo in Kent State’s -- dare we say, magical? -- stretch run. The sophomore caught 57 passes for 870 yards and eight touchdowns for the Golden Flashes, and we’re betting he reaches the thousand-yard mark in 2020.
The defense loses quite a bit, but the linebacker unit should be a strength for Kent State. Manny Lawrence-Burke and Cepeda Phillips had a combined 11.5 tackles for loss, and they should help the Golden Flashes make up for a defensive line that is not considered a strength coming into the year. KJ Sherald should compete for conference honors in 2020 at safety after picking off three passes and also accruing six tackles for loss.
The case against: Oh boy, this schedule. Penn State. Alabama. Kentucky. Even with an ever-so-likely win against Kennesaw State, you’re staring three losses right at your face before you start conference play. Not ideal.
While the Golden Flashes have a potential star -- comparatively speaking, anyway -- at quarterback, the rest of the skill-position players leave a bit to be desired. Kavious Price, Mike Carrigan and Anwan Dixon are gone, so the leading receiver behind McKoy is Keshunn Abram with a whopping eight catches. The offensive line is experienced, but no tailback that ran for more than 400 yards returns.
The defense is the biggest concern here, however. The team allowed 31.8 points per game in 2019, and lost quality players like Qwuantrezz Knight, Jamel Parker and Elvis Hines in the secondary. We like what Lewis is building, but an awful lot needs to go right for Kent State to go bowling this winter.
Vegas over/under win total: 5.5
Bowling Green Falcons
2019 record: 3-9
NFL Draft prospect to watch: TE Quintin Morris
The case for: It’s been a rough time for Bowling Green since Dino Babers left the Falcons for Syracuse, and while Scott Loeffler’s first year wasn’t exactly a success in terms of wins and losses, there were some moments that suggest that BGSU can return to being one of the better MAC schools shortly.
If they’re going to compete this year, the Falcons are going to need to get the ball to Quintin Morris early and often. He’s the best tight end in the conference, and it seems likely he’ll improve on the 55-649-4 line he put up in 2020.
We also think the Falcons might be able to get to the quarterback at a decent rate in 2020. Karl Books was able to pick up 4.5 sacks, and Kholbe Coleman added a pair of sacks and 103 tackles in his junior season, and likely will be asked to rush the quarterback more often for Bowling Green this fall.
The case against: Well, the positives are short for a reason. On paper, this is one of the worst teams in the country, and we’re pretty terrified to see what’s going to happen against Ohio State on September 5 -- assuming that game happens of course. They also take on Illinois and Liberty, have to travel to Athens to face Ohio, and are likely going to be underdogs in every game but one. We’ll get to that one.
The biggest question mark is at quarterback, and it’ll be a few weeks/months until we get a semblance of an answer. Matt McDonald offers the experience with a whopping eight passing attempts for Boston College before transferring, but he’ll have to beat out a pair of freshmen in Tucker Melton and Riley Keller. The weapons outside of Morris are lackluster, and the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired.
Loeffler needs more time, but there’s no denying that Bowling Green has a long, long, long way to go before returning to relevancy.
Vegas over/under win total: 2.5
2019 record: 0-12
NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Bubba Arslanian
The case for: Well, it can’t get worse, unless there’s a way to win negative games. We don’t think there’s a way to win negative games. We checked.
Here’s one reason for optimism: An absolutely terrible non-conference schedule. Youngstown State, New Mexico State, and UMass represent three very winnable games for the Zips, and when you look at that over/under win total, it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
The case against: Oh gosh, pretty much everything else. Kato Nelson has shown the ability to make players with his feet, but he has yet to have a season where he completes more than 55 percent of his passes. He ended the year going 1-for-14 for 10 yards in a 52-3 loss to Ohio, and the team scored a total of 43 points in the last five games with him under center.
It’s not just Nelson. No player who had more than 10 carries for the Zips averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry. Nate Stewart had some flashes of brilliance in his junior year, but it’s probably not a great sign that he’s probably the top player on the offense, and there’s almost no success behind him. Oh, and they finished 122nd of 130 teams in terms of points allowed after giving up 36.5 a contest.
This is a really hard place to win, and while we project Akron to pick up three of them, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if we were talking about two or fewer when we do this again in 2020. Best of luck, Tom Arth.
Vegas over/under win total: 2