BSU won four of five close games and earned the division title – and a chance to beat Buffalo in the MAC Championship. But with most of the league’s top players returning, we could see a repeat in the drama department. And what more could you want in life?
Throughout the summer, Bill Connelly will present a different Group 5 and Power 5 division each week exclusively for ESPN+, including all 130 FBS teams. Previews include predictions for 2020 and 2021, as well as a brief history of each team in a handy chart. So far, the series has covered Conference USA East and West, as well as MAC East.
Sautez dans l’équipe : Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Toledo, Ball State.
Although NIU was competitive at times, it went 0-6 in the 2020 season shortened by the lockout. After nine winning seasons in 10 years, the Huskies started just 5-13 under Thomas Hammock.
SP+ Grade: 112.
Planned entry: 4-8 (3-5)
- He’ll probably win: BGSU (71% chance of winning)
- Relative pulses : UEM (50%), at Kent State (43%).
- Probable losses : WMU (32%), Wyoming (30%), Ball State (27%), Toledo (21%), CMU (21%), Buffalo (21%), Georgia Tech (10%), Michigan (3%).
* Probability of winning are the games where SP+ predicts a probability of winning by more than seven points, or about 65%. The losses are probably reversed, and the relative draws are intermediate games.
What we learned about NIU in 2020
There was no magical recovery. NIU started losing oil at the end of the Rod Carey era, then officially went into start-stop mode in the first year of the Hammock administration. After seven divisional victories in nine years, the Huskies were lucky to finish even 5-7 in 2019 and 115th in the SP+ rankings.
The head coach’s second year can be the most successful in terms of building the culture – they’ve signed their first full recruiting cycle, the players know what is expected of them, etc. There is no other way to do it than to reach out and help them.
What we didn’t learn about NIU in 2020
Is there enough raw talent for a turnaround? Hammock signed a solid 2021 recruiting class, and some of last year’s most intriguing players – linebacker Lance Devo Jr, guard Pierce Oppong, guard Logan Schernitz, guard Jordan Hansen – were young men. In fact, most of the defensive line and secondary, as well as most of the skill corps, consisted of first- and second-year players.
But the Huskies rank 90th in offense and 102nd in defense, and they don’t get most of their double-doubles back like most MACs do. The youth movement is a good thing, but are the promises enough? In theory, two transfers – quarterback Rocky Lombardi from Michigan State and tight end Clint Ratkovich from Western Illinois – could speed things up a bit.
The history of northern Illinois in a chart
- NIU won its first MAC title and its first bowl in 1983. Bill Mallory brought the Huskies’ record to 10-2 before accepting the job from Indiana the following year. His replacement? Lee Corso!
- With the hiring of Jerry Kill in 2008, NIU entered its best decade. From 2010-2015, the Huskies won or shared every MAC West title with three conference champions.
- 2012 : Best season at NIU. The Huskies went 12-2 and defeated Kent State in a thrilling MAC Championship to earn an Orange Bowl berth against Florida State.
- Before becoming one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL, Kenny Golladay amassed 2,491 receiving and rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in the 2015/16 season for NIU.
- The decline was slow, then fast. NIU has a lot of ground to make up as Hammock tries to gain a foothold in DeKalb.
Chris Creighton’s seventh season in Ypsilanti was short but disappointing. The Eagles may have had their best offense, but their poor defense led them to a 2-4 finish to the season.
SP+ Grade: 107.
Planned entry: 6-6 (3-5)
- He’ll probably win: St. John’s St. Francis (90% win probability), UMass (74%), BGSU (66%).
- Relative pulses : Texas State (60%), Miami (Ohio) (60%), NIU (50%), Ohio State (42%), WMU (37%).
- Probable losses : Ball State (32%), CMU (26%), Toledo (25%), Wisconsin (2%).
The Eagles have the experience to rebound – yes, everyone does – but they’ve lost seven of their last nine games by one point. Do they have the playmakers and/or good karma to turn this season around?
What we expect from the UEM in 2020
EMU will score. The Eagles have improved their offensive SP+ rating three years in a row, starting at No. 107 in 2017 and rising to No. 51 last fall. Quarterback Preston Hutchinson completed 64 percent of his passes, slot manager Hassan Beydoun emerged as the primary possession weapon and sophomore Tanner Knue (15.3 yards per catch) and tight end Bryson Cannon (19.8) provided vertical energy. Defensive tackles Marcellus Johnson and Brian Dooley allowed just two sacks. The running game was okay, but this was the first pass attack.
Ten starters and almost all infielders return. Ce pourrait être la première attaque de l’UEM à se classer au 50e rang des JV+ offensifs depuis que Charlie Butch était le quarterback en 1997.
What we haven’t learned about EMU in 2020
So did EMU’s opponent. EMU allowed at least 27 points per game last fall. The Eagles ranked 127th in tolerance index and 126th in number of incidents (TFLs, pass defense, and forced fumbles divided by total plays); they just didn’t have the ability to take the opponent out of the game.
The defense has collapsed almost in sync with the offense – from 52nd in defensive SP+ two years ago to 125th. Safety Blake Bogan, arguably EMU’s best quarterback last year, played only two games, so his return along with the continued development of interesting young players like end Jose Ramirez and cornerback Kempton Shine will help. But it got awfully bad when we hounded that D.
EMU history on a single card
- Since joining Division I in 1974, EMU has one MAC title and one Cup win to its name, both in 1987 under Jim Harkham.
- Charlie Batch in 1995 and 1997 (he missed most of 1996): 6,557 passing yards, 44 TDs. In 1995, the Eagles finished above .500 for the only time between 1990 and 2016.
- In 2014, EMU hired a creative staff in Creighton that has created conference candidates in the NAIA (Ottawa), Division III (Wabash) and FCS (Drake). After two seasons without progress, things are looking up.
- Don’t turn on the TV. The grass is really gray.
- The 2018 team was the best since Batch. The Eagles won 7-6, but were narrowly outgained by four of their six losses by three points or less.
State was pretty close with WMU, but the Broncos took a two-touchdown lead on the final play against the Cardinals to close out the game 4-2. It’s time to take back what was almost theirs?
SP+ Grade: 85.
Planned entry: 6-6 (5-3)
Probable Wins*: Akron (85% win probability), Illinois State (82%), Kent State (77%), at NIU (68%)
Relative ties: at EMU (63%), SJSU (54%), CMU (54%), Ball State (50%), at Buffalo (42%), at Toledo (42%)
Probable loss: at Pitt (21%), at Michigan (11%)
Avec de nombreux super-seniors qui choisissent de revenir, les Broncos de Tim Lester devraient se classer au 85ème rang dans les projections finales de SP+ pour le mois d’août ; quoi qu’il en soit, il y a un certain nombre de tirages potentiels cette saison qui vont dans des directions différentes.
What we learned about WMI in 2020
I want you to keep an eye on Caleb Eleby. Adjusted net yards per pass attempt takes sacks into account and gives a bonus of 20 yards for touchdowns and 45 yards for INTs.
Here are the top three FBS QBs from last year, for ANY/A (minus 150 rejections):
1. Mc Jones, Alabama (12.2)
2. Caleb Eleby, WMU (12.1)
3. Zach Wilson, BYU (11.9)
Eleby is neat and aggressive. His top three receivers – D’Wayne Eskridge, Skye Moore and Jalen Hall – caught 71 passes for an explosive 21.1 yards per catch. While Eskridge is gone, Moore and Hall are back. Add to that an incredibly efficient running attack led by junior La’Darius Jefferson and four personalities in the starting lineup, and the Broncos have one of the most exciting offenses in the country at any level.
What we didn’t learn about WMU in 2020.
Will they be able to avoid the encounter on the trail. Not counting the jump against lowly ranked Akron, WMU has averaged 38.4-38.4 in its other five games. The Broncos rank fourth in the FBS in points per drive, but 105th in points scored. They gave up almost as many important games as they created.
This is an aggressive but mistake-prone unit with real players – nickel/linebacker A.J. Thomas, nose guard Ralph Holley – but in this deep and exciting division race, more consistent play on that side of the ball is a must.
L’histoire de l’ouest du Michigan dans un graphique
- Before he killed President Camacho or Lt. Jeffords was, Terry Crews was a Broncos linebacker and an 11th round pick. Round of the 1991 NFL Draft.
- Lester as WMU’s quarterback (1996-99): 11,299 passing yards, 87 TDs and 49 INTs as the program grows under Gary Darnell.
- Darnell was a popular name after WMU’s quick turnaround in the late ’90s. But after peaking 9-3 in 2000, things went downhill and he became unemployed after a 1-10 season in 2004.
- In 2013, PJ Fleck took over the MAC and immediately dominated recruiting. Among the first signs: Corey Davis, who will rush for 5,278 yards and become the program’s fifth-best draft pick.
- The highlight of the Fleck era was the biggest bowl trip in WMU history: a trip to the 2017 Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin after a 13-0 regular season.
CMU had a high #MACtion in 2020 with six games, four down to the wire. The 3:3 was a little disappointing, but extremely entertaining.
SP+ Grade: 82.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: Robert Morris (98% win rate), FIU (79%), NIU (79%), Kent State (78%), EMU (74%), Miami (Ohio State) (68%).
- Relative pulses : Toledo (55%), Ohio (51%), WMU (46%), and Ball State (40%).
- Probable losses: from Missouri (29%), from LSU (13%).
Half the schedule consists of ties, but there may be enough semi-simple wins to avoid the heartbreak and stay in title contention.
What we learned about CMU in 2020
Either way, you were guaranteed to be important in the game. CMU’s passing game was built on small layups and shooting down the field. CMU ranks just 102nd in pass receptions, but on 27 successful receptions, receivers Kalil Pimpleton and Dallas Dixon have averaged nearly 19 yards per catch. Defensively, the Chips rank 19th in chaos, but 92nd in allowed explosive play – all or nothing, with a little break in between.
Aggressiveness plus inconsistency equals volatility. CMU has allowed 6.3 yards per play and 40 points per game in losses and 5.3 and 20, respectively, in wins. The offense averages between 4.9 and 7.1 yards per play in a game.
What we didn’t learn about CMU in 2020
Strijkt de ruwe kantjes van het experiment af. The offensive aggression is nice, but it’s hard to deal with a young quarterback. Freshman Daniel Richardson was solid but inconsistent, and reserve Ty Brock was explosive with his feet but got too many sacks looking for a big passing game.
Defensive aggression is nice too, but blitzing and lots of man coverage works best when blitzers come home more often and cornerbacks earn a higher percentage of hits. Players like cornerback Dishon McNary and linebacker George Douglas are on the verge of becoming great players, and Pimpleton and linebacker Troy Brown are already there. But can experience create sustainability?
History of Central Michigan in a Chart
- In 1991, the Chips won their first power conference game (20-3 over Michigan). They also won half of their games and finished at an incredible 6-1-4.
- CMU had just one winning season in nine years when it hired Brian Kelly from Grand Valley State in 2004. They’ve been MAC champions for three years. They won two more against Butch Jones’ successors. (Players like Dan Lefebvre and Antonio Brown helped a bit).
- In early 2010, the performance was less, but the talent was still there: Left tackle Eric Fisher was the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
- When Dan Enos left in late January 2015 to become an assistant at Arkansas, the school had to sign a recruiting class without a head coach. He said the lesson didn’t go well.
- Pour la première année de McElwain à la tête du club, Chips a remporté son premier titre depuis Lefevre en 2019. They should be competing for second place this fall.
After putting Toledo’s worst team on the field in over a decade, Jason Candle brought in a couple of wrestlers for his coaching staff and went 6-0 on the season.
SP+ Grade: 79.
Planned entry: 8-4 (5-3)
Probable Wins*: Norfolk State (96% winstkans), UMass (88%), Akron (87%), BGSU (83%), NIU (79%), EMU (75%), Colorado State (67%)
Relatieve Trekkingen: WMU (58%), at Ohio State (51%), at CMU (45%), at Ball State (40%)
Probability of Loss: at Notre Dame (13%).
The Rockets have almost everyone back, but the divisional outlook may be limited by a schedule that includes trips to Ohio State, CMU and Ball State.
What we learned about Toledo in 2020
Everything seems to be in order. In its first season, Candlestick Toledo ranked 26th in the SP+ rankings, but slipped to 45th, 66th and 114th in subsequent years. Five narrow wins in 2019 kept the win total respectable, but there was reason to be concerned about the direction of the program.
Candle responded by rejuvenating his coaching staff. He hired Robert Weiner, a great high school coach from Florida, as his offensive coordinator, and the offense went from 83rd to 61st. He hired Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres and linebacker Craig Kuligowski as defensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, respectively, and the defense, which had hit a low point, has rebounded with vigor. Toledo effectively utilized the Eli Peters/Carter Bradley QB platoon and showed a newfound aggressiveness on D, defending the run perfectly, shining consistently and playing an aggressive and effective man defense.
Almost every offensive and defensive back – both QBs, receivers Isaiah Winstead and Danzell McKinley-Lewis, all-conference center Bryce Harris, passers Dejuan Johnson and Jamal Hines, cornerback Samuel Womack – and every coach in the ring. Candle and Toledo recruit more consistently than anyone else in the MAC, and he now has more experience and a better coaching staff. The fact that Toledo is not one of West’s favorites says everything you need to know about the quality of this unit.
What we didn’t learn about Toledo in 2020.
Will the Rockets be able to work when they need to. Toledo ranks 89th in rushing success rate, which is well below schedule and impacts the red zone. In a division where the games are close together, improvement in this area can make a big difference.
The history of Toledo in a graph
- Almost every ACC team had great results in the 1960s or 1970s, but Toledo was Boise State-like – the Rockets were 35-0 in 1969-71 and had two top-15 finishes in the AP.
- Is the program in a rut? Hire Nick Saban! He went 9-2 in 1990, and when he transferred to the NFL, he recommended hiring former teammate Gary Pinkel, who won three straight over 9 games.
- What kills long-term success? The shaving scandal at the top.
- Na een opleving onder Tim Beckman, zijn de Rockets onder Matt Campbell uit de startblokken gekomen. Going to Iowa State, Jason Candle led them to their first MAC title in 13 years.
- The last three years have seen a decline in the number of cases, but the growth in the number of cases in the last few years has been very slow.
After winning just 15 games in his first four seasons, Mike Noah led BSU to a 7-1 record, a MAC title, the program’s first bowl appearance and first place in the year-end polls (#23).
SP+ Grade: 71.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: Western Illinois (99% chance of winning), Akron (82%), Miami (Ohio) (81%), NIU (73%), EMU (68%).
- Relative pulses : CMU (60%), Toledo (60%), Buffalo (59%), Army (56%), at WMU (50%), at Wyoming (48%).
- Probable loss: at Penn State (9%).
After an incredible run in 2020, BSU gets most of its top prospects at home in 2021. There are many ties on the schedule, but the game is on a double-digit winning streak.
What we have learned about BSU in 2020
Old ideas can still work. College football offenses are increasingly using slot receivers and RBs in the passing game and are slightly behind. Ball State? Not so much. Drew Plitt allowed 48% of his passes to outside receivers (8th in FBS) and only 5% to running backs (122nd), and BSU ranked 10th in plays per game.
It worked. The Cardinals rank 47th in SP+ offense, their best result since 2013, and the threat of the horizontal passing game has opened up running lanes. There weren’t many Big Plays, but BSU ranked 20th in terms of success. You couldn’t get them off the field.
BSU returns 16 super seniors, including Plitt and top receiver Justin Hall. There’s not much reason to believe the offensive is coming.
What we haven’t learned about BSU in 2020
Will the defensive ceiling ever be particularly high? Defensive coordinator Justin Stockton has created BSU’s best defense under Noah. The Cardinals were strong against the run, blitzing well and coming off the field on third downs, but they only finished 90th in defensive SP+ because they couldn’t stop opponents from passing on first and second downs.
The front seven returns in its entirety, including the best blitzer (LB Anthony Ekpe) and the best run stopper (end Jack Sape). But their best corner, Antonio Phillips, is gone, which means strengths can be stronger and weaknesses weaker.
Ball State’s history in achart
- The Cardinals entered Division I in the 1970s and stayed there, although they didn’t play their first power conference opponent until the mid-1980s.
- Long live Brad Maynard. Maynard was arguably the best player in BSU history, averaging 46 yards per punt over the past three seasons before embarking on a 15-year career in the NFL.
- Brady Hoke’s Cardinals got off to a good start in 2008, defeated their first Power 5 opponent (Indiana), appeared in the AP poll for the first time … And collapsed in the MAC Championship. And then Hoke left and the program fell apart.
- Pete Lembo won 19 games in 2012-13 but couldn’t keep his head above water and Mike Ney inherited a program that started from scratch.
- After a surprising victory in the MAC Championship, Noah’s Cardinals earned their first victory in the bowl: a 34-13 win over eventual champion San Jose State.
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