Ranked: Opportunities to capitalize in non-conference play

Who has the best chance of winning their non-conference games? Or, which schedules allow these MAC teams to have the most or least amount of success ? Some sort of combination of those two questions is how I figured out this ranked list of MAC teams vs. their respective non-conference schedules. The many, many super seniors across the league (let alone the nation) makes these forecasts harder to figure out than what I’m used to reading at this point of the year, but I think it’s worth trying to sort out anyways.

  1. Toledo (vs. Norfolk State, at Notre Dame, vs. Colorado State, at UMass) — Toledo’s recruiting can play better than most of the talent it’ll see in these games, and the Notre Dame game should still be interesting. Would be more shocked if the Rockets went 3-1 in non-conference play than if it went 2-2.
  2. Ball State (vs. Western Illinois, at Penn State, at Wyoming, vs. Army) — The defending MAC champs have a gimme game to start, and the Penn State game seems more winnable now after the awful 2020 season by the Nittany Lions. Wyoming might be a tough get on the road but very realistic chance to win that one. Defensively, I’m not worried about the Cardinals taking in Army’s triple-option offense. This is a very good Cardinals team that might play its way into a top 25 ranking if that offense takes a noticeable step forward in the first third of its schedule.
  3. Eastern Michigan (vs. Saint Francis, at Wisconsin, at UMass, vs. Texas State) — Assuming EMU beats the FCS team and UMass (on the road) and an expected loss at Wisconsin, Texas State’s going to be a great test for both teams. The Bobcats took in over a dozen FBS transfers this offseason, and EMU’s got eight guys in through the portal as well.
  4. Central Michigan (at Missouri, vs. Robert Morris, at LSU, vs. Florida International) — CMU’s got two road trips to SEC schools. I have faith that Jim McElwain will do a good job preparing his guys for those games, but I have to think at the end of the day those are still two losses — but the Missouri game should be at least winnable. Robert Morris should be a win, and FIU could be fun, and I like the Chippewas’ odds right now. A confident 2-2 through non-conference play feels right.
  5. Western Michigan (at Michigan, vs. Illinois State, at Pitt, vs. San Jose State) — For all the talent that I think WMU has at a lot of different positions, highlighted with Kaleb Eleby at QB, this is a pretty tough run of schools. Michigan has a lot of talent, Pitt’s always a respectable P5 program, and San Jose State is coming off of its best season in recent years. I’m not saying WMU can’t start 2-2, but there are no easy wins here.
  6. Miami (at Cincinnati, at Minnesota, vs. LIU, at Army) — I don’t feel confident in Miami going up against Cincinnati or Minnesota, but I do think Chuck Martin’s good for getting his team prepped for Army’s style of play.
  7. Ohio (vs. Syracuse, vs. Duquesne, at Louisiana, at Northwestern) — For as low as I have Ohio here, that schedule is something a lot of MAC schools would probably want in any year. Ohio begins its home-and-home series with Syracuse with a game at Peden, an FCS school, a Thursday night game against another G5 school with a lot of respect and talent, and a trip to Northwestern. If recent memory serves me right, Northwestern once lost to Akron and still made it to the Big Ten title game, so maybe they’ll be nice to the Bobcats. All games on this schedule are totally winnable for a good MAC team, but I sadly have no clue what to think of the roster based on how little the team was able to play in 2020.
  8. Northern Illinois (at Georgia Tech, vs. Wyoming, at Michigan, vs. Maine) — NIU’s talent is still either young or new to the roster. The team has a lot it needs to prove in this stretch of games before I show more confidence, but even if I tried to put on an optimistic face, NIU still has trips to Georgia Tech and Michigan. Wyoming’s a good home get, but the Cowboys have a ton of returning starters back and one of the better defenses across the G5.
  9. Buffalo (vs. Wagner, at Nebraska, vs. Coastal Carolina, at Old Dominion) — Buffalo would be higher on here if it weren’t going through a coaching change four months before the season and a late run of returning starters hit the transfer portal. Buffalo might end up losing to Wagner just because the entire program’s trying to do months and months of work in a few short weeks just to not screw things up with an FCS team on the schedule. I don’t know what to expect out of a team that’s going through all of this so late in the offseason.
  10. Akron (at Auburn, vs. Temple, vs. Bryant, at Ohio State) – The Zips still have to take more steps forward, and Tom Arth is likely going to be on his third starting quarterback in the same number of years leading the team. Honestly, that’s probably the best policy moving forward, but even if the Zips were halfway decent across the board, I wouldn’t feel too hot about them going to Auburn and Ohio State. Akron should want to be in a real game against Temple on any given year, but we might still be a ways out from that being a reality.
  11. Kent State (at Texas A&M, vs. VMI, at Iowa, at Maryland) — Kent State averaged ~50 points a game last year (albeit in only three games) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the incoming transfers (especially the offensive guys from Syracuse, duh) helped keep the team’s foot on the scoring pedal. But when you sign up for three road trips to P5 schools, you’re not doing to improve your odds of making a bowl game.
  12. Bowling Green (at Tennessee, vs. South Alabama, vs. Murray State, at Minnesota) — Outside of the 2019 victory over Toledo, this team has played like it is badly managed. Murray State’s probably going to be the safest bet for any FCS team to beat an FBS team this season.

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