Far from over: Toledo, Ball State slipping, WMU playing like contender

One of the talking points around college football this year-plus has been about this year’s senior’s extra year of eligibility. ‘Super seniors’ is a thing and Bill Connelly found that the average returning production percentage around the country was 10% higher than normal when he did his preseason work. The simple logic here is that the quality of football played by returners should be much better in 2021, especially if you were one of those teams that played poorly because of 2020’s million-trillion headaches presented.

As a league, the MAC led all FBS leagues with 83.1% of its total production coming back to its 12 schools.

Take returning production with a grain of salt, as the numbers were published on August 12, and it doesn’t take into account whether or note the retained talent is of much quality or not. Also, the percentages are sort of funky when we rank things conference-by-conference because not all leagues played the same amount of games in 2020.

PRESEASON RETURNING PRODUCTION (8/12/21)

  • Toledo: 89% overall (20th nationally), 81% offense (51), 97% defense (6)
  • Ball State: 85% overall (28), 82% offense (44), 88% defense (31)
  • Western Michigan: 85% overall (29), 80% offense (54), 90% defense (27)

Still, simple math can’t be ignored. When three of the MAC West’s heavy hitters were all all bringing back talented quarterbacks, defenses with some room to grow, and receivers. a plenty: it’s just safe to assume that we were going to be watching a year of bloodbaths from the Western Michigan, Toledo, and returning MAC champion Ball State offenses.

Only one of the three teams have actually been putting up points this season, though.

The Broncos are 2-1 on the year after a huge 44-41 victory in Pittsburgh last weekend, and now the outlook for this WMU team going up. The way things are looking, the 47-14 season-opening loss at Michigan might be more forgivable if the Wolverines continue to improve. WMU’s playing absolutely like a preseason MAC West favorite ought to.

Toledo? Penalties can’t ever stop being a thing against this program, can it? The Rockets were flagged 11 times against Colorado State and currently lead the conference with 34 penalties. Flags are one thing, but the offensive line play hasn’t done its offense many favors either. No true run game has been established (vs. FBS: 2.38 avg., 1 TD), and most of the running has been by QB Bradley scrambling to find a pocket to step up and throw out of.

Commit a half-dozen penalties in six minutes, then fail to pull off the upset against Notre Dame? Embarrassing, but fine. Go without a touchdown in a home game for the first time since 2010 (vs. Arizona, 41-2)? To Colorado State?

FEI RANKINGS (About)

  • Western Michigan: 65th overall (11 offense, 106 defense)
  • Toledo: 84th overall (90 offense, 61 defense)
  • Ball State: 93rd overall (73 offense, 90 defense)

The defending MAC champions, Ball State, has looked kind of miserable so far.

Against FCS-level Western Illinois, it wasn’t a comfortable win, but maybe it was the Week 1 hiccups. Okay fine. Week 2 at Penn State, the only TD scored was very late in the game by a freshman that was in high school during last year’s title run. Not what you want to see, but Penn State’s good. Maybe Wyoming’s good too, but there’s still no reason why this Ball State team still couldn’t do better than a 45-12 finish, especially when the very young-rostered Northern Illinois made it a 50-43 game against these exact same Cowboys the week before

POINTS PER DRIVE: Net Points Per Drive, Offensive, Defensive (About,on bcftoys.com)

  • Toledo: -0.81 NPD (87th nationally), 1.00 OPD (110), 1.81 DPD (49)
  • Western Michigan: -1.05 NPD (97), 2.32 OPD (57), 3.36 DPD (115)
  • Ball State: -2.12 NPD (114) 1.09 OPD (109), 3.21 DPD (113)

This MAC West race is far from over

If this divisional race’s winner was decided 1. right now and 2. before any of these teams got the opportunity to play one another, then WMU would be our MAC West champions before September’s end. However we all know that’s not how things work, and that means the potential for insanity to arise still looms over the coming weeks.

Thankfully, this West race will get to heating up this weekend as MAC play finally begins in this division and this division only. Toledo plays at Ball State this Saturday at 2 p.m. Of course, it’s the two teams that were expected to have their levels of play to include more competence than what they’ve shown so far to be the MAC’s first league game of 2021. Two underwhelming teams will square off, but we’ll all be wondering which one will get over its own speed bumps first.

Will Toledo ever stop committing so many penalties in their games? And can the offensive line do more favors for its quarterbacks?

Based on what I’ve seen so far, the Rockets have the MAC’s best defensive line, and it makes a lot of big plays in the backfield, and even Penn State transfer NT Judge Culpepper is making plays at the sidelines. It’s one of the best-working groups, and this position group is a big reason why Toledo’s defensive numbers look pretty good so far.

I still have to re-watch some Ball State action from this year, but I’m not loving what I’m seeing out of this team’s offense. The running game is led by a true freshman, but Carson Steele’s not exactly carrying the load to lead the team to victory at this moment (27 att., 173 yds.). I don’t currently have a diagnosis for Ball State because it’s still just a very strange puzzle to me. Yes these Cardinals do miss Caleb Huntley, Antonio Phillips, and Antwan Davis from last year’s roster. No, that’ doesn’t mean the Cardinals didn’t still return 16 super seniors and no head coaching or coordinator turnover since the 2020 championship run. So why is Ball State struggling to do the things that it did best last year?

WMU’s good, but it still has to win its West matchups when they come up (We’re very close to Ball State at WMU!). While the offense is playing like a contender, the defense is still questionable. Maybe it gave up 40+ points to Michigan and Pitt because those have good offenses. Maybe WMU’s just at a place where it’s simply going to get scored on, and the offense will have to be ready to rally at a moment’s notice.

These are the three teams that many assumed would have the best on-field product in 2021, but early on we’re seeing more reasons for concern than optimism. If things keep getting worse for either the Rockets or Cardinals, then it won’t take long before Central Michigan or Northern Illinois (or Eastern Michigan?) end up creating a chaos scenario.

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