Hitting halfway

Ohio wide receiver Jerome Buckner gets away from a Buffalo defender during the Bobcats’ 21-20 win at Buffalo on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. The Bobcats host Northern Illinois on Homecoming on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019 inside Peden Stadium.

Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, Oct. 9 newspaper on Page A6.

As the college football season hits the halfway point, it’s clear it hasn’t been a terrific season for the Mid-American Conference so far.

Oh, the conference is as close as ever and the title chase remains fairly wide open. But in terms of a national profile, it’s hard to find a year this century where the MAC had less of an impact nationally.

With one regular-season non-conference game against FBS competition, the MAC is sitting on six non-conference FBS wins. If Central Michigan can beat winless New Mexico State (0-6) this weekend, that number bumps up to seven — seven FBS wins would tie for the lowest number posted by the MAC this decade (2010, 7).

Only once since 2000 has the MAC had fewer FBS wins in the non-conference schedule. That year was 2004, and the MAC had just three victories against FBS opponents in the non-conference.

But with the midweek schedule starting in a month, there are a few certainties as it pertains to the MAC title chase.

First, yes, the West Division is the stronger of the two in 2019. Last year, in East vs. West matchups, the MAC saw an even 9-9 split in crossover games. But in each of the previous eight years, the West won those head-to-head matchups.

And that will likely be the case again in 2019. Akron and Bowling Green are going through substantial rebuilding seasons and won’t be favored in any of their cross-over games. Toledo has the best portfolio of any MAC team to date, and gets BG, Kent State and Buffalo in cross-over matchups; a 3-0 sweep there seems likely.

But there is drama about which team will win each division. Toledo has already cleared Western Michigan, but has traditionally had trouble with EMU and NIU. CMU has been a bit of a surprise in Jim McElwain’s first year and may be a contender.

In the East, Buffalo is off to an 0-2 start after losses to division rivals Miami and Ohio. With BG and Akron not likely to turn things around, that means it’s a three-team race with Ohio, Miami and Kent State — and all of those head-to-head matchups will take place over the next month.

The Bobcats were the heavy favorite to win the East, but have scuffed along over the first five games. If OU can put things together, the division is there for the taking as it will get both the Flashes and RedHawks inside Peden Stadium.

But for now, let’s take a snap-shot look at the league. This is the second of my MAC power rankings that I’ll do during the season. The first came three weeks into the year, and the next installment will land prior to midweek football kicking off in November.

MAC Power Rankings

1 — Toledo (4-1, 1-0 MAC)

Last rank — 4 (+3); Next — at Bowling Green

The Rockets have the two best non-conference wins for the league this season, turned aside main challenger WMU last week (31-24), lead the MAC in scoring defense (23.6) and are second in scoring offense (33.8).

QB Mitchell Guadagni is 33rd nationally in passing efficiency, and RB Bryant Koback (628 yards, 6.9 average, 6 TDs) is having a monster year. Everything is lining up for UT.

2 — Western Michigan (3-3, 1-1 MAC)

Last rank — 2 (0); Next — vs. Miami

I didn’t drop the Broncos despite the loss at Toledo. The Broncos were stopped in the red zone at the end in basically a one-play kind of game.

WMU has their own balanced offense making hay as well. LeVante Bellamy (629 yards, 8 TDs) is having a huge year, and QB Jon Wassink is third nationally with 1,769 passing yards. The Broncos needs lots of help to win the division now, the gap atop the West isn’t a large one.

3 — Ohio (2-3, 1-0 MAC)

Last rank — 3 (0); Next — vs. NIU.

I probably should have the Bobcats a notch or two lower, but still believe OU is the best positioned team in the East Division. Ohio showed toughness in winning at Buffalo, and has been close a couple times this year to unlocking its full potential.

The biggest sticking point is turnovers. At negative-7 in turnover ratio, OU is tied with Akron for the worst mark in the MAC.

4 — Eastern Michigan (3-2, 0-1 MAC)

Last rank — 1 (-3); Next — vs. Ball State

I’m not quite ready to ditch the Eagles yet as a MAC contender despite an ugly home win, and then an ugly road loss at CMU, since their appearance at No. 1 in my first poll.

But EMU has lost something since it’s 2-1 start, and it revolves around a running game that still hasn’t taken root and a run defense that is step off from 2018. Big game for EMU this weekend with Ball State.

5 — Ball State (2-3, 1-0 MAC)

Last rank — 6 (+1); Next — at EMU

The Cardinals won at NIU last week with 24-3 salvo in the second half, that came entirely on the ground. Seriously, BSU didn’t complete a single pass after halftime and still overcame a 21-3 deficit.

The Cardinals have been opportunistic, second with 11 takeaways and first with seven interceptions, and could upend these rankings with a second road upset on Saturday in Ypsilanti.

6 — Central Michigan (3-3, 2-1 MAC)

Last rank — 8 (+2_; Next — vs. New Mexico State

Give McElwain credit. I was expecting a full-blown rebuild year in Mount Pleasant, and now the Chippewas are perhaps the biggest surprise of 2019.

CMU should be 4-3 after this weekend thanks to a havoc-causing defense. DL Sean Adesanya leads the MAC in sacks (5.0), and LB Troy Brown is the conference leader in TFL (8.5).

7 — Miami (2-3, 1-0 MAC)

Last rank — 9 (+2); Next — at WMU

The RedHawks beat the Bulls at home two weeks ago, despite gaining just 265 yards of offense, in a semi-rout, 34-20. Turnovers were a huge part of that game as Miami used short-field after short-field to knock off the Bulls.

Miami isn’t wowing anybody in the statistical categories, but a +4 turnover ratio leads the MAC and is covering up some issues.

8 — Kent State (2-3, 1-0 MAC)

Last rank — 10 (+2); Next — at Akron

Yeah, the Flashes have been dog-piled in three money games on their non-conference schedule. The MAC win was a steam-roller job on BG. So why the move up?

Well, KSU swapped quarterbacks in midstream and it’s paid off. Dustin Crum (34th nationally passing efficiency) is in, and Woody Barrett (the returning starter) is out.

It’s a small thing, but the Flashes are clearly better than BG. After the rivalry game this weekend, we’ll get a better grasp on what KSU can do.

9 — Buffalo (2-4, 0-2 MAC)

Last rank — 7 (-2); Next — Bye week

If truth be told, I think the Bulls are probably better than Miami and Kent. But, results matter. UB was a couple of missed kicks from beating OU, and just a turnover or two away from a road win at Miami.

I like the Bulls defensive personnel, and the run game is as potent as any in the league. But it hasn’t clicked in for wins just yet. Unfortunately for UB, its two biggest division games were the first two games on the schedule.

10 — Northern Illinois (1-4, 0-1 MAC)

Last rank 5 (-5); Next — at Ohio

Much like with Buffalo, I think the Huskies are better than their rank but you can’t ignore the awful loss at Ball State last weekend.

And NIU has some real issues. Injuries have robbed the front seven of some of its depth, and bite, and the running game — always a Husky staple — is 11th in the MAC.

NIU is averaging just 17.4 points per game, is 11th in the MAC in rushing and 11th in the MAC in red zone offense with three touchdowns on a conference-low 10 red-zone trips.

NIU isn’t out of it by any means, but they are floundering a bit at the moment.

11 — Bowling Green (1-4, 0-1 MAC)

Last rank 11 (0); Next — vs. Toledo

Not much to say about the Falcons, dumped 52-0 at Notre Dame last weekend.

I don’t see a quick fix on the horizon for Bowling Green, which at this point seems destined for a showdown game with Akron to stay out of the MAC basemen.

12 — Akron (0-5, 0-1 MAC)

Last rank 12 (0); Next — vs. Kent State

Coming off a bye, this might be the Zips’ best chance to snag a conference win this season. It’s a rivalry game — hi there Wagon Wheel! — and the Flashes are coming off their own beatdown at Wisconsin.

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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