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2018 MAC power rankings: Toledo vs. NIU in the West and Ohio vs. ? in the East

The top tier of the MAC — Ohio, Toledo, NIU — is obvious, but about seven other teams are capable of making a dark horse run. This could be fun.

Ohio v Massachusetts Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

At the end of each conference previews run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference’s balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. This is just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them. We have already completed the Sun Belt and C-USA.

Bill C’s MAC power rankings

Here’s a link to every team’s data, and each team’s name below is linked to its preview.

Tier 1

1. Ohio
2. Toledo
3. NIU

I have flip-flopped on these power rankings far more than with either the Sun Belt or C-USA. On one hand, it’s easy to see last year’s three best MAC teams remaining this way. Ohio brings back most of its offense, NIU brings back almost all of an outstanding defense, and Toledo’s got the best base of talent, including a killer receiving corps.

These three teams are the conference’s safest bets, but each has a question mark just big enough to make you wonder. Ohio’s run defense was almost as good as its run offense, and now the Bobcats must replace almost their entire front seven. Toledo’s offensive backfield is starting over, as is its defensive front six. And NIU’s offense really never gained all that much traction and now must replace its most steady piece (RB Jordan Huff).

It wouldn’t surprise me if a Tier 2 team were to make a division title run, in other words.

Tier 2

4. Buffalo
5. Miami
6. WMU
7. EMU

This conference has a lot of teams with one good unit. NIU might qualify for that bucket (as might Tier 3 team BGSU), I really like Miami’s and EMU’s defenses, and Buffalo’s offense has the most exciting QB-to-WR connection in the MAC: Tyree Jackson to Anthony Johnson.

WMU has more balance and plenty of athleticism, but few known difference-makers.

Tier 3

8. BGSU
9. CMU
10. Akron
11. Ball State

This tier is a crossroads of sorts.

CMU and Akron were a bit lucky last year and probably have some resetting to do before potentially rising again in 2019.

The other two should be on the rise. BGSU has spent the last couple of years near the bottom of the conference but has the pieces for an outstanding offense (defense, less so), and Ball State got destroyed by maybe the most impressive run of injury that I’ve seen. Mike Neu’s Cardinals should be okay if they actually get to play their first string this year.

Tier 4

12. Kent State

I have begun to really like Kent State’s hire of Sean Lewis, and he proved a lot in his first recruiting class. But this should still be a Year Zero situation with the depth chart and identity change Lewis is encountering. Give him a year or two, and he might get somewhere.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the MAC laid out for 2018, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2018 S&P+ projections here.)

2018 MAC projections

The Rockets finally avoided land mines and claimed their rightful place atop the conference ... and Ohio stepped on the land mine instead, letting the East slip to Akron. S&P+ trusts Toledo to maintain form more than the Bobcats.

2018 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.

West Division

  1. Toledo 5.9 (8.4)
  2. NIU 5.0 (6.3)
  3. EMU 4.2 (6.1)
  4. WMU 4.1 (6.3)
  5. CMU 2.9 (4.3)
  6. Ball State 2.7 (4.1)

East Division

  1. Ohio 5.2 (7.9)
  2. Miami 4.8 (6.8)
  3. Buffalo 4.2 (6.5)
  4. BGSU 3.9 (5.7)
  5. Akron 2.8 (4.2)
  6. Kent State 2.3 (3.5)

Toledo starts with a healthy lead in the West, but the Rockets have to travel to DeKalb, where they haven’t won since 2006. Drop that one, and the West race becomes a dead heat. And in the East, Ohio starts out on top, but Miami and Buffalo are both within a game in the projected standings, and BGSU’s only 1.3 wins out. This could be a really fun race.

How these teams looked in 2017

2017 MAC ratings

You had Toledo and Ohio leading the way on offense and NIU staking a claim to the league’s best defense. That dynamic might remain.

MAC offenses heading into 2018

2017 MAC offenses

CMU had the most efficient offense in the conference but created no big plays, and now the efficiency weapons are mostly gone. Time for a reset year in Mount Pleasant.

(And don’t be surprised if Buffalo vaults into the offensive lead this year.)

MAC defenses heading into 2018

2017 MAC defenses

NIU is fun and reckless and aggressive. The Huskies easily have my favorite defense in the league, but others like Ohio and Miami are pretty aggressive in their own right. Then there’s the bend-don’t-break competition between Buffalo, Akron, etc.

Best 2018 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Akron: WR Kwadarrius Smith
  • Ball State: QB Riley Neal
  • BGSU: QB Jarret Doege
  • Buffalo: WR Anthony Johnson
  • CMU: RB Jonathan Ward
  • EMU: OG Jimmy Leatiota
  • Kent State: WR Trey Harrell
  • Miami (Ohio): QB Gus Ragland
  • NIU: OT Max Scharping
  • Ohio: QB Nathan Rourke
  • Toledo: WR Diontae Johnson
  • WMU: C John Keenoy
Buffalo v Miami Ohio
Anthony Johnson
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Best 2018 defensive players by team

  • Akron: LB Ulysees Gilbert III
  • Ball State: CB Josh Miller
  • BGSU: FS Marcus Milton
  • Buffalo: LB Khalil Hodge
  • CMU: DT Nathan Brisson-Fast
  • EMU: DE Maxx Crosby
  • Kent State: NB Jamal Parker
  • Miami (Ohio): LB Brad Koenig
  • NIU: DE Sutton Smith
  • Ohio: CB Jalen Fox
  • Toledo: SS Kahlil Robinson
  • WMU: CB Sam Beal
NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois
Sutton Smith (15)
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports