This is Bruce Baguen back with special silent guest co-host Dan Doornink, ready to preview more of that hot #MACtion! Let's get to it!
(Note: All stats cited are for 2020 unless otherwise noted.)
Miami (OH) Redhawks at Cincinnati Bearcats (Victory Bell game)
Last year, it was Cincy that managed to shock the world State of Ohio by upsetting the Redhawks and claiming the Bell. Can Best!Miami bring it back north to Oxford? Third time's the charm, so we hear....
(Cincy's won the previous two games)
When discussing the Redhawks, we believe there's a law somewhere stating we have to start with their offense and the FLAMETHROWER ZACK CERA. Easily the busiest passer in the MAC (340 of 570 [59.65%] for 3765 yards, 36/11 TD/INT in 13 games), Cera will continue to throw scorchers all over the field. His chief weapons from 2020, Mackey Award Winner TE Casey Swann (79 rec for 1038 yards, 14 TD) and WR Kenneth Harrison (74 rec for 787 yards, 11 TDs) both return to give Best!Miami a potent pair of inside/outside threats. One weakness that Miami hopes Cera worked on is his pocket awareness; he was sacked the most amount of times in the MAC last year (28) and coach @caesari believes another year of growth and improved blockers up front will drastically drop that number.
Oh, and RB Ajani Garrett still exists and runs sometimes. (163 rushes for 700 yards, 8 TDs) Hey, Cera's arm gets tired - he needs a break!
Faithful reader, you tell us if this might be a problem against a pass-heavy team:
Number of Cincinnati Bearcats playing CB on their 2020 Depth Chart: 5
Number of returning Bearcats from 2020 playing CB in 2021: 0
Yup. Cincy will trot out a 2.0 of 3.0, 2.0 of 2.5, and 1.5 of 3.0 freshmen as their top three CBs. Against Zack Cera. <<insert everythingisfine.jpg>> Even with the Bearcats' best player SS Dominic Monk there to provide support, well, Monk can't be everywhere. This normally means we have to look at the defense's line to provide pressure and give Cera less time to throw, but we're not seeing any matchups that skew Cincinnati's way against an experience Miami line. Perhaps if redshirt freshman DE Leonardo Trujillo plays out of his mind, but he draws the Redhawks' best blocker in LT Andre Grey.
So, can the Bearcats score enough to keep pace? Eh... they lost top WR Ahe Salanoa and their top two TEs. Their only pro potential lineman also graduated. They start massive (6'2", 334) redshirt freshman 5-star bookend Mohamed Mosley at LT, but Redhawk DE Donte Pennel and his 8.0 sacks return. Pennel will probably use Mosley's inexperience against him when Cincy QB Dillon Schaeffer drops back. The backfield is actually in a good spot with Schaeffer nearly leading the Bearcats to a bowl game and dependable RB Aaron Street (269 rushes for 1216 yards, 13 TDs) to help him carry the mail one more time. But is there a receiver the QB from Walnut Hills can trust? There's a LOT of inexperience scattered among the Bearcat pass-catchers, and if Miami's 5-star DT Morris Jackson can penetrate the Cincy line Schaeffer may not have the time he needs to take advantage of true freshman (1.0 or 4.0) Jeremiah Christy in the backfield.
The Redhawks are much improved on offense, and the Bearcats lost anyone who played or even thought about playing cornerback. With so much Cincinnati turnover in the secondary (and at wideout) against a Miami team that returns so many starters? Sorry @Rome, but CERAWINSLOL.
Ohio Bobcats at Old Dominion Monarchs
The Monarchs open the season as gracious hosts to two-time MAC East champions Ohio. Old Dominion didn't really lose very much from the 2020 squad that made a bowl, but even with that the talent level is not really there - with a few notable exceptions. It's a testament to the job @KakesuSora did to coach last year's team into a bowl game.
ODU's strength is on the defensive side of the ball, and one position is particular jumps out at you from their roster:
CB Darren Logan 6-1 202 Jr Wayne County (Jessup, GA) 3.5 of 5.0 [Zone Coverage]
ATH J.J. Fowler 6-1 202 Jr University (Morgantown, WV) 3.5 of 5.0 [Zone Coverage]
That is a formidable CB tandem to contend with; expect to hear both their names called in the 2023 NFLHC draft. Helping their cause is promising redshirt freshman DE Omari Pearson (2.0 of 4.5). But the good news dries up rather quickly after that for the Monarchs. MLB Kayden Wilkerson and OLB Carter Patrick will keep the linebacking corps afloat, but there are holes in this defense that can be run through.
And run is what we expect Ohio to do repeatedly. Hyped freshman QB Austin Lowe has plenty of experienced weapons to throw to in senior WR Dwayne Simpson (58 rec for 882 yards, 8 TDs) and junior TE Aaron Thibodeaux (57 rec for 856 yards, 6 TDs). But against a defensive line starting a pair of 2.5 of 2.5s? We think Jeffrey Flowers will work quickly and often to show the Bobcat fans that he is just as good as Owen. Freaking. WALTON. if not better, and allow Lowe to ease into his college career.
It's a good thing for the Monarchs that QB Dylan Hamlin is a scrambler, because he will be running for his life repeatedly. His stats last year were respectable (157 of 251 [62.55%] for 1967 yards, 14/7 TD/INT, 56 car for 309 yards, 2 rushing TDs), and so were RB Isaiah Mitchell's (297 car for 1282 yards, 13 TDs). But this is an offensive line putting a true freshman 1.0 of 3.0 guard against junior Brady Whittaker who racked up 22 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year, and starting two more linemen with no better than a 2.5 potential. We don't expect Hamlin to have much of a pocket on Friday which will play into Ohio's ability to chase down opposing QBs with their linebackers - OLBs Donovan Pendleton and Myles Lindsay combined for 72 tackles and 3 sacks last season. If there's a saving grace for ODU on offense it's TE Montee Griffin, who has a lot of experience being Hamlin's safety blanket on scramble drills (24 rec for 393 yards, 2 TDs).
Ohio is one of the best teams in the MAC, and Old Dominion simply doesn't have enough horses to run with the Bobcats. We expect Flowers to just run the ball down the Monarchs' collective throats and choke the life out of them.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Central Michigan Chippewas
The Byron Suggs Era is about to begin in Mt. Pleasant, and Southern Miss (known for all-time football great Etric Pruitt) is the first team to bear witness. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair!
Suggs (3.0 of 5.0) is probably the most-hyped freshman QB to come into the MAC in quite some time, and it's giving the CMU faithful hopes that he will be the best to ever don the maroon and gold (Yes, even more than Walt Sutherland. Sorry @ImposterCauster, @paperllamasunited). What makes his debut even more anticipated is that it isn't just him and ten stiffs on the offense, he has a couple of legit weapons on his side. 4.0 of 4.0 ATH/WR Joseph Aikman is a redshirt freshman, same as Suggs, and ever dependable TE Jasper Rowley (37 rec for 465 yards, 6 TDs) is still there to find soft spots in the middle of the field. Even RB Makai Carr (259 rushes for 1184 yards, 10 TDs) can at least present the threat of a running game. So the skill players are there. The offensive line... that's another story. How will this... um, unseasoned group of players hold up against the Golden Eagle defense? Most of them really needed another year of development; they're full of 3-star prospects but only LT Victor Reaves (3.5 of 3.5) and C Chris Whitley (3.0 of 3.0) have reached their full potential. So if there's a way to derail the Suggs Hype train, it's by plowing through the O-line.
We're not really sold that Southern Miss is going to do it right out of the gate, though. The biggest threat the Eagles present to the Chips is 2.5 of 4.0 true sophomore Leonard Graves. He was Southern Miss' best pass rusher last year (20 TKL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FF) and is definitely the man Central needs to account for on the line. The problem for Southern is his fellow linemates are a: not any better skill-wise than Central's line, and b: not particularly adept at getting to the QB. Redshirt sophomore Micah Griffin is a force to be reckoned with (51 TKL, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR) but as a 4-3 Mike, don't expect to see him coming after Suggs on a blitz very often, if at all. If the Golden Eagles succeed in harassing Suggs, it's probably because Griffin and a secondary led by pro-hopeful SS Michael O'Neal were able to keep Aikman and Rowley under wraps long enough for coverage sacks.
And what about that Southern Miss offense? Sophomore Alexander Cassidy returns after a tidy freshman season (198 of 308 [64.29%] for 2395 yards, 20/9 TD/INT) and top receiver TE Charles Sherrill (55 rec for 827, 9 TDs) returns to help him out. Sherrill could see an even bigger workload if new head coach @Ricky Campbell chooses to lean on his connection with Cassidy to carry the offense. First-time starter senior RB James Fitzgerald must replace Harrison Weir and his 1200+ yards, no easy feat, we'll see how much slack coach Ricky gives Fitzgerald.
If Sherrill is the go-to receiver, that means he won't be chipping to help the Southern tackles with CMU bookends Nazir-Tatum Kimbrough and Rory Bolin. It's imperative for coach @johnkirk's squad that the duo be better than they were last year (4 sacks for Bolin but only 1 for Tatum-Kimbrough, especially without All-American A'Shawn Ellison to lock one side of the field down. There isn't much talent left in the Chips' secondary, so Central can't give Cassidy time to find second and third reads - the gunslinger will pick them apart if he does.
In a matchup of young but flawed teams, Central looks like the squad that is further ahead. We believe Byron Suggs is the real deal and will show the world why MAC coaches will get sick of hearing the phrase "Suggs-to-Aikman (touchdown, unbelievable!)"
Buffalo Bulls at Louisville Cardinals
The strengths for each team are relatively easy to see. It will be about the execution on Saturday. We begin with the Louisville DeSean Dockerys Cardinals and their offense, RB DeSean Dockery. A Heisman semi-finalist in 2020, Dockery rushed for over 1700 yards and scored 25 touchdowns on the ground. With last year’s starting QB Ayden Steele gone and redshirt sophomore Harrison Pratt taking over, the Cardinals will rely on the pass even less than they did last year - which wasn’t a whole lot to begin with. Louisville fortunately has a solid (if not exceptional) offensive line highlighted by RG Mekhi Norwood, and they’ll get a bit more help as we expect that they’ll run a lot of two-TE max blocking sets.
Buffalo’s defensive mission is pretty clear, but will their front seven be up to the challenge of containing Dockery? The Bulls’ defensive linemen are all experienced but have already maxed out on their potential. But Buffalo doesn’t need the line to win, only to occupy blockers and not get blown off the ball. The group responsible for bringing Dockery down will be the Bull linebackers, led by OLB Alexander Moffett (37 TKL, 1 INT, 1 sack, 1 FR); they will be VERY busy Saturday. We expect some help for them as well, don’t be surprised if SS Thomas Gordon (30 TKL, 3 INT) drops into the box to present eight-man fronts on a regular basis.
On the other side, this is Buffalo QB Blair Holcomb’s first chance to wow the scouts as a potential high draft pick. The reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year (268 of 399 [67.17%] for 3532 yards, 35/7 TD/INT ratio) looks to pick up where he left off and he may do just that against this Cardinals defense. While up-and-coming sophomore star CB Logan Swain (15 TKL, 3 INT as a redshirt freshman) could present some problems, the other corners are nowhere near his skill level. Even with talented free safety Donte Whitfield on the field, he can’t help out #2 CB Shamar Lowery (2.5 of 2.5) and #3 CB Amadou Jones (2.5 of 3.5) at the same time; Holcomb likes to spread the ball out. One enticing potential matchup is Bulls TE Xavier Frey, their leading receiver from last year (52 rec for 860, 11 TDs) against the Cardinals’ best defender, OLB Prince Matos (31 TKL, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF). Or maybe Matos will just go after Holcomb directly and leave Frey to Will linebacker Beckett Ring, Louisville’s leading tackler from last season (53 TKL, 4 INT, although they played a 4-3 then instead of this year’s 3-4).
Going after Holcomb might be the better option period, because Buffalo’s O-line is not what we’re used to seeing from them in years past. Outside of center D.J. Wilkinson, the big men are going to be tested repeatedly - three of them don’t have a current skill of 3 or higher, and centers man both guard spots. How the Buffalo coaching staff compensates for this will be a fascinating story to follow throughout the season.
We’ll be the first to admit that this is probably a generous homer pick. But Buffalo and coach SodapopSeth has surprised us before with their ability to compensate for weaknesses (see last season when they shut down Best!Miami and UCLA despite a patchwork secondary). We’re leaning on that and probably a fair amount of the Fabulous One Denzel Porter up the middle behind Wilkinson. If Buffalo can get an early lead on the hosts, the Cardinals are not very well built to throw the ball.
Kent State (0-0) at Boise State (0-0)
A tale of two State teams that want to put season-ending bowl losses behind them with an opening week victory. “It was the best of games, it was the worst of games….”
Boise QB Roman Green had a middling season last year (207 of 343 [60.35%] for 2523 yards, 14/13 TD/INT, 56 rushes for 208 yards, 3 TDs in 13 games) and he may be in for more of the same this year. His growth and experience is tempered by the graduation of several offensive linemen, starting RB Marquise Allen, and top wideout Mahamadou Polk. New RB Devin Cannon (3.5 of 3.5) is a solid-looking back but untested; same for the Broncos’ top wide receiver (Jayson Geary, 2.0 of 4.0) and their top tight end (Atamu Niumatalolo, 2.5 of 4.5). Their guards are both 1.0 of 3.5, their RT a 2.5 of 3.0. There are holes to be exploited here.
But is Kent State capable of doing that? The Golden Flashes do return both starting DEs from last year in Nehemiah Reeves (18 TKL, 4.5 sacks) and Jacob Dennison (11 TKL, 2.5 sacks), and it’s possible that Reaves can take advantage of the Boise RT. But despite the size (6’7” 313), Kent State DT Amari Herron is very movable (2.0 of 2.5). MLB Kenneth Newsome is a 2.5 of 2.5. The Golden Flashes will probably have to sell out to stop the run and hope that a secondary with JuCo SS Steven Gordon and three other guys will hold up.
John Garland and Harrison Mullin. These two have been the face of Kent State football forever, for good or for ill. Their final season starts by facing a Boise defense that outguns them at virtually every matchup, highlighted by pro prospect DT Kaden Oglesby and a pair of 4-star cornerbacks. As fond as we are at the MAC Network of Garland and Mullin, we’re not sure they can conjure the magic needed to win the game for Kent State. They’ll probably need their defense to set them up with short fields somehow.
We thought there would be a better chance for Kent State when we saw Boise’s offense, but Boise’s defense dashed those hopes. Any magic pixie dust the Golden Flashes have laying around is probably better saved for conference play anyhow.
Akron vs. Hawaii to come....