2021 MAC Bowls Preview

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2021 MAC Bowls
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - DECEMBER 04: Jay Ducker #8 of the Northern Illinois Huskies runs the ball against A.J. Musolino #19 of the Kent State Golden Flashes during the first half of the MAC Championship game at Ford Field on December 04, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As we did in 2019 and 2020, let’s take a look at all 42 bowl games, plus the CFP National Championship Game. 18 matchups feature a first-ever meeting of programs.  

With how insane the coaching carousel has been, plus the full utilization of the Transfer Portal, we will try to keep up with all of the moving parts and put footnotes for notable players leaving. So, without further ado, time for the 2021 MAC bowls preview! 

2021 MAC Bowls Preview 

Bahamas Bowl (December 17, 12:00 p.m., ESPN)
Toledo vs Middle Tennessee State 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Toledo bowl record: 10-8 

While the 2021 MAC bowls may not move the needle for the average college football fan, if you’re reading this, you’re no average college football fan! The Rockets finished their season 7-5…but those losses came by three, 16, two, three, and three. The first of those losses came to the now-CFP contender Notre Dame. Flip those close games and we could be talking about a marquee bowl game for the MAC blueblood. 

There is no denying that this offense goes through DeQuan Finn and Bryant Koback. Finn, the first-year starting quarterback threw for 1,862 yards and 16 touchdowns compared to only one interception. Where he’s most dangerous is on the ground where he turned 100 rushing attempts to 419 yards and eight scores. Bryant, however, is an established name in Toledo and is completing his fourth season as a prolific piece of this offense. This year, he leads the MAC in yards per attempt (6.7), rushing touchdowns (15), and total touchdowns (18) to go with his 1,618 scrimmage yards. Want an under-the-radar running back for your NFL team in next year’s draft? Look no further than Koback. 

The defense is very solid. Aside from a crazy barn-burner in a loss to EMU, the Rockets’ defense allowed only 18 points per game. They’re led by EDGE Jamal Hines and his 14.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks, which both marks are good for second-most in the MAC. They force turnovers at a high rate with 17 against the six they give up on offense. MTSU is going to have a difficult time moving the ball. 

The 2021 MAC bowls slate will be kicked off at 1-0 with the Toledo Rockets getting another bowl victory in the first-ever meeting of the two programs. 

Cure Bowl (December 16, 6:00 p.m., ESPN2)
Northern Illinois vs Coastal Carolina 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Northern Illinois bowl record: 4-9 

The Huskies of Northern Illinois are back on top of the MAC! To start the year, NIU split its four OOC games, but none more so than getting beat down by eventual B1G Champion Michigan. The average margin of victory for the Huskies in the regular season against FBS opponents was 3.7. All year, they’ve earned every victory. Of the four losses on the year, NIU avenged the one against Kent State as they routed the Flashes to win the MAC title. 

All year, the Huskies have been led by Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi. Finally, after a full season at the helm, Lombardi threw for 2,416 yards and 13 touchdowns. Obviously, he isn’t the marquee quarterback in the conference, but he’s a great game manager. 

Where the fun lies is within the run game. Over the final three games, the Huskies ran for a grand total of 842 yards and 11 touchdowns. Leading the way in touches and yards is redshirt freshman Jevyon Ducker with 194 and 1,038. His partner is just as explosive with 5.7 yards per carry, Harrison Waylee. Waylee ran for 574 yards and four touchdowns, one more than Ducker. If there was a fantasy football equivalent of a sniper, it would be Clint Ratkovich and his 12 touchdowns off of 98 carries. Of his 12 scores, nine were from seven yards or less. Of course, his first score came via a 96-yard touchdown against WMU. 

This defense is a massive weakness, statistically. After giving up 50 and 63 to Wyoming and Michigan, NIU held opponents under 30 points seven out of ten times. Even if one disregards the 606 yards of offense allowed in that Michigan beatdown, the Huskies gave up 681 and 686 yards in losses to Kent State and Western Michigan. As a unit, they only forced six turnovers.  

That’s not going to get it done. Especially against the up-and-coming G5 powerhouse in Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers should be able to win this fairly easily and notch another loss in the 2021 MAC bowls record. 

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Lending Tree Bowl (December 18, 5:45 p.m., ESPN)
Eastern Michigan vs Liberty 

Head-to-head: Eastern Michigan 0-1 Liberty
Eastern Michigan bowl record: 1-3 

At 7-5, Eastern Michigan could be disappointed in 2021. Even then, EMU was able to take down four bowl-bound teams, including three of its MAC foes. Those three wins were by a cumulative total of six points. Six games were decided by one possession and the Eagles ended up 3-3. 

Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant had himself a good year for his first career year as a full-time starter. 2,921 yards and 14 touchdowns later and Bryant led his team to the Lending Tree Bowl. The Wisconsin loss was, by far, the lowest point in his season. Since that 23-yard effort, Bryant averaged 277 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game through the air. 

He has a pair of receivers he can rely on. Each of Hassan Beydoun (932 yards, four touchdowns) and Dylan Drummond (653 yards, six touchdowns) present quite a challenge for Liberty’s secondary. Additionally, the Eagles have a pair of running backs. The one who leads the way in scoring is Jawon Hamilton, a transfer from UCF who hadn’t played since 2017.  

As has been the case with MAC squads to this point, the defense could’ve used some work. Not once did EMU hold an opponent under 100 yards on the ground. And, when faced with a dynamic quarterback against Toledo, the Eagles allowed Finn to pass for 461 yards and three touchdowns, and Koback ran for 180 and two scores. 

Malik Willis is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the nation. Assuming he plays in this game, Liberty will be able to move the ball at will. 1-2 is where the 2021 MAC bowls record stands after three games. Plenty of #MACtion left! 

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (December 21, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Kent State vs Wyoming 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Kent State bowl record: 1-2 

If a fan were to ask who the most exciting 7-6 team is in the nation, Kent State would be the answer. Unfortunately, the Golden Flashes opened the season 1-3 after dropping games to its three FBS, Power 5 programs. They had their chance to solidify as king of the MAC…but couldn’t beat Northern Illinois for a second time. 

The best quarterback in the MAC calls Kent, Ohio home. Dustin Crum was named first-team All-MAC and for good reason. To add to his 2,941 yards and 16 touchdowns, the fifth-year senior ran for 633 yards and 11 touchdowns. His favorite target is Dante Cephas. Cephas’ first full season as WR1 paid off to the tune of 1,124 yards and eight touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 yards six times this year and the Flashes have a 4-2 record when he does. 

Defenses have had an issue stopping Crum on the ground and that’s thanks to the threat that is Marquez Cooper. He added 1,080 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground and was massive in the Flashes’ regular-season victory over eventual MAC Champion NIU. 

A.J. Musolino and Montre Miller lead Kent State on defense, but that’s not saying too much. In scoring defense, KSU ranks 119th out of 130 allowing 35.1 points per game. Would love to say the losses against Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland skew this, but they allowed at least 41 points five times in MAC play. They even allowed 64 to Western Michigan! 

These two teams are near opposites. Kent State has a fun offense, loose defense. Wyoming can’t score on offense but are stout on defense. Usually, you’d want to go with the defense, but Crum is too good to keep down. Even if they contain him, they have weapons to scheme and secure the win. At 2-2 now, the 2021 MAC bowls slate is heating up. 

Frisco Football Classic (December 23, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Miami (OH) vs North Texas 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Miami (OH) bowl record: 5-5 

Half of the 2021 MAC bowls have concluded. Miami (OH) finished 6-6 and 2-5 against bowl-bound teams. Starting the season in a massive rivalry game is difficult for anyone, but the Redhawks were smacked by eventual CFP-bound Cincinnati and couldn’t secure an FBS victory until October. 

The offense goes through wide receiver Jack Sorenson. Defenses know where number 13 is at all times, but he still torched them for 1,290 yards and 10 touchdowns. His biggest game came in a loss, however, where he tallied 283 yards and two touchdowns off of 14 receptions against 3-9 Ohio. 

Third-year sophomore Brett Gabbert had another solid year, tossing for 2,418 yards and 24 touchdowns. It shows how strong the quarterback position is in the MAC that the mighty Gabbert earned third-team All-MAC. 

The defense is a bit stronger than the previous MAC teams covered thus far. Led by All-MAC first-teamers Ivan Pace, Jr., (116 tackles, 14.5 for loss, four sacks, one interception, one forced fumble) and Kameron Butler (14 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble). 

As said in the CUSA preview, this could be a toss-up. Miami (OH) has a couple of playmakers. North Texas will scheme to take Sorenson away…but it’s not going to matter. The Redhawks (proof you can change your logo and mascot, hint, hint) will kick off the second half of the 2021 MAC bowls with a crucial victory in the inaugural Frisco Football Classic. 

Camellia Bowl (December 25, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Ball State vs Georgia State 

Head-to-head: Ball State 1-1 Georgia State
Ball State bowl record: 1-7 

To say that the 2021 edition of the Ball State Cardinals was disappointing compared to 2020 would be an understatement. The defending MAC Champions finished the year 6-6, 3-6 against bowl-bound teams. There really wasn’t a marquee victory on the schedule, unless you consider shutting down Army for their first loss of the year. They are, however, in a tough division of the MAC where all six teams are bowl-bound. Only the SEC West can say the same. 

For the last three seasons, Drew Plitt has been the man. Unfortunately for Ball State, he posted almost identical numbers in 2021 (2,248 yards, 17 touchdowns) as he did in 2020 (2,164, 17). Why is that unfortunate? Plitt played four more games and threw 115 more times. 

This offense does not have any one athlete who stands out, rather they all are utilized in their own way. Running backs Carson Steele and Will Jones combined for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns. Receivers Justin Hall, Yo’Heinz Tyler, and Jayson Jackson (Cincinnati transfer) accounted for nearly every receiving yard. 

The defense creates turnovers like they’re going out of style. Each of the team’s five leading tacklers recorded at least two interceptions; Malcolm Lee and Jaylin Thomas led the way with four each. 

Georgia State runs the ball. Heavily. And well. The Cardinals were able to contain Army’s triple-option attack pretty well, but they didn’t have a quarterback who could also throw the ball if the situation required. That will be the difference and the Panthers break the tie. 

Quick Lane Bowl (December 27, 11:00 a.m., ESPN)
Western Michigan vs Nevada 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Western Michigan bowl record: 1-8 

Now THIS is a matchup! Western Michigan vs Nevada. Two programs who may have stumbled a bit regarding their pre-season expectations meeting in Detroit. There are plenty of 2021 MAC bowls with exciting matchups, but these two quarterbacks have very real NFL aspirations.

Kaleb Eleby. No matter what he plans on doing regarding the NFL, he turned heads and generated all kinds of hype this year. His 3,115 yards through the air led the MAC and his 21 touchdowns were third. Eleby likely would have won first-team honors if it weren’t for a great season from Kent State. His favorite target is dynamic receiver Skyy Moore and his 1,247 yards and his MAC-leading 10 touchdowns off of a MAC-leading 90 receptions.  

Turns out, Eleby has a pair of extremely productive running backs to take pressure off. La’darius Jefferson ran for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns off of 185 touches. At the same time, Sean Tyler had 164 rushes but made them count for 1,004 yards and nine touchdowns. Weapons all over the field, it’s amazing that this team only went 7-5. 

WMU has faced a few good running backs this year. On five occasions, the Broncos held the opponent to under 100 yards on the ground. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they went 0-3 against in-state schools, losing to the University of Michigan, Central, and Eastern. 

Kaleb Eleby vs Carson Strong. Nevada is a solid MWC squad and will likely be able to put up a fight. But these offensive weapons will likely prove to be too much. The Broncos are much better than their record indicates and would be a great launching point for either future NFL Draft pick or future MAC Offensive Player of the Year Kaleb Eleby. 

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Arizona Bowl (December 31, 2:00 p.m., Barstool Sports) Sun Bowl (December 31, 2:00 p.m., CBS)
Central Michigan vs Boise State Washington State

Head-to-head: Central Michigan 0-0 Washington State
Central Michigan bowl record: 3-9 

The final game of the 2021 MAC bowls pits the Chippewas of Central Michigan against the Boise State Broncos. An 8-4 MAC team doesn’t seem like much on paper, but CMU was 12 points away from playing for a MAC title as an undefeated squad in MAC play. With just 54 seconds to play, Northern Illinois kicked a game-winning field goal…and they eventually went on to win the MAC. What could have been.

Also, imagine working hard to earn a bowl bid and it’s broadcast on Barstool. 

If you don’t know who Lew Nichols is, you should. The third-year freshman went off for 1,708 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the nation in rushing yards as well as scrimmage yards, which resulted in him earning MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Along with Nichols, three others on offense earned first-team honors, including first-team receiver AND kick returner, Kalil Pimpleton. 

Joining those three offensive first-teamers, CMU had a couple of Troys on defense ball out. Troy Hairston led the team in tackles for loss and sacks with 16.5 and 6.5, respectively. The former linebacker’s transition to defensive line worked out for everyone involved. With him is Troy Brown, a linebacker. While he didn’t tally any sacks, he had 4.5 tackles for loss to go with six pass deflections, an interception, and forced fumble. 

The difference in this game will be whether or not CMU can continue to pound the ball. Boise State had a great defense, but it’s weaker against the run. Lew Nichols and company will do their best, but the 2021 MAC bowls slate ends with a loss. 

#MACtion at its Best! 

Eight MAC teams went bowling this year! Before the extra bowl game was added, it was likely that one of these was to be left home. Thankfully, we get to enjoy the excitement that is #MACtion in action. As we said last year, watch these teams. There are diamonds in the rough that will either break out at the college or NFL level next year and you don’t want to be left wondering “where did that guy come from?” 

Two down, nine to go! Up next is the Fun Belt! 

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