It’s time! College football is right around the corner and we are kicking off our series ranking each conference’s non-conference slate. To start, let’s take a look at the easiest MAC non-conference schedules on the books.
Home of Tuesday Night #MACtion and a boatload of underrated talent, the MAC is often scheduled as a tune-up/cupcake game early in the year. However, the MAC has a long-standing history of P5 upsets, even going so far as to defeat at least one Big Ten team in each of the last 16 seasons!
Disclaimer: “Easiest” or “Hardest” is not to mean “these teams will beat those on their schedule.” It could be a fact that the worst team in a conference could have the easiest non-conference schedule and also not be able to win any. These rankings will be based on the average preseason ranking between three major outlets: Phill Steele, Athlon, and College Football Nation. There will at least be a little factual standing behind these rather than ranking based on bias and vibes.
Ranking the Six Easiest MAC Non-Conference Schedules in 2023
6. Northern Illinois: at Boston College, Southern Illinois (FCS), at Nebraska, Tulsa
Last year: 3-9 overall, 1-3 OOC
2022 was not kind to the Northern Illinois Huskies. Injuries plagued the team and they even had to suit up a walk-on freshman quarterback down the stretch. QB1 is Rocky Lombardi and he’s one of the most experienced players in the nation with this being his sixth year. Even with all of the issues, those three losses came by three to Tulsa, 10 to Vanderbilt, and eight to Kentucky.
To kick off the year, the Huskies travel to Boston College. The Eagles are not expected to do too much this year and Jeff Hafley may be in a make-or-break season. The offensive line, while it returns six players who started, is a weakness. Six-foot-five quarterback Emmett Morehead takes over and he looked okay in a few starts last year.
The Huskies travel to Nebraska after hosting Southern Illinois (FCS). Nebraska is a program in flux as they fired Scott Frost and brought in Matt Rhule. Rhule is a legit college coach as he turned Baylor into a national program. He will have to turn Nebraska around and he has a pair of proven quarterbacks in Casey Thompson and Jeff Sims, both transfers. Eight starters return on defense, mostly in the secondary.
Finally, Tulsa comes to town and will be an interesting one to watch. Kevin Wilson takes over the program and managed to retain plenty of talent from the regime change. He’s an offensive-minded coach and was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State for the last six seasons that produced a number of first-rounders. Now, Tulsa does not have quite the talent the Buckeyes do but Wilson succeeded at Indiana and he will look to do the same with the Golden Hurricanes.
5. Ohio: at San Diego State, Long Island (FCS), Florida Atlantic, Iowa State
Last year: 10-4 overall, 2-2 OOC
If you’re looking for an exciting offense led by a legitimate quarterback, look no further than Ohio and Kurtis Rourke. Rourke won the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and finished with 3,257 yards and 25 touchdowns before a season-ending injury. Even then, the Bobcats won the MAC East.
To kick off the season, Ohio travels to the West Coast to battle San Diego State. The Aztecs are going to have to get up to speed quickly against this Bobcats offense. San Diego State returns just two starters from last year’s squad. For reference, it took a last-second comeback for SDSU to beat the eventual MAC Champs, Toledo. If Ohio can get the offense going, they will start off strong.
After Long Island comes to town, Florida Atlanta travels to Peden Stadium. The Owls are going to be one to watch as Tom Herman attempts his reclamation tour. They return seven offensive starters and four members of the secondary. This is FAU’s first season in the AAC. This could be a low-key exciting matchup to keep an eye on.
4. Akron: at Temple, Morgan State (FCS), at Kentucky, at Indiana
Last year: 2-10 overall, 1-3 OOC
Akron has been a bit of a mess of late. However, they got better as the year went on. D.J. Irons is a seasoned and dynamic quarterback and gets two of his top three receivers back, including First-Team All-MAC Alex Adams and his 850 yards and nine touchdowns. Defensively, they’ve struggled but they get most of the starting secondary back.
In terms of talent, Temple does not have much. However, they make up for it in experience. They return 14 starters in total including, already one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Owls history. E.J. Warner broke the Freshman passing record last year with 3,028 yards and 18 touchdowns. The offensive line was a weakness last year, so the Zips will have to exploit that to start strong.
After hosting Morgan State (FCS), the Zips take a trip south to SEC foe, Kentucky. To say this will be an easy game would be disingenuous, hence the disclaimer. The Wildcats were disappointing in 2022 but could be poised for a better 2023. They lost their quarterback and leading rusher but return most of the offensive line and two top receivers. Who did they replace Will Levis with at quarterback? Just Devin Leary, a guy NFL scouts are watching closely.
Finally, they stay in the Midwest and take a trip to the Hoosier state. Indiana is usually a Big Ten doormat and good money is on them continuing that trend. But they return a fair bit of talent on the offensive line and they poached Wisconsin’s offensive line coach. We all know how good the Badgers have been at getting NFL offensive linemen out of low-profile recruits. Keep an eye on that quarterback battle. The freshman transfer from Tennessee Tayven Jackson could be a fun one.
3. Toledo: at Illinois, Texas Southern (FCS), San Jose State, at UMASS
Last year: 9-5 overall, 2-2 OOC
The reigning MAC champs were solid last year and look to be even better in 2023. They’re the overwhelming favorite to win it all and for good reason. DeQuan Finn is a ridiculously talented quarterback who, when healthy, can lead this Toledo team to contend for a NY6 bowl. The Rockets return an overwhelming majority of their starters both on offense and defense. Jump on the Toledo hype train before it’s too late!
To kick off the 2023 season, Toledo travels to Illinois. Now THIS is the best opportunity for a MAC-over-B1G win. However, it won’t be easy. Bret Bielema looks like he’s building something. The Fighting Illini will have to replace Chase Brown at running back but they return six offensive starters and seven defensive starters. It’s quite likely that this will be the best team on the Toledo schedule.
San Jose State comes to the Glass Bowl after Texas Southern (FCS). The Spartans have a real gunslinger at quarterback with Chevan Cordeiro. Over the last three seasons starting for Hawai’i (two years) and San Jose State, Cordeiro threw for 8,127 yards and 54 touchdowns. Four of his offensive linemen return but lost Elijah Cooks and his 1,076 yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Defensively, the Spartans will take a step back and Toledo will challenge the front seven’s lack of starting experience with its run game.
Finally, UMASS. The Minutemen are not exactly set up for long-term success at the FBS level and the fact that they’ve gone back-to-back years with just two wins each says something. They finished dead last at the FBS level by scoring just 12.5 points per game. They may have a legit secondary but finished by allowing more than 194 yards per game on the ground. That’ll be a weakness Toledo exploits.
2. Miami (OH): at Miami (FL), at UMASS, at Cincinnati, Delaware State (FCS)
Last year: 6-7 overall, 2-2 OOC
A popular pick to unseat Ohio as MAC East champs, Miami (OH) draws a pretty favorable schedule. Considering the Redhawks boast 16 returning starters including quarterback Brett Gabbert, it makes sense. Gabbert battled injuries and thus destabilized the offense. Defensively, it’ll be more of the same. 10 of those 16 returning starters are on defense. 10!
To kick off the year, the Redhawks battle the Hurricanes for Miami supremacy. Miami (FL) was a massive disappointment last year, finishing 5-7 and wasting a seemingly NFL-ready quarterback for a year. They fired Josh Gattis after just one awful year and they look to be starting fresh. Both Miami teams will be looking to get started on the right foot and both have reason to be optimistic.
As is the case for the other two top-three easiest MAC non-conference slates, Miami (OH) gets a tune-up against UMASS.
Cincinnati made the jump to the Big 12 this year and Miami (OH) travels to Nippert for their annual rivalry game. Overall, this is not the same Cincinnati program it was two years ago in the CFP. Luke Fickell is gone and did not leave much to work with. Emory Jones is on what feels like his fifth school playing quarterback and that defense is mostly Jowon Briggs and Deshawn Pace. Evan Prater makes the switch to receiver from quarterback and hometown kid and LSU transfer Corey Kiner could take a step this year.
1. Eastern Michigan: Howard (FCS), at Minnesota, UMASS, at Jacksonville State
Last year: 9-4 overall, 3-1 OOC
Based on the methodology, the Eastern Michigan Eagles have the easiest of the MAC non-conference schedules in 2023…narrowly. This EMU squad returns eight defensive starters as well as stud running back, Samson Evans (1,166 yards, 15 touchdowns). They’re a popular pick to surprise in the MAC West.
After opening with Howard from the FCS level, the Eagles travel to Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have to replace its all-time leading rusher, Mo Ibrahim, as well as three offensive linemen and a stalwart at quarterback. EMU will look to expose the Minnesota defense with just five returning starters. Could this be the inevitable MAC-over-B1G game?
UMASS is definitely an FBS team. They’ve won a grand total of two games over the last two years and are likely to do the same in 2023. The Eagles will have to contend with Don Brown’s defense as the Minutemen were ninth in the country allowing just 175.2 yards per game through the air. EMU beat UMASS last year, 20-13.
Finally, welcome to the FBS level, Jacksonville State! Speaking of former University of Michigan coaches, Rich Rodriguez is back! His Gamecocks squad went 9-2 in their final FCS season but the feeling around CUSA is that while they’ll be able to score points, they will struggle defensively. For reference, the lone FBS team they faced was Tulsa in a game they lost, 54-17.
Wave the Flag!
The MAC has a tradition to wave a pirate flag each time they upset a Power 5 foe. This tradition was started in 2018 when Commissioner John Steinrecher wanted to establish a sense of unity and pride in the conference. He referred to the conference as pirates.
Even though it is often considered the 10th best conference out of 10, the MAC is as exciting and fun as any. If you don’t tune into mid-week #MACtion, you’re missing out!
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