Rankings the Hardest 2023 MAC Non-Conference Schedules

If there’s one thing about the MAC it’s that it doesn’t back down from a good challenge. Will most of their matchups with Power 5 programs end up as slaughters? Probably. Does that mean there won’t be an upset or two along the way? The MAC is known for toppling P5 foes and has even knocked off at least one Big Ten team each year for the last 16 years.

As the perceived worst of the conferences, MAC teams are often chosen as sacrificial lambs to contending teams looking to just fill the schedule. Even then, MAC teams have taken those checks and sent the P5 teams home with a big L.

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 Hardest MAC Non-Conference Schedules for 2023

6. Buffalo: at Wisconsin, Fordham (FCS), Liberty, at Louisiana

Last year: 7-6 overall, 1-3 OOC

Buffalo was up and down last year and is looking to right the ship. The good news for the Bulls is that Ron Cook, Jr. and Mike Washington are back for more after combining for 1,225 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground last year. Cole Snyder returns after slinging it for 3,030 yards (second-most in the MAC) and 18 touchdowns. Oh, and they are led by a trio of Phil Steele pre-season First-Team All-MAC selections in Daymond Williams, Shaun Dolac, and Marcus Fuqua.

Buffalo gets to be the first matchup for the Luke Fickell-led Wisconsin program. This is a good instance of “easiest” does not mean every game will be easy. Wisconsin is set to compete yet again in the Big Ten and they’ll be led by a stout defense and one of the best running backs in the nation in Braelon Allen.

After facing off against Fordham (FCS), Buffalo hosts Liberty. This is the first season for the Flames in a conference and they have a brand-new head coach in Jamey Chadwell who they poached from Coastal Carolina. Athlon believes that Liberty has plenty of talent returning but it should be noted that they have just two offensive starters returning and three on defense.

Finally, the Bulls head south to face off against Louisiana. Despite finishing 2022 with more losses (seven) than they had in the previous three years combined (five), the Ragin’ Cajuns will be fun to watch. They’ll pose a threat defensively and the team is loaded with home-grown talent.

5. Bowling Green: at Liberty, Eastern Illinois (FCS), at Michigan, at Georgia Tech

Last year: 6-7 overall, 1-3 OOC

The Falcons could be a dark horse to take the MAC East. They sure didn’t look like it last year at the start, of course. Down the stretch, they took down Toledo in a thriller but choked away a win-and-in game against Ohio. Connor Bazelak transfers in to take over and he has plenty of weapons to play with. Odieu Hiliare has the opportunity to be the best receiver not only in the MAC but all of the Group of 5. Also, keep an eye on Abdul-Fatal Ibrahim.

Liberty is in its first season as a member of a conference, joining Conference USA. As mentioned above, Chadwell has turned Coastal Carolina into a premier G5 program so it will be fun to watch if he can continue the Hugh Freeze trajectory.

After hosting Eastern Illinois (FCS), the Falcons travel up north to Michigan. Over the last two seasons, the Wolverines have lost three games, two of which were in the CFP. They’re a favorite to win the Big Ten yet again and return to the big dance, so it will be incredibly difficult for Bowling Green to steal a win in the Big House. Jim Harbaugh’s suspension notwithstanding, the Falcons will need a perfect game.

Finally, Georgia Tech was not good last year. They had one of the worst offenses in the nation and they’re going to need to take a step. However, the only returning starters are on the offensive line. Former four-star recruit Haynes King comes in from Texas A&M to help revolutionize a team that hasn’t quite recovered from going away from the triple-option.

4. Kent State: at UCF, at Arkansas, Central Connecticut State (FCS), at Fresno State

Last year: 5-7 overall, 1-3 OCC

Oh boy. Kent State has gone through some changes. After going through the hardest non-conference schedule in the MAC last year, head coach Sean Lewis bolted for Colorado and it felt like half the team followed. The quarterback, running back, and top three receivers left. It’s going to be a long year for the Flashes.

Welcome to the Big 12, UCF! The Knights — just Knights, not Golden Knights, not Central Florida, just UCF Knights — are known for having a top-tier offense and while making the transition to the Power 5 will be a hurdle, they may be just fine. That offense will have to take a step forward with another year of John Rhys Plumlee at the helm. Either way, Gus Malzahn is the man for this job and it’ll be interesting to see how their defense responds.

Arkansas is going to be a difficult ask for Kent State. While they may only have a small handful of starters returning, the key pieces are quarterback K.J. Jefferson and Raheim Sanders. Jefferson comes into the season with 5,816 yards and 48 touchdowns through the air and 1,429 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. He will lead an RPO-focused offense with Sanders, one of the top running backs in the SEC. If Kent State can get its offense off the ground, they can challenge a defense that allowed over 465 yards per game last year.

A trip out west is in the books for the Flashes after hosting Central Connecticut State (FCS). Fresno State was one of the best G5 teams last year, taking home the MWC. They’ve since lost their quarterback, running back, and top three receivers. All of the Bulldogs’ returning starters are on the offensive line. They’ll have to lean on the seven returning starters on defense to get things going.

3: Western Michigan: Saint Francis (FCS), at Syracuse, at Iowa, at Mississippi State

Last year: 5-7 overall, 1-3 OOC

This is going to be a rough year for the Broncos. They lost Sean Tyler to Minnesota and the overwhelming majority of the talent on defense. Western Michigan is going to turn to Old Dominion transfer quarterback Hayden Wolff to lead the offense. He comes to town with 4,841 yards and 28 touchdowns over the last two years.

The Broncos get Saint Francis (FCS) to open up the season then travel to Syracuse. Year eight for Dino Babers could be a pivotal one for his career. The Orange lost a few playmakers but quarterback Garrett Shrader is a guy who can lead this offense. LeQuint Allen has massive shoes to fill at running back. The defensive front six (they run a 3-3-6) is mostly intact, so the defense will likely be a strength.

Speaking of strength in defense, Iowa hosts WMU and the Broncos will have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to replace a handful of NFL Draftees but the Hawkeyes will be incredibly solid. The entire offensive line returns for Michigan transfer Cade McNamara to take over. It will be interesting to see if Ohio State transfer and former five-star receiver Kaleb Brown makes waves in year one.

Finally, Western Michigan fans better get used to the sound of cowbells. Mississippi State is going to play inspired this year with the recent passing of its coach, Mike Leach. New coach Zach Arnett and offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay are going to transition to a more balanced approach. They get underrated quarterback Will Rogers to sling it. As with the other two FBS foes, the Bulldogs’ strength will be defense as Arnett was a DC promotion.

2. Central Michigan: at Michigan State, New Hampshire (FCS), at Notre Dame, at South Alabama

Last year: 4-8 overall, 1-3 OOC

Jim McElwain is in his fifth year with the Chippewas and he is going to have some decisions to make. They no longer have Lew Nichols and their leading returning rusher is freshman quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. Emmanuel played in the final four games and attempted a grand total of eight passes. Defensively, the Chips return nine starters led by Donte Kent.

Heading into the year, it looked like Michigan State was going to be able to field a pretty decent team. Then, two-year starting quarterback Payton Thorne and stud receiver Keon Coleman decided to hop into the Transfer Portal. The offense still has a few pieces like Jalen Berger at running back but whoever wins the quarterback battle will have a time. Defensively, they added Tunmise Adeleye, a former four-star EDGE from Texas A&M.

After playing host to New Hampshire (FCS), Notre Dame welcomes CMU to its friendly confines. The Fighting Irish were a bit up and down last year but have plenty of momentum heading into 2023 with CFP aspirations. They have a new quarterback in Sam Hartman who looks to be the best signal-caller they’ve had in recent memory. Head Coach Marcus Freeman is a defensive-minded coach and getting seven starters back on that side of the ball is going to be key.

If you don’t pay much attention to G5 football, you’d be asking yourself, “Is South Alabama even good?” The answer is yes. Yes, they are. They went 10-3 last year with a suffocating defense. Nine defending starters return. On offense, Carter Bradley has just about every piece back. La’Damien Webb finished last year with 1,067 yards and 15 scores. The Sun Belt is going to be uber-competitive next year and USA will be right in the thick of it.

1. Ball State: at Kentucky, at Georgia, Indiana State (FCS), Georgia Southern

Last year: 5-7 overall, 2-2 OOC

Finally, the most difficult of the 2023 MAC non-conference schedules belongs to Ball State. The Cardinals will have to replace Carson Steele and his 1,583 yards and 14 touchdowns last year and their returning rusher ran for just 140 yards and seven scores. Enter Kent State stud, Marquez Cooper. The First-Team All-MAC back will step in and do just fine. They had four one-score losses last year and will look to improve.

To kick it off, they travel to Kentucky. The Wildcats may not be the SEC favorite but they are going to be solid. They return plenty of talent and add NC State transfer Devin Leary to the mix. Kentucky is a popular pick to at the very least compete. They won’t win the SEC East but they can at least make it interesting.

Then, the Cardinals go to Athens to face the back-to-back CFP National Champions. Is there more to say? Georgia is loaded and will likely cruise to another SEC Championship at the very least. The defense will be on another level again and the offense will be just fine after losing a few pieces.

After a break with Indiana State (FCS), Ball State welcomes Georgia Southern. Clay Helton’s squad is set to compete again in the Sun Belt with severely underrated quarterback Davis Brin who transfers in from Tulsa. He gets to play with the returning receiving and rushing leaders for the Eagles. They may not challenge for the Sun Belt crown but they’ll be solid.

Embrace the Chaos

The MAC has always been exciting to follow and they are going to continue this trend this year. They’ll have plenty of athletes turning heads and a couple of teams who have the potential to crack the NY6.

Overall, the MAC is often the recipient of a payday game where they are sacrificed to P5 teams and it helps financially support the respective athletic programs. Set aside your bias and tune in to #MACtion when it’s on ESPN in the middle of the week in November!

Main Image: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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