When the new college football season begins, life will feel different in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division for a very obvious reason. We will see if the new power structure will hold or if the division will revert to a more familiar order in the standings.
Expected wins: 7½ [Over -115, Under -115]
This is a year in which Ball State is suddenly the hunted, the team everyone else in the MAC is shooting for. Ball State entered last season as one of a few dozen college football programs which had never won a bowl game. The Cardinals were not expected to make a bowl game last year. They definitely weren’t expected to win their division or the conference. Yet, out of nowhere, the Cardinals – under young head coach Mike Neu – took flight. Interestingly, they lost their first game of the season, which reinforced all the doubts surrounding this program. Even when they bounced back to defeat Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois – two teams that ended the season with losing records – no one began to pay attention to Ball State. However, after a road win at Toledo and then a road blowout of Central Michigan, it had become apparent that Ball State was for real. The Cardinals sealed a division championship with a victory over Western Michigan on Dec. 12. They went to the MAC Championship Game against an unbeaten opponent in Buffalo. Ball State convincingly won 38-28 to notch a conference championship for the first time since 1996. Ball State had not been to the MAC title game since 2008. That year, it lost to Buffalo. In 2020, it avenged that defeat. The Cardinals had come a long way … but they weren’t done.
Ball State was 0-7 all-time in bowl games. The Cardinals went to the Arizona Bowl to play Mountain West Conference champion San Jose State. Ball State, more than most teams, treated its bowl game as a business trip. This game mattered very deeply to the Cardinals and it showed. They scored 27 points in the first quarter and cruised to a 34-13 victory. Ball State finished the year 7-1 and on a seven-game winning streak. Players and coaches will enter this season with a ton of confidence and belief.
Ball State’s non-conference games include Penn State and Army, two very tough assignments. A game at Wyoming will be critical in determining whether the Cardinals finish above their win total. Ultimately, a home game versus division rival Toledo on Sept. 25 might be what determines the outcome of the season. Ball State has to deal with the pressure of being a division favorite. This is not something the Cardinals usually have to worry about. One can respect what this team has accomplished and yet also express skepticism that the Cardinals are ready to win back-to-back division and conference titles. The under seems warranted here in terms of the college football odds.
Expected wins: 8½ [Over -125, Under -105]
The Rockets went 4-2 in a shortened season last year. They lost a close game to eventual division champion Ball State and lost another close game to Western Michigan. They narrowly defeated Central Michigan and hammered Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan.
Toledo is part of the MAC’s old guard. Toledo and Northern Illinois battled for the MAC West title for roughly a decade before Ball State changed the division last year and injected a fresh face into the mix. Northern Illinois has fallen on tough times, but Toledo has remained a contender that will likely battle Ball State for the division title. The Rockets have managed to find a measure of stability, whereas other programs have fallen on hard times. Toledo lost to Ball State by just three points last year. The Rockets just need to change the equation in that one game and they can then retake the upper hand in the division.
Toledo’s schedule features games against Notre Dame, Colorado State, Ball State and Ohio. Winning two of those games would put the Rockets in relatively good shape in terms of going over their win total. Since Colorado State and Ohio are not coming off especially strong seasons, it is reasonable to think that Toledo will reach its goals and go over the college football lines.
Expected wins: 6 [Over -125, Under -105]
Central Michigan played its 2020 season on the edge. The Chippewas could have been 5-1 if they had beaten Western Michigan and Toledo, two games they lost by a combined nine points. They also could have been 1-5, beating Ohio and Eastern Michigan by a combined 11 points. Central Michigan’s defense was exposed twice, giving up 45 or more points in separate games. The Chippewas never truly found a groove on defense in 2020. The team did not win a single game lin which it scored fewer than 30 points. Central Michigan finished with a 3-3 record and looked like a .500 team that had a reasonably good offense and a noticeably flawed defense. The team didn’t generally have a huge margin for error in most of the games it played. What is noticeable about the season is that Ball State and Toledo, the top two teams in the MAC West, both defeated Central Michigan. It will be a priority for the Chippewas to beat the Cardinals and Rockets.
CMU’s schedule includes games against Missouri and LSU, which are very likely to be losses. The games which will determine whether its exceeds its win total are Ball State, Toledo, Western Michigan, Ohio, Miami-Ohio, Kent State and Eastern Michigan. Central Michigan will realistically win three of these games, but it will probably need four wins to go over the win total. That fourth win will probably need to come against Western Michigan or Ohio. Given what WMU and Ohio are bringing back this season, the odds are stacked against Central Michigan. Lean to the under for your college football picks.
Expected wins: 6½ [Over -115, Under -115]
Eastern Michigan, along with every other MAC team, had to wait two months to start the 2020 season. The Eagles clearly had a hard time getting the engine started, losing each of the first four games. They were generally competitive, but they lacked the high-end playmaking needed to overtake their opponents. Much like division rival Central Michigan, EMU lacked a strong defense and therefore didn’t have much of any leverage if its offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders. The offense was respectable in those first four games, averaging just over 26 points and never scoring fewer than 23 points. Yet, Eastern Michigan went 0-4 because its defense allowed an average of just under 38 points and yielded at least 27 points in all four losses. Having a modestly good (average) offense wasn’t good enough.
EMU, to its credit, rebounded from that 0-4 start to win its last two games and finish 2-4. The Eagles were a decent bet against the spread in those contests, if you look at the scores and odds. The defense remained mediocre, giving up an average of 37.5 points in those last two games. What changed was that the offense came alive and averaged 47 points in those games. EMU beat Western Michigan 53-42 and handled Northern Illinois 41-33. It’s an uncomfortable place for the Eagles to be in: If they didn’t score at least 41 points, they didn’t win a game last year. Allowing 37 points per game is a real problem.
This year’s schedule features tough games against Ball State, Buffalo, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. It also involves winnable games versus Texas State, UMass, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, and St. Francis. Eastern Michigan could go 6-6, but that would still leave the Eagles under their win total. Their defensive performance last season makes it hard to trust that they’ll go over the win total.
Expected wins: 6 [Over -105, Under -125]
Western Michigan went 4-2 last year, starting 4-0 with a series of strong offensive performances before dropping its last two games, including a loss to an Eastern Michigan team which was 0-4 at the time. The Broncos’ defense cratered in that game against Eastern, leading to a bitter 53-42 defeat. Western Michigan battled back one week later, but Ball State fended off the Broncos in a tense 30-27 contest which denied them the MAC West Division championship.
Western Michigan scored 41 or more points in each of its first three games before outlasting Northern Illinois, 30-27. The Broncos and quarterback Kaleb Eleby racked up at least 262 passing yards in five of their six games in 2020. Eleby returns to give Western Michigan a great chance to sustain its level of offense and make a run at a division title.
Western Michigan plays a rough schedule this year. It has non-conference games against Michigan, Pittsburgh and San Jose State, plus MAC games against Buffalo, Ball State and Toledo. If WMU can pick off a win against one of those teams, it can exceed its win total. It won’t be easy, but its offense should be potent enough to win one of those games. Lean to the over.
Expected wins: 3½ [Over -150, Under +120]
The Huskies used to be the top team in the MAC West. Then coach Rod Carey left the program and a solid decade-and-a-half run came to a halt. The Huskies have struggled markedly in the past few years. They have missed bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in nearly two decades. Last season, they were 0-6, sinking to the bottom of their division and becoming the patsy of the MAC West after more than 15 years of battling for the division title.
Northern Illinois’ defense didn’t show up in the first two games last season, allowing 49 points to Buffalo and 40 to Central Michigan. NIU became more competitive the next two weeks but still lost close games to Ball State (31-25) and Western Michigan (30-27). Then the defense relented again, allowing 41 points in season-ending losses to Toledo and Eastern Michigan.
After a brutal defensive season, Northern Illinois has to start from scratch in 2021. The Huskies will be hard-pressed to beat anyone in their own division. Their best win opportunities are against Maine and Bowling Green. That’s two wins. In order to exceed their win total, they will need to find a few upset victories. That’s not likely. The under looks much more likely at this point.