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MAC Pack: Toledo Rockets Still the Best in the West


Toledo Coach Jason Candle
© Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

 The 2024 season will bring some major changes to the Mid-American Conference. Star players such as Toledo’s Peny Boone, Quinyon Mitchell and Ohio’s Kurtis Rourke are gone.

 



Toledo and Miami (Ohio) are both still well positioned to return to the MAC Championship game but there may be a few surprises from some unlikely opponents. Below is a brief review of the MAC West teams.

 

Ball State Coach Mike Neu
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Ball State, 2023 Record: 4-8

The Cardinals only return nine starters from 2023 and only one starter on defense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kadin Semonza saw some playing time in 2023 and is familiar with the system. None of the top four rushers are back as quarterback Kaiel Kelly moved to cornerback. Eastern Kentucky transfer Braedon Sloan takes over as the lead running back. Wide Receiver Qian Magwood and tight end Tanner Koziol are back and are weapons in the passing game for Semonza.


The offense needs to improve as the Cardinals finished 119th in the FBS in 2023 in scoring. One of the best offensive lines during coach Mike Neu’s eight-year tenure as Ball State’s coach should go a long way in helping that improvement. On defense, 10 of the top 12 tacklers are gone but Neu landed some decent players from the transfer portal who should fill the holes, particularly on the defensive line. The only returning linebacker was 2023’s leading tackler, Keionte Newsom.


The secondary loses all four starters, but if Kelly plays to his abilities, he can be All-MAC in 2024. The Cardinals avoid Toledo but still get Northern Illinois and Miami at home. The non-conference slate has road games at Miami (Fla.) and Vanderbilt. Prediction: 6-6

 

Central Michigan RB Marion Lukes
© Matthew Yeoman-USA TODAY Sports

Central Michigan, 2023 Record: 5-7

The Chippewas return 13 starters from coach Jim McElwain’s 2023 squad, seven on offense. Iowa transfer quarterback Joey Labas has been penciled in as the starter but will have to compete with 2023 backup Bert Emanuel. Marion Lukes led the team in rushing with 737 yards and Myles Bailey was second on the team, both are back in 2024. The offensive line is big and experienced. The defensive line has been rebuilt through the transfer portal and should be decent if the players gel.


The linebackers lost their top tackler from 2023, who was second on the team, but the unit overall is solid. Safety Trey Jones was the top tackler last season, and he is gone, but like the linebackers, the defensive backs are experienced. Central Michigan has a brutal schedule, getting Miami, Toledo and Northern Illinois on the road. They get Western Michigan, Ohio and Bowling Green at home but more than likely will lose six of their last seven games. Prediction: 4-8

 

Eastern Michigan Coach Chris Creighton
© Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Michigan, 2023 Record: 6-7, Lost to South Alabama in the Ventures Bowl

The Eagles lose their top three passers from 2023 and only return 11 starters. Buffalo transfer quarterback Cole Snyder is penciled in as the starter. Snyder passed for more than 5,100 yards over the last two seasons. The top four rushers are gone so Weber State transfer Dontae McMillan should get the bulk of the carries. They return only two of the top five receivers but hit the portal and this could be a solid unit.



The offensive line lost a lot from 2023 and the rebuilt group will need to gel quickly if EMU is going to be successful on offense. Similar to the offense, the defense has lost a lot, including 11 of the top 15 tacklers. The front seven will take a step back, especially with the linebackers who are replacing two third team All-MAC selections. The secondary is very young and will need to grow up fast if coach Chris Creighton and the Eagles plan on making a bowl game for the fourth straight year. Prediction: 4-8

 


Northern Illinois, 2023 Record: 7-6, Beat Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl

Sixth-year coach Thomas Hammock leads the Huskies into a promising 2024 season. Last year’s leading passer is gone and none of the current rostered quarterbacks have much, if any, FBS experience. However, first team All-MAC running back Antario Brown is back after rushing for 1,296 yards and 10 touchdowns. Brown showed in 2023 that he can handle the workload and his backup, Gavin Williams, is also back. The Huskies’ top two receivers are back but the receiving corps may see a drop in production with inexperienced quarterback play. The offensive line is arguably the best in the MAC.


The same can be said about the NIU defensive line. Five of the eight in the two-deep are seniors, including defensive end Raishein Thomas, the 2023 leading tackler. The linebackers lose three from the two-deep in 2023 but returning is second-leading tackler Jaden Dolphin. The Huskies lose only one starter from the secondary and have potentially the best group in the MAC. This is one of the best teams in the MAC on paper but the inexperience at quarterback is concerning. Road games at Notre Dame and North Carolina State will be tough. In conference, they get Toledo at home but travel to both Bowling Green and Miami. Prediction: 7-5

 

Toledo FS Emmanuel McNeil-Warren
© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Toledo, 2023 Record: 11-3, Lost to Wyoming in the Arizona Bowl

The Toledo Rockets were the top MAC West team in the last two seasons. Coach Jason Candle, however, has his work cut out for him in 2024. The Rockets only return eight starters from last season’s squad, four on each side of the ball. Tucker Gleason, last season’s backup quarterback, is the starter in 2024. Gleason got valuable experience last season, but the Rockets will take a step back at the quarterback position. Candle also loses MAC Offensive Player of the Year, running back Peny Boone. Boone’s backup, Jaquez Stuart, is the starter this year and is a capable back. The top four receivers return, and this could be the MAC’s deepest group. All five starting offensive linemen are gone. Candle hit the transfer portal to rebuild the line and the opening two games are favorable to get the unit to gel.



The defensive line rotates players consistently, so the returning players all have experience. The linebackers lose two starters and are going to take a step back. The secondary loses two great cornerbacks but returns two equally great safeties in Maxen Hook and Emmanuel McNeil-Warren. This should be the top duo of safeties in the MAC. The losses from last season are devastating but the Rockets are still the best in the division. Prediction: 9-3

 


Western Michigan, 2023 Record: 4-8

Second-year coach Lance Taylor returns 17 starters from the 2023 roster. Top passer Hayden Wolff returns as the Broncos’ quarterback. Wolff gets new offensive coordinator Walt Bell, formerly the offensive coordinator at Indiana. The top two rushers from 2023, Jalen Buckley and Zahir Abdus-Salaam, are both back. Buckley is a former walk-on. They return four of their top six receivers including first team All-MAC wide receiver Kenny Womack. The offensive line is experienced and should be one of the better units in the MAC.


On defense, the defensive line lost the most production but landed three Power Four players from the transfer portal. Linebackers lose one starter but have plenty of depth. The secondary was not good in 2023 and lost one cornerback, but they are experienced. They will need to play much better if the Broncos are going to be successful in 2024. Western Michigan will be one of the more experienced groups of starters but opening the season at both Wisconsin and Ohio State will be a brutal start. If WMU does not lose confidence after the two Big Ten Conference road games at the start of the season, the Broncos can make a bowl game in 2024. Prediction: 6-6

 

MAC West Summary

Overall, the MAC West has a solid group of teams. Toledo, despite the losses, should be the top team in the division. But Northern Illinois will close the gap and make a run for the title. The Huskies’ inexperience at quarterback will keep them from achieving that goal. Western Michigan and Ball State should show improvement and get to a bowl game. Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan will more than likely take a step back from 2023.


It should be an exciting year for the MAC and when all is said and done Toledo will represent the West in the MAC Championship Game in 2024.



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