Is it possible for a football title race to snap into focus before the calendar turns to October?
In the Mid-American Conference, it sure looks like it.
Teams expected to contend — a group of five that includes the University of Toledo — look like contenders. Everyone else is a jumbled mess blurring the line between the middle and the bottom tiers.
The MAC’s bottom eight teams are still searching for their first win against an opponent from the Bowl Subdivision, their collective record in those games an unflattering 0-23. A scarcity of threats to the MAC’s heavyweights make marquee games such as Saturday’s trip to Ball State all the more important for Toledo.
If the Rockets fall short, thus dropping to 1-1 in the league, they face the strong possibility of chasing Ball State deep into the season. Five of Ball State’s final six MAC opponents are a combined 4-17 with zero FBS wins.
Toledo is a 2½-point underdog in what unquestionably will be the MAC’s biggest game until a series of matchups in November involving title contenders.
“It will be a big one Saturday, but I think it’s big because it’s the next one for us,” said Toledo coach Matt Campbell, who acknowledged Ball State inflicted damage to Toledo last November in a 34-27 win, ending the Rockets’ eight-game win streak and knocking them from the top 25.
Short of an upset down the road against a MAC also-ran, the 3-1 Cardinals, who avoid playing East title contenders Ohio and Bowling Green, could coast until a Nov. 13 road trip against defending MAC champion Northern Illinois.
The Huskies won’t open MAC play until next week, at which time they’ll be trailing Toledo or Ball State by two in the win column.
“I know by the end of the year we’ll all play the same amount of conference games,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “It will all play itself out by the end of the year.”
So why is there such little threat to the title contenders? Injuries have been the undoing for a couple teams.
Central Michigan, the reigning champion of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, lost 1,400-yard back Zurlon Tipton in the season opener, the same day Chippewas quarterback Cody Kater broke his clavicle. Kater is out indefinitely; Tipton is done for the year.
Kent State, coming off a magical 11-win season, hasn’t been right all season. The Golden Flashes, who’ve lost by an average of 28 points the past three weeks, are in dire need of a healthy Dri Archer. The All-American, who sprained his ankle in the season opener, is expected back this week against Western Michigan.
Everyone else? Well, they’re just not very good. Miami — MAC champs as recently as 2010 — is averaging seven points during an 0-3 start. Buffalo would be winless had it not survived a five-overtime scare to Stony Brook. Western Michigan has been outscored 123-33 by the Big Ten ... and 27-23 by that bully Nicholls State.
Perennial bottom-feeders Eastern Michigan, Akron, and Massachusetts are who we thought they were.
The MAC is in deceleration mode after a monumental 2012 season studded with headline nonconference wins, a record seven bowl bids, and the top overall pick in the NFL draft in Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher.
The cream of the league, however, remains thick. Two of the best will square off Saturday in Muncie, Ind. For the loser, playing catch-up won’t be easy.