Miami University vs. Central Michigan
What: Mid-American Conference championship game
Records: Miami 7-5, 6-2 MAC East; Central Michigan 8-4, 6-2 MAC West
Favorite: Central Michigan by 6
Series: Miami leads 14-13-1.
Last meeting: Miami won 31-14 in 2017 in Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Ohio State took some hits this summer for a three-game nonconference schedule that featured only teams from Group of Five conferences: Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati and Miami University — with the RedHawks taking the worst beating of all, 76-5 on Sept. 21.
But three months later, all three are joining the Buckeyes by playing Saturday in their conference championship games, and that includes the RedHawks, who rebounded from a 2-4 start to win the MAC East.
Miami has done it by sticking to its identity of being a tough team to play against and by being willing to win games even when close, with an average margin over six MAC victories of 11.8 points. Coach Chuck Martin said that tone was struck early, present even in nonconference losses to Iowa and Cincinnati.
"The same way at Ohio State — obviously, that was shorter-lived than some of the other games," Martin said.
But it paid off in a five-game winning streak during MAC play, broken only last week when Miami lost to Ball State 41-27, a game in which quarterback Brett Gabbert didn’t play the second half because of an undisclosed injury. The run included consecutive midweek road wins over East contenders Kent State and Ohio.
"It's hard to win midweek back to back on the road,” Martin said. “The records are astronomical since MACtion has started."
Gabbert has practiced this week and is expected to play. He has completed 53.9% of his passes, including for 10 touchdowns, and has been named MAC freshman of the year.
The RedHawks, whose last MAC title came in 2010, had clinched the East even before the Ball State game. But the problem, as Martin sees it, is that Central Michigan is similar to Ball State in how it operates a pass-heavy offense and plays a balanced defense.
“There are things that Ball State does that Central does that Ball State beat us doing. We're going to see it again in seven days,” Martin said. “It's not like necessarily so much dwelling (on the loss), but you're going to correct things.”
Getting back Gabbert will help. Much of the rest might come down to the pass defense. Miami allows an average of 202.3 passing yards, but Ball State gained 317. Junior defensive back Emmanuel Rugamba said the RedHawks understand the similar challenge they face in the Chippewas.
“They've got weapons all across the board,” he said. “With those guys, you can’t give them second chances. They're so prolific.”
The Chippewas have two of the top three receivers in the MAC in JaCorey Sullivan (64.7 yards per game) and Kalil Pimpleton (64.3). On defense, they allow the second-fewest yards in the league, at 358.3. And overall, they feature one of the biggest turnaround stories in college football, rebounding from a 1-11 season in 2018 to reach the league championship game under first-year coach Jim McElwain.
Martin was among those who thought, given Central Michigan’s talent level, that the right coach could turn around the program quickly. He wanted to see it up close.
“One of my goals this year was to play Central Michigan at some point,” Martin said, before pausing and adding, “because if you play Central Michigan and they're not on your schedule, it probably means you're either dreaming or you're in the MAC championship game.”