2009 Mid-American Conference (MAC) Football Preview

The MAC is always one of the most exciting conference races to follow, in large part due to its sheer unpredictability. The East has had 5 different Division Champions in the past 5 years! Last year, Ball State entered the MAC Title Game with a 12-0 record and a top ten national ranking but was stunned by 7-5 Buffalo, who surprised everyone by even getting there in the first place. This year, coaching turmoil is thrown into the equation as a four of the league’s thirteen schools will have new head coaches. Will 2009 be more of the same zaniness in America’s most volatile league?



In the East, defending champion Buffalo surprised many observers during the winter by holding onto highly-touted head coach Turner Gill, who was a candidate at Auburn and Iowa State. Also, remember that the East has seven teams so a few teams will play six division opponents and draw only two Western teams while others will skip one division foe and face three teams from the West, which seems to have led to a bit of a scheduling inequity this year. After all, who wants to skip the worst team in the division to play Central Michigan? With no clear-cut favorite, this veteran-laden division (five teams have fourteen or more returning starters and five have returning seniors at quarterback) will be very interesting to follow.

In the West, there is a bit more clarity. Central Michigan ended their run of consecutive conference championships at two last season as their defense failed them in the final two games of league play. However, senior quarterback Dan LeFevour is back for his final go-round and the Chippewas have a league-high 16 returning starters, including ten back on defense. Furthermore, the other five teams have either a new head coach or a limited number of returning starters. These factors combine to make the Chippewas the heavy favorite to return to the MAC Title Game.

EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH

EAST: 1) Akron 2) Ohio 3) Temple 4) Bowling Green 5) Kent State 6) Buffalo 7) Miami

WEST: 1) CMU 2) EMU 3) WMU 4) Toledo 5) Northern Illinois 6) Ball State



MAC EASTERN DIVISION

 

  • Akron Zips (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

The Zips had an up and down year in 2008. Despite a difficult non-conference schedule, they defeated Syracuse and Army on the road and were barely edged 17-15 by eventual Big East Champion Cincinnati. However, the Zips faltered down the stretch in conference, losing their final three games to fall short of bowl eligibility at 5-7. Three of the Zips’ five conference losses were decided by a touchdown or less.

This looks like a much brighter year for Akron. Their offense looks like a very strong group, led by senior quarterback Chris Jacquemain, who will be the starter for the 3rd consecutive season. Jacquemain has a senior-laden receiver corps to throw to and will play behind one of the MAC’s best offensive lines, which returns four starters from last season. The running game should also be solid, though the loss of Dennis Kennedy and his 1360 yards and 17 touchdowns to graduation will sting. However, DeVoe Torrence (former Ohio State pledge) and Dale Martin ( Louisville transfer) should be able to easily step into his place and be very productive as both are very talented athletes. Look for Akron to exceed last year’s solid 30 points per game average.

On defense, the Zips boast a strong defensive line in their 3-3-5 defense. Senior Iowa transfer Ryan Bain should be a force at nose tackle if he stays healthy as he has struggled with injuries since his arrival and junior Virginia transfer Almondo Sewell should be also be a pillar at defensive end. The Zips should also have an improved secondary, led by senior cornerback Miguel Graham (70 tackles, 3 interceptions in 2008). The major concern on defense is the loss of most of their linebackers. Junior Mike Thomas is the team’s leading returning tackler playing a hybrid outside position but the other three spots will need to be claimed for the Zips to have a truly strong defense. This is my biggest concern on the entire team.

Schedule-wise, the Zips have a tough draw from the West, drawing road trips to Central Michigan and Northern Illinois and host an improved Eastern Michigan squad. However, that means that they have three home division games, a big benefit. They also have non-conference away games with BCS foes Syracuse and Penn State and host a Big Ten team for the first time in their history when Indiana comes to town in week three. Overall, the Zips have a tough but not impossible schedule. Facing Ohio after an off week for homecoming helps and so does finishing the year with three of their final four at home. I like their multidimensional offense and their defense should be improved. Expect Akron to win their first division crown since 2005.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th vs. Indiana, Sept. 26th @ CMU, Oct. 10th vs. Ohio, Oct. 31st at NIU, Nov. 13th vs. Temple

 

 

  • Ohio Bobcats (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

Like the Zips, Ohio finished last year 3-5 in conference play. However, the Bobcats’ 4-8 record was deceiving, as they lost at Wyoming by 1, at CMU by 3, at Temple by 4, at Northwestern by 8, and at Ohio State by 12. In short, the Bobcats were a few bounces away from a bowl berth. Their 1-5 start, however, ruined their chances at a postseason berth.

2009 should be different in Athens. The Bobcats should have a decent offense with 7 starters back. Even better, they have options at quarterback as seniors Theo Scott and Boo Jackson both have had extensive playing time in the past two seasons. Scott was injured early last season and Jackson took over and played well, throwing 19 TDs and 12 picks while running for over 500 yards. Leading receiver Taylor Price returns after snagging 51 balls last year, five of which were touchdowns. The entire backfield returns as well and features a number of different options to tote the rock. However, the Ohio O-Line is questionable despite returning 3 starters, having been held under 100 yards rushing last year 5 times and allowing 23 sacks. The Bobcats should be solid on offense but the strength of their team will be on the other side of the ball. Don’t expect much improvement over last year’s 24 points per game average.

Speaking of the defense, Ohio should be very solid defensively this year and are probably one of the league’s top 3 or 4 units. On the line, senior DE Kris Luchsinger is the team’s returning sack leader and should be the lynchpin of a defense which allowed a division-best 158 rush yards per game. Expect that to improve this year as the linebackers boast the return of the team’s two leading tacklers from 2008, junior Noah Keller (104 tackles) and senior Lee Renfro (83 tackles). Overall, this should be a tough unit against the run. The secondary should be solid as well as senior Steven Jackson is a force against both the pass and run but they do have some holes to fill as only two players return with starting experience. Overall, the strength against the run should allow the Bobcats to mix up their coverages to support their new secondary and the defense should be quite good this year.

The Bobcats have a manageable schedule, facing all six divisional opponents and drawing only one road trip to the West. From the West, they avoid the Michigan teams and draw Ball State and Northern Illinois, neither of which is expected to contend. In the East, they have to travel to favorite Akron, Bowling Green and defending champion Buffalo. However, they only have one road weeknight game and finish up the season with two home games. Overall, the Bobcats won’t outscore anybody this year but their defense is strong enough to carry them. While they are not my choice in the East, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Ohio massage the schedule and win their 2 nd division title in 4 years.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd @ Bowling Green, Oct. 10th at Akron, Nov. 10th @ Buffalo, Nov. 27th vs. Temple

 

 

  • Temple Owls (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

2008 was a year of heartbreak for the Temple Owls. Their 5-7 record was their best in a decade but the Owls were so close to a huge season. They had six losses by less than 10 points, including four of their five conference losses. They also lost two non-conference games in overtime to Connecticut and Navy! Three times the Owls lost on the final play of the game! So Temple was truly ‘right there’ last season.

The Owls weren’t known for their offense in 2008. In fact, they only scored over 30 points three times and averaged just over 23 points per game. While they set a four year high in rush yards, they still averaged less than 100 yards per game on the ground. Departed quarterback Adam DiMichelle will be missed as will his 3-1 Touchdown to Interception ratio. There is a three way battle going on to replace him but his production will be tough to match. At receiver, senior Jason Harper (33 grabs, 571 yards, 3 TD) is the only returning starter and will need to find some help if the Owls want to let their new starter at QB have a chance. At tailback, former linebacker Lamar McPherson is expected to be the number one guy despite having zero career carries. Hopefully he didn’t slim down while transitioning positions as he might have trouble finding much room to run behind the Owl O-Line, which allowed 30 sacks last year and wasn’t very effective opening holes on the ground despite the presence of a solid quarterback. Much like the Ohio Bobcats, the offense is not the strength of this team.

However, Temple probably has the best defense in the MAC. Nine starters return from a unit which held opponents to 23 points per game! Six times last season this group held opponents to 12 points or less! The top 7 tacklers return as well to a squad which returns 8 upperclassmen starters. The defensive line’s star is senior ‘Junior’ Gallete, who notched 7.5 sacks last year. At linebacker, all three starters return, led by senior Alex Joseph and his 87 tackles. The three returnees accounted for 208 stops in 2008. Expect Temple’s rush defense to only get better this year. In the secondary, three starters are back, led by junior safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, who led the team in tackles (88) and interceptions (3) last season. Despite the strong season last year, the secondary was at times vulnerable and should be improved this year. Overall, the Owls should be excellent on defense once more.

The schedule is a mixed bag. The Owls have an off week during the second week of the season and then don’t get a break until December. However, Temple only faces one BCS conference team, a road trip to Penn State during week three. The Owls face three teams from the West, all in the first half of conference play. However, they do avoid CMU and WMU and also don’t have to make the league’s longest road trips to Ball State and NIU. Temple also has a tough closing stretch with four of their last six on the road. Overall, the Owls are at best average on offense and face a fairly difficult schedule. However, they have the conference’s best defense and should be able to help their offense by consistently giving them strong field position. While I highly doubt that the Owls can overcome their lack of firepower to compete for the division, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Owls make their first bowl game since 1979.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th vs. Buffalo, Nov. 5th vs. Miami (OH), Nov. 13th @ Akron, Nov. 27th @ Ohio

 

 

  • Bowling Green Falcons (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Bowling Green had a fairly successful 2008 season, though it fell short of expectations. I had the Falcons pegged as the favorite to win the division but they fell short with a 4-4 conference record thanks to a 1-3 home league mark. Despite their 6-6 finish and an upset win over Pittsburgh, the Falcons were left out of the bowl picture and somehow earned head coach Greg Brandon a pink slip despite five winning seasons in six years! They will look to return to postseason play under new head coach Dave Clawson, formerly of Tennessee, this year but have the conference’s smallest number of returning starters, so the going won’t be easy.

On offense, the majority of starters return from a group which averaged 27.7 points per game. Headlining the returnees is senior quarterback Tyler Sheehan, who accounted for 27 touchdowns passing and rushing last year and will start for the 3 rd consecutive season, albeit in a new system as he will take snaps from under center for the first time in his career. The offensive line will also have to learn a new system but there are three starters back, so hopefully Sheehan will have some protection. The Falcons lose almost all of their top skill position players from last year but tight end Jimmy Scheidler did have seven touchdown catches in just seventeen grabs last year! Expect a more ground-based attack like we saw at Tennessee last year, hopefully with better results as the Clawson-led Volunteer attack got former UT coach Phil Fulmer fired. I would expect solid but unspectacular offensive production in Clawson’s first year at the helm.

The defense is a bigger concern. The front seven only returns a single starter (senior linebacker Jerett Sanderson), so this group is a virtual unknown. Sophomore nose tackle Andrew Johnson had 3 sacks as a freshman last year so he will be a player to watch but in all likelihood the Falcons will struggle against the run early in the year. The secondary is a bright spot as senior safeties PJ Mahone and Jahmal Brown are the team’s leading returning tacklers and combined for 178 tackles last fall. There are a couple of seniors with a lot of playing experience at cornerback but few career starts and I expect a fairly significant drop off since they lose 1 st and 2 nd team All-MAC cornerbacks from last year! I think that BGSU’s secondary will be solid but unspectacular this fall. The Falcon defense could be a liability if their new cast of characters can’t come together quickly, especially up front.

The schedule is fairly tough but they do host favorites Ohio and Akron and avoid Temple in the divisional rotation. However, they draw Central Michigan and Toledo from the West which won’t be an easy task. Furthermore, their non-conference schedule features two tough road games at Missouri and Marshall and their two home games are against two of the non-BCS’s best in Troy and Boise State. Overall, this team should take a small step back from last year’s group and I will be surprised if they are bowl eligible.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. Ohio, Oct. 10th vs. Kent State, Nov. 3rd @ Buffalo, Nov. 12th @ Miami, Nov. 20th vs. Akron

 

 

  • Kent State Golden Flashes (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Kent State had a disappointing 2008 season. I called for the Golden Flashes to compete for the MAC East crown and qualify for a bowl game but instead they suffered four losses in five games down the stretch of the season to miss the postseason for the fifth time in five seasons under head coach Doug Martin. A large culprit was the defense, which allowed a Martin era worst 32 points per game, good for 11 th out of 13 teams in the conference.

The offense, however, scored nearly 26 points per game in 2008, a four year high, and most of that unit returns this fall. However, their best offensive player was quarterback Julian Edelman and he is now the property of the New England Patriots. His loss can’t be stated strongly enough: Edelman accounted for 26 touchdowns last fall, half running and half passing, nearly 70% of all Kent State touchdowns! However, there is hope; Diminutive senior tailback Eugene Jarvis rushed for 800 yards and 9 touchdowns last fall despite missing 3 games due to injury. He was also the MAC’s leading rusher in 2007, so expect Kent State’s new starting quarterback to have the ability to run play action thanks to a solid running game as four starters return on the O-Line. Speaking of the quarterback position, sophomore Gio Morgan is expected to start after redshirting last fall. Unfortunately, his returning receivers had hardly any catches in 2008 and will be just as inexperienced as he is (36 career pass attempts). Expect the Flashes to fall back on offense this year.

Defensively, Kent State brings back seven starters from last year’s 11 th place unit. Up front they are led by 2008 1 st team All-MAC nose tackle Sam Frist and hybrid end Kevin Hogan, who led the team in sacks last fall. Both are seniors and should anchor an improved rush defense. At linebacker, junior Michigan transfer Cobrani Mixon is the only starter back and he will have to step up his game to account for the loss of last year’s leading tackler, Derek Burrell. The secondary picture is much brighter as the Flashes return three upperclassmen starters, led by junior safety Brian Lainhart, their leading returning tackler with 106 last year. The Flashes actually improved upon their pass defense last year from 2007 so another year for this group should see further gains against the pass. Kent State’s defense should be improved this fall (I will be surprised at another 11 th place finish) but no one should associate this group with a lock down unit.

The Golden Flashes also have the competitive advantage of playing six East Division games. However, they face WMU and EMU from the West, both of which are expected to be among the leaders in their division. Even worse for KSU, they have to play the three teams that I picked ahead of them in the division on the road, including a stretch of four road games in five tries beginning in mid-October. In the non-conference slate, the Flashes have a league-high 3 BCS games, including a home game against Iowa State, who they defeated in 2007. Overall, this Kent State team has a tough conference schedule and three BCS opponents in the out of conference season, making it very hard for me to even predict bowl eligibility, much less a shot at competing for the division title. With Coach Martin at risk of his 6 th consecutive non-winning season, Kent State could find themselves with a new head coach next year if they don’t surprise everyone in 2009.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th vs. Iowa State, Sept. 26th vs. Miami (OH), Oct. 10th vs. Bowling Green, Nov. 21st @ Temple, Nov. 27th vs. Buffalo

 

 

  • Buffalo Bulls (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

The Bulls shocked the world in 2008 by winning the MAC East then upsetting undefeated Ball State to win their first conference title in school history. The Bulls’ 8-5 regular season featured a 3-1 overtime record and their conference championship win featured two long fumble returns for touchdowns from inside their own ten yard line. Furthermore, the Bulls managed to hold onto their highly acclaimed head coach, Turner Gill, in the face of a number of opportunities to move to a larger school. Luck and fate were certainly on their side during their Cinderella run.

However, 2009 is a different story. Losing triggerman Drew Willy (3300 yards, 25 TDs, only 6 picks) to the NFL is a big loss as the candidates to replace him have literally zero experience. The Bulls also only bring back two of last year’s starting O-linemen and might be forced to start some underclassmen, which can be a scary proposition. However, the news isn’t all bad. Their top two rushers return, including senior 2008 1 st team All-MAC performer James Starks (1300+ yards and 16 TDs). At receiver, the go-to guy will surely be senior Naaman Roosevelt, whose 104 catches, 1402 yards and 13 Touchdowns earned him 1 st team All-MAC honors. However, Starks needs someone to block for him and Roosevelt will need someone to throw him the ball, so I would expect both players’ production to decrease this year. Expect the Bulls’ offense to fall way back from last year’s record production of 30.3 points per game despite the presence of a pair of standout performers.

On defense, the picture is brighter. The top 8 tacklers from last year’s team return and six of the back seven are back for another run after allowing only 28.2 points per game. Expect the safety tandem of senior Mike Newton and junior Devontae Shannon to be the best in the conference after both recorded over 100 tackles last fall. In fact, the secondary looks very good for coach Gill’s squad and could be one of the MAC’s best. However, the defensive line is a big question mark. They bring back virtually no proven production and only junior Anel Montanez started a year ago. The Bulls are normally pretty good against the run by MAC standards but they seem primed to take a step back this year both against the run and on the scoreboard.

The schedule features matchups with all 6 Eastern teams, including four weeknight games to end the year. The Bulls also have the division’s toughest draw from the West, hosting Central Michigan and traveling to face Western Michigan. A six week stretch featuring five home games, including division favorites Akron and Ohio and both Western teams, will decide this team’s season. In the non-conference, trips to UTEP and UCF won’t be easy and hosting a very good Pittsburgh team that should be ranked nationally in week 2 will be a tough task as well. Overall, the Bulls have a tough schedule and lose a lot of players at key positions. I expect Buffalo to struggle along both lines and have serious trouble replacing Willy’s exceptional play at quarterback. These factors combined with extremely close nature of last year’s success lead me to believe that this is a team that is going to take a step back this year and I would be surprised to see the Bulls bowl eligible this fall.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. CMU, Oct. 17th vs. Akron, Oct. 24th @ WMU, Nov. 18th @ Miami, Nov. 27th @ Kent State

 

 

  • Miami Redhawks (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

The Redhawks were shockingly bad last year, especially after going to the MAC Title Game in 2007. I picked them to finish second in the East but they plummeted all the way to a 2-10 record and a conference-worst 1-7 mark, costing head coach Shane Montgomery his job after 4 seasons. To explain how bad Miami truly was, I give you their rankings in scoring offense and defense: Dead last and second to last, respectively. As Charles Barkley would say, that’s terrible. This fall new head coach Michael Haywood will hope to begin to turn around the conference’s worst team from a year ago.

The offense was downright putrid in 2008, averaging only 18.4 points per game. The Redhawks will have to hope for improvement as they return seven starters on offense, including senior QB Daniel Radabaugh, who improved down the stretch but still finished with more interceptions than touchdowns. The offensive line returns only two starters and is learning a new system so it seems likely that there will be growing pains. There is a little bit of good news at the skill positions; The top three rushers return, led by junior tailback Thomas Merriweather (565 yards and 4 TDs last year), so there is hope for a running game if they can get some blocking. At receiver, the top four are back as well, though only junior Chris Givens (35 catches, 7 TDs) is an established threat. Overall, improvement is going to be the key word here as the Redhawks bring back the same cast of characters that were the source of an ineffective attack last fall. Don’t expect a lot of improvement but almost anything is better than last year’s squad.

On defense, the picture isn’t much brighter. The top four tacklers are gone and the experience level is pretty low. On the line, the defensive tackles return but neither contributed much in terms of tackles last year. The Redhawks allowed over 200 yards per game on the ground and it doesn’t look much better this year considering that they also have to replace their entire linebacking corps. The secondary returns a lot of experience as the lineup changed so much during the 2008 season and since they were 112 th in the country in pass defense last year, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they’ll get a little bit better by default. However, any improvement won’t likely make enough difference considering that teams will probably run at will on Miami. This is probably the worst defense in the entire conference.

The schedule does the Redhawks few favors either. They do manage to avoid division rival and favorite Akron but have three division road games and 3 games against the stronger West. Furthermore, they have three BCS teams in the non-conference and a road trip to Boise State! This team is probably the worst in the MAC and will have a serious issue beating last year’s 2 win total thanks to a tough schedule and their own ineptitude.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ Kent State, Oct. 24th vs. NIU, Nov. 18th vs. Buffalo

 

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MAC WESTERN DIVISION

 

  • Central Michigan Chippewas (Predicted Conference Record: 8-0)

2008 was a successful year for the Chippewas as they finished 8-5 overall. However, it was also a disappointing showing as CMU entered the final two weeks of the season with a 6-0 conference record but dropped both to miss out on the MAC Title Game. To cap off a poor ending, the Chips also lost the Motor City Bowl, giving them three consecutive losses to close a season coming off of back to back MAC Titles.

However, good news abounds, beginning with the MAC’s best player, senior QB Dan LeFevour. In his career he is a two-time 1 st team All-MAC selection, was the 2 nd team choice last year and has a career record of 27-15! Expect LeFevour to improve upon his nearly 3,400 yards of offense and 27 touchdowns from a year ago as he suffered through some nagging injuries. Despite those injuries, he was also the team’s leading rusher last fall! At receiver, the top three targets from last year are back and junior Antonio Brown (93 catches, 998 yards, 7 TDs) and senior Bryan Anderson (63, 865 yards, 6 TDs) were both 1 st team All-MAC picks! The only concern is some inexperience on the offensive line as they lose two All-MAC performers and only have two starters back. However, LeFevour’s mobility should help the line as they try to come together. I have very few concerns about this offense and expect them to eclipse last year’s 29.5 point per game output. This is probably the conference’s best offense.

Defensively, the Chippewas struggled last year, allowing 30.2 points per game. However, ten starters return from that group and they should be much improved and could start all upperclassmen! Defensive end Frank Zombo (9 sacks, 51 tackles) anchors a solid defensive line that could improve upon last season’s solid rush defense, which allowed only 137 yards per game. I really like their strength up front. At linebacker, junior Nick Bellore was the team’s leading tackler by a mile last fall with 148 stops and should anchor a very solid group that returns intact. The secondary is massively experienced and junior safety Bobby Seay’s 90 stops were good for second on the team. If they can force some interceptions, this team could be dangerous on defense. The Chips led the conference by a wide margin in sacks last year and should be equally effective this fall getting to the quarterback and the improved secondary should benefit. I expect this defense to be one of the conference’s best.

The Chips have a pretty reasonable conference schedule, facing road trips to Bowling Green and Buffalo in the East while hosting division favorite Akron. That means they have three division games at home, where the Chips are 11-4 in the past three years. Their toughest conference test looks like a trip to rival Western Michigan. Out of conference, however, they have a brutal schedule, traveling to Arizona and Michigan State in back to back weeks to open the year before traveling later in the year to face Boston College. That’s not good news as the Chips are only 1-9 against BCS conference opponents in the last five years and their only with was a squeaker last year against a putrid Indiana team.

Overall, the Chips have the conference’s best player in LeFevour, the conference‘s best passing attack in Brown, Anderson and company and the conference’s best defensive line with Zombo’s Zombies. This team looks to have a talent and experience advantage on all of their conference opponents and they don’t have any majorly unfavorable schedule issues. I expect this team to be a dominant force in the West and emerge from the regular season with a chance to play for their 3 rd conference title in LeFevour’s career. A 4 th consecutive Motor City Bowl berth seems very likely.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th vs. Akron, Oct. 10th vs. EMU, Oct. 17th @ WMU, Nov. 27th vs. NIU

 

  • Eastern Michigan Eagles (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

The Eagles are what one could call a ‘perennial cellar-dweller’, so I’m feeling a little bit audacious with this pick. In fact, I haven’t yet seen anyone picking them higher than 5 th in the West! However, after a 3-9 season which ended with the firing of Jeff Genyk after four seasons, the Eagles turned to former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English to clean up the conference’s worst defense in 2008. Will the man who many thought was Lloyd Carr’s successor at Michigan in late 2006 show off his coaching acumen during his first year as head coach? With 17 starters back, he’s certainly in good position to begin at EMU.

On offense, English inherits a strong group that returns nine starters from the group which put up a Genyk era best 26 points per game. Senior quarterback Andy Schmitt threw for 2,600+ yards and 15 touchdowns last year and also established himself as a threat to run by scoring 5 TDs on the ground. If he stays healthy, he could be one the conference’s best signal callers. He’ll be playing behind a solid offensive line as well, a group that returns four starters and did a very good job pass protecting last year. The big question is whether they can open holes for senior tailback Terrence Blevins (600 yards, 12 TDs) so that he can improve upon last year’s yardage output. The receiving corps appears to be pretty solid as well, returning all but one contributor from last year, though there are no stars in this group. Keep an eye on sophomore Marvon Sanders, who recorded 28 catches as a true freshman. Overall, the EMU offense appears to be a strong group and could definitely improve upon last year’s stellar numbers.

Defense is a bigger concern. However, English’s background is on defense and he inherits a unit which was last in the conference in points allowed and played a lot of young players last year, especially on the line. Sophomores Brad Ohrman and Brandon Slater saw a lot of action last fall as freshmen and Ohrman led the team in sacks with 6. They should anchor a much improved defensive front. The linebackers lose last year’s leading tackler but seniors Jermaine Jenkins and Andre Hatchett should both be very solid at the outside linebacker positions. EMU could make a big improvement against the run this fall. My biggest concern on defense has to be the secondary, which allowed over 210 yards per game through the air and didn’t create many turnovers. Sophomore Nate Wilson is the team’s returning interception leader (with 2 in 5 starts last year) and could take the open cornerback position. If Wilson can step in and take over then the Eagle secondary could be fairly good. However, it still remains this unit’s weakest position group. With all of the improvement and the arrival of English, I will be very surprised if the Eagles finish anywhere near last place in the defensive rankings again.

Overall, the Eagles have a fairly tough schedule draw, pulling Akron and Temple from the East. Furthermore, they finish the season with three away weeknight games in November, a very tough task. In the non-conference, they have three road trips to BCS conference opposition to worry about, including back to back trips to Northwestern and Michigan early in the year. Eastern Michigan has a much improved team and looks to be a real contender in the MAC West for the first time in memory. Their offense is especially promising after having such a strong season last year. However, a brutal non-conference schedule and a tough conference draw make them a 50-50 proposition at best to get to 6 wins and bowl eligibility. Still, I will be disappointed if we don’t see significant improvement right away under Ron English.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. Temple, Oct. 10th @ CMU, Nov. 14th vs. WMU, Nov. 20th @ Toledo



  • Western Michigan Broncos (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

Western Michigan posted Bill Cubit’s best season last year as they finished with a 9-4 record and a 2 nd place finish in the MAC West thanks to a strong defense and a consistent offensive attack. 2008 marked the 3 rd season in 4 years that WMU finished with a winning record under Cubit. However, most of their defense has departed and the offense will have to transition from consistent to dangerous for the Broncos to remain a force in the West.

Luckily, the offense benefitted from a surprising year by rising senior Tim Hiller in 2008 and now enters 2009 with the confidence that comes along with having one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. Hiller threw for over 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns last year against only ten interceptions and set school passing records. While Hiller missed the spring with a torn ACL, mobility was never his strength anyway and I expect he’ll have another great year. Luckily for his injured knee, the Broncos bring back four starters from a solid offensive line that is one of the league’s best and should give him plenty of time to throw. A bigger question is who will catch his passes as junior receiver Juan Nunez (57 grabs, 701 yards, 7 TDs) is the only major target returning from last season’s diverse and explosive group. However, Hiller should benefit from an improved running game as senior Brandon West returns after rushing for over 1,000 yards last year and 8 TDs. If some receivers step up, Western Michigan should have a dangerous offense again this fall.

The defense is a much bigger concern. They only bring back two starters and must replace their entire secondary. Seniors Justin Braska (52 tackles, 6 sacks @ Defensive End) and Austin Pritchard (86 tackles @ Outside Linebacker) will be counted upon heavily to lead this young defense. They have to replace three starters on the defensive line and could find themselves starting some sophomores, a scary proposition as the D-Line is a place where size and experience really matter. The linebackers should be solid with Pritchard leading the charge for a group that has a fair amount of experience, so there isn’t much concern there. However, the secondary is another big problem spot as they lose two NFL draft picks and another All-MAC performer! The experience level is very low but the Broncos did allow a surprising 255 yards of offense through the air last fall, so I’m not sure there will be the monumental drop off one would expect with losing every starter. However, they are at best going to be an average unit. Expect the Broncos to regress this year defensively.

The schedule is pretty tough as well. WMU has three road division games and only 5 home games all season! They open up with consecutive road games against Big Ten teams and play Michigan State in East Lansing in early October. Their draw with the East is fairly favorable as they face my predicted worst three teams ( Miami, Buffalo, Kent State) and two are at home. Despite the mixed bag of a schedule and a myriad of questions about the defense, Western Michigan appears to have a very good offense and should again be one of the MAC West’s better teams. If they can upset Indiana in week two then a bowl berth is a strong possibility. However, I will be surprised if the Broncos contend in the MAC West.

Biggest Games: Oct. 10th @ Toledo, Oct. 17th vs. CMU, Oct. 14th @ EMU, Nov. 24th vs. Ball State

 

  • Toledo Rockets (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

2008 was the best of times and the worst of times for the Toledo Rockets. They began the year 1-4 but then shocked the world by upsetting Michigan in the Big House, the first loss by the Wolverines to a MAC school in the modern era. However, the Rockets couldn’t capitalize on the big win and finished 3-9, their 3 rd straight losing season. This somewhat surprisingly cost head coach Tom Amstutz his job (after 30 years at the school, 8 as Head Coach) despite beginning his career with 5 straight years of 8 wins or more. In his stead is former Ohio State assistant coach Tim Beckman, who will look to turn around the Rockets’ fortunes as he inherits a veteran team.

Offensively, nine starters return from the worst Rocket offense in the Amstutz era. Senior quarterback Aaron Opelt threw for over 2,100 yards and 12 TDs but did throw 7 picks. I expect him to improve in his 3 rd year as a starter and find the end zone more. Toledo should also have a strong running attack as they bring back a pair of excellent tailbacks in senior DuJuane Collins (700 yards, 5 TDs last year) and sophomore Morgan Williams (1,010 yards, 6 TDs). On top of that, new offensive coordinator Matt Campbell was the run game coordinator at his previous job so you know the running game will be a priority. Furthermore, this pair of talented tailbacks will be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters and I think that they will be one of the strongest lines in the conference. The receivers will be led by senior Stephen Williams (71 catches, 781 yards, 8 TDs last year) but they need to find a secondary option as no one else returning has more than 15 catches. Overall, this offense should definitely be improved, especially on the ground, from the 2008 unit which only scored 22.4 points per game.

The defense is also solid, returning seven starters including five of their top six tacklers. Seniors Derrick Summers and Skylaar Constant will anchor a defensive line that has to do better than last year’s pithy 10 sacks. This group should be somewhat improved if they can generate any pass rush. The linebackers are solid as well as all three starters are back, led by senior hybrid Barry Church, who had 93 tackles last year en route to a 1 st team All-MAC season. Junior Archie Donald was also the team’s leading tackler a year ago and should be a presence on every play. The secondary also looks pretty good as senior Lester Richmond will be expected to provide leadership to a group that will be installing two new starters. Expect Toledo to again have their traditionally solid pass defense. Overall, if the Rockets can get improved play along the defensive line then this could be one of the conference’s stronger defenses.

The schedule is difficult and it starts off with a brutal non-conference slate. The Rockets begin at Purdue, host Colorado and then play Ohio State in Cleveland before traveling south to face Florida International! If the Rockets aren’t careful, they could come out of September 0-4. Toledo then jumps directly into their conference run with a trip to Ball State! Luckily they have three home games after that and avoid the Eastern favorites but do have road trips to in state rivals Miami and Bowling Green. This is not an easy schedule and it ends with two of three on the road during the week. Overall, the Rockets are going to be improved from last year as they return a lot of talent and experience but their schedule will be very tough to overcome. Toledo is probably not in the race for the MAC West crown and will be fortunate to qualify for a bowl game this fall.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd @ Ball State, Oct. 10th vs. WMU, Oct. 31st @ Miami, Nov. 20th vs. EMU, Nov. 27th @ Bowling Green

 

 

  • Northern Illinois Huskies (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

The first year of the Jerry Kill era at NIU produced a strong 4 win improvement to a 6-6 regular season record and the Huskies earned a berth in the Independence Bowl. While NIU fell short against Louisiana Tech, it was still a strong year and the team actually fell just short of a spectacular turnaround as they lost four games by four points or less! While NIU only returns about half of its starters, this team still seems primed for a strong year.

Offensively, they return a good young quarterback in Chandler Harnish, who ran for over 500 yards and passed for over 1,500 in 2008. Only a sophomore, he should show strong improvement this year and should continue to be a double threat. Harnish will need to find new receivers this fall as his top two targets from last year have moved on. Senior tight end Reed Cunningham is the team’s top returning receiver with 22 catches and 3 touchdowns from a year ago so the cupboard is relatively bare in Dekalb. Luckily, the tailbacks should be solid as sophomore Me’co Brown (528 yards, 2 TDs) and junior Chad Spann (438 yards, 8 TDs) return and should hopefully prevent Harnish from having to lead the team in rushing again. The offensive line returns 3 starters and I think that they’ll continue to improve in the 2 nd year in Coach Kill’s system and should beat their 24.2 points per game output from last season.

Defensively, there are going to be a lot of new starters as only four of last year’s regulars return. However, three of 2008’s top four tacklers are back and they will be heavily relied upon this year. The defensive line is led by defensive tackle Mike Krause, who is a big space occupier. Aside from Krause, there were some serious losses, including NFL 1 st round pick Larry English, and the D-Line is going to take a big step back from last year’s very solid 137 rush yards per game. At linebacker, junior Alex Kube is the only returning starter but he has a ton of range as a converted safety and will be relied upon to lead an inexperienced group. The secondary looks a little bit brighter as both starting safeties return, NIU’s top tacklers from 2008. Senior David Bryant and junior Mike Sobol will be the quarterbacks on defense and should lead a solid secondary, though matching last year’s 161 pass yards per game will be a stiff test. This defense had a huge year last year, allowing only 18 points per game (best in the conference) and averaged less than 300 yards total! With all of the turnover on defense, I can’t imagine this year’s edition remotely approaching their lofty numbers of a year ago.

The Huskies have a very tough schedule, earning games against East favorites Akron and Ohio along with a road game at Miami. While that gives them three home division games, they finish the year with road games at Ohio and CMU and that isn’t an easy closing stretch. In the non-conference slate, they play two away games at Wisconsin and Purdue but have two winnable home games against lesser opponents. Overall, the Huskies aren’t going to be as good defensively as they were in 2008 but they should be stronger on offense. Furthermore, they have a reasonable schedule which will give them a chance at postseason play. I expect the Huskies to be a good middle of the pack team in the MAC and I think that they have a decent chance at finishing bowl eligible if they can repeat last year’s .500 conference record.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. WMU, Oct. 31st vs. Akron, Nov. 12th vs. Ball State, Nov. 21st vs. Ohio, Nov. 27th vs. CMU

 

 

  • Ball State Cardinals (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

David Letterman’s Alma Mater had the best year in school history, finishing the regular season unbeaten and rising as high as #12 in the polls. However, a shocking title loss to Buffalo (where the Bulls had two fumble returns longer than 80 yards for touchdowns to totally change a game that Ball State was dominating yardage wise) followed up by a blowout in the GMAC Bowl ended the season on a sour note. Even worse, Head Coach Brady Hoke, a former Ball State player, jumped ship to San Diego State and starting quarterback Nate Davis declared early for the NFL Draft. There will be some continuity, however, as Offensive Coordinator Stan Parrish was promoted and will hope to continue the Cardinals’ success.

The best way to describe the offense this year would be ‘inexperienced.’ Davis (and his 4,000 yards of offense and 31 touchdowns) is gone, the offensive line only brings back one starter and their leading returning receiver is a sophomore. However, the great news is that senior tailback MiQuale Lewis returns after running for over 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns and tacking on another 300+ yards on 35 catches as a 1 st Team All-MAC selection in 2008. He will undoubtedly be the focal point of the offense. There is further good news as well. The sophomore I mentioned at receiver is Briggs Orbson, who caught 68 passes for 800+ yards and five touchdowns last year as a freshman. Expect him to be options one, two and three for whomever win the quarterback battle. Still, this offense will definitely take a step back as there is virtually no experience at quarterback or on the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals put up 35 points per game last fall, a number that they won’t even come close to approaching in 2009.

The defense is a much brighter picture. After allowing less than 21 points per game last year, the Cardinals return their entire starting defensive line and 4 th leading tackler Davyd Jones at linebacker. This group allowed a solid 163 yards per game on the ground last fall and shouldn’t take a significant step back. The return of both starting safeties, senior Alex Knipp and sophomore Sean Baker (both of whom exceeded 90 tackles last fall and were the top two tacklers on the team), are both excellent in run support, boding well for the Cardinals to continue their strong play. However, they have to replace two All-MAC performers at cornerback so their pass defense could take a hit. However, Ball State should still field a very competitive defense this fall.

Their schedule is fairly reasonable, beginning with a manageable non-conference line up. Only a road trip to Auburn looks like a game that the Cardinals will be heavily favored to lose. The conference draw with the East is fairly tough though, as they host Ohio and Bowling Green while traveling to Temple. They also close the season with three weeknight games, two of which are on the road. While Ball State’s schedule isn’t terrible and their defense appears solid, their offense appears to me as perhaps the conference’s worst. It is hard to run the football with your 1 st Team All-MAC tailback if he doesn’t get blocking especially if he is 5’6” like Lewis. It is even harder to get the ball to your star receiver if you have a new quarterback playing behind a porous offensive line that won’t allow Orsbon time to run his routes. I can’t imagine Ball State competing for the division title or qualifying for a bowl with such an ineffective unit.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. Toledo, Oct. 24th @ EMU, Nov. 12th @ NIU, Nov. 24th @ WMU

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The MAC looks like it will be literally flipped on its collective head this year. Last year’s championship game participants, Ball State and Buffalo, both seem destined for 6 th place finishes in their respective divisions. Four teams will take the field with a new man in charge and new philosophies, so the balance of power could shift dramatically. Meanwhile, Central Michigan continues to seemingly stay above the fray and appears to be the clear-cut favorite to win its 3 rd conference title in 4 years thanks to a ton of talent and continuity in its program. Standing opposite the Chippewas in Detroit will likely be the Akron Zips, but they will have trouble containing the explosive LeFevour in what could be a record-breaking senior year.

The MAC is one of the most prominent leagues on ESPN during the week as the season winds down. In fact, most of the key tilts in November will take place Tuesday through Friday so the drama will play out in front of a national audience. When all the dust clears and everything is settled in early December, I fully expect Central Michigan to defeat Akron in the MAC Title Game and raise their 3 rd Conference Championship Trophy in the last four years.

 

 

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Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s newest staff writer. If you’d like to join his college football therapy group, email him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.

 

 

 


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