The MAC should again be a very competitive conference in 2003. Last year, eight of the fourteen teams in the MAC finished with a .500 or better league record, and seven of those eight finished with .500 or better overall records. Marshall and Toledo represented the MAC in postseason bowl games, with the Thundering Herd clobbering Louisville and Boston College doing the same to the Rockets. Though Marshall WRs Josh Davis and Darius Watts return after superb 2002 seasons, QB Byron Leftwich is gone, and that could open the door for another team to take the MAC East title.
Central Florida may be the best bet to take the top spot in the East this season. The Knights have a favorable schedule with what will likely be the other two top teams in the East, Marshall and Miami (OH), coming to Orlando for late-season matchups. Twelve starters return from last season, and even though only four are from offense, two of them, QB Ryan Schneider and RB Alex Haynes, are two of the best at their respective positions in the conference. Both should capture all-conference honors at season's end. UCF has never been to a bowl game, but this could finally be the year.
Led by junior stud QB Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (OH) could sneak towards the top of the conference standings again this year. Fourteen starters (7 each on offense and defense) return from the third-place 7-5 team from last season. RB Luke Clemens, who scored 17 TDs last year, will try to rush for over 1,000 yards for the second straight season.
Akron (4-8), Kent State (3-9), Ohio (4-8), and Buffalo (1-11) all had disappointing seasons in 2002 but will try to right the ship in '03. Probably the best team to have a chance to do so is Akron. The Zips have five very winnable games at home this year, three of which are MAC contests, and seventeen starters return from last year's team, including all eleven on offense. Kent State also has a favorable home schedule though only ten starters return. Ohio and Buffalo are still expected to dwindle near the bottom of the conference and D-I. Both teams return a decent number of starters but will struggle to make noise in the conference or in out of conference contests.
Over in the MAC West, Northern Illinois and Toledo are teh front-runners for the division title. Both teams finished 7-1 in the league, but Toledo advanced to the MAC Championship Game thanks to their regular season-ending win at NIU. The Huskies return thirteen players, seven on offense and six on defense. The biggest name on the team and possibly in the conference, though, is RB Michael Turner. "Turner the Burner" finished last season with nearly 2,000 yards and 20 TDs. A home game against Maryland to open the season won't matter in the MAC standings, but like the non-conference win over Wake Forest last season, this win would mean more to NIU than anyone could imagine. The Huskies don't have to face any of the powers from the East but must go to Bowling Green and Toledo.
The Rockets return only twelve players from 2002. The running back spot was held down by three freshmen last year which should mean good news for years to come in Toledo. Sophomore Astin Martin may be the best of the group at only 5'8" and 180lbs. Toledo's non-conference slate is tough with road trips to UNLV and Syracuse, but the highlight of the season may be a home visit from Big East-power Pitt. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan must travel to Toledo, though the Rockets must also visit Marshall and Bowling Green.
Speaking of the Falcons, BGSU and WMU make up the second tier of the MAC West, though it is only slightly behind the top two teams. Bowling Green is led by reigning-MAC Offensive Player of the Year senior QB Josh Harris who accounted for 39 TDs last year, 20 rushing and 19 passing. Two Big Ten road games at Purdue and Ohio State should get the Falcons ready for MAC play. Trips to WMU and Miami (OH) won't be easy, nor will visits from NIU and Toledo.
Western Michigan is coming off of a disappointing 4-8 season in which they won only three conference games. Add to that the fact that only 10 starters return, and it looks like WMU could be in for another down season. RB Phillip Reed gained over 1,000 yards last season and will have to carry a huge load on this year's team. Road games at NIU and Toledo will either knock the Broncos out or keep them in the race.
Ball State had a good season in 2002, winning six games and finishing .500 overall. Twelve starters return from last year's team. An early-season home visit could get some momentum going in Muncie if BSU pulls the upset, but that isn't likely. The Cards have one of the toughest schedules in the conference, traveling to NIU and WMU as well as hosting Miami (OH), Toledo, and Bowling Green.
Central Michigan (4-8) and Eastern Michigan (3-9) are both coming off down seasons in 2002. The Chippewas return twelve starters, the Eagles 17. Both teams should continue to struggle in the MAC this year with obvious talent ahead of them in the league and division.