The big question in 2008 is, “Will the MAC be back?” Okay, that is not the burning question on the minds of college football fans this year. (I think that question is, "What will I do if Ohio State makes another National Championship?") However, it is a valid issue for fans of teams in the Mid-American Conference. The MAC was once a proud conference full of teams with ‘giant killing’ ability. I do not mean that they could slay 20-feet tall mythical creatures. I mean they could beat BCS conference foes. In the early 2000s, MAC teams consistently beat BCS conference teams. In 2007, the MAC went 5-37 against BCS schools. Those five wins came against Minnesota, Syracuse, Iowa, and Iowa State (twice). The conference is very compelling and competitive within itself. However, they have lost the ability to compete with the big boys.
Nevertheless, MAC conference play will be very interesting in 2008. Central Michigan and Ball State are the favorites in the West. Behind them are three teams that do not know exactly how good they will be this season (Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Western Michigan). All three teams are coming off losing seasons, mostly due to decimating injuries. Eastern Michigan, who has not had a winning season since 1995, will likely finish at the bottom of the standings again. The East is Miami’s to lose. They do not have a team like Ball State or Central Michigan to contend with them. However, they do not have the division locked up. Buffalo, Temple, Bowling Green, and Kent State are all solid teams. One of these teams will step up and challenge Miami for a spot in the MAC championship game. Akron and Ohio will likely take small steps back in 2008.
1. Quarterback play. The team that has the best quarterback play wins the MAC. The past two MAC titles have been won by Central Michigan, led by star quarterback Dan LeFevour. It was Akron and Luke Getsy in 2005. Toledo and Bruce Gradkowski in 2004. Miami (OH) and Ben Roethlisberger in 2003. I could go on and on. All these championship teams had the best quarterback in the conference under center. The MAC has a heap of great quarterbacks (Dan LeFevour, Nate Davis, Tyler Sheehan to name a few). One quarterback will rise about the rest, and he will take his team with him.
2. Which team that is not expected to be in the top-tier of the conference will jump to the summit of the standings? Bowling Green, Buffalo, Temple, Kent State, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Toledo all have teams that could sneak up to the top of the standings. Realistically, only one or two of these teams will be able to challenge the top teams. Bowling Green is one of my picks. Northern Illinois is my other (read their breakdowns for my reasons). These may or may not be the right teams, but someone in each division is going to surprise. Schedules will play a large role.
3. Which team will find a shutdown defense? If you asked me what is the weakness of each MAC team, I would say it is there defense (Miami and Temple are the only exceptions). Last year, six MAC teams were 90th or worse in total defense. Only two were 60th or better. Every team gave up over 25 points per game. I know some of these numbers are exaggerated by playing tough out of conference opponents, however, most of it is just evidence of poor defense. If a MAC team can match a solid defense with a dynamic offense, something most MAC teams posses, they will be nearly unstoppable.
OFFENSE: Akron’s offense was disappointing in 2007. They ranked 90th and 100th in rushing offense and passing offense. Quarterback Chris Jacquemain will not be splitting time now that Carlton Jackson has transferred to Morgan State. He needs to improve as an offensive threat after throwing 11 touchdowns last year (and 10 interceptions). Dennis Kennedy, who ran for 914 yards and nine touchdowns in 2006, struggled last season. He only carried the ball 46 times. Alex Allen and Bryan Williams carried the load last year, but Kennedy will get a shot at redemption in 2008. He will run behind a solid offensive line that returns four starters. Elliot Bates, who played in several games last year, will take over at center. The Zips lack a big time receiver after the departure of Jabari Arthur. Former safety Andre Jones will attempt to step in and replace the departed All-MAC wideout. Speedy West Virginia transfer Jeremy Bruce will be asked to make an impression right away.
DEFENSE: Akron’s 3-3-5 defense returns four starters. As a freshman, defensive end Almondo Sewell collected three sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Iowa transfer Ryan Bain will add some skill to the defensive line. Two linebackers return, Kevin Grant and Doug Williams. Grant is the team’s returning leading tackler. The defensive backs do not return any starters, but that does not mean that all is lost. Former running back Bryan Williams (led the team in rushing yards in 2007) will make the move to safety in 2008. Brandon Anderson and Miguel Graham will step in to the role of starting corners. These athletic yet undersized seniors will need to play well if Akron plans on shutting down MAC foes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Igor Iveljic nailed 15-18 field goals last year, including a 51-yarder. Punter John Stec needs to improve on his 37.5 yards per punt average. Akron has a great return game. Bryan Williams was 2nd in the nation last year averaging 31.9 yards per kickoff return. Andre Jones averaged 14.5 yards per punt return last season.
COACHING: J.D. Brookhard is entering his 5th season at Akron. He won a MAC championship in 2005. Since that victory, Akron is 9-15. The staff has done a solid job of moving players around and finding JUCO players to come in and fill holes.
SCHEDULE: Akron has winnable out of conference games at Syracuse and at Army. They host Ball State in week three, an early conference test for the Zips. Past that game, they get Bowling Green, Toledo, and Buffalo at home.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Dennis Kennedy had a very good 2006 season. Most people thought 2007 would be his breakout year. It just did not happen. Now that Bryan Williams has moved to safety, the door is open for Kennedy to revert back to his 2006 ways.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Akron could get to .500 in 2008. They have some winnable out of conference games and have a favorable conference schedule. Their last five games are all winnable. If the offense can become a threat, Akron will have a solid season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Akron has a good offense and a good defense. I would not say that they have a great offense or great defense. This will probably hold Akron back like it did in 2007. Replacing All-MAC performers Reggie Corner and Jabari Arthur will be difficult.
MAKE OR BREAK: In 2007, Akron got inside the opponents 20-yard line 37 times. They only managed to score 14 touchdowns in those 37 attempts. The Zips need to solidify an offensive attack to have success this season.
OFFENSE: You may know Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour, but do you know of Ball State’s Nate Davis? In 2007, he threw 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He has the strongest arm in the conference. Davis has some great targets to throw to. Dante Love caught 100 balls last season. Love has serious speed and solid hands. Tight end Darius Hill is a great NFL prospect. At 6-6 235 lbs., Hill caught 65 passes for 925 yards in 2007. His eleven touchdowns led the team. Running back MiQuale Lewis has been injured the past two seasons at Ball State. At 5-6 184, he is fragile and lacks durability. However, before his injury in 2007, he was averaging over five yards per carry. Speedbacks Frank Edmonds and Cory Sykes are good backups. The offensive line is one of the best in the conference. They return all five linemen. However, look for freshman Kreg Hunter to start at right guard over senior Kyle Cornwell.
DEFENSE: The Ball State defense gets stronger as you move back. The weak point of the defense is the line. Defensive end Brandon Crawford (31 years old) is solid. He led the team in sacks and tackles for loss last season. On the other end, sophomore Justin Woodard will use his speed to get into the backfield and help out Crawford. Linebacker Bryant Haines returns after leading the team with 125 tackles, nine for loss. Kenny Meeks also returning after making 39 tackles and four sacks last year. The strength of the defense is the back four. Three starters return, including corners B.J. Hill and Trey Lewis. They combined for 10 interceptions last year, which makes up for more than half of what the team collected (19). Safety Alex Knipp returns after an 82 tackles campaign in 2007. Free Safety Derrick Henry will be inexperienced but he is very athletic. He will only add to the defense’s playmaking ability.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Miller is arguably the nation’s best punter. Last year, he averaged over 45 yards per punt. He put 23 punts inside the 20. Jake Hogue will likely continue to take the field goals. He was 11-19 last year. Dante Love and B.J. Hill handle the returns.
COACHING: Brady Hoke has his best team in his six years at Ball State. The former Michigan assistant is 22-37 since he arrived on campus. Ball State’s 7-6 record in 2007 was the best under Hoke. This may be his last chance for a while at a record like that if Davis departs with Love and Hill after the season.
SCHEDULE: Ball State’s conference schedule is the only thing that will keep them from winning the MAC West. They have to finish the season at Miami, at Central Michigan, and home against Western Michigan. Ball State has the team to win the MAC, but the bottom half of the schedule is unfavorable.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Linebacker Davyd Jones had a very good spring after limited playing time in 2007. He may not start right away, but look for the sophomore to impress early and see the field more and more as the season goes on. His quickness is his most likable characteristic.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Ball State can win the MAC in 2008. They have the best offense in the MAC (if Lewis can stay healthy). Their defense is not great, but they just need to keep teams under 30 points. If they can stay unbeaten in conference play heading into the game at Oxford, Ohio, anything can happen.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The defense might cost Ball State a game or two it should win. The kicking game will have its ups and downs as well. Ball State should do no worse than 2nd in the West.
MAKE OR BREAK: The final three games will decide the MAC West standings. A November 19th meeting with CMU is going to be one of the best games in college football this year.
OFFENSE: BGSU is another school that does not need to worry about putting points on the board. Quarterback Tyler Sheehan had a strong sophomore year in 2007. He threw for 3264 yards last season as well has 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Falcons return all of their top receiving threats. Wideout Freddie Barnes caught 82 passes in 2007. Corey Partridge and Chris Wright are also solid targets for Sheehan. Running back Anthony Turner averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a junior. Now a senior, Turner is a top rusher in the MAC that makes the opposing defense respect both the run and the pass. The offensive line is the weak link on offense. They lose three starters. Freshman Ben Bojicic is expected to start at center. The new tackles will have little starting experience as well.
DEFENSE: The BGSU defense is hard to read (I do not mean like how a QB would read them during a game). They kept five opponents under 22 points last season. However, they gave up 63 points to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. The defense returns nine starters. The defensive line is led by defensive end Diyral Briggs. Briggs and Angelo Magnone make a strong pair of defensive ends that can get to the quarterback. Linebacker Erique Dozier led the team with 112 tackles last season. He also had nine tackles for loss and two interceptions. Fellow linebacker John Haneline is back after missing the final four games in 2007. He collected 96 tackles in 9 games last year, The front seven needs to improve at stopping the run. BGSU had the 109th ranked rush defense last year. The secondary returns all four starters. P.J. Mahone, a former linebacker, had a great 2007 season. He made 90 tackles and seven interceptions. Corners Kenny Lewis and Antonio Smith make up a formidable force in the secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Sinisa Vrvilo made all but four of his 19 field goal attempts in 2007. Punter Nick Iovinelli only averaged 38 yards per punt last season. He needs to work on improving his leg strength so he can lengthen the field for opposing offenses. The return game was nothing special in 2007. Antonio Smith will look to improve the punt return situation.
COACHING: Gregg Brandon has an impressive 38-24 record in his first five years at BGSU. Entering his sixth season, Brandon is building a solid program. He went 20-6 in his first two seasons, living off the success of Urban Meyer. He struggled in 2005 and 2006, but saved face with a 8-5 2007. He is showing he can run the program with his own recruits.
SCHEDULE: BGSU has a tough out of conference schedule. They play at Pittsburgh and at Boise State. They host Minnesota and Wyoming. In conference play, they get Miami and Kent State at home.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Ben Boijcic will take over at center for Kory Lichtensteiger (a fourth round pick). Boijcic needs to step up and learn what it takes to become a leader. The key to the BGSU offense lies within the offensive line.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... BGSU could win the MAC East. They get Miami and Kent State at home. They have the ability to offensively dominate most of their opponents. They return 19 starters if you include their punter and kicker. BGSU could surprise some people in 2008.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Their defense, which gave up 424 yards per game last season, could be a problem. Early season games against Pittsburgh and Boise State might hurt the Falcon’s confidence. Still, this team should finish over .500 unless injuries decimate the offensive line.
MAKE OR BREAK: Anthony Turner needs to continue to be a running threat as well as a stable receiving threat. His presence makes defense respect the running aspect of the BGSU offense. He is the most versatile player in the league.
OFFENSE: Buffalo will make huge strides offensively in 2008. Last year, they averaged 24.5 points per game. I look for that to number to reach around 30. Drew Willy has started all four years at quarterback. In his first year as starter, he threw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Last season, Willy threw 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. He is a great leader and decision-maker. He has some good receivers to spread the ball around to. Naaman Roosevelt caught 63 passes for 766 yards in 2007. He and Ernest Jackson make up a tremendous duo that found the end zone a combined ten times last season. The offensive line returns four starters, including right guard Jeff Niedermier. He will anchor a solid line that will be opening holes for running back James Starks. Starks eclipsed the 1000 yard mark last season. He reached pay dirt 14 times last season (rushing and receiving).
DEFENSE: Buffalo returns eight starters from a defense that showed promise in 2007. They managed to keep some teams in the teens and twenties (Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Kent State, and Ohio). They were often worked by the big boys (Miami, Bowling Green, and Ball State). The linebackers young and inexperienced. Two freshman, Obi Ezemma and John Syty, will start next to sophomore Justin Winters. The lack of experience is very scary. The line will be anchored by three seniors, including clogger Ronald Hilaire. Hilaire was excellent at tackle last year. He made a career high 45 tackles. Mike Thompson, a senior, will attempt to replace star defensive end Trevor Scott. The secondary returns all of their starters. Safety Davonte Shannon led the team in tackles with 123 as a freshman in 2007. He also collected three interceptions and ten tackles for loss. Free Safety Mike Newtown returns after leading the team with four interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A.J. Principe made a surprising 15 out of 20 field goals as a freshman. The punting duties are up for grabs after the departure of Ben Woods. Freshman Peter Fardon will try to have a rookie season like Principe. Naaman Roosevelt is a good kick returner (22.4 yards) who needs to improve on his punt returns (7.6 yards).
COACHING: Buffalo found a diamond in the rough when they hired Turner Gill in 2006. A former Nebraska assistant, Gill struggled in in his first year going 2-10. In 2007, he led the Bulls to a 5-3 conference record, tying MAC East champion Miami. Luckily for Buffalo, Nebraska hired Bo Pelini in 2007. Gill is building a winner in Buffalo, New York.
SCHEDULE: Buffalo plays UTEP, Pittsburgh, Missouri, and Amry out of conference. Two wins here would be outstanding. Buffalo gets Temple, Miami, and Kent State at home. They need two wins here to contend for a MAC championship. They have to travel to Central Michigan in week 5.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Davonte Shannon will continue to impress in 2008. He had one of the best freshman years in MAC history in 2007. Shannon is the real deal and it will be fun watching him get better and better over the next three years.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Buffalo could win another five games in conference play. They have a solid quarterback, great playmakers, and a reliable offensive line. A MAC East title might be out of reach, but that is more due to a tough conference schedule than anything else.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The defense will be young and inexperienced. If they cannot stop opponents like CMU, Miami, Bowling Green, Kent State, and Western Michigan, upsets will be tough to come by.
MAKE OR BREAK: If Buffalo pulls off an upset in week five and beats CMU, the whole makeup of the MAC will be rearranged. That game means a lot to the Bulls.
OFFENSE: There is not much to say about Central Michigan’s offense that MAC foes do not already know. It is nearly unstoppable. Dan LeFevour is a stellar dual-threat quarterback. In 2007, he threw for 27 touchdowns and ran for 19. He is the only other quarterback besides Vince Young to throw for 3000 yards and run for 1000 yards. His main targets return, Antonio Brown and Bryan Williams. Brown caught 102 passes in 2007, while Anderson found the end zone 10 times. The offensive line will return four starters. Left tackle Andrew Hartline is a four year starter who has made All-MAC honors two years in a row. Iowa State transfer Joe McMahon will take over at right guard. Carl Volny and Ontario Sneed will split carries. They form a very dangerous running duo.
DEFENSE: Central Michigan’s defense is the thing holding them back from being a top 25 team. They cannot hang with the big boys because of their defense. They gave up over 45 points against Purdue both times they played them in 2007. The defense returns eight starters. The defensive line returns three starters including defensive end Frank Zombo. Zombo is a great pass rusher, collecting 7.5 sacks in 2007. The tackles are small and will likely struggle stopping the run. Sophomore Nick Bellore returns after making 102 tackles as a freshman. They lose Red Keith and Ike Brown, both All-MAC selections. Sophomore Matt Berning will step in for Keith in the middle. Junior Tim Brazzel, a small 185 lbs., will not add any size taking over for Brown. The secondary returns several players with starting experience, including corner Josh Gordy. He led the team last season with four interceptions, one of which he took to the house.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Andrew Aguila returns after going 9-14 in the field goal department. He also nailed all of his extra points. Punter Brett Hartmann will get a shot at starting in 2008. He has a strong leg and will likely takeover the kickoff duties as well. Antonio Brown is a dynamic returner.
COACHING: Butch Jones had a solid first year as head coach. He led CMU to its second MAC championship. The former West Virginia assistant will likely have long lasting success at Central Michigan. Still, it helps to have a QB like LeFevour waiting for you in your first few years as a head coach.
SCHEDULE: CMU will have a chance to redeem itself against out of conference foes in 2008. They travel to Georgia, Purdue, and Indiana. In conference play, they get Ball State at home. This game will likely decide the West division.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Taylor Bradley is a sophomore receiver who only caught ten catches in a shortened season. He will likely be CMU’s third or fourth best receiver. He will be the recipient of open space due to the attention on Brown and Anderson. Look for Bradley to blossom into a dynamic slot receiver.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... CMU could win every game in conference play. They should be favored to win every game. Their offense will be impossible to stop. If LeFevour starts every game, CMU are the favorites to win the MAC.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The defense, which ranked 118th against the pass last year, needs to improve greatly if CMU wants to beat out Ball State in the West. CMU should do no worse than a bowl bid to the International Bowl.
MAKE OR BREAK: They host Ball State November 19th. That game will decide the season. The week before that, they have to travel to Northern Illinois. They need to avoid falling into that trap game.
OFFENSE: Andy Schmitt is a sturdy junior quarterback. He is mobile and has a pretty good arm. He is not the one holding Eastern Michigan back. It is the lack of playmakers on offense. Running back Pierre Walker is gone after gaining 839 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns last season. There are several options at running back, but nobody is sure who will come out as the new starting running back. Look for Terrance Blevins and speedy Dwayne Priest to get most of the carries. The receivers had trouble finding the end zone in 2007. The teams top returning wideout, Jacory Stone, only scored three touchdowns last season. Tyler Jones, a former quarterback, and DeAnthony White will attempt to solidify the unit. T.J. Lang and Andy Fretz return on the offensive line. They are joined by several other players with a good amount of starting and playing experience. The line should be solid.
DEFENSE: The defense gave up over 423 yards per game last season. However, they return eight starters and will likely improve. It all starts with linebacker Daniel Holtzclaw, who collected 125 tackles as a junior. Now a senior, Holtzclaw will be joined by Andre Hatchett (as long as he clears academically) and Jermaine Jenkins to form a solid trio of linebackers. The defensive line will have to replace 2nd round draft pick Jason Jones and defensive MVP Eric Young. Defensive end Spenser Smith will anchor the line. He will have to fight through a minor spring injury. Defensive tackle Josh Hunt is steady performer. He made 35 tackles, including 10 for loss, in 2007. The secondary returns several starters for last season. Kevin Long and Arrington Hicks will be the starting corners. They will be backed up by Lyle Garrison and Derrick Hunter. Both have starting experience.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior punter Zach Johnson averaged 42.1 per punt last season. 24 of his kicks pinned the opposing offense inside the 20. He will share the kicking duties with Sean Dutcher. The return game needs to be more productive. Dontayo Gage is not a bad kick returner.
COACHING: Jeff Genyk is 13-33 entering his fifth season at EMU. He has not had anything better than a four-win season. The fans are not pleased with Genyk. He has received a contract extension since arriving at EMU. However, the fans rule the college football world and he will be under pressure to reach .500 this season.
SCHEDULE: EMU has winnable out of conference games against Indiana State and at Army. They get Toledo, Akron, and Northern Illinois at home. Late season games against Western Michigan, Ball State, and Central Michigan will be rough.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER... Look for speedy sophomore, Dwayne Priest, to emerge as the elite running back for the Eagles. He will be a threat running and catching. If he has a good year, so will EMU.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... EMU could win five or six games this season. They won three MAC games last year, and they could do it again. If the defensive line is steady, the Eagles could be flying near a .500 season in 2008.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Eastern Michigan is fairly deep, but they lack big time playmakers. Holtzclaw and Schmitt will try to will this team to a .500 season, but it is unlikely. They currently lack the talent that the middle to top MAC schools have.
MAKE OR BREAK: The running backs and receivers need to do better at making big plays and finding the end zone. White, Jones, and Stone make a solid group of pass catchers. Priest and Blevins will be a respectable rushing duo. These players need to step their game up.
OFFENSE: Last year’s best running back in the MAC, Eugene Jarvis, was the nations 5th leading rusher. He ran for 1669 yards and 10 scores. The 5-5 running back will need to have another outstanding season for Kent State to compete in the MAC. Scrambling quarterback Julian Edelman needs to improve his passing accuracy. He threw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2007. He barely completed 50 percent of his passes. He also has trouble staying healthy. Look for sophomore Giorgio Morgan to see some time this season. The receivers were nothing special last season. Jarvis is the teams returning leading receiver. The offensive line returns three starters. Left tackle August Parrish will anchor a line that has to give Edelman more time so he can be effective.
DEFENSE: The defense returns eight starters and should be one of the best units in the MAC. Derek Burrell returns as the teams leading tackler (112). Three seniors will start at linebacker. Defensive end Kevin Hogan is 6-3 223 lbs.. He is a mix between linebacker and defensive end. He has speed to get off the line quick and bother the opposing quarterback. Monte Simmons, a rotation man on the defensive line, is built very similarly. The defensive backs have the ability to be the strength of the defense. They have several players with starting experience returning. Sophomore safety Brian Lainhart made 63 tackles and two interceptions as a freshman last season. The secondary needs to force more turnovers. Kent State only made nine interceptions last season (two by linebackers, three by departed Jack Williams).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jake Kilroy only averaged 36.5 yards per punt in 2007. He will pushed by freshman Matt Rinehart for the starting job. Junior Nate Reed nailed 18 out of 24 field goals. Kent State struggled in the return department and needs to make some serious improvements.
COACHING: Doug Martin is 15-31 entering his fifth season as coach. He has had one .500 season, in 2006. Martin is feeling the heat to get Kent State to the top of the MAC standings. Martin has handed the offense over to A.J. Pratt, a long time KSU assistant. This is a smart move. Martin can now focus on both sides of the ball.
SCHEDULE: KSU Could go 3-1 out of conference (Boston College, Iowa State, Deleware State, La-Lafayette). They have to travel to Ball State, Miami, Bowling Green, and Buffalo.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Julian Edelman needs to get better as a passer if the Flashes want to win the MAC East. He is a senior this year, so I look for him to grow up as a decision maker. He has to find a good mix of knowing when to drop it down and run and when to stay in the pocket. Kent State needs consistency at quarterback.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Kent State could find themselves battling Miami for a MAC East title. They have a dominate rushing attack and a solid MAC defense. Can they go from worst to first? Miami did in 2006-2007.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... They do have tough out of conference schedule. The passing game is very unstable. Kent State might get lost in the shuffle of the middle teams in the MAC East (BGSU, Buffalo, and Temple).
MAKE OR BREAK: Road games against BGSU and Buffalo will decide weather Kent State will finish above .500 in conference play. If Miami struggles and gets upset (a few times) during the season, the Flashes could find themselves stumbling upon the top of the MAC East.
OFFENSE: This is the only MAC team where I have more faith in there defense than their offense. In 2007, Miami averaged 19.23 points per game. They return eight starters from that squad. The running game loses its top three rushers from last year. That is a good thing. None of those running backs ran for over 500 yards. Thomas Merriweather will get most of the carries. He averaged 3.9 yards a carry in 2007. Daniel Raudabaugh threw 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season. Look for him to mature during his junior year. He will be throwing to a group of sophomores (one junior as well) that will be more experienced, which will help the Redhawk’s offense. Junior Dustin Woods and sophomore Eugene Harris can become a solid duo this season. The receivers need to get better if Miami wants to contend with the likes of Ball State and Central Michigan. Bob Gulley (right guard) and Zachary Marshall (right tackle) will fill the two openings on the offensive line. The line needs to open holes for the running backs that could use a little help finding space to run.
DEFENSE: The defense was strong last season. They kept seven teams under 25 points. They returns nine starters. The linebackers are strong. Joey Hudson , Clayton Mullins, and Caleb Bostic make up the best linebacker group on a non-BCS conference team. In 2007, they combined for 344 tackles. The Redhawks led the conference in sacks last season. Senior defensive end Joe Coniglio had 6.5 sacks and 40 tackles as a junior. Travis Craven and Morris Council are also talented ends that will keep quarterbacks on edge. Miami has to replaced Jerrid Gaines, a top MAC corner. Junior Wendell Brunson will attempt to step in and improve upon Miami’s pass defense which was 25th in the nation last season. The safeties and defensive tackles are experienced and talented. You could say that about the whole Miami defense. I look for them to shut down even more opponents in 2008.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Jake Richardson averaged 45 yards per punt last season, which ranked 6th in the nation. Kicker Nathan Parseghian made 13 out of 20 field goals last season. Against Ohio, Parseghian was 5 for 5. Eugene Harris, who averaged over 9 yards a pop last season, is a solid punt returner.
COACHING: Shane Montgomery went 7-4 in his first season at Miami. He followed that with a disastrous 2-10 record in 2006. However, he kept his cool and led the Redhawks to a MAC title berth in 2007. I think he has found stability and will continue to have Miami at the top of the standings.
SCHEDULE: Miami will have tough out of conference battles early (Vanderbilt, at Michigan, at Cincinnati). They have to travel to Northern Illinois (Oct. 11th) and Bowling Green (Oct 18th). These will be telling tests for Miami.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Eugene Harris had a solid 2007 campaign. However, Miami did not have a go-to receiver. I think Harris will slowly fill that role in 2008. He has excellent returns skills and will progress as a wide receiver as the season goes deep into conference play.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Miami should win the MAC East. Their defense has the ability to stifle opposing MAC teams. If the offense can get things going more consistently, there will be no stopping Miami in the East.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The lack of running game might come back and haunt Miami in 2008. If the offense fails to improve, the defense will feel the pressure. A few upsets here and there could catapult another team, like Bowling Green, ahead of the Redhawks.
MAKE OR BREAK: The offense. We know the defense will be strong. Stronger than it was last season. We do not know that about the offense. If Miami’s offense can consistently score in the mid 20s and low 30s, they could run away with the MAC East.
OFFENSE: Dan Nicholson will likely get the starting nod at quarterback for the Huskies. However, DeMarcus Grady and Chandler Harnish have athleticism, something Nicholson lacks. Look for one of these two to get some snaps during the season. Justin Anderson took over for Montell Clanton, who tore his ACL in week two, and worked wonders. He ran for over 1200 yards and eight scores. These two will split carries, but Anderson is a star and will carry the majority of the load. The receivers are productive, when healthy (that can be said for the whole NIU roster). Matt Simon and Britt Davis are two very good receivers. Simon led the team with 52 catches for 969 yards. The rest of the wide outs and tight ends are either nursing injuries or fighting for position on the depth chart. I look for a big improvement out of the receiving department. Junior Jon Brost returns to anchor a solid line that returns four starters. The offense is going to be much better, if it can stay healthy of course.
DEFENSE: Speaking of injuries, meet the NIU defense. They were decimated by injuries last season. Led by a future NFL draft pick, defensive end Larry English, the defense can only get better after finishing 97th in the nation in total defense. English had 10.5 sacks in 2007. He will have another All-MAC season. The rest of the line needs to step up. Especially Brandon Bice on the other end position. Defensive tackle Craig Rusch will look to make an impact after being hurt for most of last season. Linebacker Tim McCarthy made 111 tackles in 2006. He was hurt in 2007, like many others. He and last years leading tackler Alex Kube (who played safety in 2007) will lead a very good linebackers core. Josh Allen and Cory Hanson add depth to the position. They can come in as rotation players and perform like starters. The secondary will have to replace safety Alex Kube. Mike Sobol will likely fill that spot, after missing last season. Chase Carter, Bradley Pruitt, and Melvin Rice make a solid group of corners.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Mike Salerno will take over the kicking duties after transferring from Winona State. Reliable punter Andy Dittbenner averaged 43.5 yards a punt last season. The return game needs to improve.
COACHING: Jerry Kill (one of the most intimidating names ever, and it sounds like ‘jheri curl’) is entering his first year at NIU. Before NIU, he was at SIU, Southern Illinois. He turned that program around and then left for greener pastures. I look for Kill to have success early at NIU. He will look good after taking a 2-10 team to around .500, at least.
SCHEDULE: NIU has winnable out of conference games against Indiana State and Navy (tough games against Minnesota and Tennessee). They get Miami, Bowling Green, and Central Michigan at home. However, they have to travel to Western Michigan, Ball State, and Kent State. That is a tough schedule, but NIU has the talent to be a top MAC team.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Dan Nicholson has experience, but he has yet to put up big time stats. He needs to avoid the interceptions and become more consistent. If he has a strong year, NIU is in good shape. They do not need a QB controversy.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... If NIU can stay healthy, they are one of the best teams in the MAC. They have a chance to beat the top teams (CMU, Miami, Bowling Green, Ball State). If they can pull off some upsets, they could sneak to the top of the standings.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... NIU fans do not want to think about experiencing another season like 2007. The passing game has a lot of question marks, as does the secondary. If NIU struggles to stop and throw the ball through the air, they might fall under .500.
MAKE OR BREAK: STAY HEALTHY! If NIU wants to have a 2006-like season, they just need to stay healthy. They have the depth and ability to play with the best of the MAC.
OFFENSE: Ohio has two solid quarterbacks for 2008. JUCO transfer Boo Jackson had an average spring, but his mobility and JUCO record is very appealing. Theo Scott returns from last year as backup to Brad Bower. He also has good mobility. Will one step up and become the lone starter? Only time will tell. The running back situation is more important to Ohio’s success. Last year, Kelvin McRae ran for 1434 yards and 19 touchdowns. He is gone, and there is no definite replacement. 5-8 174 lbs. Chris Garrett is the likely day one starter. He is a former receiver with blazing speed. Vince Davidson, Donte Harden, and L.J. Flintall (all under 195 lbs) will also get carries. The tight ends are the most reliable pass catchers. Andrew Mooney caught nine touchdowns last season. David Carter caught 19 passes for 299 yards. There is no go-to receiver. Taylor Price is the best of the bunch. He needs to improve upon his 33 catch 2007 season. The right side of the line will see two new starters in 2008. Michael Phillbin and Chris Rodgers will try to be steady performers and attempt to open holes for the new running backs.
DEFENSE: Ohio’s defense, which returns seven starters, gave up 407 yards and nearly 30 points per game. The strength of the defense lies in the back four. Mark Parson and Julian Posey are a tremendous duo at corner. Parson broke up a team high seven passes last year. Linebacker Mike Brown is a skilled pass defender, but he is also a solid tackler. The rest of the linebackers are good and experienced. In the front seven, depth is a huge advantage. The defensive line is led by Jameson Hartke, who had a better sophomore year than a junior year. Conor Reilly and Kris Luchsinger will share time at the other end spot. Defensive tackle Ernie Hodge returns after being suspended from the team last season. He will play a vital role in enhancing Ohio’s run defense which gave up over 186 yards per game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Matt Schulte averaged 37 yards a punt last season. Look for him to stretch that average near 40 yards in 2008. Barrett Way or Matthew Weller are fighting for the kicking job, with Way having a slight edge. The return game was good at times last season, but with the departure of Joshua Abrams, Ohio might struggle in this area of their special teams.
COACHING: Frank Solich is the best coach in the MAC. His 58-19 record at Nebraska was fantastic. He was unfairly fired and Ohio was fortunate enough to snag him. He is building a very good program at Ohio. Bobcat fans are lucky to have such an experienced and talented coach.
SCHEDULE: Ohio could win two out of conference games (at Wyoming and home against VMI). Ohio has to travel to Western Michigan, Kent State, and Miami. They need to win games against Temple, Buffalo, and Akron to reach .500 like they did in 2007.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Keep an eye on Mike Brown during is senior year. I am expecting him to have a tremendous season as a leader. The defense needs to be able to come together around a star. Brown is that possible star. Watch for his stats to improve in 2008.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Ohio has a deep defense and a top-notch coach. They might not win the MAC East, but they definitely have a team that can make some noise and finish near the top of the standings.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The offense is full of question marks. I am not sure if Ohio is good enough to beat teams like CMU, Bowling Green, or Miami (all on Ohio’s schedule). They should do no worse than 5-7.
MAKE OR BREAK: Mid-season games against Western Michigan, Kent State, Temple, and Buffalo will play a huge role in deciding whether Ohio finishes with a winning record. They have to be able to beat the teams on their skill level.
OFFENSE: Temple’s offense was bad last year. How bad? 116th in scoring offense. 112th in total offense. 108th in rushing offense. Yes, that bad. With 10 starters returning, there is some room for improvement. Adam DiMichele had 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in eight games before an injury ending his season. He also has the ability to scramble when pressured. If he can stay healthy, Temple’s numbers will improve. Last season’s leading rusher, Jason Harper, is moving to another position. He will join Bruce Francis and Dy'Onne Crudup as wide receivers. Francis caught 47 balls for 731 yards in 2007. The running game will be led by Marquise Liverpool and Joe Jones. Ironically, Liverpool is a former receiver. The offensive line returns four starters, including star center Alex Derenthal. Sophomore Chris Tremel will take over at left guard.
DEFENSE: The defense rivals Miami’s defense as the best in the MAC. They ranked 44th nationally in total defense. They were 21st against the pass. Several starters return in the secondary. Temple had 14 interceptions last year, three by strong safety Dominique Harris. The defensive tackles are the strength of the line. Terrance Knighton and Andre Neblett combined for 17 tackles for loss last season. Linebacker Junior Galette led the team in sacks with 7.5. Alex Joseph made 66 tackles in 2007. I expect much bigger numbers from him. The other Joseph, Elijah Joseph, is also a very good linebacker. The defense is going to better than last year’s defense. That is a scary thought for their MAC foes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Jake Brownell made 13 out of 21 field goals. However, he needs to work on his range. Punter Jeff Wathne, who needs to work on his leg, averaged 38 yards per punt. Travis Shelton is a very good kick returner.
COACHING: Al Golden went 1-11 in his first year. That was an improvement over the 2005 0-11 Bob Wallace team. In 2007, they went 4-8, unprecedented for Temple in FBS play. It will be interesting to see if he can keep up the success.
SCHEDULE: Temple has both service academies (Army and Navy) on the schedule. They get Buffalo, Central Michigan, Kent State, and Miami (Oh) all on the road.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... I think we will see how good Adam DiMichele is in 2008. If he can stay healthy, the Temple Owl offense might breakout. Temple has to be able to pass the ball so the running duo of Jones and Liverpool can attempt to have success.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... After a four win season last year, why not shoot high? Temple returns nearly everyone. The defense will be great. Temple could reach six wins in 2008 if the offense gets better.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... This is Temple, so who knows if we can expect stability. The offense needs to help the defense by putting points on the board. The punting game has to improve. Temple could fall back into the 3 or 4 win area, but I have faith in the Owls.
MAKE OR BREAK: Temple and Buffalo are once laughable programs seemingly on the rise. Temple travels to Buffalo in week 3. This game will catapult one of these teams confidence. The winner of this game will have the inside track to contend in the East.
OFFENSE: Toledo was the MAC’s best offensive team in 2007. They averaged 448 yards per game. They put up 70 points against NIU. They lose 5 starters, including running back Jalen Parmele. His likely replacement will be DaJuane Collins. He averaged over 6.4 yards per carry last season in a back up role. I think Collins will explode in this upcoming season. Quarterback Aaron Opelt is very underrated. He is a good runner with a solid arm. He had great games against CMU, NIU, and EMU in 2007. He, like Collins, is only going to get better in 2008. Receivers Nick Moore and Stephen Williams combined for 15 touchdowns and 1900 yards. Look out for speedy freshman Tim Cortazzo. He is my pick for newcomer of the year. The offensive line returns three starters, but they lose anchor John Greco. Junior Jared Dewald will now be relied upon to be the leader of the front five.
DEFENSE: Bad. Ugly. Horrendous. Those are just a few ways to describe Toledo’s defense in 2007 which gave up an average of over 39 points per game. Seven starters return to the MAC’s worst defense. The defensive line will have to step up after finishing last in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss last year. Defensive end Sean Williamson returns after missing last season with an injury. He will add a much needed pass rush to the Rockets front four. The end position is deep (Derrick Summers, Albertson Alexandre, Alex Johnson, Douglas Westbrook), but the tackles lack size. Linebacker Archie Donald returns after missing last season. The sophomore is primed to have a big year. The back 5 (Toledo runs a 4-2-5 defense) was okay at times ranking 69th nationally in pass defense. Barry Church and Tyrell Herbert (who missed all of last season) make up a very talented safety duo. The defense will not shut down opponents, but they will be slightly better.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Alex Steigerwald nailed all 13 of his field goal attempts last season. He will need to prove that he has the leg to make field goals beyond 45 yards, but he is obviously very accurate. Punter Bill Claus will take over for Brett Kern, who averaged 46.1 yards a punt in 2007. The return game was weak last season. Nick Moore and DeJuane Collins will handle most of the returns.
COACHING: Tom Amstutz is the longest tenured coach in the MAC. His 55-32 record is very impressive. The past two 5-7 seasons were Amstutz first losing seasons at Toledo. He is a great coach with a sharp offensive mind. I really like Amstutz as a coach. I think he will be able to turn Toledo around in 2008.
SCHEDULE: Toledo will have upset on their mind when they travel to Arizona and host Fresno State in weeks 1 and 3. Toledo gets Ball State, CMU, Miami, and BGSU at home.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... I think Tim Cortazzo is going to have a fantastic freshman year for Toledo. He will benefit from an even better passing game. His speed will help him find open space. He will blossom in the slot position.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Toledo could slip into a bowl game if their defense improves. Their offense is going to be good again, especially if DaJuane Collins has a breakout year. Their schedule is very favorable. This team is one to keep an eye on during conference play.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If the defense does not improve, the Rockets might have another season like 2007. Another 5-7 season would be unpleasant for Toledo fans who are used to finishing at the top of the MAC standings. Replacing Brett Kern may be more troubling than some think.
MAKE OR BREAK: DaJuane Collins needs to pick off where Parmele left off in 2007. With Toledo’s fragile defense, the offense cannot skip a beat. The passing game will be fine. Collins will make sure the running game is fine too.
OFFENSE: Before Hiller’s sophomore season, I said “The 6’5 Hiller is the next great MAC QB.” Sadly, he did not have the breakout year I predicted. He threw for over 3000 yards and 20 touchdowns, but a disappointing 15 interceptions. He will have to avoid the interceptions if he wants to keep the job away from sophomore Drew Burdi. Running back Brandon West averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season while splitting time with Mark Bonds. He will get most of the carries, while Glenis Thompson will get a lot of short-yard carries. Senior Jamarko Simmons is a muscular 6-2 234lbs. He is a great receiver who caught 84 passes last season. 6-5 tight end Branden Ledbetter is one of the better tight ends in the MAC. He is a solid red zone target for Hiller. The offensive line is the weak link of the offense. They return two starters, Paul Wasikowski and Phillip Swanson. Freshman Anthony Parker will take over at right tackle.
DEFENSE: Western Michigan’s defense is very good at stopping the pass and getting to the quarterback. However, they had trouble stopping the run. They gave up an average of 179 yards per game on the ground. Luckily, the defense returns nearly everyone. All four linemen come back to the Bronco defense. Defensive ends Zach Davidson and Greg Marshall both had 6.5 sacks last season. The defensive tackles (Cody Cielenski and Nick Varcadipane) need to get better at clogging the middle and stopping the run. Linebacker Boston McCornell led the team in tackles in 2007. Dustin Duclo and Austin Pritchard join McCornell and form a very good trio of linebackers. The back four is the strength of the defense. Londen Fryar and Louis Delmas are All-MAC performers in the secondary. Opponents are going to have a very tough time throwing against Western Michigan.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Kelly, who nailed a game winner against Iowa last season, is ready to step into the full time role as place kicker. Ben Armer will look to replace Jim Laney, who averaged 43 yards per punt last season. Brandon West is a dynamic kick returner, who averaged nearly 26 yards a return last season.
COACHING: Bill Cubit has had a good start to his career at Western Michigan. He was 15-9 in his first two seasons, including trip to the International Bowl. Last season, the Broncos stumbled to a 5-7 record. He has promoted Steve Morrison to defensive coordinator. This is not a big change since he has been a WMU defensive assistant since 2002.
SCHEDULE: The Broncos have two very winnable out of conference games against Idaho and Tennessee Tech. They have to travel to Buffalo, CMU, and Ball State. They need to take advantage of home games against Toledo and Northern Illinois.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... If Tim Hiller can revert to his freshman season ways, Western Michigan can contend with Central Michigan and Ball State. However, if he continues to throw a lot of interceptions, the team will struggle with a quarterback controversy.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Western Michigan has a strong defense and a group of talented players on offense. I really think that they will battle it out with Ball State, Toledo, and Northern Illinois for 2nd and 3rd place in the West.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Hiller might struggle, which would hurt the offense’s confidence. A quarterback controversy would put pressure on the running game. The conference schedule is tough and might force WMU to have another losing season.
MAKE OR BREAK: The offensive line returns two starters. The other three need to step up and give Hiller time and open holes for West. If the offense can avoid turnovers and score around 30 points or more a game, they will give CMU and Ball State all they can handle.
So, will the MAC be back? It is unlikely that they will be able to revert to there ‘Giant Killing’ ways. The top teams may beat a few weaker BCS conference teams, but do not expect any big out of conference upsets (although keep an eye on Miami at Michigan in week two). Conference play will be very interesting. Will anyone be able to contend with Miami in the East? Will Ball State be able to take down two-time conference champ Central Michigan? Or will another team in the West surprise? I think that the stars are aligned for a Central Michigan/Miami rematch. LeFevour is arguably the most dynamic quarterback in college football. He has a ton of offensive weapons at his disposal. Miami’s defense is the best in the MAC and can carry them through the East division. The MAC is better than the Sun Belt, but no where near the Western Athletic Conference or Mountain Western Conference. Programs like Buffalo and Temple, once jokes of the college football world, are slowly building contenders. They both made huge improvements in 2007, and will continue to show visible progress this season. These two schools will play a vital role in improving the depth of competition in a conference that needs help gaining its reputation back.