Here is a look at each team for 2004 in the order I think they will finish.
Miami (10-1, 8-0) - After almost crashing the BCS party with a 13-1 final record, you would think it would be hard to follow that up. Well, don't expect much of a drop in ability even though QB Ben Roethlisberger has moved on to the NFL. Josh Betts steps in and will have a very talented WR corps to throw to. This team could do it again. With an early matchup with Michigan, they could send a big message to the college football world. If there is going to be another MAC Attack like in 2003, Miami will lead the charge. Their big challenge will be getting past Marshall away from Oxford.
Marshall (8-3, 7-1) - This is a different type of Herd squad compared to ones in years past. Expect more of an established ground game with RB Earl Charles running between the tackles. The Thundering Herd missed out on a lot of the 2003 MAC Attack accolades last year, but they are not going to miss it this year. There is no reason why Marshall cannot go unbeaten in the MAC. They have two key games vs Miami and Bowling Green. They could even pull off an upset vs one of the two BCS teams they are slated to play against.
UCF (6-5, 5-3) - My alma mater is rebuilding for the future. After being one of the nation's biggest disappointments in 2003, UCF overhauled the entire football program and brought in a big name coach in George O'Leary. There are some question marks at QB, but for the most part, this is still a loaded starting lineup. Should they avoid the injury bug, they could turn a few heads this year. Expect UCF to make more noise than most think and pull off a couple of upsets.
Akron (4-7, 4-4) - Akron is a tough one to figure out. They have a very talented QB in Charlie Frye, who could be regarded as one of the best in the nation. They have a great starting offensive line, but with no real depth and with severe question marks at WR, the offense will not be as strong as they were last year. The awful defense of last year will improve some as 6 of the front 7 will be returning. The secondary might have more trouble as there are no returning starters. I gave them 4th in the East because the offense will eventually click, but the defense has a long way to go.
Kent State (5-6, 4-4) - Kent State, despite having an offensive weapon in QB Joshua Cribbs, is still going to struggle to make noise in the MAC. The defense was terrible last year, being ranked 110th overall. However, the Golden Flashes seemed to play harder during big games. It seems that every other year, this team surprises people. They surprised many in 2001 and 2003, but this is 2004 and under a new head coach, there will be some improvement. KSU needs to upset some bigger teams in order for this season to be a success. While their overall record is predicted to be better than Akron, they won't win in their head-to-head matchup.
Buffalo (2-9, 2-6) - Believe it or not, but I am not putting Buffalo at the bottom of the East. There is a lot of returning talent. Their offense is strong and experienced with 9 returning starters. It's the best offense since they first went I-A. Their normally pathetic defense has 7 returning starters that will improve on their 37.1ppg allowed. This isn't a team that will make any noise in the MAC title standings, but they are finally moving forward.
Ohio (1-10, 1-7) - Ohio is in a transition season from their traditional option offense to a spread attack. As with any transition, there will be bumps on the way. A couple of key transfers should help ease the burden, but the schedule is rough. Talent wise, the offense is decent and might be able to pull in an upset win or two. The defense was terrible last year, and it doesn't look like that will improve this year. Ohio has their work cut out for them.
Northern Illinois (10-1, 8-0) - This team was so close to going to a bowl game, but they couldn't beat Bowling Green or Toledo and they got snubbed. This year's version is just as good as the last. After the opener vs Maryland, they could go unbeaten. Maryland is beatable, but this time, it will have to be done on Maryland's turf. The loss of RB Michael Turner will hurt, but there is plenty of other offensive talent to pick up the slack. The defense will keep them in games, and the offense will win them. They have a very soft schedule this year.
Toledo (9-2, 6-2) - Toledo is solid. Since their monster 10-1 year in 2000, Toledo has been on the national radar. This team was able to pull off a big BCS upset last year, but then lost key conference games they should have won. The Rockets open up vs Minnesota and could easily win this one. They should have at least one BCS team victory as they host Temple and play at Kansas. Toledo has the displeasure of playing at Miami and at NIU. Should they beat Northern Illinois, the West should be theirs. Toledo should win the head-to-head tiebreaker with Bowling Green.
Bowling Green (7-4, 5-3) - Bowling Green had a great season last year with QB Josh Harris. With him gone, it will be up to Omar Jacobs to step up and carry the slack. Jacobs should turn out just fine, but there are still many question marks around him. The Falcons have to play Toledo and NIU away, and that could spell defeat for the MAC West title hopes. Bowling Green can make a huge statement in week 1 with a game at Oklahoma.
Ball State (3-8, 3-5) - Ball State is not a bad team, but they have a bad schedule. This team is pretty vanilla with no standout pluses or minuses. They should beat all the Michigan teams and will give cross division opponents Akron and UCF a good fight. Their OOC slate is one of the toughest in the MAC, and that is going to make this decent squad look minor. This team is a year away from starting to become West contenders.
Eastern Michigan (4-7, 2-6) - The Eagles have been traditionally near the bottom of the MAC West over the past few years. While they get a I-A win or two every year, they have never been able to put together anything consistently. This year won't be much different. EMU has a new coaching staff and a rising star in RB Anthony Sherrell. I saw him play against UCF, and he's a good player. EMU is on the right track and can start winning in the next year or two.
Western Michigan (2-9, 1-7) - How far can this program fall? Not too long ago, they were the MAC West champions and a player in title chases. Now, they are in the doldrums of the MAC West. The schedule this year will be brutal. They have a winnable I-AA game to kick off the season, but have to play Miami and Marshall from the East to close out the year. Gary Darnell might be out of a job by the end of the year.
Central Michigan (1-10, 0-8) - The Chippewas hit rock bottom last year. With a new coaching staff in place, CMU can start to rebuild. This program has been in the dumps of the MAC West for years, and it will take a while to put the pieces together. If you are a CMU fan, do not expect anything this year. Central Michigan will be lucky to pull in any I-A wins. They have a lot of returning talent, but need time to put the new program into place. I think CFN put it correctly: "Essentially, this is a program that doesn't know how to win."
Preseason All-Conference Team
Best Team - Miami - This team almost crashed the BCS party last year. Why not this year?
Best Coach - George O'Leary - UCF - No other coach in the conference has as many accolades as O'Leary.
Best Player - Charlie Frye - Akron - Frye is one of the best in the nation.
Best Stadium - Marshall - The stadium is loud and sells out many times.
Best Game - Miami at Marshall - If these two were in opposite divisions, this would be the best MAC championship game.
Best Fans - Ball State - For having very little amount of people in the area, lots of fans show up.
Best Tradition - Ohio - Watch the halftime and watch the tradition during homecoming.
Best Bet to Under-Achieve - Bowling Green - With the loss of their best player, this team is primed for a let down.
Best Bet to Over-Achieve - UCF - This team has lots of unknown with a talented squad and new coach.
The MAC is primed for another great year. Overall, this group of teams could be better than last year. Expect some magic in the 2004 edition of the MAC Attack.
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