If you don’t follow the Mid-American Conference too closely, then you’d probably head into this season thinking that Central Michigan would be the runaway favorite to repeat as champ. With Butch Jones not being the choice at West Virginia to replace Rich Rodriguez and quarterback Dan LeFevour back in the saddle, there are two very good reasons why. However, even with eight starters back on both sides of the football there are some questions needing to be answered for the Chippewas. Most importantly, how much has the defense improved in the off-season? CMU ranked 109th in total defense and an even worse 118th against the pass.
The Chips gave up thirty or more points in nine of their fourteen games last season. In order for CMU to have any shot at defending their crown these numbers must improve, but with an early schedule featuring trips to Georgia and Purdue it’s going to be a tough climb. And their biggest challenger in the West Division has an explosive offense back on campus. Ball State, led by junior quarterback Nate Davis, returns nine starters to an offense that was 31st nationally in total offense. But just like CMU, the Cardinals need to improve on the other side of the football (96th in total defense) if they are to take the top spot. Ball State was 106th against the run, so it may not be such a bad thing that they return just one starter in the front four.
The next two spots in the West look to be a tug-of-war between Toledo and Western Michigan. Head coach Tom Amstutz will be looking for more help from a defensive unit that ranked 102nd nationally in total defense and a putrid 116th in scoring D. Safeties Barry Church and Lester Richmond will be two of the anchors for that group this season, with more production needed from the pass rush. The Rockets finished the season with nine sacks. As for the Broncos, a bounce-back season is needed from junior quarterback Tim Hiller, who threw fifteen picks in his sophomore campaign. And head coach Bill Cubit will also welcome back nine defensive starters to a unit which was one of the MAC’s best despite ranking 68th nationally in total defense.
The wild card in the West may be Northern Illinois, who welcomes former Southern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill to DeKalb. The key to their hopes will be the improvement of a defense that returns ten starters from a season ago. End Larry English is one of the MAC’s best at getting to the quarterback, with his 10.5 sacks in 2007. The offense may need a little time to gel, but there are eight starters back including four offensive linemen. Keeping QB Dan Nicholson upright will be their most important responsibility, with Nicholson coming back from off-season shoulder surgery.
The East looks to be the more wide-open division of the two when looking at who can find their way to Ford Field for the conference championship game. While Bowling Green did rack up eight wins in 2007, they ended the season with a bitter taste in their collective mouths. Even though they finished with the best record in the East Division, Miami went to the title game thanks to their 47-14 win in early October. That disappointment was followed by an embarrassing display in the GMAC Bowl, getting manhandled by Tulsa to the tune of 63-7. The keys to redemption for the Falcons will be replacing three departed starters on the offensive line and improvement on defense for a unit that ranked 93rd nationally in total defense.
Miami still finished 2007 with a 6-7 record despite the appearance in the MAC Championship Game, but this season could have the makings of a championship run. Unlike many of the other top teams in the MAC, the Redhawks’ issues last season lay with the offense, ranking 108th nationally in scoring and 81st in total offense. QB Daniel Raudabaugh is back for his junior season, but don’t be surprised if freshman Clay Belton sees action under center. The defense, one of the conference’s best, returns nine starters including league Defensive Player of the Year Clayton Mullins.
Kent State returns the conference’s best running back in the diminutive Eugene Jarvis. But for Jarvis to match his production of a year ago (1,669 yards rushing) the Golden Flashes need to receive more respect in the passing game. Kent State ranked 111th nationally in passing offense last year. People know that the Golden Flashes can move the ball on the ground with Jarvis and Edelman, and they’re going to stuff the box with defenders in order to stop it. The best news for Akron this past offseason may have been the groundbreaking for a new football stadium slated to replace the Rubber Bowl in 2009. And this may be a welcome diversion from an offense that struggled mightily in 2007, ranking 111th in total offense. On top of that is the fact that just four defensive starters return, led by linebacker Doug Williams and strong safety Bryan Williams, an All-MAC running back in 2007.
Temple and Buffalo look to be two programs on the rise in the MAC, with a pair of solid young coaches (Al Golden at Temple and Turner Gill at Buffalo) leading the way. Gill in fact was a candidate for the vacancy at his alma mater (Nebraska) before Dr. Tom Osborne went with former LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. The Owls return a wealth of experience on both sides of the football and may be the best equipped to be surprise winners of the East. The Bulls also return a number of key contributors from last season, most notably QB Drew Willy and four starters on the offensive line. While it would qualify as a surprise, it shouldn’t be a stunner if either of these teams found themselves in the MAC Championship Game.
While Eastern Michigan is the one program that no one is picking to win the West, Frank Solich’s Ohio squad is another to keep an eye on in the East. Even with the loss of running back Kalvin McRae, Ohio has enough returning depth on both sides of the football to challenge for the division title. Quarterbacks Boo Jackson and Theo Scott could end up sharing the role, given the fact that one is a better passer (Jackson) while the other is adept at making plays with his feet (Scott). But rest assured that this will be a wild year in the MAC. And whoever walks away with the title is anyone’s guess at this point in time.
Players of the Year: QB Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan) and LB Clayton Mullins (Miami)
Coach of the Year: Shane Montgomery (Miami)
Newcomers of the Year: QB Clay Belton (Miami) and LB Obi Ezemma (Buffalo)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Miami @ Michigan (September 6th): The bad news for the Redhawks is that this isn’t Michigan’s opener (they host Utah). So either the Wolverines will be full of confidence…or they’ll be in a bad mood.
2. Central Michigan @ Georgia (September 6th): A win “Between the Hegdes” would qualify as one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. But the dual threat LeFevour could give the Dawgs a hard time.
3. Ball State @ Indiana (September 20th): This game gives the MAC a good opportunity to pick off a Big Ten opponent.
Conference Games of the Year
East Division: Miami @ Bowling Green (October 18th): Last year’s meeting was the difference in who represented the division in the conference title game, and the rematch could mean more of the same.
West Division: Ball State @ Central Michigan (November 19th): Two of the league’s best quarterbacks square off in a game that could decide how the West was won.
How they’ll finish
East: 1. Miami West: 1. Central Michigan
2. Bowling Green 2. Ball State
3. Kent State 3. Toledo
4. Buffalo 4. Western Michigan
5. Temple 5. Northern Illinois
6. Ohio 6. Eastern Michigan