Most people don’t know much about the Mid-American Conference, except that it plays in the shadow of the Big Ten and that it stages an upset of a Big Ten almost every year. Other than that, the MAC is most often seen as a conference filled with directional schools (Eastern, Central, Northern, Western), none of which ever seem to rise to a national level that would make fans and sportswriters take notice.
In all fairness, the MAC does pump out a lot of NFL talent, most of them players that flew under the major college radar and developed solidly on MAC rosters. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Greg Jennings are just a few examples of former MAC standouts now playing on Sundays. And this year, there are a number of NFL hopefuls that will play in MAC stadiums, players like Western Michigan WR Corey Davis, Toledo RB Kareem Hunt and Bowling Green LB Austin Valdez.
Still, the level of play in the MAC from Saturday to Saturday is well below most conferences in the nation. Our preseason ranking of the average MAC team is right around 80, though we do have Western Michigan in the initial Top 25, and Northern Illinois also has the potential to break into the polls by season’s end. Pay most attention to the WMU Broncos, because their talent is coming together at the perfect time to make a run at a major bowl game if they can avoid the typical letdown that former MAC frontrunners have suffered.
- Ohio (10-3). While the MAC East is decidedly behind the West in terms of overall team quality, the Bobcats are one of the better teams in the conference and could stage an upset should they reach the MAC title game. In spite of not having a host of notable players, Ohio has a wealth of experience and a fair amount of talent. Senior Greg Windham is the likely starter at QB, though the Bobcats are very deep there. RB A.J. Ouelette has all-conference potential, and the line – especially the right side – looks very strong. The defense should be the strength of the team and will be anchored by DE Tarell Basham and LB Quentin Poling. The biggest concern will be the secondary, where two sophomores will likely start.
- Bowling Green (7-5). Many are picking the Falcons to win the East, and that could happen. However, Bowling Green returns only nine starters, and only four on offense – and all of them are offensive linemen. Granted, their line might be the best in the conference, but they will have to grow up the entire skill set of their offense. QB James Knapke looked good on the 20 passes he threw last year, and WR Ronnie Moore was a solid third receiver. The Falcons will still probably score a lot of points, but they will need to, as six defensive starters will be freshmen or sophomores. Senior LBs Trenton Greene and James Sanford will be bright spots on that side of the ball. Winning on Oct. 8 at Ohio will be vital if they want to win the division.
- Akron (6-6). Last season, Terry Bowden guided the Zips to an eight-win season that included their first-ever bowl victory. This year, however, might involve a small step backward in the building process, as only seven starters return – three on offense and four on defense. QB Thomas Woodson is a solid duel-threat passer, but must improve his accuracy. Scoring points, however, will be difficult because the entire line must be rebuilt. Akron’s best hope for another bowl bid is its defense, which ranked third in the nation against the pass last year. DE Jamal Marcus is one of the MAC’s best and will need to get lead the line in getting pressure. If the Zips develop ahead of schedule, the season-ender at Ohio could be interesting.
- Miami (Ohio) (3-9). A youth movement is underway in Miami, where about 80 percent of the team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. An amazing 25 of 44 players in the two-deep are underclassmen. That might spell great things in the future for the Redhawks, but in 2016, it will likely mean another painful rebuilding year. Last year, Miami scored less than 18 points per game and failed to break 14 points six times. The team’s offensive hopes are on the back of QB Billy Bahl. (Side note: That’s a fabulous football name. But he may be running for his life behind a line that is patchy, at best. Defensively, Miami is led by one of the best players in the MAC in DE J.T. Jones, who amassed 10 sacks last season, and DT Ikeem Allen, who added another 4.5 sacks. With a dearth of leadership and a much tougher schedule, the Redhawks will be fortunate to match last season’s total of three wins.
- Buffalo (3-9). The Bulls have posted only two winning seasons in this millennium. They won’t get a chance to get their third this year. Coach Lance Leipold enjoyed nothing but success at Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he won six Division III national titles in eight years. He has his hands full at Buffalo, which is stripped of talent on offense, especially in the passing game, and not much better on defense. The lone bright spot on offense is RB Jordan Johnson, who has the potential to top 1,000 yards. Defensively, LB Brandon Berry and CB Boise Ross are the standouts on a squad that will struggle to keep opponents below 30 points.
- Kent State (2-10). The Golden Flashes are the perrenial doormat of the MAC, having posted just eight winning seasons since 1970 (and three of those were in 1972-1974 under coaching legend Don James). Though talent is thin, experience is high, especially on offense, where 10 starters return. The only newcomer (sort-of) will be QB George Bollas, who took over in the second half on the season last year. He will take the reins of a unit that was next-to-last in scoring in 2015 with just 13.1 ppg, and was shut out three times (all with Bollas under center). Defensively, Kent State is much better, with bona fide all-conference players in DT Terence Waugh, CB Demetrius Monday and FS Nate Holley. They will need to get even better if the Flashes are to win any games against FBS competition. The best two chances for wins come early against FCS Monmouth and N.C. A&T. Avert your eyes when they play Alabama on Sept. 24.
- Western Michigan (12-1). No team in the MAC is as loaded as Western Michigan, especially on offense. The Broncos have talent at every skill position, especially at quarterback and wide receiver, where Zach Terrell and Corey Davis are the best in the conference at their positions, respectively. Four of five starters return on the offensive line, and WMU has two running backs capable of posting 1,000 yards. The Broncos are less stocked on defense, but still return five starters, including all-conference hopefuls in CB Darius Phillips and SS Asantay Brown. It’s likely that Western Michigan improves on both offense and defense, and after the season opener at Northwestern, the Broncos should be favored in every game.
- Northern Illinois (10-2). The team with the best chance of slowing down Western Michigan is NIU, which only returns nine starters, but still has a lot of talent and experience. The Huskies likely would have won the MAC Championship Game if not for injuries that sidelined all three scholarship QBs. Senior Drew Hare will likely win the job and will lead a decent passing attack that is balanced by a strong running game led by RB Joel Bouagnon. NIU isn’t as strong on defense, where only four starters return. CB Shawun Lurry was a third-team All-American last season and will anchor the defense. The Oct. 8 contest at Western Michigan will likely decide the division.
- Toledo (9-3). If there’s a darkhorse in the MAC, it’s Toledo, which will be overshadowed in the preseason press by the Broncos and Huskies. The Rockets are rich in talent, with eight preseason all-MAC players – six of those on offense. QB Logan Woodside is reliable, if unspectacular. He will benefit from handing off to two of the best running backs in the MAC (Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson) and throwing to a veteran receiving corps. Toledo lost most of its very strong 2015 defense, which ranked 15th in the nation. Senior safety DeJuan Rogers will need to establish leadership to help the young Rockets’ D step up. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they play both Northern Illinois and Western Michigan on the road in the last few weeks of the season.
- Central Michigan (6-6). A second darkhorse in the East is Central Michigan, which returns a potential all-conference QB in Cooper Rush and eight starters from last season’s defense, which ranked 16th nationally. Rush threw for almost 4,000 yards last season, and will have his top receiving target back in Jesse Kroll. DT Kelby Latta and FS Tony Annese are the standouts on a defense that mainly needs to find ways to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Chippewas get Western Michigan at home on Oct., 1, but back-to-back road trips to Northern Illinois and Toledo will likely keep CMU from climbing higher in the East. Still, a return trip to a bowl game is definitely within reach.
- Ball State (2-10). The Cardinals are moving rapidly in reverse. Just a few seasons ago, Ball State got back-to-back bowl bids, but since then have gotten progressively worse. New coach Mike Neu is not only new to Ball State – he’s new to being a college head coach, having most recently served as the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints. Massive overhauls are needed on both sides of the ball. Last year the Cardinals ranked 90th in total offense and 121st in total defense. There isn’t a strong point on the offense to highlight, though all four starters return at the skill positions. The offensive line will likely be porous. Defensively, the Cardinals will probably improve behind the all-conference efforts of DE Josh Posley and LB Sean Wiggins. Still, only a couple of real chances at wins are on the schedule, which features seven road games and three rough home matchups.
- Eastern Michigan (2-10). Few people can remember a time when Eastern Michigan was anything more than a whipping boy in the MAC. The last time the Eagles had a good team was in 1987, when they went 10-2, won the MAC and played in the now-defunct California Bowl. Since then, EMU has had losing seasons in 25 of 28 years, and has won fewer than three games eight times. This year is destined to be No. 9. The Eagles do have a few good players, but not nearly enough to stem the beat-downs they’re certain to suffer. On the bright side, the entire offensive line returns with five senior starters, and TE Cody Tuttle is the best in the conference. The offense will have to score a lot more than it did in 2015 because the defense is likely to give up more than 35 points per game. (The Eagles gave up 42.1 ppg last year.) Senior DT Pat O’Connor will anchor a unit that returns seven starters, but little talent. The Eagles open with Mississippi Valley State, but wins will be hard to come by after that.
Bowl teams: Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo, Bowling Green, Akron, Central Michigan.
Offensive player of the year: Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan
Defensive player of the year: Shawun Lurry, CB, Northern Illinois
Coach of the year: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Tomorrow: 2016 Mountain West preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt