Teams: Akron (East), Ball State (West), Bowling Green (East), Buffalo (East), Central Michigan (West), Eastern Michigan (West), Kent State (East), Massachusetts (East), Miami (East), Ohio (East), Northern Illinois (West), Toledo (West), Western Michigan (West)
Best Team: Northern Illinois
Best Coach: Frank Solich (Ohio)
Top Players: QB Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois), QB Tyler Tettleton (Ohio), QB Keith Wenning (Ball State), RB Dri Archer (Kent State), RB Beau Blankenship (Ohio), WR Willie Snead (Ball State), C Zac Kerin (Toledo), Khalil Mack (Buffalo), Najja Johnson (Buffalo)
Top Storyline: Jordan Lynch and his pursuit of the Heisman as Northern Illinois attempts to get back to a BCS bowl despite some tough competition at the top of the conference.
With the return of statistical wonder Jordan Lynch (3138 passing yards and 1815 rushing yards), Northern Illinois is poised to, once again, to be the favorite in the Mid-American Conference. However, after being routed 31-10 by Florida State in the Orange Bowl, it will take quite a season for the Huskies to return to a BCS bowl.
Despite the lofty preseason status, one could flip a coin to determine the better team between Northern Illinois, Ohio, and Ball State with each team returning a strong roster capable of winning the MAC. Additionally, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Toledo, and Kent State have conceivable paths to the conference title in a top heavy conference. The remainder of their MAC foes are some of the nation’s worst teams.
Although Lynch will continue to be the driving force behind Northern Illinois, the team will be guided by new coach Rod Carey this season. However, the transition should be eased by the fact that Carey was the offensive coordinator for the team last season before Dave Doeren left for Wisconsin.
For Lynch, it may be difficult to top last season’s incredible performance, but he does return the MAC’s top offensive line as well as a strong corps of returning receivers. On defense, the Huskies return safety Jimmie Ward (104 tackles and 3 interceptions) as the leader of a solid group.
Prediction: Northern Illinois got through MAC competition relatively easily in 2012, and their catalyst, Lynch, returns. Once again, the team will face Iowa, their lone loss of a year ago, but they also add another Big 10 foe, Purdue, to their schedule. If the Huskies survive the early tests against the power conference foes, it could be a good sign of another strong run through MAC competition. After a 12-2 record in 2012, a similar, or even better, record in 2013 is a realistic possibility.
The Huskies, from the West Division, do not face East Division foe Ohio in the regular season, but the Bobcats could be their chief competition for the MAC title. Frank Solich, the former head coach of Nebraska, has revitalized the program which went 9-4 last season and defeated Penn State in the opening game. For Ohio, leading passer Tyler Tettleton (2844 yards), leading rusher Beau Blankenship (1604 yards), and leading receiver Donte Foster (659 yards) all return on an offense that keeps seven starters. Defensively, the Bobcats could struggle a little more with mostly new faces on the unit although leading tackler Keith Moore returns.
Prediction: At one point last season, the Bobcats were in the top 25 with a 7-0 record. Health issues and bad bounces caused them to lose 4 of their last 5 regular season games and miss on a chance to play for the MAC title. This year, I believe Ohio could fulfill the promise of last season and compete for the conference championship.
In a conference of strong quarterbacks, Keith Wenning of Ball State is another that stands out. As a junior, he threw for 3095 yards, and he returns each of his major receivers from last season including Willie Snead who has 1148 yards receiving as a sophomore. Junior running back Jahwan Edwards also returns after a stellar 1410 yard season last year but will have only one returning starter along the offensive line. On defense Ball State got progressively better last year, but still gave up a lot of points. The strength on that unit is the defensive line led by seniors Jonathan Newsome and Nathan Ollie (8.5 and 4 sacks respectively).
Prediction: The Cardinals could make life difficult for Northern Illinois as they are the strongest West Division opponent. Following a 9-4 year last season that saw major conference foes in Clemson, Indiana, and USF on the roster as well as drawing the MAC elite, Ball State faces a much easier path as well as a stronger team in 2013. While I currently have them pegged as the third best team in the conference, the Cardinals could easily win in the MAC, and, they could conceivably go undefeated with their light schedule. Nevertheless games at Virginia and Northern Illinois are somewhat likely to deal two losses to the squad and keep them out of the conference title game. Despite being underdogs in those games, keep an eye out on Ball State.
Bowling Green returns 19 starters from a team that was 8-5 a year ago including quarerback Matt Schilz (2585 yards). While the Falcons lack the headliners of some of the other MAC teams, this is a top to bottom very solid football team. Senior “Booboo” Gates and junior Gabe Martin are the standouts on a defense that will be very difficult to score on in 2013.
Prediction: The fact that their defense is so good makes the Falcons are very scary team since it will be tough to get a big lead and put the game away early. Moreover, the schedule lines up very well for the Falcons who play Mississippi State in the middle of the season in what could be a defining game for the conference. I would, once again, expect eight or more wins from Bowling Green who was 8-5 last season.
In the East, the Buffalo Bulls look to be much improved after a 4-8 season a year ago. The team returns both starting quarterbacks including senior Alex Zordich, who is more of a runner, and sophomore Joe Licata who is the better passer. Sorting out the quarterback issues will be key to moving forward. Defensively, the Bulls have some of the best players in the conference including one of the best linebackers in the country in Khalil Mack (98 tackles, 13 TFLs, and 8 sacks). Additionally junior linebacker Lee Skinner (89 tackles and 5 sacks) and senior cornerback Najja Johnson (43 tackles and 5 interceptions) are some of the conference’s best.
Prediction: The Bulls will get steamrolled in their first game against Ohio State and will likely struggle against Baylor, but they have a shot in every other contest. Moreover, the schedule aligns itself well for the Bulls. Although the team struggled last season, the Bulls should easily be bowl eligible in 2013 and could be one of the most improved teams in the country.
One of the most potent offenses in a conference capable of putting up a lot of points are the Toledo Rockets. Senior quarterback Terrance Owens (2707 passing and 395 rushing yards), senior running back David Fluellen (1498 rushing yards), senior receiver Bernard Reedy (1113 yards), and sophomore receiver Alonzo Russell (960 yards) are all returning standouts. Additionally senior center Zac Kerin is one of the best in the country. Despite the nine returning starters on the high powered offense, only four starters return on defense.
Prediction: The offense of Toledo will have an early opportunity to prove its worth when it faces one of the best defenses in the country in Florida. In the next week, the Rockets face Missouri before beginning the MAC portion of their schedule. Last year, Toledo was 9-4, but matching that record may be difficult as, outside of the SEC fores, Toledo faces Bowling Green and Ball State away and plays Northern Illinois in a game that could go a long way to determining the West Division title.
East Division champ Kent State was undefeated last season in conference play until they ran into Northern Illinois in the conference title game. It will be tough to repeat that performance with only eleven returning starters. Foremost in that group is running back Dri Archer, a shifty senior who rushed for 1429 yards, caught 561, and returned kickoffs for 591 yards with a grand total of 23 touchdowns. On defense, Roosevelt Nix is one of the best defensive linemen in the conference as he racked up 59 tackles, 6 sacks, and 9 TFLs last season.
Prediction: Kent State certainly has a bright star in Archer, but they are not quite as strong as last season. Moreover, the Golden Eagles have a brutal stretch from September 7 to October 12 with games against Bowling Green, at LSU, at Penn State, at Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and at Ball State. Following that, Kent State and new coach Paul Haynes still have tough games against Buffalo and at Ohio. Although the team was 11-3 last season, reaching bowl eligibility with seven or eight wins would be good season given the schedule.
The Chippewas of Central Michigan produced the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft back in April when Eric Fisher was taken by the Chiefs. While the team lost its most high profile player of all-time, the Chippewas still have plenty to cheer for including senior running back Zurlon Tipton who is the star of the team after a season where he had 1492 rushing yards and 287 yards receiving. Additionally, junior receiver Titus Davis had 860 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2012. Of the seven starters returning on defense linebackers Justin Cherocci and Shamari Benton lead the way with 132 and 126 tackles respectively.
Prediction: Central Michigan went 7-6 last season, however, it will be a tougher road in 2013, and I think bowl eligibility may be an uphill climb. The Chippewas face a tough in conference schedule plus games against power conference goes Michigan and North Carolina State.
At approximately the same level as their fellow West division rival, Western Michigan returns a strong linebacking corps which features seniors Desmond Bozeman and Johnnie Simon as well as a stellar secondary with juniors Donald Celiscar and Justin Currie. Everything else, including their defensive line which is likely to start three freshmen, is a little bit behind the curve. Offensively, quarterback Tyler van Tubbergen has the reigns after splitting starts with Alex Carder last year.
Prediction: The Broncos were 4-8 a year ago, and, outside of some standout defenders, there is little hope for a better 2013. An early game against Nicholls State will be the only relief in a rough early schedule for Western Michigan. If the team hopes to match its 2012 performance, three of their last four games, against Massachusetts, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan will be crucial.
Miami was not particularly good last season with star quarterback Zac Dysert, and they are likely to struggle mightily without him. New starter, senior quarterback Austin Boucher does return some standouts at the wide receiver position in Nick Harwell and Dawan Scott. To help Boucher and the Redhawks is an offensive line that returns four starters and a defense that, while lacking, does return its three leading tacklers (Chris Wade, Brison Burris, and Wes Williams).
Prediction: For the Redhawks to get to 4-8, their mark from 2012, they will have to win some games that they were not supposed to. A tough schedule and a lack of talent means a 2-3 win season is more likely.
There is not a coach in all of college football with a better pedigree than Akron head coach Terry Bowden whose father, Bobby Bowden, is the all-time winningest coach in college football. Unfortunately for Bowden, who coached some stellar Auburn teams, the Zips have a long way to go. Sophomore Kyle Pohl enters his first season as Akron’s starting quarterback with little in the way of surrounding talent. However, junior running back Jawon Chisholm could help lead the team to an improved record after rushing for 953 yards in 2012.
Prediction: The Zips were 1-11 last year, and has a tough schedule. However, while Bowden may not be what he used to be, he is good enough to guide this team to an improved record in his second season at the school. Games against James Madison, Miami, and Massachusetts are more than winnable.
Ron English, the head coach of Eastern Michigan has gone 10-38 seasons in his four years leading the Eagles. Heading into his fifth season, odds are not in his favor for the Eagles to outpace their 2-10. Improvement will likely hinge heavily on quarterback Tyler Benz who threw for 1511 yards as a sophomore last season. Leading a 2-10 team with only 13 returning starters, Benz will need to progress faster than anyone is anticipating in order for this team to be competitive.
Prediction: Eastern Michigan has not had a winning record since 1995, and that will not change this year. In fact, games against FCS foe Howard may be the only game the Eagles will be favored in.
When your team was 1-11 and returns a grand total of 11 starters, the outlook is never positive. Such is the case with Massachusetts. The Minutemen bring back only four offensive starters, but those include sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn and standout tight end Rob Blanchflower. Still, this team does not have much firepower elsewhere.
Prediction: In Week 2, the Minutemen should be able to beat Maine. Outside of that contest, things could be ugly for Massachusetts.
For more college football insights and analysis, follow Cole Muzio on Twitter @ColeMuzio