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TGS 2013 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE MAC-PART I
All things considered, the MAC has survived the great conference shake-up just fine. While there has been some movement within the league ranks over the past few years, the fact the Mid-American has emerged mostly unscathed as we move into the middle of a turbulent decade speaks to its viability in the new order of college athletics.

The MAC’s only recent defection involved Temple, a gridiron mercenary whose original addition had occurred just a few years earlier anyway. There was little historic connection between the league and the Owls, whose membership included only the football program as the school used the MAC as a short-term parking place for its gridiron operation before figuring out a more-permanent and appropriate residence.

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No surprise, then, that the Mid-American is doing fine heading into Year Two without Temple, which put in five seasons with the league before reuniting with the Big East/American Athletic Conference.

Meanwhile, the lone recent addition has been UMass, like Temple another football-only member of the league which enlisted a year ago, also the Minutemen’s first at the FBS level. With a first-year coach as well in Charley Molnar, UMass took some expected lumps last fall en route to a 1-11 face plant. Consensus remains mixed around the region about the Minutemen’s inclusion into the league, which to this point has been mostly a non-event. Some wonder if UMass views the MAC much as did Temple, good for a temporary home before moving elsewhere. Those sorts suggest that if the Minutemen ever enjoy success in the MAC, they could follow Temple into the new AAC. Stay tuned.

But UMass or no UMass, the fact the MAC seems comfortable with its secondary role in the college football hierarchy is rather refreshing. Expect nothing but another 13-team season of good, old MAC-tion this fall.

The league, however, will have a hard time improving upon, or even replicating, the 2012 successes enjoyed by Northern Illinois and Kent State, which combined for a 23-5 record last season. The Huskies even qualified as the first-ever BCS buster from the MAC with their Orange Bowl invitation. Both NIU and the Golden Flashes, however, lost their coaches to bigger jobs, which is the nature of things in the MAC.

Still, we rate the MAC as one of the winners of the college conference shake-out simply by being able to largely stand still. The fluctuations in the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt, and the old WAC (itself no longer a football league) have not impacted the old Midwestern league much.

There’s something to be said for relative stability, which, if nothing else, the MAC retains. In that regard, all leagues should be as fortunate.

Following is the first part of our MAC previews, provided by Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano. First, a look at the Western half of the loop; the East will follow next. Teams are listed in order of predicted finish.--Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


MAC WEST PREVIEW


by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


1. NORTHERN ILLINOIS...It might be construed as at least a bit dicey to pick NIU to win the MAC West and go to the conference title game for the fourth straight year in December. After all, new HC Rod Carey has only one game under his belt as a head coach, and the results of that shakedown cruise wasn’t positive, as he piloted the Huskies to a 31-10 Orange Bowl loss at the hands of Florida State on New Year’s Day. Carey replaces the well-respected Dave Doeren, who moved on to NC State. Doeren came to NIU in 2011, replacing the equally-respected Jerry Kill, who’s now at Minnesota. Carey is an unproven commodity, and after winning 11, 11 and 12 games the last three seasons and getting to a BCS bowl for the first time, expecting the former offensive line coach to add to that record immediately is a tough ask.

NIU is also replacing a number of key defensive players, as seven of the top 10 Husky tacklers graduated from an exceptional 2012 unit that allowed less than 20 ppg (21st in the country). The NIU offense could well be a one-man show, as prolific sr. QB Jordan Lynch rushed for more than four times the yardage of the top returning NIU RB. Lynch’s #6 jersey will be a bull’s eye for opposing defenses after his historic performance last season, and any prolonged injury to him would be tough to overcome. The Huskies also lost all-MAC WR Martel Moore, who caught 75 of Lynch’s 237 completions and more than half of his touchdown passes.

However, there are also ample positives, as Lynch, who set an FBS-record for QBs by rushing for 1,815 yards last season, has all of his “hogs” back in action. The Huskies return all five members of the offensive line as well as 250-lb. blocking TE Luke Eakes. Senior RB Akeem Daniels should be able to give opposing defenses something to think about after averaging 6.6 ypc and scoring nine TDs in 2012. And, although Moore graduated, Tommylee Lewis figures to morph into a top-notch receiver after hauling in 48 passes a year ago.

Northern Illinois made recruiting inroads under Kill and Doeren that continue to pay dividends. Recall that most were wondering how the Huskies could possibly replace Chandler Harnish as QB prior to last season. Few expected the Heisman-level performance that Lynch turned in last year in winning the MAC Offensive Player of the Year award. Lynch piled up 4,953 yards of total offense and threw 25 TD passes vs. just 6 interceptions and ran for 19 scores in addition to his record-setting ground yardage.

Defensively, senior safety Jimmie Ward led the defenders with 104 tackles and was first-team all-MAC, while junior LB Jamaal Bass was third on the list with 83. Although only three full-time starters return on defense, there are several seasoned replacements ready for their chance. Senior DE Joe Windsor had seven sacks despite not starting a game in ‘12. Soph CB Marlon Moore made six starts and had 39 tackles, while safety Dechane Durante started the first six games last year and made 38 stops.

The defense holds the key for the Huskies’ return to Detroit, and have to be somewhat cautious, as last year’s 4.7 yards per play allowance and stingy 18.6 defensive yards per point figure might be statistical anomalies, if not flukes, as NIU’s defense averaged 5.4 ypp over the previous six seasons (never holding foes below 5 per play). Still, the “new” NIU defense impressed observers in the spring.

Carey’s debut should yield a bowl bid and return to the MAC Championship. Remember, NIU is 9-1 straight-up the last five years facing MAC West contenders Toledo and Ball State. and must note, Huskies are 34-8 SU against all comers the last three years.


2. BALL STATE...HC Pete Lembo has quickly erased memories the short reign of Stan Parrish, who led the Cardinals down a dark path to a 6-18 mark in his two seasons in charge. Under Lembo’s tenure, Ball State has more strongly resembled the team Brady Hoke left in Muncie when he departed for San Diego State and, eventually, Michigan.

This season Lembo has a ton of positive momentum and the Cards look capable of snapping a four-game losing streak to Northern Illinois and returning to the MAC Championship for the first time since Hoke’s last game in charge. Lembo has instilled a laudable work ethic in his team, as both the offense and defense organized extensive voluntary workouts over the summer. Now Lembo’s offensive coordinator (Rick Skrosky) and defensive coordinator (Jay Bateman) have had their schemes in place for three springs and two full seasons, and that familiarity should lead to a bump in performance this season.

Although Bateman’s defense ranked just 102nd last season, there is plenty of reason for optimism on that side of the ball. Although only six starters return and the loss of LB Travis Freeman (team leading 129 tackles) hurts, nine of the next 12 leading tacklers are back. That group includes defensive ends Jonathan Newsome (8½ sacks; all-MAC) and junior Nick Miles (54 stops). The secondary returns five of its top six players and jr. CB Eric Patterson made the all-conference list in 2012. Lembo has recruited all the starters who will replace the linebacking corps, with juco OLB Stephan Martin coming in for spring, winning a starting role and lending some experience to that unit (he led his Kansas JC in tackles each of the last two seasons).

The offense should be spectacular, as six of the seven returning starters were named to the all-MAC offensive teams. QB Keith Wenning (2nd all-conference; 65%, 3095 YP, 24 TDP LY). Wenning welcomes back 9 of his top 11 receivers, including first team all-conference performers WR Willie Snead (89 catches LY), Jamill Smith (69) and TE Zane Fakes (57). RB Jahwan Edwards balanced the attack with 1,410 YR (6.1 ypc) and 14 TDs last season. Edwards is relieved by soph Horactio Banks, who rushed for 120 yards and a pair of TDs at Clemson and 135 yds. against Ohio last season. The offensive line needs to be rebuilt around senior G Jordan Hansel (a 2-time all-MAC performer), but Lembo has recruited very well on the OL the last few years and those players are now ready for deployment.

Ball State is close to taking an additional step up the MAC ladder it scaled under Hoke, but the Cards will likely have to win at Northern Illinois to get to the title game. That’s a tough order considering the Huskies’ 21-game winning streak in DeKalb..


3. TOLEDO...Toledo’s Matt Campbell did a solid job in his maiden voyage as a head coach a year ago. Despite returning just eight starters from Tim Beckman’s 2011 side, Campbell led the Rockets to a 9-3 regular season mark and a appearance in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Had Toledo held on to a 14-7 halftime lead at Northern Illinois, the Rockets would’ve gone to the MAC Championship game and been assured a more prestigious bowl.

Campbell has nine offensive starters returning, including five who were on the all-MAC squads last year. Senior QB Terrance Owens made 17 starts over the last three seasons, completing 64% of his passes with a 45-16 TD-interception ratio. Owens returns his top six pass catchers from 2012, including fellow sr. Bernard Reedy, a compact speedster who had 88 catches for 1,113 yards last season and doubles as one of the most dangerous return men in the midwest. 6-4 soph WR Alonzo Russell is a stretch player who led the team by averaging 17.1 ypc on his 56 receptions.

The attack also boasts one of the league’s top running backs in sr. David Fluellen, who ran for 1,498 yards and a hefty 5.8 ypc last season. Fluellen will be running behind a veteran OL featuring all-conference performers in C Zac Kerin and G Greg Mancz. With four of five starters back up front, there’s no reason Owens and Fluellen won’t continue steady production that’s allowed the Rockets to score 37 ppg the last two seasons.

Just four starters return from a Toledo defense that held opponents to the fewest points allowed since 2006, and the team loses a pair of linebackers who combined for 266 stops. However, that unit ranked just 109th in the nation in total defense, so it would be difficult to forecast a regression...they couldn’t get much worse. Frankly, improvement should be in the cards, as d.c. Tom Matukewicz played a lot of reserves in anticipation of losing a majority of the first team. Sr. DE Jayrone Elliott is a preseason all-MAC selection, sr. DE Christian Smith returns after missing the team’s final eight games with a knee injury, and juco DT Robert Zimmerman is a key recruit with three years of eligibility remaining who might help the front seven improve on its 5.3 ypc allowance last season.

The rebuilt linebacking corps will lean on ex-Michigan transfer Vladimir Emilien, now a senior and the designated replacement for Dan Molls, the nation’s 2nd-leading tackler last season. Soph OLB Trent Voss is the most talented of the returning LBs and he made 47 tackles despite starting just once in ‘12.

The secondary was a miserable 116th in pass defense a year ago, so perhaps it’s not a bad thing three of the four starters ran out of eligibility. The lone returnee is jr. CB Cheatham Norrils, who made the all-MAC third team a year ago and is listed on the preseason 2nd team this season.

With super return man Reedy (four TD returns LY; led MAC in kickoff returns, 2nd in punt returns) and prolific PK Jeremiah Detmer (24-for-29 FGs), Toledo’s special teams will contribute.

Toledo is solidly entrenched in the top half of the MAC teams, but the historically poor defense can’t be counted on to rank much higher than ninth in the conference (that’s the Rockets’ average total defense position over the last six seasons). Toledo will score and give up plenty of points, but must note that Rocket games went under 9-3 last season. Toledo will be an underdog at Florida and Missouri in first two games, so it’s worth noting the Rockets’ 6-1 mark in last 7 as a road dog.


4. WESTERN MICHIGAN...Last season’s surprising 4-8 collapse cost Bill Cubit his job at Kalamazoo. Coupled with the fact the Broncos made just three bowl appearances in eight years under Cubit, losing all three of those postseason affairs, a change was made. Now P.J. Fleck, born in 1980 and the youngest head coach in the FBS, gets an opportunity to take charge of his own team. Fleck made stops as a receivers coach at NIU, Rutgers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but isn’t that far removed from his days as an all-MAC wideout for Northern Illinois and a two-year injury-shortened NFL stint with the 49ers.

The talent left over from the Cubit era is likely good enough to return the Broncos to the .500 level. QB Tyler Van Tubbergen threw for 1,825 yards after taking over for the since-graduated Alex Carder, averaging 291 ypg passing in his six starts. Van Tubbergen will have three of the top four receivers returning, most notably soph Jaime Wilson, who caught 67 passes in a MAC Freshman-of-the-Year performance in 2012. Sr. WRs Josh Schaffer and Justin Collins combined for 70 catches and 8 TDs, so the passing game will produce yards and points if the rebuilt offensive line can keep Van Tubbergen upright and he can cut his interceptions. The move of sr. left tackle Terry Davisson to center should help solidify a unit that now features three starters from the sophomore class.

The Broncos have a “changeup” type of running game. A pair of short but effective senior running backs, Brian Fields (5-8) and Dareyon Chance (5-5), combined for 1,306 yards and 5.4 ypc in 2012. Fleck also has the option of a more conventional-sized RB in Tevin Drake (5-11, 214), who’s amassed 1,098 YR and averaged 6.6 per tote in his career.

Last year was WMU’s worst turnover-ratio in memory, as the Broncos were 110th in that department, thanks largely to 21 interceptions (Carder 10, Van Tubbergen 11). The defense couldn’t overcome the disadvantage those miscues created, and the result was the Broncos’ worst defensive performance since 2005. This season a regression to the mean on defense should be expected. Nine of WMU’s top ten tacklers return. New d.c. Ed Pinkham, who engineered some of the Rutgers’ defenses for Greg Schiano, is moving to a 4-3 from Cubit’s unconventional 3-3-5. Sr. bowling ball DT Travonte Boles is the only returning regular up front, but six of the back seven starters return in the LB and secondary groups, including all-MAC safety Justin Currie, and LBs Johnnie Simon and Desmond Bozeman, a pair of seniors who combined for 193 tackles.

Despite all the problems, WMU ranked 61st in total defense in 2012, a respectable figure considering the interceptions and poor special teams play (the team ranked 112th in net punting). Fleck might not get them to a bowl, but it’s very likely WMU will get more wins than a year ago. WMU is just 7-13-1 the last five seasons as a road dog and has covered just 21% as a home dog the last 11 seasons.


5. CENTRAL MICHIGAN...Look for Dan Enos and Central Michigan to take another step in the right direction after notching a 7-6 mark including the Chippewas’ first bowl win since the legendary QB Dan LeFevour graduated and head coach Butch Davis left town in 2009. Enos has a solid core of 13 returning starters, including RB Zurlon Tipton, who ran for 1,492 yards (5.9 ypc) last season and was named second-team all-MAC. The Chippewa running game got a bonus when left tackle Jake Olson was granted a sixth year of eligibility, as the 6-8, 305-lb. behemoth had NFL written all over him before suffering a series of injuries over the years. Olson will team with left guard Andy Phillips and soph C Nick Beamish, both of whom started every game last season, to try and spring Tipton as often as possible.

The QB situation is a bit up in the air, as a three-way fight between jr. ex-juco Cody Kater, soph Alex Niznak and RS frosh Cooper Rush will continue in the fall. Graduated QB Ryan Radcliff took virtually all of the snaps last season, as Kater was given just a handful of plays, while Niznak and Rush just watched. Although Kater was the nominal first choice coming out of spring, both Niznak and Rush outplayed him in the spring game, so the battle goes on.

Whoever wins the job will have a pair of viable deep threats available, as both WR Titus Davis (43 recs.; 2nd team all-MAC) and Andrew Flory averaged 20 ypc while combining for a dozen TDs.

The Chips have seven starters returning from a group that’s given up 33 ppg over the last two seasons, so there is room for improvement. The pieces might be in place for CMU to regain respectability, however. The linebacking duo of Justin Cherocci in the middle and Shamari Benton on the outside combined for 258 tackles and finished 1-2 on the team in that department last season, giving the unit a fierce demeanor. All of the linebackers in last season’s two-deep return. Sr. safety Avery Cunningham was 4th on the team with 88 stops, while vet starting CBs Jason Wilson and Jarret Chapman combined for 101 stops.

The defense must get tougher against the run, however, after allowing 4.9 ypc. That was the highest yield by opponents against CMU since 2003. According to Enos, this will be the best defensive front in his time in charge at Mt. Pleasant. Returning starting DTs Jabari Dean and Leterrius Walton could help cut down on opponent’s ground production, although it remains to be seen if journeymen sr. DEs Kenny McClendon and Alex Smith can provide a pass rush capable of scaring opposing QBs, as CMU ranked 119th in tackles for loss and 100th in sacks last season.

Enos’ squad seemed to show distinct improvement in winning the last four games of 2012 SU and against the number, while holding three of those four foes to 21 points or fewer. Clearly CMU is way down the list in terms of talent at QB, so the chances of them pressing the top three in the West for a spot in the MAC Championship game is almost non-existent, and a bowl bid, even in the bloated schedule of today’s scene, is unlikely.

6. EASTERN MICHIGAN...We were fooled by EMU’s 6-6 record in 2011 and expected continued improvement under Ron English last season. Not a mistake we will repeat. EMU hasn’t had a winning record since 1995, and will not have a winning record this season, either. The Eagles just don’t have the recruiting juice to compete on level footing even in the small pond of the MAC, where they are 7-25 SU in four seasons under English. Eastern Michigan recruits the leftovers, as the Eagles generally rank as the fifth choice in the state for high school players.

A prime example of this recruiting gap is at quarterback, where Jr. Tyler Benz is expected to start after having a very ordinary season a year ago. Benz threw for 1,511 yards while completing less than 54% of his passes. He ranked 8th in the MAC in pass efficiency and 10th in total offense. Every QB on the rosters of Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Michigan and Michigan State were rated higher as prep prospects than was Benz. Even after wresting the job from incumbent starter Alex Gillett last season and starting the last nine games, it’s not certain Benz will be able to beat out incoming freshman Brogan Roback this fall. Jr. RB Bronson Hill showed promise, gaining 905 yds. (6.5 ypc), but losses on the offensive line concern the coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Stan Parrish isn’t going to sprinkle pixie dust on this attack and bring the dead Eagle offense (101st LY) back to life. His “magic” didn’t work at Kansas State and it didn’t work at Ball State when he was calling all the shots.

The Eagles are not strong in the pits in general, as not only the offensive line, but the defensive line got pushed around last season. The defense was 120th against the run and lost three of its top four tacklers. Opponents gained 6.3 ypc against Eastern. Now one might think that figure would be an eye-opener at any school, but EMU has allowed 6.1 ypc or more in three of four seasons under English. Giving up huge chunks on the ground is just the norm.

Part of the problem preventing a turnaround is lack of interest. There’s not much home field edge at Rynearson Stadium, as the Eagles are just 9-19 against the points last 28 in Ypsilanti where they rarely draw more than 5,000 (not even a satisfactory gate at a good high school game in Texas, Alabama or Southern California).

EMU has no returning players named to the all-MAC three-deep for last season. The Eagles have no players named to the preseason all-MAC team. For a brief time English appeared to be making progress when he had the Eagles 5-3 after eight games in 2011. That was just a mirage.


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