In his autobiography Knight, co-authored by the legendary Bob Hammel, Bob Knight spoke respectfully of Mid-American Conference basketball, but he might as well have been talking about football as well.

“Every year there are players in the Mid-American conference who are very bit as good as players in the Big Ten--not quite as many, but certainly some,” said The General. “Players recruited to Big Ten schools seem to think mid-American players are a level beneath them. That has caused a hell of a lot of Big Ten teams to lose to Mid-American teams over the years.”

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Although the analogy might be a bit more appropriate to hoops, it has some validity on the gridiron, too. Against outside opposition, MAC schools have long relished their-usual underdog status. But in many seasons, not every MAC rep is capable of beating a Big Ten foe. Especially in recent years, where a wide gap has often developed between the haves and have-nots of the MAC on the gridiron. Which has lent a new twist to the handicapping process, with plenty of double-digit pointspreads and multiple-TD favorites in MAC games.

What has also evolved in the MAC is the pace and flow of the games, which are now as wide open as anywhere else in the country. Long considered “Big Ten Lite” because of a similar pedestrian offensive philosophies, the new MAC or more like the old WAC, with scoreboard operators often getting dizzy from the point parades on display each Saturday (or, later in the seasons, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which will again feature slews of MAC games beginning in early November).

No matter, the MAC has carved a niche for itself in the lower-reaches of the FBS level and has been rewarded for its service by being included in the five-team consortium (along with the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt, and American) whose champs will qualify for consideration for a spot in the “New Year’s Six” bowl lineup that is the successor to the BCS. That high-rent district is not unfamiliar in recent years to the MAC, as Northern Illinois qualified for the Orange Bowl two seasons ago, and might have been due for a return trip last year until the Huskies were upset by Bowling Green in the conference title game at Ford Field. We could certainly see another MAC team in a "New Year's Six" bowl in the very near future.

What is most remarkable about the MAC, however, is how its membership ranks have not fluctuated to near the degree of other leagues in the era of conference shifting. Though only Miami-Ohio and Ohio U remains as a charter member from the league’s first season in 1947, the conference began to have a familiar look by the early ‘50s when Western Michigan, Toledo, Kent State, and Bowling Green were added to the ranks. All remain to this day. The league would slowly grow in subsequent decades, with Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, and Northern Illinois all enlisting in the early ‘70s. Akron and Buffalo would come on board in the ‘90s; Marshall had joined in the mid 1950s but was expelled due to repeated NCAA violations in the late ‘60s, briefly returned in the late ‘90s, in the midst of a glorious football era for the Herd, before moving to Conference USA .

In the meantime, the league, thanks to its BCS (or old “D-I”) status, has accommodated, sometimes a bit awkwardly, a handful of football-only members, beginning with UCF in 2002 and then including Temple later in the decade. Both would eventually cast their lots elsewhere.

The latest such example is UMass, but don’t get used to seeing the Minutemen in the MAC, as they will be departing after the 2015 football season.

Part of the contract between the MAC and UMass when it agreed to join the conference in April of 2011 was that, if the school was offered full membership, it could either accept or remain as a football-only member for two additional years if the offer was turned down. The MAC offered UMass full membership in February and the university declined, leading to the Minuteman’s departure after the next two football seasons.

The conference is not going to sweat the Minutemen's departure, but also did not hide its disappointment in UMass’ decision.

“This is not the outcome we anticipated when UMass was admitted as a football-only member. However, circumstances changed regarding our football membership and this is a result of those circumstances,” commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in a statement.

UMass began its transition from the FCS to the FBS in 2011; a school spokesperson stated that the Minutemen intend on remaining at the highest level of college football and join another FBS conference. Just which league they could be targeting--and would have them--remains very unclear (check out our Sun Belt preview to see why it remains a very unlikely landing spot for the Minutemen). Some observers believe UMass is holding out hope of enlisting in the American..we'll see what happens.

Following the departure of UMass in 2015, the MAC will be back down to its former 12-team league: an East division consisting of Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Kent State, Miami-O and Ohio, with Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan comprising the West. Which is a very familiar look for the MAC.

Given all of the changes in the college sports conference landscape, there is something reassuring about seeing the old gang in the MAC continue to stick together.

Following is the first of our two-part preview of the Mid-American Confernce, starting off with a look at the East half courtesy Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano. As always, teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2013 straight-up and pointspread records included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

BOWLING GREEN (SUR: 10-4; PSR 10-4)...The Falcons are coming off their first conference championship since 1992, but the departure of HC Dave Clawson to Wake Forest after 5 years in Bowling Green threw a monkey wrench into the machine. Enter Dino Babers, an assistant coach and coordinator on the bigger stages (Arizona, Baylor, Texas A&M) before successfully cutting his teeth as a head coach at FCS representative Eastern Illinois the last 2 years, complete with his highly-regarded coordinators in tow.

The BG offense was very good last season, ranking 28th nationally at 35 ppg, and that unit returns virtually all its important pieces. However, things will change for jr. QB Matt Johnson (3467 YP, 64%, 25-7 TD-int.) and RB Travis Greene (school-record 1594 YR, 5.7 ypc, 13 TDs; 1st all-MAC LY). Co-offensive coordinators Sterlin Gilbert & Matt Mattox will have the team playing “Falcon Fast” this fall. This is an entirely different offense that Babers hopes will run more plays than anyone in the country. The Falcons ran 69 plays in the first 15 minutes of the spring game, but that wasn’t fast enough for Babers.

Johnson and Greene had career-years in 2013, and it might be tough to reach those heights again, but it won’t be for lack of reps. The offensive line is young (four starters are RS frosh or sophs), but experienced and talented (C Alex Huettel was 2nd-team all-MAC at G; Ts Logan Dietz & Jacob Bennett both started all 14 games LY). The receiving corps lost its top 2 pass-catchers, but the return to health of 6-4 WR Chris Gallon, addition of soph SMU transfer Gehrig Dieter, and potential impact of highly-touted early-enrollee true frosh Roger Lewis will augment the talents of soph returning starter Ronnie Moore (28 catches) and jr. Ryan Burbrink (30 recs. 7 starts; all-MAC as a punt returner). QB Johnson led the team to MAC domination last season, taking the last 5 against conference foes by an average 45-9 tally.

Babers and d.c. Kim McCloud are extremely confident in their defense, despite returning just 5 starters on paper. “We have a good defense. You try to sugar coat a lot of things, but we just have a good defense. Not only are we going to have the fastest offense, but we will have the fastest defense, too,” says Babers. That confidence is based on the fact that the defensive unit includes 3 who were named to all-conference teams, led by sr. LB DJ Lynch (team-high 85 tackles). Babers and McCloud have emphasized generating takeaways, and it appeared the lessons were well-learned in the final spring scrimmage, when the unit forced 4 turnovers.

The front 7 should continue to put plenty of pressure on passers. The Falcons have sacked opposing QBS 68 times in the last 2 seasons, and with Lynch and 3rd-team all-MAC DE Bryan Thomas spearheading a veteran group that will include 8 senior starters, expect another very stingy unit. BG allowed just 16.4 ppg over the past 2 seasons, and it’s difficult to forecast a dropoff.

Fully expect the Falcons to return to the MAC title game again in 2014. BG has been one of college football’s best pointspread plays on the road the last 7 years, compiling a 30-13 spread mark away from home in the regular season. If “Falcon Fast” revs up to the RPM Babers desires, Bowling Green might become the next Boise State or Baylor.

OHIO (SUR: 7-6; PSR 6-7)...Frank Solich has proven himself over 15 years as head coach at Nebraska and currently at Ohio, and his Bobcat teams have attained a level of expectation. Ohio has gone to 5 straight bowl games while averaging 9 wins since 2009. This season Solich must try to return to that level without QB Tyler Tettleton (6153 YP, 49 TDP the last 2 years), star WR Donte Foster (1018 yds. receiving), and RB Beau Blankenship (led team with 910 YR in ‘13). If anyone can do it, it’s Solich, who has patched together teams before and has also replaced players who put up big numbers.

The offense will likely be guided by jr. QB Derrius Vick, although he’s no sure thing to hold off sophs Greg Windham (back after 2013 suspension) or JD Sprague to hold onto the job Vick won in spring. Vick had 176 yds. of total offense in the spring game, completing 17 of 27 passes, and added a game-high 32 YR, but he was also picked off twice. It’s no sure bet Vick will be up to Tettleton’s production, but he’s been in the system three seasons and has solid HS credentials from Lincoln Southeast in Nebraska, obviously matriculating to Athens through Solich’s old recruiting contacts. The injury-plagued Blankenship could be replaced by a combination of Canadian frosh Maleek Irons, who rushed for 3204 yds. & 45 TDs in high school in the 2012 season, and 5-7 jr. scatback Daz’mond Patterson (406 YR, 5.6 ypc L2Ys). There is plenty of talent to fill in the receiving corps, as Iowa transfer Cameron Wilson and Nevada transfer Aaron Bradley (115 career catches with the Wolf Pack; 40 last fall) will fill in well around sr. starter Chase Cochran (37 recs.; 18.6 ypc) and sr. Landon Smith. Solich has always produced quality offensive lines, and this season should be no different, as 3 returning regulars are starting for the third season.

The defense is in excellent position to improve upon last season’s disappointing 67th finish in total defense. The Bobcats yielded 406 ypg, the first time they’d given up more than 388 ypg since 2007. Last season’s 4.6 ypc allowed on the ground was the worst mark at Ohio under Solich. But with all four starters returning on a youngish defensive line, that could snap back like an elastic band. Soph Tarell Basham made 32 tackles and had 7½ sacks last year, good enough to make some frosh All-America teams. Sr. NT Antwan Crutcher has 105 tackles the last two seasons and is a prototype nose man at 6-2 and 304. Sophs Brandon Purdum and Kurt Laseak learned on the job LY and are ready to teach a few lessons to opposing offensive linemen.

The defensive spine extends back from Crutcher through jr. MLB Ben Russell (team-high 88 tackles) and sr. S Josh Kristoff (2nd with 72 stops). The secondary has one of the best covermen in the MAC in jr. CB Devin Bass, who was 2nd team all-conference LY. As is almost always the case, Solich has excellent special teams, as PK Josiah Yazdani (14-15 FGs; 2nd all-MAC) is joined this season by acclaimed juco punter Mitch Bonnstetter.

Solich has built a very solid, consistent program, and the team is showing some trappings of success, opening a $12.5 million, state-of-the-art indoor practice facility, the Walter Fieldhouse, this spring. Health is a concern, but if the Bobcats can break the trend of the last two seasons when they went 1-3 in their last 4 games, good things will happen. Have to believe Ohio will again be in the 8-10 win range and garner a bowl bid despite the loss of a trio of productive offensive players.

AKRON (SUR: 5-7; PSR 5-6-1)...Few administrations in college football would offer a football coach a contract extension after its team recorded a 6-18 record in that coach’s first two seasons. Welcome to the world of low expectations and Akron Zip football. HC Terry Bowden managed to pull the program out of a steep nosedive last season, recording a 5-7 mark after the Zips went 1-11 each of the previous three seasons. Voila! Contract extension! Bowden has been building from scratch, bringing in transfers to fill gaps in the short term while recruiting fervently against Big Ten teams at a school that isn’t even normally on the wish list for MAC recruits. He’s making progress.

The offense has nowhere to go but up, as the Zips ranked 108th in scoring last season at 20 ppg. Jr. QB Kyle Pohl has a big, accurate arm, but his results have been pedestrian at best, as he completed 56% of his passes for 2438 yds. with a 14-10 TD-interception ratio. Pohl has some decent options at wideout in o.c. A.J. Milwee’s scheme, as 4 of his top 5 favorite targets return. WRs Zach D’Orazio (team-high 42 catches & 4 TDs), sr. L.T. Smith (17.8 ypc on 24 recs.), and soph Fransohn Bickley (just 5-6, but had 39 catches) return and give hop for an improved passing game. The other leading returning receiver is also the team’s best offensive threat, sr. RB Jawon Chisholm, who has been consistent in the last three seasons, averaging 928 YR, but has some endurance issues, partly due to injuries, and hasn’t topped the 1000-yard mark.

The main issue with the attack is the poor play of the offensive line over the past few seasons. Akron has yielded an average of 31 sacks the last 4 seasons and has gained just 3.5 ypc over the past 5 years. Sr. C Travis Switzer (24 starts L2Ys), jr. G Dylan Brumbaugh (12 starts ‘13), and sr. G Joe McNamara (Wisconsin transfer; 5 starts LY) give this unit a chance to improve if juco Scott Boyett (6-7, 315) can make the jump and sr. Isaiah Williams’ conversion from defense to offense finally comes to fruition.

Defensively, Akron made undeniable progress last season, but it must be taken in context. The Zips allowed foes their fewest points since 2006, giving up 28.6 ppg after yielding 36 ppg over the previous 3 seasons. Akron ranked a respectable 59th in total defense last season, and the 28 sacks by Zip defenders was more than double the team average over the previous 5 years. It’s not surprising d.c. Chuck Amato is having a positive effect. After all, he’s had 41 years in the business. But making another jump might be difficult. The defense returns just 4 fulltime starters, and Bowden suspended sr. leaders FS Johnny Robinson and CB Donte Williams after they were involved in a 3:00 AM brawl at a fast food joint in June. Provided the charges of aggravated riot can be resolved, it’s likely they’ll be reinstated, but someone hit a law enforcement officer with their SUV that night (allegedly), so getting away completely clean might not be in the cards.

Still, Amato hasn’t exactly had the greatest personnel to work with thus far, so it’s obviously the scheme and coaching first, personnel second at Akron. The LB corps is among the best in the conference, as jr. Jatavis Brown (1st-team all-MAC) , sr. Justin March (3rd-team all-MAC), and sr. CJ Mizell (ex-Florida State & Wash. St.; 3 starts, 41 tackles for the Zips LY) combined for 228 stops in 2013. Up front, NT Cody Grice has 24 straight starts, and DE Nordly Capi (ex-all MWC at Colorado St.) displayed his skills in starting the last 5 games for the Zips LY, as the team went 4-1 SU and allowed just 328 ypg and 16.5 ppg in those wins.

With a tough pre-MAC slate including Penn State, Pitt and Marshall, it will be tough for Bowden to squeeze out one more win than last season and get to bowl eligibility. But it’s not out of the question if the offensive line improves and the secondary isn’t hamstrung by extended absences of Robinson and Williams. Bowden is building, but must keep things in perspective. It’s Akron, where the winningest guys on campus play for the men’s futbol squad, not the football team (the soccer team is 127-17-17 the last 7 years, best in the country).

BUFFALO (SUR: 8-5; PSR 8-5)...Head coach Jeff Quinn took the Bulls back to a bowl fairly quickly, but now the true test begins. He must replace the three most impactful players in the team’s history, as LB Khalil Mack (5th pick in the NFL draft), RB Branden Oliver (school’s all-time rushing leader), and WR Alex Neutz (61 catches, 1024 yds., 12 TDs LY) have moved on to the pros. The Bulls also had the benefit of a +15 turnover margin last season, many of the takeaways generated by Mack. Quinn has some pieces in place, but he’s also got his work cut out.

One main returning piece is jr. QB Joe Licata, who threw for 2824 yds. and had a 24-8 TD-int ratio in his first full season as a starter. Licata missed spring work after undergoing hip surgery, but the feeling is he’ll recover fully by the time Duquesne arrives in town for the opener. Licata should have plenty of time to throw, as he was dumped just 20 times in more than 430 passing plays last season. The offensive line returns 4 senior starters plus jr. John Cling, who started 6 times LY after an injury to graduated all-conference LG Jasen Carlson. The OL is big by almost any standards, averaging more than 316 lbs. across, and they know their business after having escorted Oliver to a couple of sensational seasons. The OL’s size, skill and experience also give rise to the possibility that another 1000-yard rusher might emerge from among bruising soph Jordan Johnson (233-lbs.), jr. Anthone Taylor (399 YR, 4.9 ypc, 3 TDs LY), and jr. Devin Campbell, who moved back to his more natural RB position last in spring after catching 19 passes while playing slotback in 2013. In 2012, Campbell rushed for 502 yds. as a true frosh, including a 160-yard game against Ohio.

The receivers won’t have a single player the caliber of Neutz, but obviously the group is deep enough that Quinn felt confident about moving Campbell to the backfield. Soph WR Boise Ross and TEs Matt Weiser & Mason Schreck combined to catch 43 passes, while jr. Marcus McGill has recovered enough from an injury that cost him most of last season to be projected as a starter. Devon Hughes has 48 career receptions and will likely be targeted more frequently after deferring to Neutz last season. Licata will not want for targets.

Obviously, there’s no replacement for LB Khalil Mack on the Bull defense this season, but there’s still talent at the position in sr. Lee Skinner (has started all 37 games in his career and ranked 2nd on the team in tackles each of those seasons). Sr. Adam Redden was 3rd team all-MAC LY after collecting 65 stops, 4½ sacks & 8 TFL. It appears sr. Jake Stockman (6-2, 237 lbs., 43 stops, 5½ TFL after playing in all 13 games LY) will have first shot at filling Mack’s position, with a pair of talented sophs wait in the wings. The Bulls are deep at the position, but players of Mack’s caliber aren’t just walking the streets of Buffalo (except, of course, those playing for the Bills).

The defensive line should be solid again, keyed by 6-5, 300-lb. returning starter NT Kristjan Sokoli. Fellow sr. DEs Tedroy Lynch and Dalton Barksdale both played in double-digit games LY and were effective. The secondary might be a worry for veteran d.c. Lou Tepper, as he must replace a pair of accomplished starters and returns just one starter in the person of sr. CB Cortney Lester. Tepper needs some of his 12 defensive recruits to emerge and for his 9 projected sr. defensive starters to have big seasons if the Bulls are to duplicate last year’s defensive numbers.

Buffalo won’t fall off the table despite losing some high-quality talent. But don’t expect the Bulls to get 30 takeaways again, and Licata’s 24-8 ratio is unlikely to be duplicated, especially if an effective running back doesn’t emerge. Face it, there are a lot of bowl slots, and with Duquesne, Norfolk State, Army, Eastern Michigan, Miami-Ohio and UMass on the schedule, getting the requisite 6 wins necessary for postseason eligibility is well within the grasp of the Bulls.

KENT STATE (SUR: 4-8; PSR 4-7-1)...In 2012, Kent State won 11 games and would’ve won a berth in a BCS bowl if it weren’t for a 2-OT loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. Given that was just the third winning season for the Golden Flash program in the last 35 years, winning isn’t in the cards this season for HC Paul Haynes. The 2012 campaign was an aberration, fueled by a +20 turnover edge and a remarkable effort with a rushing game that produced two players who exceeded 1300 YR. Last season’s 4-8 mark is more like what’s to be expected for the Zips.

Normally, one might point encouragingly to soph Colin Reardon (1957 YP, 59%, 12-9), as his numbers appear somewhat promising for a young QB at first glance. However, the fact is he flattened out after a plus spurt in the first 3 games, completing just 56% with an 8-9 ratio in his final 8 games LY, and Kent St. ended the season ranked 100th in passing yards. Last season, teams were primed to stop RBs Dri Archer (presently a Pittsburgh Steeler) and sr. Trayion Durham (a disappointing 766 YR after breakout 1316 YR as a soph in 2012). The result was plenty of time for Reardon to throw the ball (the OL yielded just 14 sacks). The OL could still be effective, but it will have to deal with more pressure from opposing defenses.

With Archer gone and Durham exhibiting some wear on the tires last season, the attack will lean heavily on Reardon, leading receiver Chris Humphrey (51 catches in 2013), and sr. TE Casey Pierce (6-4, 235; 33 recs. and a team-high 5 TD receptions LY). Still, it’s difficult to anticipate the offense improving a whole bunch against zone-blitzing foes. Even a 10% increase in production would bring the Flash attack from 104th in the nation to 93rd at best. That’s just not likely, and even if it happens, it’s not enough. It’s going to take more than another 2 points per game to get Kent back to a bowl.

The Flash defense last year ranked 70th in total defense and 94th against the run, yielding 4.9 ypc, by far the least effective rushing “D” for Kent since 1998. And last year’s Kent State stop unit had the luxury of having star DT Roosevelt Nix, who’s out of eligibility, along with DE Mark Fackler. Rebuilding the defensive front won’t be easy despite the return of NT Nate Terhune (15 tackles). The LB corps should be solid, with all 3 starters returning, led by jr. MLB Matt Dellinger (77 stops), along with hybrid “Star” S/LB Jordan Italiano (76 tackles). Sr. OLB Nate Vance had 46 tackles and actually tied Nix for the team lead in sacks at 3½. Terhune and Italiano were named to some preseason all-MAC teams, but there are holes to fill up front. Defensive coordinator Brian George is keeping his fingers crossed that his secondary can improve on last season’s mediocre showing (82nd in pass efficiency defense). The defense couldn’t stop the run or the pass a year ago, making it difficult to fathom how it held foes to only 27 ppg. Kent has yielded 410 ypg each of the last two seasons after holding foes to 316 ypg in 2010 & 2011. These numbers won’t make a quantum leap for the good in 2014.

Unfortunately for Haynes, the Golden Flashes’ most effective weapon this season might be jr. punter Anthony Melchiori, who has averaged 43 & 44.5 the last 2 seasons and was 2nd team all-MAC last season. Melchiori might be the answer as to why the Flash defense bent a lot, but didn’t break as much as it might have in 2013. Kent only occasionally attracts NFL-caliber talent, and until Haynes finds a way to change that, look for the Golden Flashes’ to only occasionally threaten to attain bowl-eligibility.

MIAMI-OHIO (SUR: 0-12; PSR 2-8-2)...Miami was just about the worst of the worst last season, as the RedHawks ranked last in scoring, equaling Florida International at an anemic 9.8 ppg. The defense wasn’t much better, at 113th in total “D” and allowing 36 ppg in a winless 2013. M-O enters 2014 riding a 16-game losing streak, so there is virtually nowhere to go but up.

Miami fired coach Don Treadwell between games 5 and 6 last season, as they’d seen enough after he guided the team to an 8-21 SU mark in 2½ seasons. It’s not that germain looking back at how bad last year was, as the situation has changed with the hiring of ex-Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin as the 4th head coach in the past 7 years in Oxford. Martin cut his teeth under Brian Kelly at Grand Valley St., and twice won the championship there as head coach after Kelly moved on. Martin brought in a staff keyed by co-offensive coordinators George Barnett and Eric Koehler and d.c. Matt Pawlowski, all of whom served at Grand Valley. The new head coach has also taken with him three graduate transfers from Notre Dame who should help make an immediate impact.

Offensively, graduate senior Andrew Hendrix, who amassed 589 yds. total offense in 26 appearances for the Irish, will be the new starting QB, thus jumpstarting the transition to a new scheme. Another new offensive starter accompanying Martin from South Bend is TE Alex Welch (6-4, 248; played in 22 games in 3 yrs. for ND). Both players were in for spring and represent the highest rated recruits on the team (both top 15 at their positions coming out of high school). The offense could also get a boost from holdover starting RB Spencer Treadwell. Treadwell has been less than spectacular in his first two season, rushing for just 405 yds. and averaging 3.3 ypc, but he looked much more dedicated and lively in spring and impressed the new staff enough to retain his starting position.

Hendrix will have plenty of targets beyond Welch, as a pair of starting wideouts and 9 letterman receivers return, including the team’s top three receivers. Sr. WRs Dawan Scott and David Frazier each snagged 28 passes LY, and Scott has 1700 receiving yards in his career. A huge question concerning this attack is the offensive line, which has resembled 5 blocks of butter recently, allowing an average of 45 sacks while the rushing game gained just 2.7 ypc over the last 3 seasons. Four of the five starters return on this platoon made up of juniors & seniors, so they have plenty of starting experience, but it’s experience they might rather blot out of their memory. If the OL can open a hole or two and keep Hendrix from being knocked out, the offensive-minded Martin should be able to substantially improve the attack. But let’s remember, with 9.8 ppg production last season, even a 50% increase is unlikely to move them into the top 100 in scoring.

Defensively, 7 starters return from a unit that was constantly put at a disadvantage due to the ineptitude of the offense. Again, there is reason to believe this platoon will improve. Martin brought in CB Lo Wood, another highly-rated prep whose career at Notre Dame didn’t quite go the way he would’ve liked. Wood is giving it another shot and will be plugged into the starting lineup to fill the only hole in the secondary. Wood will play opposite soph Heath Harding, who led the team with 3 ints. LY. The linebacking crew is quite solid despite the poor overall numbers, as jr. LB Kent Kern was 2nd team all-MAC after leading the team with 98 stops, and jr. Josh Dooley ranked 3rd on the team with 87.

The real difficulty in quickly transforming the defense is up front. The team has only 29 sacks the last two seasons and has given up 5.1 and 5.5 ypc in that span. Jr. DE Bryson Albright is the best the team has up front, as he had 55 stops and 5 of the team’s 14 sacks LY.

Miami has problems in the stands as well as on the field. Last season attendance dipped as the losing mounted, sinking as low as 9895 for the final home game in 2013. In order to counter that slide, the RedHawks are offering all-you-can-eat hot dogs, nachos, and soft drinks to anyone buying a $30 ticket to a game this fall. Will TGS editor Bruce Marshall, a noted frankfurter & marching band afficionado, be there on Band Day Sept. 6 against Eastern Kentucky?

MASSACHUSETTS (SUR: 1-11; PSR 5-7)...The Charley Molnar era at UMass didn’t last long. After a pair of 1-11 seasons in making the step up to the FBS with Molnar in charge, he was fired despite postseason assurances that he would be brought back. Sooo...Meet the new boss...same as the old boss. Enter Mark Whipple, who directed the Minutemen very successfully in Division I-AA from 1998-2003. Whipple took over a team that was 2-9 in 1997 and turned it into a national champion in 1998. Don’t look for that to happen this time around. Picking Whipple, who spent 2004 through 2012 coaching the Steelers, Eagles, University of Miami, and Cleveland Browns quarterbacks, was a good move. The Minuteman program has also made a commitment to improving facilities by building new lockers & workout spaces adjacent to on-campus McGuirk Stadium, as well as replacing the turf. All of this will help.

Whipple, who will call his own plays, has made immediate inroads in recruiting, bringing in several juco and graduate senior transfers, as well as getting a handful of his recruits in for spring work. Perhaps as many as a dozen of the new faces will play key roles in 2014. One of the graduate senior transfers will start at QB, as Marshall’s Blake Frohnapfel decided he wasn’t going to see much action backing up Thundering Herd starter Rakeem Cato. Frohnapfel will get plenty of reps at UMass, and he had solid numbers in 26 games mopping up the last few seasons, plus he’ll have 2 years of eligibility. The receiving corps should be sharply improved, after leaning heavily on returning starting jr. Tajae Sharpe (61 recs. LY; 2nd receiver had 27). The unit added 6-3 juco Jalen Williams, sr. Penn State transfer Alex Kenney and regains services of slot receiver Marken Michel (had quit team under Molnar regime). The now-crowded and more talented logjam caused soph WR E.J. Burston to quit the team and transfer. A pair of juco TEs (6-7 Jean Sifrin and 6-6 Jon Denton) will add some heft in that slot and give Whipple flexibility at a position utilized extensively in his system.

The running game, which ranked among the worst in the nation the last 2 years in part due to injuries to RBs, will likely use a committee to cover the position, as several have at least shown some promise. The one that produces the most will get the carries. Soph Lorenzo Woodley gained 163 yds. on 38 carries against Northern Illinois last season and is the biggest of the group at 6-0, 215, so he’ll carry the baton early. The success of the rushing game is obviously linked to the play of the offensive line, which has also received an infusion. Juco G Josh Bruns (transferred in but didn’t play LY) and jr. Liam Porter (from JC ranks after starting at Boston College) are expected to start along with holdover C Matt Sparks and soph LT Tyrell Smith. Other transfers and youngsters are expected to provide depth. The offense ranked 121st in scoring last season, so there’s almost nowhere to go but up.

Defensive coordinator Tom Masella, who served in that capacity in 2002-03 at UMass under Whipple, wasn’t displeased with the talent available at Amherst during spring workouts. The Minutemen will shift to a 3-4 formation, hoping to accentuate the positive (good linebackers) and de-emphasize the negative (the DL is neither very deep nor very good). The LB corp appears solid, led by sr. Stanley Andre, whose 111 tackles topped the team in ‘13. OLB Kassan Messiah (6-4, 225; 65 stops in 6 starts LY) has a chance to develop into an impact player, while jr. Jovan Santos-Knox (4 starts, 32 stops LY) and soph Shane Huber can make plays as well. The 2ndary has three returning jr. starters, but the summer decision of FS Ed Saint-Vil (82 tackles LY) to give up football hurt.

Whipple will improve the team; that much is obvious (and, to be fair, not that difficult considering the record the last few seasons). However, with a “man’s man” preseason schedule featuring reps from the ACC, Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten, and a MAC slate that’s no cakewalk, a couple of wins (maybe 3 if things come together?) is all Minutemen fans can hope for.



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