by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Following is Part I of our MAC preview, focusing upon the Eastern half of the loop; we look at the West in our next update.  Teams are listed in order of predicted finish, with 2016 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" marks included.

OHIO (SUR 8-6; PSR 8-6; O-U 2-12)...Frank Solich has been a head coach 19 seasons, counting his six years at Nebraska, and his teams have turned in just two losing records. Only once in the last 10 years have the Bobcats lost more games than they won (2008). It is still somewhat puzzling that he was fired at Nebraska after compiling a 58-19 record and earning the Cornhuskers a bowl game each season. Now he’s a bit of a big fish in a little pond, and Ohio has finished 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the MAC East each of the last eight years, advancing to a bowl in seven of those seasons.

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Defense is where Solich’s teams have excelled lately. OU ranked 5th in the country against the run LY and 2nd in the MAC in scoring defense. The Bobcat “D” lost a pair of first-team all-MAC stars and NFL draftees, as DE Tarell Basham went to the Colts and LB Blair Brown to the Jaguars. Despite those losses, the defense should be as consistently good as it has been in holding foes to fewer than 400 total yards per game in eight of the last nine seasons. Six starters return, including a pair of the best LBs in the conference in sr. Quentin Poling (1st team all-MAC) and Chad Moore (97 tackles LY). Last season the Bobcats allowed just 3.0 ypc and recorded a whopping 44 sacks. The front seven might not match those numbers this year after losing Basham and Brown, but the LBs are very good, and jr. NT Cleon Aloese had 36 stops and 9 TFL in only six starts.

The secondary has three starters back, and the fourth this fall (CB Brad Ellis) had 33 tackles and made three starts last season. Thanks in large part to the vicious pass rush, the defense held foes to just 5.1 yds. per pass attempt, equaling the team’s best mark since 2006. The pass rush should still be a weapon, as players totaling 14 sacks and 31 TFL return.

The offense ranked in the middle of the pack in most MAC categories, but it stalled and settled for FGs from soph Louie Zervos (29 of them in 35 attempts LY) all too often. The attack returns eight starters, and is three-deep at RB, where jr. AJ Ouellette returns after a medical redshirt season in 2016. Ouellette led the Bobcats in rushing in 2014 and 2015 (1476 YR combined, 4.7 ypc). Sr. Dorian Brown and jr. Maleek Irons combined for 1264 YR and nine scores last season. Those three will carry the mail behind an experienced OL, which returns three starters, plus 6-5, 260-lb. vet starting TE Troy Mangen. The OL allowed just 19 sacks LY as well as ushering the team’s RBs. The offensive front is led by key sr. C Jake Pruehs, who was third-team all-MAC LY.

Soph QB Quinton Maxwell started six of the last eight games and will start camp as the first choice, although he’s yet to put substantial distance between himself and juco Nathan Rourke. Maxwell completed 55% of his passes for 1247 yds. with an 8-4 TD-int. ratio LY, and he showed decent mobility.

The challenge on offense is finding receivers after the team graduated three of its top four pass-catchers from 2016. Jr. WR/RB Papi White has moved to full-time wideout. He caught 41 passes (3rd on the team) with six TD catches (tied for the team-lead), and he rushed for 206 yards and 3 TDs. Soph Elijah Ball is the next leading returning receiver with 16 receptions. Sr. Brendan Cope (6-2) has made 19 starts with 53 catches over the last three seasons. Cope was scheduled to start, but was bothered by a hamstring injury that limited him to just four appearances last season. Long story short, there will be downfield targets for Maxwell.

Summary: The East is definitely the softer of the two divisions in the MAC, and the Bobcats have the most experienced and perhaps the best coach in the conference in Solich. Ohio also has the best set of returning kickers in the conference. The pieces are in place for an outstanding year. Preseason games against Hampton, Purdue and Kansas are all very winnable, and tougher crossover games with MAC West representatives Central Michigan and Toledo are being played in Athens. Can’t rule out a Western Michigan-like run for the Bobcats this season.

MIAMI-OHIO (SUR 6-7; PSR 9-4; O-U 4-9)...In mid-October last year, Miami football was looking pretty grim. The RedHawks were 0-6 and seemed destined for another dismal season. At that point, the team was 5-37 SU in the previous 3½ seasons and hadn’t posted a winning record or been to a bowl since winning the conference championship in 2010. HC Chuck Martin appeared to be on very thin ice.

Then QB Gus Ragland was deemed healthy enough to play, and things changed. Ragland suffered an ACL tear in the spring of 2016, but completed a quick recovery when he started against Kent State on Oct. 15. Ragland was the catalyst who propelled the RedHawks to a 6-1 SU and spread mark in the second half of the season, including a hard-fought loss (but cover) against SEC rep Mississippi St. in the team’s first bowl appearance in six years. Ragland threw for 219 ypg, completing 64% of his throws with an astounding 17-1 TD-int. ratio, and he added 202 YR and a couple of scores on the ground in engineering a complete turnaround. Miami was the first team to start 0-6 and then finish 6-6 since the NCAA expanded the regular season to 12 games. Ragland and seven other offensive starters return to what should be an improved offense. After scoring just 17 ppg in the 0-6 start, the Ragland-led RedHawks put up 30 ppg in the final six MAC games last season, so Miami’s 115th final ranking in scoring is a bit deceptive.

In addition to QB Ragland, Miami returns its top three ground-gainers and receivers. Jr. RBs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young (6.3 ypc) combined for 1266 YR and 9 total TDs. The top receivers are jr. wideout James Gardner (45 recs., team-high six TDs, 16.7 ypc) and sr. WR Jared Murphy (43 catches, five TDs). TE Ryan Smith was third on the team with 31 catches, five going for scores. Smith’s backup is former starter Nate Becker, who missed last season with injury. Those two veteran TEs also add heft to the run game as well.

Four starters return on a very experienced offensive line. Eleven of 12 lettermen are back up front, and the returnees combined for 50 starts LY. This is a very deep group. The only starting vacancy is expected to be filled by jr. Jarrett LaRubbio, a Kentucky transfer who sat out last season. LaRubbio was ranked as a top-20 prospect at guard coming out of high school. He is one of two SEC transfers on the RedHawk OL, the other being sr. starting G Jordan Diamond (originally at Auburn).

Miami led the MAC in total defense in conference play, holding foes to 334 ypg, and Martin welcomes back eight starters from that group, including his top five tacklers. Three returning starting linebackers are the strength of the defense, as jr. MLB Junior McMullen (90 Ts) and De’Andre Montgomery (65 Ts, 4 ints.) were both third-team all-MAC. Jr. LB Brad Koenig was third on the team with 73 tackles, and putting pressure on opposing backfields is a strength. The DL returns both tackles but must replace edge rushers who combined for 10½ sacks. Touted true frosh Josh Maize might help with the pass rush.

The secondary is experienced, with all four starters returning, headed by sr. CB Heath Harding (first-team all-MAC, 67 stops, 4 ints., 6½ TFL, 15 passes defended) and sr. S Tony Reid (Miami’s top tackler with 98). The RedHawks ranked 28th in pass efficiency defense in 2016, holding foes to 5.2 yds. per play, their lowest mark in that category since 2007.

Summary: The RedHawks opened a new athletics complex in February and appear poised to take a step out of the shadows of college football. However, in order to return to the bowl picture, everything must break just right for them. Miami’s chief rival in the MAC East is Ohio, and the RedHawks have lost four straight to the Bobcats and must travel to Oxford for their meeting this season. The non-conference slate includes visits to Notre Dame and Marshall, and a home game against rival Cincy. If Ragland’s knee holds up and co-defensive coordinators Matt Pawlowski and John Hauser can figure a way to turn up the heat on opposing QBs, the RedHawks could well return to the MAC championship game.

AKRON (SUR 5-7; PSR 4-8; O-U 6-6)...
Terry Bowden’s Akron team appeared to be making rapid progress. The Zip program that was just 19-53 in the six seasons before Bowden took over. It turned around to an 8-5 mark and its first bowl appearance in ten years in 2015, his fourth season in charge.

Unfortunately, the Zips took a step back in 2016. Injuries limited Ohio State transfer RB Warren Ball to just 25 carries. The Zip offense was counting on him to be a 1000-yard rusher. Injuries to QBs Thomas Woodson and Tra’Von Chapman slowed the offense to the point that it scored just 17 ppg and gained only 337.5 ypg in losing the last four games of the season. A win in any of those final four games would’ve sent Akron to a bowl, but it was not to be.

Woodson threw for 2079 yds., completing 60.3% with an 18-6 TD-int. ratio in eight games, but he suffered a shoulder injury that required postseason surgery. He didn’t begin throwing again until June, obviously missing spring altogether. Former Virginia and NE Oklahoma A&M QB Nick Johns ran the first team in spring, but the job is Woodson’s in August barring complications with his shoulder.

The running game should improve with the return to health of Ball, who was very explosive (7.2 ypc) before being hurt. Jr. Van Edwards and sr. Manny Morgan combined for 909 YR (5.0 ypc) in relief of Ball a year ago. The offensive line returns four starters from a group that helped generate 27.4 ppg, the most for Akron since 2008. The OL was one area of the team that almost completely avoided injuries LY, as the starters missed a total of just one game.

The main concern offensively is replenishing the receiving corps, as the top two pass catchers depart. Jerome Lane and JoJo Nelson combined for 121 catches, 1855 yds. and 16 TD receptions last year. Both Lane and Nelson are playing for the Colts this August. Returning starting sr. WR Austin Wolf had 36 catches for 550 yds. and 5 scores last season. Sr. AJ Coney (3 starts each of the L2Ys; 15 recs. LY) is back as well, and in an effort to shore up that area, Chapman moved from QB to WR in the spring.

The defense ranked 114th in yielding 466 ypg, and its 225 ypg rushing allowed was the Zips’ worst effort in 20 years. This unit does have at least one star, however, as jr. LB Ulysees Gilbert had a whopping 122 tackles and was named first-team all-MAC. MLB Brian Bell made 10 starts and had 61 stops in 2016, and soph LB James King is a transfer from Miami-Florida who had a decorated prep career (defensive leader of the Florida state HS champions). The DL returns two of four starters in sr. NT Darius Copeland (33 Ts LY) and jr. DT Brock Boxen (23 Ts LY). However, the team gave up 5.0 ypc (5.5 in MAC play), had just 16 sacks in 2016. That must improve.

Soph S Alvin Davis had a great true frosh campaign, recording 87 tackles (2nd on the team) despite not breaking into the starting lineup until Oct. 8 vs. Miami. Sr. rover Zach Guiser made 53 stops LY despite missing three games with injury, and CB Kyron Brown had a team-high three interceptions as the nickle-back. Another transfer, jr. Darian Dailey (Rutgers) will man the other vacated CB position.

Summary: Bowden continues to successfully recruit transfer players from “Big Five” conference teams. His two-deep is dotted with players from Ohio State, Virginia, Miami-Florida, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and Nebraska. Unfortunately, depth is lacking, and the health of Woodson and Ball remain the keys to unlocking a potentially productive attack. The Zips were 5-3 last season before attrition caught up with them. This year, several of Bowden’s transfer recruits come online. And, with 15 returning starters, a bit softer preseason schedule, and some luck on the injury front, Akron should regain its footing and return to the bowl table.

BOWLING GREEN (SUR 4-8; PSR 4-8; O-U 4-8)...Bowling Green opened the season 1-8 last year, with the only victory in that run a 27-26 squeaker as an 18-point favorite over North Dakota. That win was secured only when a UND pass for a potential two-point conversion was tipped away with seconds remaining. Let’s say Mike Jinks’ first nine games as a college head coach didn’t go exactly as planned. The Falcons gave their fans some hope by finishing the season with wins over Akron, Kent State and Buffalo, rushing for 328 ypg in that stretch. Also a positive is that four of the team’s 12 returning starters were named to all-MAC teams.

Redshirt soph QB James Morgan (6-4, 213) took over the starting job from James Knapke after four games. In those first four games, Knapke threw nine interceptions versus just three TD passes. Morgan threw for 2082 yds. and completed 56%, a misleadingly low figure affected by drops. However, his 16-15 TD-int. rate wasn’t ideal. Morgan should gain some confidence after going through spring as the first choice, and his efficiency should improve with a full offseason in co-o.c.’s Andy Padron and Kevin Kilmer’s scheme under his belt. The coaching staff made some obvious changes in the final weeks of 2016. In the 1-8 start, the offensive averaged more than 41 passes compared with 35 rushing attempts. In the season-ending win streak, that mix changed to a much more controlling 60 rushes and 22.7 passes. Very flexible coaching, considering that Jinks and Kilmer had served at pass-happy Texas Tech prior to going to BG, while Padron’s QB while he was o.c. at Texas Lutheran set several school passing records.

The running game has lost its lead back, but returns a very effective pair. The inside-outside sr. combo of Donovan Wilson (220-lbs.) and Josh Cleveland (5-8, 176) gained 1152 yds. and scored 7 rush TDs in 2016. Cleveland ran for 9.3 ypc in the final three games of 2016. The offensive line only returns two starters, seniors Tim McAuliffe and left tackle Ryan Hunter. But McAuliffe was third-team all-MAC LY and Hunter has made 26 starts in the last two seasons (albeit, none of those at left tackle). The other three expected to start have seen a good deal of action, as the Falcons have made it a point to rotate offensive linemen in recent seasons.

Morgan has some solid receivers returning with whom to revive the passing game, in particular first-team all-MAC jr. WR Scott Miller, who led the team with 74 catches for 968 yards and 10 TDs in 2016. Sr. wideout Teo Redding was third in receiving with 31 catches, and the next three pass-catchers on the team, all WRs, totaled 49 catches and also return. In terms of potential, Morgan’s most explosive target could be 6-5 juco transfer Datrin Guyton, who started his career at Oregon State.

The defense has more work to do, however. BG gave up 77 points twice in the first four games last year (vs. Ohio St. and Memphis). Ultimately the Falcons ranked 118th in yielding 38.3 ppg, 113th in yards allowed, 115th in passing yards, and 127th in pass efficiency defense. Although six starters return, and jr. S Jamari Bozeman was a third-team all-MAC LY, BG lost four of its top seven tacklers. Among the missing is its best defensive player (all-MAC LB Trenton Greene). Bozeman had 71 stops in ‘16, while LB Brandon Harris had 59, and DE David Konowalski 49, so there are some building blocks at each level, and the DL has experience and some depth as well. The beleaguered secondary has gotten an infusion of talent with the arrival of juco Fred Garth, who pushed incumbent starting rover Tavarus Wade down the depth chart in spring. Bozeman joins jr. CB Robert Jackson as returning starters who remain in place, while the other CB spot will be manned by soph Cameron Jeffries, who played in every game and started five for BG LY and was twice captain of his prep football and track teams.
One solid plus for the defense is the return of 6-7 A-A (and future pro) punter Joseph Davidson, who averaged 45.8 ypp to lead the MAC last season.

Summary: The bounce of the ball would figure to swing in BG’s favor this fall. Surely the Falcons are unlikely to duplicate their horrible turnover ratio (-1.33 pg LY, ranking 126th). Morgan will improve, as will the defense. However, the “D” doesn’t figure to hold foes to fewer than 30 ppg. The schedule is tougher than last season, so winning six games will be difficult. Especially if the turnover pendulum doesn’t swing in the Falcons’ favor.

KENT STATE (SUR 3-9; PSR 6-6; O-U 7-5)...Kent State HC Paul Haynes is under the gun and in the final year of his contract. Since taking over when Darrell Hazell bolted for Purdue in 2013, things haven’t gone well. In 2012, the Golden Flashes were 11-3 under Hazell, but they’ve won just 12 times in the ensuing four seasons under Haynes.

While playing slot in the first four games LY, Nick Holley was just another guy. He started three of those games, rushing 13 times for 47 yds. and catching 13 passes for 135 yds. from his slot receiver spot. Then, however, he was inserted as the team’s emergency QB when first Justin Agner, then Mylik Mitchell were injured. Holley threw for 285 yds. and ran for 117 more in a surprising performance against Akron. He went on to lead Kent State in both passing and rushing in 2016, despite being featured in the offense for only seven games. Holley suffered various injuries throughout the season, and was forced out of the finale against Northern Illinois after suffering a knee injury vs. Bowling Green. He underwent surgery and was held out of spring drills, although he is expected to recover fully for preseason practices.

Holley leads a group of the top seven rushers returning from last year. However, three of them are quarterbacks. Fireplug (5-9, 206) soph RB Justin Rankin is a stud who gained 511 yds. (4.7 ypc), and was the team’s top pass catcher with 28 receptions. The Flash offensive line returns three starters from a group that helped improve the team from 3.3 ypc in 2014 and 3.6 in 2015 to 4.2 ypc last season. The OL has been shuffled. Sr. C Nathan Puthoff has made 21 starts over the past three seasons, but mostly at guard. Stefano Millin shifted from center to left tackle in spring to fill a void. Jr. G Connor Shinsky started all 12 LY. A couple of post spring signees are hoping to help flesh out the OL.

WR is a concern, but jr. Raekwon James had 25 recs. LY, while soph Mike Carrington was named the most improved offensive player in spring and sr. Kris White (47 catches 2014-15), a projected starter last season, is back after being knocked out for the season in LY’s opener. Juco WR Donte Ross is expected to have an impact as well.

Kent State’s defense wasn’t bad in 2016 (50th in total defense in the country), and it’s actually improved the last two seasons, compared with Haynes’ first two years in charge. But the unit was stingier under Hazell and in the last two seasons under his predecessor, Doug Martin. The Golden Flashes lost six of their top seven tacklers from 2016, including two-time all-MAC Nate Holley (Nick’s twin brother), who had 111 tackles in nine starts before an arrest suspension for the final three games. (For the record, he was found not guilty.) Still, the Kent “D” has six regular starters returning (and eight of the 11 that started the finale vs. Northern Illinois), and 11 players who had 15 or more tackles last season are back.

Sr. LB James Alexander is a solid middle linebacker, and soph Jamal Parker did well in seven starts last season. Two starters return up front, including hulking NT Jon Morgan-Cunningham and DE Theodore Eboigbe. And the front seven will be reinforced. Haynes and his coaching staff shuffled players around in the spring and did some late recruiting in an attempt to shore up the defensive two-deep.

The secondary ranked 20th in pass efficiency “D” last season. FS Juantez McRae had 59 stops LY while playing CB and made a successful transition in spring. Sr. CB Jerrell Foster was 2nd-team all-MAC after his 39 stops, 11 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions last season, and sr. CB Demetrius Monday was all-MAC in 2015.

Summary: Kent had more than its share of bad luck in 2016. The Golden Flashes suffered a four-OT loss to North Carolina A&T (they led in the fourth Q). They lost to Akron when the Zips scored a TD with 20 secs. left. And they blew a late lead against Miami when Gus Ragland threw a 55-yard bomb with 56 seconds left. On a sobering note, the team suffered an offseason tragedy with the death of freshman Tyler Heintz, who died two days into conditioning drills, the program’s second untimely death in three years, following Jason Bitsko’s succumbing to natural causes in 2014. The tough schedule and iffy offense likely means Haynes’ contract won’t be renewed.

BUFFALO (SUR 2-10; PSR 4-8; O-U 5-7)...Buffalo definitely regressed in 2016. In HC Lance Leipold’s second season, the Bulls went 2-10, won just one MAC game, and lost to Albany (Albany? Really?). Buffalo was terrible on offense (126th at 16.5 ppg) and defense (32 ppg; 124th in allowing 253 ypg rushing). With 14 returning starters plus both kickers, the Bulls figure to improve, but it’s a long way up from here.

The offense returns four line starters, 6-4 sr. WR Kamathi Holsey, and, most importantly, soph QB Tyree Jackson. At 6-7, 245-lbs., Jackson is imposing and can move (399 YR, 5 rushing TDs). His 1772 YP, 53%, and 9-9 TD-int. stats weren’t bad for a redshirt frosh on a bad team, but he will have to step up his game several notches if the Bulls are to climb out of the cellar of the MAC East in 2017.

Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki must replace his leading rusher and top three pass-catchers, but he apparently liked what he saw in spring workouts. The feeling is Jackson showed a much better field presence and rapport with receivers. Jr. RB Johnathan Hawkins (388 YR, 4.6 ypc; 21 recs. LY) appears perfectly capable of becoming the Bulls’ fifth 1000-yard rusher in the last seven seasons. Former juco Holsey was not the first option (or second, or third) last season, but he still caught 19 passes in his first season with the team. Spring depth charts indicated Holsey would join fellow seniors Jacob Martinez and Jamari Eiland as starters, but incoming frosh receivers Rodney Scott and Rick Squires will be given every opportunity to make an impact. The Bulls didn’t stretch defenses well at all in 2016, with Jackson dumping off to star TE Schreck (now a Bengal) and RB Hawkins, as the wideouts had trouble shaking coverage and hanging onto the ball when they did manage to get open.

Productive 2nd-team all-MAC Schreck led the team with 59 catches and 4 TDs. Unfortunately he’s now a pro. However, if the spring game is any indication, the Bulls are deep at TE, with soph Tyler Mabry (6-3, 255) and RS frosh Zac Lefebvre (6-6, 245) competing with Maryland transfer Andrew Gray. The OL returns four regulars who made a total of 44 starts last year, and the unit adds 6-6, 344-lb. left tackle Jacquis Webb, a Rutgers transfer who sat out last season and was impressive on the scout team and in spring. C James O’Hagan has made 24 straight starts and was a third-team all-MAC selection last season.

Defensively, there are two ways to look at the 2017 Bulls. Glass half full: Eight starters return, including the top six tacklers led by second-team all-MAC LB Khalil Hodge, who had 123 tackles. Glass half empty: Returning the “same-old, same-old” from a team that gave up the most points for a Buffalo team since 2006 and the most yards since 2003.

Hodge heads a returning LB corps that has all three starters back. Hodge, a former juco, appears headed for another all-conference season and might have a future in the NFL. The starting linebackers made a ton of tackles (301), probably because the front four was more sieve than brick wall. As a result, Buffalo gave up 5.1 ypc (worst since 2003) and garnered just 17 sacks (fewest in the last five years). A pair of senior returning starters, NT Chris Ford and DE Demone Harris, will try to lead the defensive line to some better results in 2017.

The secondary returns three of four starters, but looks can be deceiving. From the lying statistics department, Buffalo ranked 13th in the country and led the MAC in pass defense at 181.5 ypg passing. However, that was due in large part to the terrible run defense and the fact that the Bulls were trailing most of the time, the combination of which made it unnecessary for oppoenents to pass much in the second half. A more accurate picture of the Buffalo 2ndary lies in the pass efficiency defense ranking, where the Bulls were 82nd in the country.

Summary: Buffalo underachieved a bit last season, but not much. The team won five games in its first season under Leipold, and expectations were raised a notch. That might have been a bit unfair, considering that the Bulls have won more games than they have lost just twice in 20 years, and they’ve only been playing in the FBS for the last 18. Buffalo will be better in 2017, but the conference schedule is tough at home, so the Bulls will likely have to win three of four MAC road games in order to become bowl eligible. It’s far more likely they scratch back up to four or five wins.


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