by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

We conclude our preview of the MAC with a look at the West half of the loop.  As always, teams are listed in order of predicted finish, with 2016 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" results included.

TOLEDO (SUR 9-4; PSR 6-6-1; O-U 5-7-1)...Toledo has won 53 games in the last six seasons. But in the competitive MAC West, that hasn’t been good enough to get to the conference championship game. The Rockets haven’t been to Ford Field in Detroit for the MAC title game since 2004, but this might be their year. HC Jason Candle made a nice debut as a head coach in 2016 after serving on the Toledo staff working with the receivers in his first two years, then taking over as offensive coordinator for four years. Candle assumed the post prior to the Boca Raton Bowl at the end of the 2015 season from Matt Campbell, who moved on to Iowa State. It seems a good fit so far.

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Toledo returns only five offensive starters for 2017 but retains key playmakers in place to approach last season’s production (38 ppg, 518 ypg). The Rockets welcome back sr. all-MAC QB Logan Woodside, who threw for 4129 yds. with a 45-9 TD-int. ratio. Woodside will again have all-MAC sr. Cody Thompson, as his go-to target. Thompson caught 64 passes for 1269 yds. with a 19.8 ypr mark and 11 TDs. Thompson has averaged 20.3 ypr in his career and made a reception of 30 yds. or more eight times last year. Another explosive holdover WR is jr. Jon’Vea Johnson, who averaged 19.3 ypr on his 40 receptions last year, breaking for 10 TDs, including one that went for 98 yards. While other wideouts are available to fill in for the graduated Corey Jones’ spot (66 recs.), replacing red zone specialist TE Michael Roberts won’t be easy. Roberts, who’s a Detroit Lion now, scored a team-high 16 TDs among his 45 catches. There will be a major dropoff to projected starting sr. Adam Kulon, a converted defensive end who has one career catch after missing 2015 with an ACL injury.

The Rockets have to replace star RB Kareem Hunt (drafted by Kansas City), but sr. RB Terry Swanson should make a seamless transition into the starter’s role. Swanson, who’s more of a slasher than the powerful Hunt, has gained 2238 yds. (6.0 ypc), grabbed 35 passes, and scored 19 TDs in his career. Barring injury, Swanson will be another in a long line of 1000-yard rushers to play at Toledo, and he should give UT plenty of home run capability.

The iffy part of the attack is the line, which lost three starters from last season. Sr. Nate Jeppesen made six starts at center and two at guard, while soph Bryce Harris filled in and started seven games at center, but will move to guard. Left tackle Elijah Nkansah made eight starts, and both he and Jeppesen had their seasons trimmed by injuries. Sr. T Brant Weiss made five starts LY due to the OL injuries, so the OL pieces are in place.

The defense has been improved the last two years, holding foes to less than 400 total yards and 26 ppg in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1999 and 2000. With seven starters returning, the stop unit should continue to show consistency if it can fill in up front. Two of UT’s three graduated all-MAC defenders worked on the defensive line. That being said, there are plenty of candidates to replace them. Eleven returning defensive linemen, six incoming frosh on the DL, and the addition of Maryland grad transfer Malik Jones should make for a very deep unit. Sr. LB Ja’Wuan Woodley is a returning all-conference selection who was second on the team with 79 tackles and tied for the team lead with 9½ TFL. He’s joined by jr. MLB Tyler Taafe (70 Ts LY). Three secondary starters return, and the Rockets ranked fourth in the conference in pass efficiency defense last season. The move of jr. Josh Teachey from “star” to strong safety is smart, and with sr. CB Trevon Mathis (44 stops) and jr. CB Kadar Hollman (33 Ts) back, the defense has a chance to make more big plays and generate more turnovers (team had just 6 interceptions LY).

Summary: Western Michigan returns five players from last season’s all-MAC three-deep. In contrast, Central Michigan has four and 15 returning starters. So the competition will be stiff in the MAC West. However, Woodside is the best QB in the conference by a good margin, and he figures to tip the scales to the Rockets.

WESTERN MICHIGAN (SUR 13-1; PSR 9-4-1; O-U 7-6-1)...Western Michigan hit its high-water mark last season, rolling to a 12-0 regular season and then winning the MAC title game over Ohio before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. HC P.J. Fleck rode the current and rowed his boat to Minnesota and the Big Ten, and the Bronco brass then tabbed ex-WMU star QB Tim Lester for his first FBS head coaching job.

The most obvious holes (craters?) to be filled are in the passing game, where soph Jon Wassink and jr. Tom Flacco (younger brother of the NFL’s Joe) will battle for the QB job. Graduated star Zach Terrell threw for 12,104 yds. and 96 TDs in his career at Kalamazoo. He threw 1387 passes for the Broncos over his four seasons. Flacco has completed 10 of 13 for 188 yds. (0-1 LY) while and Wassink has none. On the topic of the QB situation, Lester commented, “It’s not like we can’t run the ball, so we need the guy with the strongest arm because he’s going to throw it 50 times a game. We need the most efficient guy.” The pass attack also lost All-America WR Corey Davis, the fifth pick in the NFL draft, who had 97 catches, 1500 receiving yards and 19 TD receptions last year. Davis left WMU holding the FBS record for receiving yards. The Broncos lost their other two starting wideouts, who combined for 105 catches, 1416 yards and another 10 TDs. Three sophs came out of spring as the WR starters. D’Wayne Eskridge, who’s just 5-9, had 17 catches last season (121 yds., 1 TD), Keishawn Watson had two receptions, and Anton Curtis’ next catch will be his first as a collegian. The wide receiver group struggled in spring practice, and not necessarily because the Bronco 2ndary contains some all-MAC types. So clearly, the passing game won’t be the same as last year.

WMU must rely on a running game led by sr. Jarvion Franklin, who has rushed for 3639 yards (5.1 ypc) and scored 44 TDs in his 40 games for the Broncos over the past three seasons. Western Michigan has produced several all-MAC offensive linemen recently, and this year they return two such players, 1st-team sr. T Chukwuma Okorafor and 2nd-team jr. C John Keenoy. The other spots are manned by up-and-coming talent in soph G Luke Juriga (started every game LY) and RS frosh T Spencer Kanz, who, at 6-6, 300, literally looks like the “next big thing” after bulking up in the spring. Those behemoths will be bolstered by sr. run-blocking TE Donnie Ernsberger, a 255-pounder who hits like another tackle.

The defense dodged a major bullet when LB Robert Spillane (2nd-team all-MAC; team-high 111 tackles LY) requested and was granted his release in February, but then reversed course and decided to play out his senior season with the Broncos. With Spillane back in the fold, WMU has eight starters, including its top five tacklers, back from a unit that held foes to 19.8 ppg (15th in the nation), was 25th in pass defense, and forced enough turnovers to help the team rank first in the country in turnover margin (+18) in 2016. Three returnees—Spillane, CB Darius Phillips, LB Asantay Brown—were voted spots on all-conference teams.

LBs Spillane, Brown and sr. Caleb Bailey combined for 277 stops last season, and the Broncos lowered their ypc allowed from 5.3 in 2015 to 4.7 last year. Not great, but it could improve further if WMU fills in up front. The defensive line lost its best pass rusher in Keion Adams (2nd-team all-MAC; 10½ sacks), but returning starting DE Eric Assoua had a phenomenal spring, and jr. NT Nick Matich returns after taking an injury redshirt last season. Sr. Andre Turner and jr. DE Assoua have been around the track, and the back seven looks solid. The secondary has a “shutdown” corner in Phillips (who’s also a dangerous return man). And jr. CB Sam Beal made 55 tackles in 13 games, while hard-hitting soph S Justin Tranquill made 14 starts and had 89 tackles.

Summary: Let’s review. Western Michigan is replacing its coach, its record-setting QB, the FBS career leader in receiving yards, and its best pass-rusher from a team that was 13-1 last season. So it’s not going out on a limb to predict a downturn. The question becomes how far down the ladder will the team fall? Lester was a head coach in Division III at Elmhurst, and he served as offensive coordinator at Syracuse and QB coach at WMU and Purdue, so he’s paid his coaching dues over the last 16 years since he was a four-year starter at Kalamazoo from 1996-99. Fleck left the program in pretty good shape, so figure the Broncos to finish “in the money” in the MAC East.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS (SUR 5-7; PSR 6-5-1; O-U 5-6-1)...Northern Illinois missed a bowl game last season for the first time since 2008. HC Rod Carey has no clear starter at quarterback, which has been a high-risk position at NIU the last few years. QB injuries have been an issue, as four different players started at the position last season. Jr. Ryan Graham has completed 55% of his passes for 1371 yards with a 14-9 TD-int. ratio in eight starts over the last two seasons. But he is competing with soph Daniel Santacaterina for the job this fall. Most of the team’s top offensive playmakers have moved on, as three of the team’s top four rushers and top two WRs are gone.

Sr. RB Jordan Huff has gained 1427 yds. (6.9 ypc!), scoring 16 touchdowns in the first three years of his career. Huff will get some competition for carries this year from a pair of transfers—RS frosh Tre Harbison from Virginia and jr. Tommy Mister from Indiana—as well as soph fireplug Tre Harbison. The group should be able to exceed the production of 2nd-team all-MAC RB Joel Bouagnon, who rushed with 885 yds. last season. Replacing big-play WR Kenny Golladay, who went in the third round of the NFL draft to Detroit, won’t be quite as easy. The 6-4 Golladay had 160 catches in just two seasons with NIU, topping 1100 receiving yards each year, while scoring 21 TDs in his 26 games as a Huskie. Sr. Christian Blake made 34 catches last season, and his 13.4 ypr mark was slightly higher than Golladay’s. That being said, Blake is 6-1, and most of the other NIU receivers are smurfs. On the plus side, one of the returning smurfs is sr. Chad Beebe. He’s just 5-9, but he made eight starts, catching 36 passes (14.3 ypr) in 2013-2015 and was projected to start last season before missing 2016 with a knee injury.

The Huskies return first-team all-MAC jr. left tackle Max Scharping. Scharping joins two other holdover starters on the O—jr. C Luke Shively and soph G Jordan Steckler. No offensive line allowed fewer sacks than the Huskies eight in 2016, and the team ran for 240 ypg and 5.2 ypc. NIU has gained an average of 5.5 ypc over the past six seasons, and there is reason to believe they will approach that figure once again. The questions on offense revolve around efficiency and production from the QB position and the search for a playmaker to replace Golladay.

In Kevin Kane’s first season as defensive coordinator, the Huskies regressed from 87th in total defense in 2015 to 98th last year, yielding 451.5 ypg. Granted, the defensive problems were top loaded, as NIU gave up 39.5 ppg and 499 ypg in four 2016 preconference games. Despite the fact that the defense lost its top two tacklers, LBs Jamaal Payton and Sean Folliard, there is reason to believe Kane will make progress. The defensive line and LBs yielded a team 19-year high 4.6 ypc, and only once in that span have the Huskies given up more than the 201 ypg rushing of 2016. The return of sr. DT William Lee (301 lbs.), DE Josh Corcoran, and juco transfer NT Devin Webster (6-4, 300; participated in spring) should help shore up the defensive front.

By far the strength of the defense is a 2ndary, which returns four starters and all their backups, led by all-conference cover man sr. CB Shawun Lurry. The unit could be the best group of pass defenders in the MAC this season. Lurry was named a first-team All-American as a sophomore in 2015, when he had nine interceptions. QBs were more judicious about throwing in his area in 2016, as he only picked off three passes, but he led the team in passes defended.

Summary: NIU head coach Rod Carey could be feeling a bit of pressure after the Huskies had their run of eight straight bowl appearances came to an end last year. In Carey’s first game, he coached the team in the Orange Bowl against Florida State at the end of the 2012 season. The Huskies were the first MAC team to play in a BCS bowl game. But the program has slipped each season under Carey. From 12 wins in 2013, to 11 in 2014, to eight in 2015, to five last season. That being said, the results in the last two seasons have been skewed by repeated QB injuries, and this year the secondary and offensive line are top drawer by MAC standards. Six wins and a return to the bowl lineup is not too much to ask from a team that won the MAC West and went to the MAC title game in Detroit six straight times before last year.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN (SUR 6-7; PSR 5-8; O-U 5-6-2)...
Central Michigan went to a third straight bowl game last season, but HC John Bonamego is a ho-hum 13-13 overall since taking over for Dan Enos in 2015. Chippewa fans might feel this is an upswing for a team that was only 26-36 SU in the previous five seasons. 2017 will bring a new offensive coordinator, new QB coach, new RB coach, new WR coach and a new offensive scheme.
The attack loses prolific QB Cooper Rush, who threw for 3540 yds. and 23 TDs and being named 3rd-team all-MAC last year, then signing a free agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys. New o.c. Chris Ostrowsky is the team’s third man at that position in the last year. The venerable Morris Watts (76 years old) resigned, then Gino Guidugli quit after a few months on the job before Ostrowsky was hired away from his head coaching spot at Northern Michigan. Ostrowsky’s Northern Michigan teams averaged 32 ppg and his QB set seven school records. Now he has to find someone who can run his no-huddle spread.

RS frosh Tony Poljan (6-7, 225 lbs.) appeared to have a lead in the race to replace Rush until the tall QB was unimpressive in the spring game. In the fall, Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris will arrive at CMU, and the race will be on in earnest. Morris was a highly rated prep who never quite caught on with the Wolverines (the lefty had two starts), but he might be just what the doctor ordered in Mount Pleasant. Morris is dropping in class to the MAC after seeing Michigan’s defense every day for the past four years.

The Chippewa offense returns nine other starters, including 2nd-team all-MAC WR Corey Willis (72 catches for 1091 yds. and 9 TDs). The Chip attack also returns RB Devon Spalding, who was limited to 10 starts in 2016 due to a shoulder injury, but still managed to run for 758 yds. (5.5 ypc, 6 TDs) and catch 21 passes. There is plenty of depth at RB, so Spalding will get competition. Soph Kumehnu Gwilly had 101 yds. on eight carries in the spring game, including an explosive 66-yard romp for a score. Ex-Michigan transfer sr. Berkley Edwards, who was the outstanding CMU scout team player while sitting out LY, and soph Jonathon Ward also scored in the spring game. RS soph Romello Ross returns after sitting last season with an ACL injury. Ross was being counted on to contribute last year until hurting his knee.

The offensive line underachieved in 2016, ranking 11th in the MAC, giving up 38 sacks, and they were a factor in the attack managing just 3.7 ypc and a conference-worst 117 ypg rushing. The 2017 OL returns all five starters, including four seniors, and the returnees have made 85 career starts. The good news around Mt. Pleasant is that the running game appeared vastly improved in spring.

The defense returns just six starters, but four of those players made all-MAC teams. Jr. LB Malik Fountain (92 tackles) and sr. CB Amari Coleman (49 Ts, 15 passes defended, 4 ints.) were named first-team all-conference, while DE Joe Ostman (69 tackles, 9 sacks) was on the second team, and CB Josh Cox (54 stops, 3 ints.) on the third team. There were negatives last year, however, as the stop unit collected just 20 sacks, 10th in the conference, and 4.6 ypc. On the plus side, Ostman had almost half of those QB takedowns, and only two players are gone from last season’s DL depth chart. The Chips were also 10th in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, but 5th in the conference in total defense. The 30 ppg surrendered was the most for CMU since 2012, but the presence of the returning all-MAC players sprinkled through the lineup should allow for improvement.

Summary: The Chippewas have upside potential, especially if former Wolverine Morris can play well enough to sew up the QB spot in August. However, the 2017 offense is completely different from what CMU has run (at least since the Dan LeFevour era). The attack will use multiple formations and attempt to stretch the field horizontally as well as vertically. The late start Ostrowsky got likely means the offense will struggle early, so it’s fortunate the Chips open vs. a string of sorry defenses in Rhode Island (112th in the FCS LY, allowing 36 ppg), Kansas (114th in the FBS LY; 37 ppg), and Syracuse (122nd in total defense). Bonamego thinks the changes are very positive. Time will tell. But the attack must kick in early, because the Chips will likely need at least a 2-1 start if they are to qualify for a fourth straight bowl game.

EASTERN MICHIGAN (SUR 7-6; PSR 10-3; O-U 4-9)...Eastern Michigan had a banner season in 2016, returning to a bowl game for the first time since 1987. Clearly, a 7-6 record and a bid to the Bahamas Bowl wouldn’t cut it in Tuscaloosa or Columbus. But in Ypsilanti, it exceeded expectations by a good margin. HC Chris Creighton, who is now 10-27 SU in three seasons with the Eagles, has received a contract extension and a raise through 2022. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Eighteen starters (eight on each side of the ball, plus both kickers) and 51 lettermen return. Six of the top seven rushers, eight of the top nine pass catchers, the team’s top three RBs, and 13 of the top 15 tacklers are back. However, offensive coordinator Kelen DeBoer will not be back, as he has moved on to Fresno State. The team promoted from within, naming Aaron Keen to the o.c. post, so the scheme will remain in place.

Sr. Brogan Roback is one of the top returning QBs in the MAC and is coming off a breakout season. Roback threw for 2694 yds. with an 18-7 TD-int. ratio. His favorite receiver was sr. Sergio Bailey, who led EMU with 60 recs., 868 yds. and seven TDs. Fellow sr. Antoine Porter had 44 catches last season, and explosive 6-4 soph Dieuly Aristilde had 492 receiving yards in just six games. Aristilde averaged 19.7 ypr, but missed the spring game with an injury.

The offensive line was the hardest hit unit on the team in terms of graduation, losing three starters including LT Cole Gardner (2nd-team all-MAC) and RT Andrew Wylie (3rd all-MAC). Jr. G Jimmy Leatiota (13 starts) and T Ka’John Armstrong (eight starts at guard) return, and promising soph Steve Nielsen (6-8, 321 lbs.) could develop into an all-MAC talent, while Michigan transfer sr. Dan Samuelson (6-5, 301) is stepping down in class after falling out of favor when Jim Harbaugh took over in Ann Arbor.

The OL unit will be blocking for a deep, talented group of RBs. Jr. Shaq Vann had last season cut short after making one carry in the second game of the year, but he’s rushed for 752 career yds. (6.2 ypc), caught 37 passes for another 264 yds., and scored eight TDs in 14 appearances for the Eagles. After Vann was injured, jr. Ian Eriksen took over and led the team with 771 YR, 21 catches and 9 TDs. Soph Breck Turner didn’t get many touches early, but he finished the season with 417 YR (5.4 ypc), including 107 yds. and a TD in EMU’s upset at Bowling Green.

The improved Eagle defense was a huge part of EMU’s turnaround from one win in 2015 to seven in 2016. That unit cut its allowances by 12.3 ppg (to 29.8) and 86 ypg. That’s a substantial advance from a platoon that had allowed an average of 42 ppg over the previous four seasons. The lion’s share of players who made tackles last year return, although there are a few holes to fill. The NFL draft claimed 1st-team all-MAC DE Pat O’Connor, who was EMU’s all-time leader in sacks and a three-year captain. Graduated CB DaQuan Pace (50 Ts, 3 ints.) was third-team all MAC. Perhaps O’Connor’s departure is no worry for Creighton, who says, “...(DEs) Jeremiah Harris and Maxx Crosby have had fantastic springs.” Harris had 69 Ts and 4 sacks last season, and Crosby 35 tackles and 5½ TFL as a backup. In addition, the team’s top two juco recruits are expected to fill needs immediately.

The LBs are strong and very deep. Jr. Kyle Rachwal led the team with 109 tackles, sr. Jason Beck was next with 104 (and a team-high 6½ sacks), and sr. Derric Williams had 62. That unit will be fortified by the return to action of sr. Ike Spearman (44 Ts LY), who was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Spearman led the Eagles with 82 tackles back in 2013, but missed 2014 and 2015 with two different leg injuries.

In the 2ndary, four starters return in d.c. Neal Nethery’s quirky 4-2-5 defensive alignment. Plus, S Anthony Brown is back after missing LY with injury. Brown was 3rd on the team with 66 stops in 2015.

Summary: EMU has a new president and a new athletic director since last football season, and one of their first pieces of business was extending Creighton’s contract. Locking up Creighton after LY’s improvement has lent a bit of stability to the program, and the bowl appearance has given the long-suffering the Eagles some confidence. However, seven road games will make returning to the postseason a challenge.

BALL STATE (SUR 4-8; PSR 7-5; O-U 5-7)...Ball State HC Mike Neu was 4-8 in his first season in charge. That was one more victory than in 2015. But the fact is the Cardinals haven’t been very competitive the last two years. Ball State has gone just 3-13 in MAC play in 2015-16, and the team’s non-conference wins in that span have come against VMI, Georgia State, Eastern Kentucky, and Florida Atlantic. Considering the MAC victories were against bottom-feeders as well, the Cardinals haven’t had a quality win since upsetting Bowling Green in 2014.

The Cardinal offense is led by first-team all-MAC RB James Gilbert, who gained a league-best 111 ypg (5.3 ypc) and tied for the conference lead with 12 rushing TDs. Gilbert has returning four of five members of the offensive line that paved the way for him. Jr. QB Riley Neal is a serviceable triggerman. He has thrown for 4817 yds. and 29 TDs in his first two seasons in Muncie, completing 60% of his passes. One negative is that his TD-int. ratio was worse last season (13-12) than it was in 2015 (16-6). Neal has some wheels, averaging 43 ypg on the ground with 10 rushing TDs in 22 starts. An injury to his non-throwing shoulder sidelined Neal in the spring, but he is expected to return fully functional, and the additional time studying under o.c. Joey Lynch should help his progress. Gilbert should have another solid season, and there is quality depth as well, with sr. RB Darian Green and soph Malik Dunner returning. The backups combined to carry 81 times for 463 yds. (5.7 ypc).

Ball State has lost its top two WRs, who caught a total of 136 passes for 7 TDs, so less-experienced players must become playmakers. Sr. Corey Lacanaria (just 5-8, 166) snagged 33 recs. in 2016, and sr. WR Jordan Hogue has made 32 appearances (nine starts) and caught 40 passes in his career as a Card. Hogue led all receivers with 5 catches for 73 yds. and a score in the spring game. This group might have to make room this fall for true frosh WRs Kahlil Newton, Justin Gibbs and Justin Hall—all from Georgia.

The real problem for Neu and the Cardinals is on defense. Ball State returns just four starters from a team that ranked 116th in total defense and 126th in passing yards allowed, and the numbers would’ve been worse if the Cards hadn’t choked off Georgia State and Eastern Kentucky. Ball State gave up 34 ppg and 522 ypg in their eight losses last season. That performance prompted LY’s d.c., Tim Daoust, to bolt for rival Western Michigan, so Neu has brought in David Elson to coordinate the stop unit this year. Elson held the same position at Western Illinois, Southern Illinois and New Mexico State the last five seasons and spent six years as head coach at Western Kentucky (2003-09).

Holdover starting DE Anthony Winbush (8½ sacks; third-team all-MAC) and DT Kevin Willis lead an all-senior defensive line, but the stop unit overall must replace its top five tacklers. Winbush led a hard-charging pass rush that recorded 32 sacks, the most by a Ball State defense since the NCAA began recording the stat. The LB corps will miss graduated Sean Wiggins (also third-team all-MAC), and that unit will feature three new starters. Neu is hyping jr. LB Damon Singleton and soph MLB Jacob White as reliable options.

Both starting CBs return, but 5-9 sr. David Moore is fighting to retain his spot. Jr. Marc Walton is the top returning tackler with 63 and defended 11 passes. Jr. Josh Miller is pushing for Moore’s job, but foes completed 63% and had a 27-7 TD-int. ratio against Ball State last season, so clearly the coverage is an issue. Both starting safeties, who combined for 150 stops last season, must be replaced.

The defense ranked 11th in points allowed (33.6 ppg), last in total yardage (523 ypg), and last in passing yards allowed (346 ypg) in conference play. That was the fifth time in the past 12 seasons that the Cards finished last in the MAC in total defense, and they have ranked better than 7th only once in that span.

Summary: Ball State football is a hard sell these days. The Cardinals’ final two home games last year drew a 5,614 vs. Western Michigan and 4,442 on Senior Day against Eastern Michigan. The Cardinals ranked 129th (out of 129) in attendance in 2016, drawing 7789 per game. Who cares? Certainly not the fans in Muncie.


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