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 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" marks included.

Ohio (2017 SUR 9-4; PSR 9-4; O-U 9-4)...Ohio is the early favorite to take the MAC East and gain a berth in the conference final. The return of preseason all-conference QB Nathan Rourke and A.J. Ouellette along with six other sr. offensive starters makes the Bobcats appear to be the team to beat in the MAC East. On paper, Ohio has the best offensive line in the league, not surprising considering HC Frank Solich’s penchant for the run game. Sr. G Joe Anderson and T Joe Lowery were both second-team all MAC last year. The Bobcat attack led the conference in scoring last season (39 ppg, a school record) thanks to a run game ranked 16th in the country, with Rourke and Ouellette combining for 1918 YR. Rourke had 21 rushing TDs and also threw for 2203 yards and an additional 17 scores. The leading receiver is converted RB Papi White (36 recs., 17.5 ypc), who performed well enough to be named second-team all-MAC at WR.

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While the Bobcats should continue to score, they have questions on defense. The stop unit lost first-team all-MAC LB Quentin Poling (team-high 107 tackles) and LB Chad Moore (2nd all-MAC; 78 stops) and returns only four starters. One of those is second-team all-MAC S Javon Hagan, who was second on the team with 85 tackles last season. Another is sr. LB Evan Croutch who had 70 stops last year. While the secondary will remain constant with three returning starters, the front seven is rebuilding, and it will be a challenge for d.c. Jimmy Burrow to match the team’s 24 ppg allowance over the last four seasons, but it stands to reason he can produce at least an average defense.

After destroying Toledo late last year in what was then a crucial matchup, the Rockets suffered a letdown loss at Akron the next week that cost Frank Solich’s crew a trip to the MAC title game. This season the offense is going to be as productive as any in the MAC, which should take some pressure off the defense. Pointspread note: Look for Solich to pad his 25-15 spread mark over the last three seasons!

Buffalo (2017 SUR 6-6; PSR 8-4; O-U 5-7)...Buffalo has made advances in three seasons under HC Lance Leipold, although last year’s 6-6 mark wasn’t deemed worthy of a bowl bid. However, there is valid hope the Bulls will play in the postseason this year, as the six losses last season came by a combined 29 points!

The offense is led by towering (6-7) QB Tyree Jackson (2096 YP, 12-3 TD-int. ratio in eight games LY) and welcomes back the nation’s most productive returning receiver, Anthony Johnson, who caught 76 passes for 1356 yards and 14 scores a year ago. Jackson has four other targets returning who had double-digit catches and five who scored at least one TD. The departure of productive backup QB Drew Anderson (1093 YP, 10-1 TD-ints.), who transferred to Murray State is a blow to the depth chart, but Leipold and the Bulls are fine as long as Jackson stays healthy. RB Emmanuel Reed churned out 840 YR with 9 TDs on the ground despite getting just seven carries in the team’s first two games. Interestingly, Reed wasn’t slated to be the starter coming out of spring last season. Sr. Johnathan Hawkins, was granted a medical redshirt for 2017 after appearing in just three games before suffering a shoulder injury. Both the 5-8 jitterbug Reed and the 208-lb. Hawkins will both get their chances running behind an OL returning three starters including two-year all-MAC C James O’Hagan.

The defense has an All-America candidate in sr. LB Khalil Hodge, who reminds fans of former Bull star and current Oakland Raider LB Khalil Mack (and not just because they have the same first name!). Hodge has almost been a defense all by himself the last two years, making a total of 277 tackles and being named to the all-MAC team both seasons. Sr. DE Chuck Harris made the third-team all-Mac team LY, and was credited with 73 stops and four sacks. The bottom line might be that Hodge was second in the nation in tackles last year with 154, so as long as he’s healthy, the defense is unlikely to drop off from last seasons 24.8 ppg allowed, which was the best mark in the past four seasons. Additionally, the 24.8 ppg includes 40 points scored by Western Michigan in their 7-OT win in Buffalo. The true defensive number was 21.5 ppg given up in regulation last season, a figure that would’ve ranked second in the MAC.

The schedule is favorable, as Rutgers (4-8 LY) is the only Power Five team on the slate this fall. If Jackson, Johnson, O’Hagan and Hodge stay healthy, look for Leipold to deliver a bowl game to Buffalo fans. Pointspread note: The Bulls are 8-3 as a home dog under Leipold.

Miami-Ohio (2017 SUR 5-7; PSR 4-8; O-U 5-7)...Miami disappointed fans (and HC Chuck Martin) last season, underachieving despite returning 17 starters from 2016's bowl entry. The RedHawks, who lost five games by eight points or fewer, had some bad luck with injuries. The most impactful injury was to QB Gus Ragland, who missed three games, two of which were road losses fueled by interceptions thrown by since-transferred backup QB Billy Bahl. Ragland is 10-6 as a starter the last two seasons, while the team is 1-8 in the other games in that period. He has thrown for 3765 yds., completed 60% of his passes and has a 39-8 TD-int. ratio in his career at Miami, and rushed for another 656 yds. and seven scores.

This fall Ragland is one of 16 starters welcomed back by the RedHawks, and thus, some have them penciled in to challenge Ohio for the MAC East. One of those returning starters is 6-4 first-team all-MAC WR James Gardner (47 recs., 927 yds., 11 TDs). And Martin is raving about his offensive line depth and says the team is “crazy talented at running back.” He might be right, as Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith combined for 1441 YR and 5 ypc last season. The offensive line returns five starters, and Miami’s recruiting class was ranked tops in the MAC. Then Miami ranked 97th in scoring last season and 90th in total offense. The team was terrible in the return game, third down conversions and made far too many penalties (ranked 108th). Martin and his staff have more than a few things to clean up before they take on Marshall on Sept. 1.

True, the defense was decent, ranking 45th in yards allowed and 38th in pass efficiency. However, their two representatives on the All-MAC three deep both ran out of eligibility. Granted sr. LB Brad Koenig (team-high 103 tackles LY) is one of eight of the top 10 tacklers from last season who are returning. The “D” was a bit bend-but-don’t-break, as they ranked 14th in red zone stops. But to play Devil’s advocate, they allowed far too many long runs that helped produce those red zone opportunities.

We might pump the breaks on the RedHawks’ lofty forecasts a bit. Chuck Martin has produced a 16-33 SU record, which is better than the previous regimes, but certainly nothing to warrant penciling the team in for the MAC title game just yet. Last season Miami broke from the gate 1-6 against the pointspread, and Ragland was in there for the first six of those. Ragland is good, but the RedHawks will need a lot more than Ragland to win some of these MAC road games. Injuries have been a consistent problem under Martin, as has the shoddy special teams play. Not convinced he’s solved the depth or return-game worries. Pointspread note: Miami is 16-9 vs. the points away from home under Martin.

Akron (2017 SUR 7-7; PSR 8-6; O-U 3-11)...HC Terry Bowden has done a fine job while in charge at Akron. The Zips were 2-22 in Rob Ianello’s two-year stint as head coach in 2010-11, then 1-11 in Bowden’s first season. Thanks to creative recruiting and savvy coaching, the resurrected Zips have been to two bowl games in the last three years, no mean feat considering the school had only been to one such game in the 47 years prior to Bowden’s arrival. Akron slipped into the 2017 MAC title game through the back door with an upset of Ohio on Nov. 14 and an ensuing win over Kent a week later. The good news stopped there, though, as the Zips were outscored a total of 95-31 in lopsided losses to Toledo in the conference championship and Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl.

The offense will have to grow up along with budding soph star QB Kato Nelson. Nelson stepped in last season when Logan Woodson was suspended and threw for 322 yds. and four TDs in the win against the Bobcats, setting up the Zips’ postseason appearances. Kato started the last five games last season and threw for 989 yds. with an 8-2 TD-int. ratio on the season. Despite those numbers, Kato is in a competition with 6-4 RS frosh Alex Ramart heading into the fall. The receiving corps was somewhat gutted by graduation, but sr. Kwadarrius Smith led the team with 726 yds. and 7 TD catches last season, and the Zips regain the services of 6-3 WR Mykel Traylor-Bennett (missed 2017 with injury). The run game has to improve after ranking 123rd in the nation a year ago. Three starters return on the OL and a pair of jucos were recruited in to fill the other two slots.

The Zips return nine starters on defense, as that unit should rank as the best in the loop on the stop end. However, in order to attain its expected performance level, the stop troops must do a better job at stopping the run. The Zips gave up 5.0 ypc each of the last two seasons. The strength of the “D” is at LB, where Ulysees Gilbert ranked second in the MAC with 141 tackles a year ago. Jamal Davis (3rd-team all-MAC LY) is the league’s third-leading returnee in tackles for loss with 15½. The middle of the defense must get a run-stuffer to emerge from NTs Brennan Williams and Davon’te Jest (returned from a year at a JC LY). Both look the part at 6-1 and around 300. The secondary returns intact and boasts perhaps the best pair of cover corners in the MAC in Darian Dailey and Kyron Brown, both seniors. Plus, FS Alvin Davis was 2nd on the team with 83 tackles and 2nd-team all-MAC.

Bowden has the Zips at a stable level, and they’ve won at least five games each of the past five seasons. Now it’s time to build on it with a team that has 10 projected senior starters on defense. The schedule is tough, however, with three Power Five foes on the docket along with three tough MAC road games, so it might take at least a 5-3 MAC record to qualify for another bowl. Pointspread note: Akron is only 8-21 as a road dog over the past nine seasons.

Bowling Green (2017 SUR 2-10; PSR 3-9; O-U 7-5)...Bowling Green’s fortunes have regressed under Mike Jinks, as the team is just 6-18 SU in his two-year tenure after manufacturing a 36-19 mark in the four previous seasons, inluding the brief (and successful) Dino Babers regime. Jinks has reportedly recruited well, but, if the proof is in the pudding, it’s not clear that opinion is valid. The results this season will be crucial to his continuing on the job.

The Falcon offense has a pair of sophs leading the charge. Second-year QB Jarrett Doege completed 64% of his passes for 1381 yds. with a 12-3 TD-int. ratio. Last season’s top QB, RS jr. James Morgan had thrown for more than 3400 yards in two seasons, but he transferred to Florida International as it became apparent he’d be unable to win a starting job. The other talented soph is RB Andrew Clair, who was awarded third-team all-MAC honors after rushing for 725 yds. with an explosive 6.8 ypc mark. Also on the third-team along with Clair was sr. WR Scott Miller, who led his squad with 63 catches and 722 yards. Jinks’ “high tempo spread” offense generated 25 ppg in ranking 90th and 97th in scoring the last two years. The production might improve, as Doege should mature and he also has vet WR Datrin Guyton (31 recs., 18.9 ypc) returning to the deepest position on the team. Doege will operate behind an experienced OL, with four starters back (including soph C Caleb Bright, who made four starts at guard and two at center LY). Jinks’ recruited juco transfers will fill in the TE and LG spots.

Incoming d.c. Carl Pelini has seven defensive starters back, but they were part of a unit that ranked 125th in total defense and allowed 38 ppg. This crew gave up 507 ypg a year ago, ranking 126th in rushing defense, yielding 253 ypg and a whopping 5.6 ypc last season. The front seven was savaged for 2064 rushing yards and 24 TDs on the ground in eight MAC games in 2017. This performance was on the heels of 2016's 38.3 ppg (118th) allowance, 113th total defense and 127th pass efficiency performance. After ranking 126th in turnover margin in 2016, the Falcon defense has only itself to blame for last year, as the team wound up down just 1 turnover in 2017. The rebuilt front seven couldn’t do worse than last year, and the secondary returns relatively in tact. However, losing NFL-bound punter Joe Davidson (net 42.3 ypp LY) won’t help field position.

Entering the third year of a relatively cheap ($425,000/yr.) five-year deal, Jinks will be tempting fate if the Falcs don't show some progress this season, especially with a relatively modest $300,000 buyout.  They sometimes get rid of coaches in the MAC, too, as contract offsets can especially come in handy in such situations, and another bad year will all but confirm this was a blown hire.  So the pressure is on Jinks this fall.  Pointspread note: A 1-10 spread mark at Doyt Perry Stadium under Jinks is a bit hard for alums to swallow.

Kent State (2017 SUR 2-10; PSR 4-8; 6-6)...Sean Lewis, the youngest head coach in college football, takes over for Paul Haynes, who was fired after a five-year stint resulting in a 14-45 SU mark. Lewis has been with Dino Babers at Syracuse, Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois, and, as an offensive coordinator, he’ll be expected to shape up the attack (if you can call it that). The Flash offense ranked 128th in the nation at 12.8 ppg LY and scored the fewest points in college football over the last four seasons. The bar is low at Kent State, however, which has had just two winning seasons in the past 30 years. The Golden Flashes never scored more than 20.8 ppg under Haynes, and last season’s defensive collapse to 35 ppg (111th) spelled doom for the head coach.

The Golden Flash offense returns seven starters from last season’s disaster, but it might be up to former Auburn and juco QB Woody Barrett if any uptick is to surface. The new coach brings a new offense, one which asks the QB to call the play and snap the ball in 15 seconds or less. Barrett, who has a big arm and solid wheels, was recruited by a big-time program and he should pick up the new scheme quickly. It’s a good thing he’s mobile, because the Kent OL, which returns three starters, allowed a whopping 46 sacks last season after giving up 34 in 2016! Jr. RB Justin Rankin led the team in rushing (529 YR) and receiving (42 recs.) LY and will be leaned on heavily.

The best defensive player for Kent last season was LB Jim Jones, a first-team all-MAC selection after making 98 stops with six sacks. The team’s second-best tackler from 2017, S Mandela Lawrence-Burke, moved to wideout in the spring. Sr. LB Matt Bahr missed the final 10 games with an injury. He’s back, but this unit gave up 6.2 yds. per play, 103rd in the country, and will be under more pressure this season due to the faster pace the Kent State offense will attempt to execute.

Getting a workable scheme is one thing. Getting players who can execute it is another, and there clearly isn’t much talent on that side of the ball at Kent State. Also, the schedule features seven road games and three of the first four foes are from Power Five conferences (at Illinois, Penn State and Ole Miss). The Golden Flashes could easily be 1-7 heading into their bye week October 27. Pointspread note: Kent State is 8-19-1 vs. the number at Dix Stadium since the 2013 season.

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