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

Northern Illinois (SUR 8-5; PSR 6-7; O-U 7-6)...Northern Illinois dominated the MAC from 2010 through 2015, appearing in six straight MAC title games while winning three conference titles. QB injuries have thrown some cold water on Rod Carey’s program the last two seasons, but the team uncovered a gem in soph QB Marcus Childers last season, when he was named MAC Frosh of the Year after starting the last seven games and throwing for 1674 yds. with a 16-5 TD-int. ratio while also rushing for 473 yds. and five scores. The entire offensive line returns, including LT Max Scharping, who is a two-time first-team All-MAC selection and a future NFL blindside tackle. Jr. WR Spencer Tears led the team with 43 catches LY, and sr. D.J. Brown was second in that department with 42. The Huskies always seem to recruit RBs well, and Marcus Jones and Tre Harbison combined for 640 YR and six TDs backing up graduated starter Jordan Huff, who missed the better part of three games with injury LY.

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The Huskies led the MAC in total defense and ranked 16th in the country in rushing “D” (120 ypg) and 11th in defensive third down conversions. Jr. DE Sutton Smith was the Conference Defensive Player of the Year; and led MAC with 14 sacks and 29½ TFLs. Soph S Mykelti Williams is the top returning tackler from last season with 73. The entire front four returns for a unit which held foes to 22 ppg in 2017. A major plus is that MLB Kyle Pugh is healthy again after starting the first four games and then being KO’ed for the duration with an injury at San Diego State last year. He makes seven true “starters” returning, and with a couple of transfers coming on line as frontliners this season, the defense should be among the top 2-3 stop units in the MAC in 2018.

NIU’s games against MAC toughies vs. Toledo and Ohio are at home, where the Huskies are 43-7 SU since 2009. A return to the MAC title game for NIU looks like a good bet. Pointspread note: The Huskies are among the best pointspread teams in the nation on the road over the years, logging a 27-10 spread mark as a true visitor the last six seasons.

Toledo (SUR 11-3; PSR 7-7; O-U 7-7)...Toledo HC Jason Candle enters his third season in charge of the Rockets and has already delivered the team’s only MAC title in the last 13 years. However, UT football might take a step back in 2018 as the team returns just 12 starters. Toledo lost 2017 MAC Offensive Player of the Year QB Logan Woodside (3882 YP, 28-8 TD-ints. LY; 10083 YP, 89 TDP career) and first-team all-MAC RB Terry Swanson (1363 YR, 14 TDs, 5.6 ypc). The Rockets also said good bye to a pair of first team all-MAC offensive tackles, so there are holes to fill. Still, all-MAC WR Diontae Johnson (74 catches, 1278 yds., 13 TDs) returns and heads a deep set of receivers, as eight of the top nine pass catchers are back. The cupboard is far from bare at running back despite losing Swanson. Soph Shakif Seymour and jr. Art Thompkins combined for 1331 YR and 6.1 ypc last season. Seymour scored 13 TDs. The question of the fall in Toledo will be who pulls the trigger. After spring there was no decision as to whether Illinois transfer Eli Peters or jr. Mitchell Guadagni would start, and that’s not a good sign for a team that’s been heavily reliant on offensive production from its QB in order to win games in recent seasons.

With the outflow of talented offensive players, there will be more pressure on the Rocket defense this fall. Toledo led the MAC in scoring defense in 2017, allowing just 20.6 ppg in conference play, but that unit loses four of the top five tacklers from last season, including their only all-MAC defensive player, DE Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (66 Ts, 8½ sacks) and two other top players on the DL. Six returning starters will be led by jr. S Kahlil Robinson, who was third on the team with 67 stops, and he leads a vet back end. However, the defense bent a lot last season, allowing 385 ypg to rank 7th in the MAC in seasonal defensive yards. Adeniyi was by far the most effective pass rusher on a team that managed just 22 sacks a year ago, so d.c. Brian George needs to figure a way to apply more pressure on opposing QBs.

The good news for Candle is that he’s got some extra time to get ready for the season. The Rockets open with a home game against VMI this year and then have a week off before Miami-Florida comes to the Glass Bowl for a rare visit from a Power Five school. From what Candle said after the spring game, the team will need that time. “We’re a long way away from announcing who our starting quarterback is going to be,” Candle said. “There was some good and some bad like every practice. We just have to continue to get better and continue to evaluate. They are going to make some mistakes. They don’t have four or five years of experience.”

Pointspread note: Toledo is on a 13-4 pointspread run as a visitor since November of 2014.

Western Michigan (SUR 6-6; PSR 5-7; O-U 8-4)...Not surprisingly, HC Tim Lester couldn’t sustain the high level of achievement WMU enjoyed under P.J. Fleck in 2017. WMU was shut out of the bowls last season after going 13-0 in 2016 before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. Predictably, the Broncos regressed to 6-6 LY and had offensive problems due in large part to an injury to QB Jon Wassink.

Wassink returns healthy to run the Bronco attack this fall, and he’ll have the luxury of operating behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. Seven of the top eight pass catchers return along with a top-notch group of RBs, and a total of 12 players have starting experience on this platoon. However, there will be a change in the offensive coaching staff, as 2017 o.c. Kevin Johns left to fill the same position at Texas Tech. Jake Moreland will assume the coordinator’s title, but Lester, a star QB at Western Michigan in the late 1990s, will be calling the plays this season. Sr. RB Jamauri Bogan (2563 career YR with 27 TDs) and LeVante Bellamy (1008 YR, 7.4 ypc in his career; both his 2016 and 2017 seasons ended prematurely due to injuries) are a pair of top shelf playmakers. The OL includes four vet starters, two of whom made the all-MAC team in 2017.

Wassink, a RS junior, is in his second season as a starter and feels much more in command. Lester is also more at ease now that he knows what the players can and can’t do. The offense will miss graduated star RB Jarvion Franklin (1228 YR, 11 TD) and A-A T Chukwuma Okorafor, who went to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the third round, but there are ready replacements at RB. And RS soph Jaylon Moore (6-5, 305) or 6-7, 320-lb. frosh Antwan Reed, who received offers from 11 Power Five schools including Penn State, Michigan State, Florida and Georgia, should grow into Okorafor’s position.

The WMU defense returns just four starters from a platoon that gave up 29 ppg and lost quality talent to the NFL. CB Darius Phillips (first-team all-MAC LY at DB and KR) went on the fifth round to the Bengals, and sr. Sam Beal (2nd-team all-MAC; tied with Phillips for passes defended) opted for the NFL supplemental draft after he failed to meet credit requirements for academic eligibility. Those two would have been the best set of cover corners in the MAC. The 2ndary will benefit from the return of jr. S Justin Tranquill, whose season was cut short after just two games due to injury, and S Stevan Claiborne (top returning tackler with 64). Still, just two of the top seven tacklers return from a team that ranked 9th in the league in scoring defense, and the top two of those have hooked up as free agents with NFL teams.

The Broncos have a favorable schedule this season, playing all of their toughest conference games at home. Pointspread note: A quality attack and an inexperienced defense likely means a continuation of the trend that’s seen the Broncos go “over” in 12 of their last 19 games.

Eastern Michigan (SUR 5-7; PSR 8-4; O-U 6-6)...HC Chris Creighton has made positive strides in his four seasons at Eastern Michigan. EMU went to a bowl game in 2016, its first such postseason bid since 1987. The Eagle improvement curve would have had another uptick last year but for some hard luck. Six of the Eagles’ seven 2017 losses came in OT or by five points or fewer, a gut-wrenching string of misfortune. At many programs, five wins wouldn’t seem like much. At EMU however, one must remember that the Eagles have won more than five games just once from 1990 through 2014. Baby steps!

This year EMU is without QB Brogan Roback, who threw for 8653 yds. and 57 TDs in 46 games spread over a five-year career. If o.c. Aaron Keen can find a replacement at QB, the table is set for a return to the bowl picture for the Eagles. Iowa grad transfer Tyler Wiegers battled with 6-4 soph Isaac Stiebling, who saw limited action LY, and early enrollee frosh Aaron Jackson during spring with no clear winner (or even leader in the clubhouse) disclosed. The good news about that is that all played well, so none played their way out of the derby. The offensive line has talent and experience with four starters returning, including Rimington Trophy nominee and preseason all-MAC honoree sr. C Dakota Tallman and sr. G Jimmy Leatiota (2nd all-MAC LY). Sr. RBs Shaq Vann and Ian Eriksen combined for 1330 yards and 11 scores last season. Vann is an explosive 220-pounder who has had his production limited by various injuries over the course of his career. The receiving corps is a bit shaky after the top three pass-catchers graduated, as sr. WR Mathew Sexton (26 catches, 357 yds., 2 TDs) is the lone returning regular. Quick-fixes were made with jucos recruited for the remaining two WR spots and at TE.

Seven starters return from what was the most effective EMU defense in decades. Included are jr. DE Maxx Crosby (first team all-MAC LY), sr. DE Jeremiah Harris (2nd team all-MAC LY), jr. rover Brody Hoying (first team all-MAC LY) and jr. rover Vince Calhoun (3rd all-MAC) were all decorated for their efforts in 2017. Sr. MLB Kyle Rachwal has 176 tackles in the last two years. Last season’s 23.3 ppg was the fewest allowed since Ron Cooper’s 1993 edition held foes to 20 ppg. The Eagles ranked a respectable 40th in the nation in scoring defense, 23rd in passing yards allowed and held foes to 4.3 ypc. These numbers are quite an improvement when you consider that in the four-year period from 2012 through 2015, EMU yielded an aggregate 41.5 ppg and 6.1 ypc.

The QB situation should be resolved adequately and the schedule is a bit more favorable than a year ago. The Eagles have one more home game than last year, and they host Toledo and Northern Illinois this season, after losing by 5 and 3 points to those MAC big wigs on the road in 2016. Pointspread note: The Eagles are 18-7 vs. the points in the last two seasons!

Ball State (SUR 2-10; PSR 3-8-1; O-U 8-4)...Injuries destroyed what little hope Ball State had last season. The Cardinals looked very good early, winning two of their first three, and they deserved a better fate in the loss to Illinois (outgained the Illini by 159 yds.). Injuries to QB Riley Neal and RB James Gilbert contributed heavily to the Cardinals diving from 27 ppg in 2016 to 18 ppg LY. The Cardinals will regain the services of both of those offensive leaders, and should improve if they stay healthy. This year, however, they have a bit more depth. Gilbert is a former first-team all MAC selection, but he’s now backed by soph Caleb Huntley, who stepped in and gained 1003 yds (4.8 ypc) in 2017. Soph WR Justin Hall caught 78 passes and made 2nd-team all-conference as a true frosh. The top five rushing leaders and the top seven receivers are back in action for the beleaguered Cardinal offense. That unit ranked 121st in scoring, but it was a tale of two seasons. The Cards scored 100 points in the first three games. Riley and Gilbert were then injured and didn’t play again in 2017. The team scored just 12.8 ppg the rest of the season.

The defense will miss DE Anthony Winbush and LB Damon Singleton. Winbush was fourth in the country with 11½ sacks last year, while Singleton had 49 tackles despite missing the final three contests of the season. Still, seven starters return including the top three tacklers. Jr. MLB Jacob White led the team with 72, while soph S Bryce Cosby had 50 and RS soph Brandon Martin collected 55. It’s a youngish group, but let’s not forget the BSU stop unit ranked 124th in points allowed (40.7 ppg), 123rd in pass efficiency defense, 118th in third down stops and collected just 12 takeaways, leading to a 115th team rank in net turnovers.

Card head coach Mike Neu said in his introduction press conference a few years ago that “It’s a results-oriented business...You’ve got to win.” With six wins in two seasons and a 1-15 SU mark in MAC play, perhaps he should be nervous. Neu is an illustrious Muncie alum, and isn’t under imminent danger of losing his job, but Ball State isn’t an historically perennial loser by any means. In 2012-13 the Cards went 19-5 in the regular season and went bowling both years. The team was 12-2 and MAC Champions in 2008, Brady Hoke’s last season. They won MAC titles for both Bill Lynch and Paul Schudel back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Pointspread note: Neu has to improve on his 4-12 spread mark against the MAC this season, or the boo birds will be out at cozy Scheumann Stadium.

Central Michigan (SUR 8-5; PSR 7-6; O-U 8-5)...HC John Bonamego has one of the least-experienced MAC teams, with just 10 returning starters. The Chippewas’ 8-4 SU mark in 2017 was a bit misleading, as they walked a tightrope in collecting half of those victories by a TD or less. Things are likely to go the other way this season.

QB Tony Poljan is a 6-7, 237-lb. dual threat soph who completed 13 of 21 passes in mop-up duties, ran for 125 yds. and even caught five passes (made his only start at WR). He must mature quickly if the offense is to be competitive, and he must do it with a rebuilt receiving corps. The Chippewas’ best offensive threat is jr. RB Jonathan Ward, who ran for 1019 yds. with 10 TDs and made the all-MAC second team. Ward is also the leading returning receiver, coming off catching 48 passes in 2017. No other receiver caught more than 10 passes last year. One of the listed returning starters is jr. WR Brandon Childress, who made just one start last season and was limited to five catches due to a knee injury that put him on the sidelines for the team’s final 10 games. The Chips have gained just 3.6 ypc in Bonamego’s first three seasons, and in 2017 the OL returns just two starters, sr. G Shakir Carr and soph G Derek Smith. The center is a 5th-year senior who has played in one game and both tackles have been converted from other positions, so this offensive line is a patchwork at best.

Six defensive starters return from a CMU defense that ranked second in conference play, allowing just 349 ypg, but there are holes to fill. First-team all-MAC DE Joe Ostman, the team’s top sack man LY, is gone, as are both CBs, each of whom made 2017’s all-conference team as well. The top returning tackler is sr. MLB Malik Fountain, a first and second-team all-conference player in the last two seasons who had 89 stops last season and 92 in 2016. CB Sean Bunting picked off five passes, but he’s the only returning starter in a secondary that projects to start two RE frosh. Holdover sr. DT Nate Brisson-Fast and sr. DE Mitch Stanitzek combined for nine sacks last season, and Fountain joins both last year’s starting OLBs, sr. Alex Briones (83 stops) and jr. Michael Oliver (68) as the bones of what might turn out to be a decent defense.

There will be a dropoff in wins this season. The schedule is tougher. They face five bowl teams on the road including SEC rep Kentucky and Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State. Four of CMU’s victories came by a TD or less, so it wasn’t as if they waltzed through the season. Rhode Island, a 34-point underdog, took the Chippewas to 3OTs before bowing 30-27. Pointspread note: CMU is 17-7 vs. the number as a visitor over the last 4 years!

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