PiRate Football Preview: The MAC

For many years, The Mid American Conference has earned more respect than the national sports media has given it. Miami of Ohio has upset numerous teams now in BCS conferences and once beat Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in successive bowl games and finished in the top 10 in both 1973 and 2003.

The Redhawks have produced a who's who of coaches including Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Ara Parseghian, Paul Brown, Red Blaik, Sid Gillman, Weeb Ewbank, and the recently deceased Randy Walker.

 

Toledo once went undefeated three consecutive seasons, winning 35 games in a row and also finishing in the top 10.  The Rockets' upset of Penn State to open the 2000 season re-established the MAC as a power to be reckoned with.  Subsequent upsets by Northern Illinois over Maryland and Alabama in 2003, gave the MAC the respect it deserves, and starting this season, three guaranteed bowl bids will be handed out with the possibility of a fourth bid coming if the Big East fails to produce their allotted bowl eligible teams.

 

The MAC media voted Akron to repeat in the East this year followed by Miami, Bowling Green, Ohio, Kent State, and Buffalo.  In the West, Northern Illinois was tabbed the best, followed by Toledo, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, and Eastern Michigan.  Northern Illinois was the overwhelming choice to win the MAC Title game.

 

The PiRates differ a little with the official predictions, and whereas they show the Sunbelt to differ by only 10 points from top to bottom, they show a difference in power by more than four touchdowns between the highest and lowest-rated MAC teams.

 

MAC EAST

 

1. Akron Zips

PiRate: 95               National Ranking: 81                   HFA: 3

 

A year after losing their best ever quarterback in Charlie Frye, who now starts for the Cleveland Browns, the Zips actually increased their passing yardage by almost 40 yards per game after Luke Getsy inherited the position.  Getsy threw for 23 touchdowns and 3,455 yards as Akron won four of their last five games in 2005 and copped the MAC crown.

 

The Zips open the 2006 season comfortably ranked first in the East.  Not only does Getsy return to lead the offense, his entire starting offensive line returns as well.  Give an excellent, experienced passer even more time to spot receivers, and he will pick defenses apart. 

 

Tight End Kris Kasparek should be Getsy's key outlet man on conversion downs.  The Zips use the Ace formation with two tight ends, so that position will receive more balls than other four receiver formations.  The Zips lost their two starting wide outs who combined for 123 catches and 15.5 yards per reception.  There is still adequate talent with Jabari Arthur ready to step in and be the prime deep threat.

 

The running game loses 1,230-yard rusher Brett Biggs, who also caught 65 balls.  Akron only ran the ball 43% of the time last year, and new tailback Dennis Kennedy, an Ohio State transfer, should step in for Biggs and rush for at least 800 yards if he remains healthy.  Kennedy could be utilized well on draw plays to take the heat off Getsy.

 

Leading the division's top offensive line are center Andy Willis and tackle Tim Crouch.

 

Defensively, Akron will surrender less points and yards than they did in 2005, when they gave up 24.5 points and 340 yards per game.  Look for some improvement against the run and even more against the pass.

 

The Zips use a five-man secondary, led by rover John Mackey.  Mackey recorded 95 tackles with 8.5 of them behind the line.  He only intercepted one pass, but he really played more up in the line like a linebacker.

 

Linebacker Brion Stokes returns after recording 11 tackles for loss and 89 total tackles in 2005.  Linebacker/Defensive End combo Kevin Grant added 11.5 stops for loss and should see that number go up this year.

 

A trio of contributing cornerbacks return to a strong secondary.  Reggie Corner (whereas would he play), Davanzo Tate, and Dionte Henry combined for 24 passes defended.

 

Akron's schedule starts out with three road games.  The first two are at Penn State and North Carolina State.  Could the Zips pull a Toledo and upset the Nittany Lions on opening day?  If Getsy has a big day and the defense holds up, they could make a game of it.  Akron gets Bowling Green and Miami at home, and because of this, they should retain the East Division title.  However, I think they will come up short in the MAC Title game.  They could be on the bowl bubble with a record of 7-6.  One other possible fly in the ointment:  Offensive coordinator Jim Pry left for Illinois after the spring semester ended.

 

2. Bowling Green Falcons

PiRate: 91               National Ranking: 92                   HFA: 3

 

The Falcons underachieved last year, finishing just 6-5.  Part of the reason was the loss of star quarterback Omar Jacobs for three games (BGU lost two of those games).  Jacobs departs after tossing 26 passes into the end zone against only seven interceptions.

 

On the surface, it looks like the Falcons are in for a rough time this season.  They lose a majority of starters on both sides of the ball. 

 

Offensively, quarterback Anthony Turner takes over for Jacobs.  Last year, he failed to get the job done in relief of the injured star, but he ran an offense not tailored to his skills.  Turner is more mobile than Jacobs, and this year's offense will allow him to run wide with a run-pass option.

 

Much like Akron, BGU returns a strong offensive line.  Center Kory Lichtensteiger and guard Derrick Markey will open holes for the new running backs to gain key yardage up the middle and force linebackers to pursue a little slower when Turner fakes and runs to the perimeter.

 

The running game will have to produce results, as the passing game will be considerably weaker this year.  The top two receivers combined for more than half the 2005 receptions and over 60% of the yardage.  Trying to help overcome the big loss are Ruben Ruiz and Corey Partridge who caught a combined 34 passes for 491 yards (14.4 per catch).

 

The 2006 defense will surrender more yards per play this year, but thanks to more ball control on offense, they may give up fewer yards and points.

 

The Falcons should have a quicker front seven and should pursue the run better than they did last year.  Taking away sacks and QB kneel-downs from the equation, BGU gave up close to five yards per rush.  Linebacker Terrel White returns after leading the team with 100 tackles, nine of them behind the line.  He broke up five passes as well.

 

Defensive tackle Brad Williams and defensive end Devon Parks both have all-MAC potential.  New starters Diyral Briggs and Nick Davis will allow the Falcons to improve their pass rush.

 

The secondary gave up 204 yards per game last year with star defensive back Jelani Jordan defending 13 passes, picking off six.  Cornerback Antonio Smith and free safety Deaudre Perry will have to step up and make some big plays or the Falcons could find themselves having to win games in shootouts.

 

Bowling Green has two tough Big 10 opponents on their schedule.  They open with Wisconsin in Cleveland and must go to the horseshoe to face Ohio State on October 7.  In league play, they must play at Akron, Ohio, and Toledo.  Don't figure on seeing the Falcons in the MAC Title game, but they could challenge for a winning record and possible bowl bid.

 

3. Ohio Bobcats

PiRate: 90               National Ranking: 94 (t)                        HFA: 3

 

It took one year for former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich to move the Bobcats from a weak passing team to a semi-strong running team.  In year two, he may propel the Bobcats to the top half of the East standings, as Ohio is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.  If the ball bounces just right, Ohio could be this year's Akron.  That will only happen if the passing game does better than 118 yards and 45.5% completions and the pass defense improves by volumes on last year's averages of 283 yards and 62.7% completions.

 

The offense ran the ball at a 4.5 yard pace last year and should post even better numbers this season.  Tailback Kalvin McRae returns after rushing for 1,153 yards at 5.5 yards per carry in 2005.  If he stays healthy for all 12 games, McRae could run the ball 300 times for 1,650 yards this season.  He has a knack for getting an extra one to two yards as he is being tackled.

 

Former Brentwood High School quarterback Austen Everson will have to battle Brad Bower for the starting job this season.  Everson proved to be an agile runner, but he could not consistently pass the ball down the field.  Bower is a transfer from Illinois with starting experience, where he guided the Illini to a 2-2 record in four 2004 starts (Illinois went 1-6 in games he did not start).

 

Whoever starts at quarterback will have a couple of experienced wide outs to catch his passes.  Justin Fitzgerald and Scott Mayle only caught a combined 40 passes last year for 574 yards and four scores, but that was 44% of the passing yardage production.

 

The offensive line is team strength, and it will allow McRae to possibly one for a mile's worth of yardage.  Guard Matt Miller and tackle Matt Coppage will vie for all-MAC honors.

 

Defensively, the Bobcats were too giving against the pass last year, allowing 10 of 11 teams to pass for 230 or more yards.  That stat should improve this year with two talented returnees returning in the secondary with the addition of a quality transfer.  Cornerback T.J. Wright and safety and Todd Koenig should do better than their combined five interceptions and 12 passes defended.  Former Virginia Tech Hokie Michael Hinton will contribute immediately.  At free safety, he has world-class speed and can cover any deep threat without getting beaten.

 

The Bobcats have three talented senior linebackers returning.  Matt Muncy led Ohio with 115 tackles from his middle linebacker spot.  Nine of those tackles went for losses.  He also defended seven passes.  Tyler Russ and Michael Graham contributed 142 tackles, 12 for losses from their outside linebacker positions.

 

The defensive line has a couple of all-MAC-quality athletes.  Nose guard Shane Yates and end Jameson Hatke should help Ohio lower the 4.5 yards per carry they surrendered a year ago.

 

Wide receiver Mayle also serves as the Bobcats' chief kick returner, and he is one of the best.  Last year, he took one to the house, while averaging better than 27 yards per return.

 

Ohio has the potential and talent to win the East Division this year, but both the defense and the passing game will have to improve.  It may be another year before the Bobcats are ready to seriously challenge for league honors, but they will definitely be a better team in 2006 than they were in 2005.  A favorable schedule should give them a chance to challenge for seven wins and bowl eligibility.

 

4. Miami of Ohio Redhawks

PiRate: 88               National Ranking: 99                   HFA: 3

 

After several years of excellent football, 2006 may be the biggest rebuilding season in Oxford, OH since 1993, the last time this team suffered a losing record.

 

The biggest concern is on the defensive side of the ball where nine starters and 10 of the top 11 tacklers graduated.  Only one of the front seven 2005 starters returns this year, and Miami could play matador defense against the run.  Craig Mester returns to one defensive end position, but the 243-pound anchor only registered 27 stops a year ago.  Fellow end Joe Coniglio weighs only 233, so enemy tackles could make more pancakes than IHOP.

 

The Redhawks lost all but one player from the two-deep at linebacker.  Outside backer Dontae Wright will have to become a star; he may record 80 or more tackles, but too many of them could be in downfield pursuit.

 

The secondary has some talent with safety Joey Card and cornerback Frank Wiwo on hand.  Card is the lone returning tackler mentioned earlier.  He also defended six passes, with three of them interceptions.

 

Offensively, Miami lost six starters, but they should be in decent shape this year.  Quarterback Mike Kokal takes over for Josh Betts after Betts threw for close to 3,200 yards last year.  Kokal doesn't have the arm Betts had, but he is a much more mobile scrambler who can run.  With a green offensive line, Kokal may be running a lot more than he wants to.

 

The Redhawks are strong in the running game.  Brandon Murphy returns after topping 1,000 yards last year and earning 2nd Team All-MAC honors.  Backups Jimmy Murray and Jimmy Calhoun return as well after combining for 453 yards at a 4.2 yard clip.

 

Miami had two exceptional receivers in 2005, and one of them returns this year.  Gone is leading pass grabber Martin Nance, who hauled in 81 passes for 1,107 yards and 14 touchdowns.  Brandon Murphy returns after catching 75 throws for 1,119 yards and eight scores.  Josh Williams has deep threat potential.  A year ago, he caught 19 passes for 308 yards.

 

The offensive line is a concern.  If they gel, Miami could actually stay above .500 and be a dark horse candidate for the East title.  If they don't come together in a cohesive group, then Miami will lose more than they win.  The right side will be the primary running side, with returning linemen Steve Meister and Charles Norden starting at guard and tackle respectively.

 

Miami should benefit from a rather easy schedule when compared to other MAC teams.  Out of conference, the Redhawks host Northwestern, while going to Purdue, Syracuse, and Cincinnati.  They could come out 2-2 in those games.  In league play, they must venture to Akron, Buffalo, Western Michigan, and Bowling Green; they host Kent State, Northern Illinois, Ball State, and Ohio.  It isn't impossible for them to win four or five of these games and avoid a losing season.  It all depends on whether the offense can outscore their opponents, since it will probably take 30 points to win most of their games.

 

5. Kent State Golden Flashes

PiRate: 84               National Ranking: 107                 HFA: 3

 

Can a team that finished 1-10 in 2005 actually have a chance to go from worst to first in a six-team division?  Kent State won only one game last year, and that one was against a non Division I-A team.  They even lost to Buffalo for cryin' out loud!  This year, the Golden Flashes should be more than a tiny spark with the return of 18 starters.  While they should be at least a touchdown better, I don't think they are ready to leapfrog over the rest of the East Division.

 

Let's start with the ugly.  Kent State rushed for 505 yards last year.  Which game, you ask?  Oops, that was the output for the entire 11 games.  Even against I-AA Southeast Missouri State, they rushed for 24 yards on 23 attempts (five were QB sacks).  Against 1-10 Buffalo, the Flashes managed a grand total of -37 yards. 

 

Well, the good news is things have to get better because they can get worse.  An experienced offensive line returns with three fairly competent blockers on hand, while a fourth lineman may be the best of the lot.  Center Kiff Kincaid, guards Craig Rafdal and Michael Galassi will join new starter Augustus Parrish at tackle.  Kent State could easily triple their rushing statistics this year with this quartet blocking.

 

Michael Machen returns to direct the Kent State offense.  Last year, with no balance to take away some of the pass rush, Machen completed 55% of his passes for 5.7 yards per pass attempt.  Those numbers should be better this year.  Look for 58% completions and 6.5 yards per attempt.  That should mean at least 250 yards should be gained through the air.

 

On the other end of Machen's tosses will be three experienced receivers.  Najah Pruden and Marcus Hill each nabbed 33 passes in 2005 and should both increase that number by 15 to 20 additional receptions; Pruden is a threat to go the distance nearly every time he catches a ball in the open.  Cameron Bobb is an excellent possession receiver at 6-5 and could be the Flashes' leading receiver this year.

 

The running game should have a new duet sharing the load.  Redshirt freshman Eugene Jarvis and Michigan State transfer Tony Howard should give KSU some consistency on the ground.  Jarvis weighs only 158 pounds and stretches to reach 5-5, so his strength could be his invisibility.  He won't be able to carry the ball 20 times a game.  Howard is more powerful but won't be confused for Jerome Bettis. 

 

Defensively, Kent State gave up 30 points a game last year, but remove the SEMO and Buffalo games, and the Flashes gave up close to 35 per game.

 

The first priority this year will be coming up with a consistent run defense.  The Flashes recorded 21 sacks and 70 additional tackles behind the line.  Yet, they gave up over 200 rushing yards per game.  Tackle Colin Ferrell and end Daniel Muir should combine for 120 stops with 20-25 stops behind the line.

 

Sophomore linebackers Stevon Moss and Cedrick Maxwell return after starting as freshmen last year.  Fellow sophomore Jameson Konz will make this a young unit.

 

The good news about the secondary is that the three leading returning tacklers come from this unit.  The bad news about the secondary is that the three leading returning tacklers  come from this unit.  Hoping to make fewer tackles this year are talented Fritz Jacques, Andre Kirkland, Jack Williams, and Usama Young.  The quartet registered 262 tackles a year ago, but they only intercepted six passes.

 

The pieces are in place for Kent State to challenge for a winning record.  If by some quirk of fate all the East teams beat up on each other and 5-3 wins the division title once again, Kent State could actually be in the thick of the division race.  The Golden Flashes will be much better this season.  The four teams starting the year ahead of them in the PiRate ratings are not overpowering.  Kent State could finish anywhere from first to fifth, but they start the season looking up at the other four contenders.  Let's call 2006 the first year on the road to respectability and predict the Flashes to win at least four or five times.

 

6. Buffalo Bulls

PiRate: 71               National Ranking: 119 (that's dead last)            HFA: 3

 

Welcome to the head coaching world Turner Gill.  You're taking over a program that has won fewer games in their seven years of I-A football existence (10) than you averaged per year as a starting quarterback at Nebraska (11).

 

Look at the numbers from the Bulls' 2005 season.  They averaged 10 points per game; 280 total yards per game; 4.2 yards per play; and they didn't score a touchdown until their fourth game of the season.  Defensively, they surrendered 30 points per game, but they were not all that bad.  They only gave up 364 yards per game and held two bowl teams, Rutgers and Akron to 17 and 13 points respectively.

 

The offense could score up to a touchdown more per game this season; the parts are present for Gill's new offense to bear fruit.  It all rests on whether a young, but big offensive line comes together after surrendering 43 quarterback sacks in 2005.  The five projected starters average 301 pounds per man.  Center Jamie Richard could even earn some all-MAC votes.

 

Quarterback Drew Willy had his moments as a starting freshman quarterback, but those moments were few and far between.  He completed 60.6% of his passes, but those completions only averaged 9.9 yards.  He threw just six touchdown passes while throwing twice as many interceptions. 

 

Willy will be familiar with his starting trio of receivers.  All three starters return.  Tight end Chad Upshaw and wide outs Brett Hamlin and Evan Wallace caught a combined 100 passes for 1,087 yards, reaching the goal line five times.

 

Look for the running game to be featured more this season.  Tailback Chris McDuffie returns to his starting spot after missing all of last year with an injury.  He has the quickness to make the offense successful.  Look for Gill to run the famous Nebraska counter sweep to burn aggressive defensive pursuit; McDuffie should break away for at least one long touchdown run on this play.

 

The defense lost some quality players, but enough talent returns to keep the Bulls from giving up too many additional points this year.  Buffalo will scrap the 4-2-5 defense in favor of the 4-3 this year.  Unfortunately, no starters return to the front four, and maybe a 3-3-5 defense would have been a better option.

 

Ramon Guzman leads the trio of linebackers.  6 of his 51 tackles from last season went for lost yardage.  Fellow linebacker Jeff Bublavi tips the scale at just 194 pounds; he can pursue with quickness, but he is a liability against lead plays, where bigger fullbacks can take him out of the play.

 

The secondary lost its top player when Gemara Williams graduated taking his 14 defenses passes with him.  Kareen Byrom returns to his strong safety position after leading the Bulls with 85 stops a year ago.

 

Buffalo begins the season with their equivalent of the Super Bowl.  The Bulls open the season at home on a Thursday night against Temple.  Both teams have new coached and will be sky high for this contest.  The loser stands a chance of going 0-12, so this one will feel like the game of the century to both teams.  For the Bulls, their remaining out-of-conference games will be murderous.  They have to visit Auburn, Boston College, and Wisconsin.  Figure on three losses by an average of 35-40 points.  A home game against Ball State offers them one other chance at a win.  Turner Gill will lose more games this year, than the Cornhuskers lost in his four years in uniform.

 

MAC WEST

 

1. Toledo Rockets

PiRate: 100                         National Ranking: 58                   HFA: 4

 

In the 2000's, Toledo has re-emerged as the class program of the MAC.  What Gary Pinkel started, Tom Amstutz has maintained.  The Rockets are 55-19 in the last six seasons with four bowl appearances.  The 2000 team trounced Penn State at Happy Valley and won 10 games.  The 2001 team finished with 10 wins again.

 

Last year, Toledo won nine games including an impressive blowout win over UTEP in the GMAC Bowl.  What can the Rockets do for an encore?  How about winning the MAC title and another nine or even 10 games?

 

Normally, when a MAC team loses a star quarterback like Bruce Gradkowski, they are expected to tail off offensively.  However, Toledo has another gem in Clint Cochran.  As a freshman, Cochran filled in as an emergency starter when Gradkowski went down.  He just completed an eye-popping 74.4% of his passes, albeit almost entirely of the five to seven-yard variety, averaging just 8.2 yards per completion.  Look for Cochran to throw downfield more this year and put up about 200 yards per game through the air.

 

Cochran may have time to read the sports pages when he drops back to pass.  The Rockets have the best offensive line in the MAC.  Junior tackle John Greco should be an NFL draft pick in 2008.  Neighboring guard David Perkins combines to make the left side as strong as most Big 10 teams.  Unlike most MAC lines, the Toledo line has tons of depth.

 

The four leading 2005 pass receivers return to the fold this year.  Steve Odom, Chris Hopkins, Nick Moore, and Andrew Hawkins caught 138 passes total for 1,663 yards and 17 touchdowns.  The three wide outs all have breakaway speed, while tight end Hopkins can catch the ball over the middle with a safety ready to bust him in the ribs.

 

The running game should produce more than the 217 yards it produced in 2005.  Running behind the solid line will be two backs who should both average better than 4.5 yards and possibly better than 5.0 yards per rush.  Scooter McDougle returns after missing 2005 with a knee injury.  McDougle can run inside with power and go outside with speed.  Jalen Parmele isn't as powerful as McDougle, but he has more speed.

 

Defensively, Toledo is almost as strong in the line as their offensive counterpart.  The Rockets return all three of their 2005 starters, a trio that combined to make 13 stops for loss.

 

Outside linebacker Mike Alston terrorizes enemy quarterbacks.  Last year, he placed passers on the ground 9.5 times.  Michael Chamberlain occupies the other outside linebacker spot and can come hard on dogs and blitzes almost as proficiently as Alston.

 

The secondary lost some talent, but enough talent returns to make the Rockets tough to pass against.  Cornerback Nigel Morris and safety Tyrell Herbert should compete for All-MAC honors this year.  They each defended seven passes last year.

 

Toledo's non-conference schedule is not as harsh as other MAC teams.  Away games against Iowa State and Pittsburgh are winnable, while Kansas and McNeese State must visit the Glass Bowl.  In conference play, a Tuesday night game at Northern Illinois is the key contest, as the winner of that game is most likely to advance to the MAC title game as the favorite.

 

My personal guess is Toledo will record double digit wins and play in the Motor City Bowl as the MAC champion.

 

2. Northern Illinois Huskies

PiRate: 98                           National Ranking: 69 (t)                        HFA: 4

 

Back in 1969, new Maryland basketball coach Charles "Lefty" Driesell told Terrapin fans that he would turn his team into the "UCLA of the East."  Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak could have easily made a similar remark when he assumed command of the Huskies.  Novak has turned NIU into the Fresno State of the Midwest.  Just like Coach Pat Hill's Bulldogs have failed to actually win the WAC, the Huskies have not actually won the MAC in their current run.

 

This year, NIU has enough talent returning to finally get over the hump and win the MAC title.  While Toledo starts the season as the highest rated MAC team in the PiRates, the Huskies get the benefit of hosting the Rockets on Election Night, November 7.

 

It all starts on offense with the best running back in the league.  Garrett Wolfe ran for 1,580 yards in 2005, scoring 16 times.  Every time he carried the ball, he averaged an amazing 6.5 yards a try.  Give him an opening, and he is off to the races.

 

Wolfe will run behind a veteran pair of tackles.  Jon Brost performed well as a freshman last year, while Doug Free should be on an NFL roster next season.  The rest of the line is new but has talent.

 

Phil Horvath returns at quarterback after completing an outstanding 70.6 % of his passes in 2005.  Backup Dan Nicholson may have a stronger arm, but he doesn't have the scrambling ability of Horvath.  When Horvath broke his arm last year, Nicholson stepped in without the Huskies missing a beat.

 

Whoever is in at quarterback will have two returning starting receivers on hand and two promising new wide outs.  Britt Davis caught 42 passes for 441 yards last year.

 

NIU lost five games because they surrendered too many points in 2005.  Akron beat them twice in shootouts, passing for better than 400 yards each time.

 

Hoping to improve by leaps and bounds this year is a secondary that returns three starters and a key backup from last year.  MAC opponents may think they are seeing double when they look at the Huskies' corners.  Alvah and Adriel Hansbro are your typical twins.  They do everything the same way, and that could include making the All-MAC team together.  Free safety Dustin Utschig is the big star of the secondary.  He led NIU with 121 tackles and added seven defended passes.

 

While there are no future NFL Pro Bowl players in the second line of defense, the Huskies are deep with quality players here.  Tim McCarthy and Keenan Blalark combined for 196 tackles, seven for losses.  Phil Brown and Josh Allen added another 88 tackles.

 

Whether NIU wins the West Division may hinge on how quickly a rebuilt defensive line comes together.  Ends Larry English and Ken West are quick enough to make tackles on the other side of the field, but they can be knocked back by strong tackles like Greco at Toledo.

 

Kicker Chris Nendick is a weapon.  Last year, he converted on all of his PAT's and hit almost 70% of his field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder.

 

The MAC West will be an exciting race this year, as Northern Illinois and Toledo have top 25 potential.  When you sit down to find out which party will control the next Congress on Election Night, be sure to have the big TV set on the NIU-Toledo game.  It could be as exciting as the 2000 Presidential race, and the stat crew won't have to decide the outcome in December.  Look for NIU to win six or seven MAC games.  They have to play at Ohio State and Iowa during the year, and the Iowa game will directly precede the big Toledo game.  If the Huskies come out of that game healthy, they should be favored against Toledo.  It should be a great game.  Regardless of the outcome, NIU will be playing after December 10.

 

3. Central Michigan Chippewas

PiRate: 93                           National Ranking: 85                   HFA: 3

 

Brian Kelly was one of the best coaches to come out of the Division II ranks, when he left Grand Valley State for Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, two years ago.  After winning 77% of his games at GVSU, he took over a CMU program that had fallen on rough times.  In just his second season, the Chippewas won more games than they lost for the first time this millennium.  With 14 starters returning, CMU should continue their winning ways and possibly challenge for a bowl bid.

 

The fly in the offensive ointment is that quarterback Kent Smith has picked up his sheepskin after leading the MAC in total offense.  New quarterback Brian Brunner was a highly sought after high school recruit three years ago, but he only threw three passes last year.  He has the tools to be as good as Smith eventually, but this year may see the passing numbers tail off a bit.

 

CMU should still move the ball thanks to a dual threat at tailback.  Ontario Sneed emerged as a freshman sensation last year; he topped 1,000 yards rushing and caught 51 passes out of the backfield.

 

When Sneed isn't catching passes, Brunner will be looking Damien Linson's way.  Linson led the Chippewas in 2005 with 832 receiving yards.  He'll join Obed Cetoute to give CMU an able pair of deep threats.

 

The offensive line was rock steady last year.  Four of the five starters return, and CMU could challenge Toledo for the best unit in the league.  All four of the returning starters, center Drew Mormino, guard Eric Tunney, and tackles Andrew Hartline and Joe Staley could all make somebody's three-team All-MAC.

 

If CMU is to challenge for a bowl bid this year, the secondary will have to be less charitable and give up much less than 281 yards per game, 2005's average.  To make matters worse, this unit was decimated by defections, leaving only one returning starter.  Cornerback Pacino Horne only defended two passes last year from his free safety position, and now he moves to the corner.  Taking his spot at safety will be Curtis Cutts who broke up six passes in limited action.

 

The linebacker unit is one of the top groups in the MAC.  Thomas Keith, Isaac Brown, and Doug Kress could improve on already impressive numbers this year.  Last year, the trio combined for 250 tackles, 18.5 of them for losses, and 12 passes defended.

 

As strong as the linebackers are, the front four are even better.  De'Onte Burnham, Ronnie Ekdahl, Steven Friend, and Daniel Bazuin make up the best front four in the league.  Bazuin, the reigning defensive Player of the Year in the MAC, should be a high draft choice in next year's NFL draft.

 

Central Michigan starts the season by hosting Boston College and then venturing to Michigan.  After the 0-2 start, the rest of the schedule is manageable.  The remaining two out-of-conference games are at Kentucky and Temple.  The Chips could win both of these and will win at least one.  In conference play, they must play at both Toledo and NIU, so winning the MAC West is out of the question.  However, CMU has enough talent to record a second consecutive winning record and challenge for a bowl bid.

 

4. Western Michigan Broncos

PiRate: 91                           National Ranking: 90                   HFA: 3

 

Bill Cubit did wonders in his first year in Kalamazoo, taking a 1-10 team and guiding them to within one win of the MAC West co-championship.  Still the 7-4 record was quite impressive.  If the defense can improve any, the Broncos could finish over .500 again in 2006.

 

 WMU gave up a dreadful dreadful dreadful 303 passing yards per game and 62.1% completions.  Somehow, they gave up 460 yards passing to Central Michigan and still won.  This year safeties Louis Delmas and C.J. Wilson hope to make life a little more miserable for people not wearing their color jersey.  The pair defended 17 passes last year and need to see that number rise this year. 

 

Linebacker Ameer Ismail will contend for first team All-MAC honors this year after registering an unbelievable 20 tackles behind the line in 2005 with eight of those tackles coming at the expense of quarterbacks.

 

The defensive line has some talent in tackle Nick Varcadipane and Anthony Belmonte.  Both recorded 50 tackles a year ago.

 

The WMU offense scored 10 more points per game in 2005 than they did in 2004.  They did so even though three quarterbacks were forced into regular action due to injuries.  Two of those return and a third QB from the JUCO ranks could challenge as well.  Ryan Cubit will begin the season as the starter.  The 6th year senior received a medical redshirt after going out early in the season. 

 

Tim Hiller is still recovering from a serious knee injury and could be force to miss all of 2006.  Hiller produced amazing stats in his time as the starter completing 65% of his passes for 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions.   JUCO transfer Thomas Peregrin could challenge for playing time this year.

 

No matter who starts at quarterback, he will have a tougher job this year now that two star receivers have used up their eligibility.  Losing Greg Jennings and Tony Scheffler means gone are 155 catches, 1,929 yards, and 23 touchdowns.  Jennings cannot be replaced, so expect yards per catch to drop this year.

 

Aside from the loss at receiver, tailback Trovon Riley and his 1,004 yards rushing must be replaced.  Mark Bonds could step in and replicate that effort this year.

 

The interior three players of the offensive line should be quite competent this year, with center Robbie Krutilla leading the way.

 

WMU could challenge CMU for third in the MAC West, and if the ball bounces right win seven games again.  In order to do so, they will need to upset somebody at home.  The Broncos host both Toledo and Northern Illinois.

 

5. Ball State Cardinals

PiRate: 89                           National Ranking: 96                   HFA: 3

 

If the Cardinals were in the other division, they might be in the thick of the division title race this year.  Playing in the much tougher West Division, they will be lucky to avoid the basement.

 

First, the good news:  Ball State returns 10 offensive starters this year and the top backup at the one spot that needs a new starter.  Now, for the bad news: this group failed to average 300 total yards per game last year.

 

That paltry average should increase by at least 30-50 yards this season.  Joey Lynch is a seasoned vet at the quarterback position.  Last year, he completed 63.1% of his passes with 18 touchdowns and only seven picks.  Eight of the top nine pass receivers return, including deep threat Louis Johnson.

 

Running back is the only position where someone new will start this year.  B.J. Hill inherits the position, where he was actually more impressive than last year's starter.

 

The entire offensive line returns, led by guard Robert Brewster, who could play at the next level when he graduates in three years.

 

Defensively, BSU was too generous last year, giving up 38 points per game and 460 total yards per game.  Three of their seven losses came to Iowa, Auburn, and Boston College by a combined 157-3.

 

The strength of the defense should be at linebacker where too prime-time players roam.  Bryant Haines and Brad Seiss return after recording 164 tackles between them.

 

Three starters return to the line, but this unit needs to perform much better this year after surrendering five yards per rush and recording just 16 sacks.  End Cortlan Booker has the potential to be a force.

 

The secondary is stronger inside than outside.  Safeties Erik Keys and Trey Lewis made 143 tackles, but too many of those came after opponents penetrated the first two lines of defense.

 

Punter Chris Miller returns after leading the MAC with a 43 yard average.  Kicker Brian Jackson connected on a 54-yard field goal, giving BSU a scoring threat any time they get to the 35 yard line.

 

The Cardinals play Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, and North Dakota State outside of the MAC, which means they will go 1-3 in non-conference games.  While the Cardinals knocked off both Akron and Northern Illinois last year, this year they are not going to defeat the two MAC title game representatives.  While BSU is much improved, the won-loss record may not reflect it.  Call it another four-win season.

 

6. Eastern Michigan Eagles

PiRate: 85                           National Ranking: 104                 HFA: 3

 

Eastern Michigan has endured 10 consecutive losing seasons, and it looks like that streak will reach 11 seasons.  The Eagles are not all that bad; they just are a little weaker than the other five MAC West teams.  An unfavorable schedule means EMU could take a step back this year.

 

The offense needs to break in a new quarterback this year.  Tyler Jones saw limited action last year, but he averaged less than six yards per pass completion and only 3.8 yards per pass attempt

 

A new starter at tailback must also be found.  None of the candidates are likely to star, so Coach Jeff Genyk could rotate several backs to keep them fresh. 

 

The star of the offense is wide receiver Eric Deslauriers, who caught 75 passes for 874 yards last year.  Deslauriers will see many double team coverages this year, so it's important for Travis Lewis to step up and do better than 10 yards per reception this season.

 

Four starters return to the offensive line.  Guards Khalid Walton and Chris Thomas and tackle Courtney Ford should carry the brunt of the load.

 

On defense, the line is the strongest unit.  Tackles Josh Hunt and Jason Jones and end Kevin Howe combined for 34 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

 

Linebackers Daniel Holtzclaw and Michael Richardson were in on 193 tackles last year and defended eight passes.

 

The secondary is a concern as only cornerback Duan Bracey returns as a starter.  Opposing passers should be able to average 250 yards against EMU.

 

Andrew Wellock returns as both punter and kicker.  As a kicker, he connected on 5-10 field goals beyond 40 yards last year.

 

Eastern Michigan may not win an out-of-conference game, as they play at Michigan State, Northwestern, and UL-Lafayette, while hosting Navy.  In conference play, the schedule is unkind for the Eagles.  Home games against Toledo, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Ohio should be difficult.  This could be one of those years where EMU takes a step backward.  Four wins again will be an accomplishment.

 

Next Up: The Wacky WAC.  Can Boise State hold off Fresno State and Hawaii?  Can Nevada stay with the big boys?

 

Sources:  The Mid American Conference and the official websites of each of the 12 MAC schools.charitable HaH

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