Weeknight MACtion Returns! 2013 Conference Preview

NIU QB Jordan Lynch

NIU QB Jordan Lynch

The MAC has become arguably the most entertaining league in college football over the past few seasons. Weeknight MACtion is one of the highlights of the college football season as MAC teams regularly put on fun, thrilling displays of football.

The conference features outstanding young coaches like Toledo’s Matt Campbell and underrated talent like Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Kent State running back Dri Archer.

The 2012 season was the best yet for the MAC. Both Kent State and Northern Illinois were regulars in the top 25 polls, and the conference placed a team in a BCS bowl for the first time after Northern Illinois knocked off Kent State in overtime in the MAC championship game.

There is plenty to be excited about for 2013. Besides the usual zany MACtion, the conference is deep and talented. Lynch and Archer are back and potential Heisman candidates. Lynch is looking to lead Northern Illinois back to the BCS and win this time, while Kent State wants to prove that its breakthrough success from a year ago was no flash in the pan.

Toledo has plenty of talent and looking to unseat Northern Illinois in the West while Ohio has become the model of stability under Frank Solich and will be looking to capture that elusive MAC title.

Bowling Green has one of the best defenses outside of the BCS, Ball State is unspectacular but effective, and Miami (OH) is looking to bounce back after a couple of down years.

One thing is for certain, the MAC won’t lack for entertainment.

Cream of the Crop

Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton

Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton

Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo, Bowling Green

Northern Illinois Huskies

The 2012 season went about as well as it could have for Northern Illinois. The Huskies went 12-1, captured another MAC title, and became the first MAC team to earn a berth in a BCS bowl. NIU hung tough with Florida State for awhile, trailing 17-10 going into the fourth quarter before finally succumbing and losing the game 31-10 to finish the season 12-2. Head coach Dave Doeren parlayed that success into the head coaching job at NC State, but all-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch returns to lead a team that hopes to cap 2013 with a return trip to the BCS.

The school promoted offensive coordinator Rod Carey to the head gig, and his transition will be made easier by a seasoned, experienced team.  Lynch returns for his senior season after a sensational 2012 campaign. He completed 60 percent of his throws for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. He was also the team’s best rushing threat, tallying an unfathomable 1,898 yards rushing with 19 touchdowns.

While NIU’s offense will have to find a new receiving threat to replace Martel Moore, senior running back Akeem Daniels and an experienced offensive line return to help Lynch carry the load.

The Huskies were deep on defense, so even though they lost some players, they ought to be in good shape in 2013. Non-conference trips to Iowa and Purdue, along with conference road games against Toledo and Kent State, figure to be the major challenges on the schedule, but all those games are winnable.

Another BCS appearance may be asking too much–neither Purdue or Iowa are great teams and won’t provide a boost like Boise State beating Georgia or Virginia Tech did in the past. Louisiana-Lafayette has a much tougher non-conference slate, for instance, with games against Arkansas and Kansas State, while the Mountain West has a stronger reputation that will benefit its champion.

Still, another season with double-digit wins and an appearance in the MAC championship game is likely. A win over Louisville and that elusive conference crown could take the Bobcats to unprecedented heights.

Ohio Bobcats

Ohio came into the 2012 with high expectations. An experienced team, favorable schedule, and a marquee non-conference game against Penn State had people thinking Ohio could become the first MAC team to qualify for a BCS bowl. The Bobcats took out Penn State and started the year 8-0 before slumping. The Bobcats dropped four-of-their-last five games before rallying to beat Louisiana-Monroe in a bowl game and finish 9-4. Injuries played a part, as many key players either had to miss time or were significantly hampered over the course of the season.

Having the offseason to heal all those banged-up players provides optimism, but the biggest reasons to be excited about the Bobcats are in the offensive backfield. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship, both seniors, are back. Tettleton battled through a nagging abdomen injury for a good portion of the year yet still managed to throw for over 2,800 yards and 18 touchdowns against only 4 picks. He also added 455 yards on the ground. A return to full health means he should be even better in 2013. Blankenship rushed for 1,600 yards with 15 touchdowns, top wideout Donte Foster returns as well.

The defense was riddled with injuries last year, but while that didn’t help Ohio a year ago, it should pay dividends this year. The Bobcats lost two starting cornerbacks at the start of the season; their return combined with the experience their backups received last year after being thrown in the fire ought to mean the pass defense will be much-improved this year. The biggest issue facing the defense, however, is the defensive line. The unit wasn’t very good last year, and the Bobcats hope that a mix of recruits and JUCO transfers can shore things up.

Ohio failed in its quest in 2012, but the Bobcats will have the opportunity again this year. They start the year off with Louisville, and if the Bobcats can knock off the Cardinals, a BCS run is a definitely possibility. A three-game stretch late in the season against Buffalo, Bowling Green, and Kent State is a hurdle, but if Ohio can navigate that, an appearance in the MAC title game is pretty much a certainty. Ohio has come close to winning a conference title several times over the past few years but hasn’t been able to seal the deal, but they’ll have a good shot this year.

Toledo Rockets

The Toledo Rockets came into 2012 full of uncertainty. Coach Tim Beckman had left to take over Illinois, and the school promoted offensive coordinator Matt Campbell, just 32-years-old, to take over a team that had lost a huge chunk of its offense along with a number of starters on defense? The result? A 9-4 season that included an upset of Cincinnati and a near-upset of Arizona. Campbell has proven himself, and his young team has a year of experience under its belt, meaning 2013 could be the year the Rockets turn the corner and finally win the MAC.

Toledo’s identity for years has been an explosive offense, and 2013 should be no different. Quarterback Terrance Owens was given the reins full-time last year after spending 2011 splitting time with Austin Dantin, and he did not disappoint. Owens completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,700 yards and 14 touchdowns despite the Rockets having to break in a number of new faces along the offensive line and in the receiving corps.

Both of those units are tested and experienced now, so Owens ought to have an even better season this year. He’ll be helped by senior running back David Fluellen (1,494 rushing yards in 2012) and a pair of big-play wideouts in senior Bernard Reedy (88 receptions for 1,113 yards; 4 return touchdowns) and sophomore Alonzo Russell (55 catches, 953 yards).

The defense has to do considerable rebuilding in the front seven, but Campbell has recruited well and has brought in a multitude of highly-ranked recruits to fill the void. If they can live up to their potential, the Rockets will be in good shape. If not, they’ll be in trouble. The secondary is in a similar spot as the top two safeties are gone. They combined for 20 pass breakups; nobody else had more than five, so replacing their production will be a key for the Toledo defense.

The Rockets definitely did not take the easy road when it came to scheduling. Toledo opens the season against SEC heavyweight Florida and follows that with a visit to another SEC school, Missouri. The schedule gets considerably easier after that, though, and leads up to a showdown with nemesis Northern Illinois at home on November 20.

If all goes according to plan, that game will decide who represents the West Division in the MAC title game. The Rockets have the talent to make that happen.

Bowling Green Falcons

Bowling Green went 8-5 last year but really caught fire after September. The Falcons opened the year with four-straight losses then won seven-of-their-next-nine games before dropping their bowl game. Almost everyone returns from a dominant defense that will be asked to carry the load this year. The three returning starters on the line combined for 20 tackles for loss, and linebacker Gabe Martin had 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

Quarterback Matt Schilz struggled with accuracy last year, completing only 55 percent of his passes and throwing 12 interceptions. Most of his receivers are back, so the familiarity ought to help a little, but the passing offense needs to improve. The running game should be okay even if star Anthon Samuel does not return after taking a semester off to spend more time with his family.

This year’s schedule is a lot friendlier than last year’s as Bowling Green replaces Florida and Virginia Tech with Tulsa, Indiana, and Mississippi State. The Falcons get Toledo and Ohio at home, too. As a result, Bowling Green is poised to make some noise in the MAC.

Middle of the Pack

Kent State RB Dri Archer (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Kent State RB Dri Archer (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Kent State, Ball State, Central Michigan, Buffalo, Miami (OH)

Kent State Golden Flashes

Kent State had a season for the ages in 2012, going 11-3, appearing in the top 25 rankings, and nearly winning a MAC championship and earning a BCS berth. Coach Darrell Hazell left to take over Purdue, meaning the Golden Flashes are now in the hands of rookie head coach Paul Haynes.

The bread-and-butter of the Kent State offense is running the football, and with Traylon Durham and Dri Archer, the Golden Flashes have two phenomenal backs. Durham posted 1,316yards and 14 touchdowns last season while Archer, a human highlight reel, torched opposing defenses for 1,429 yards with 16 touchdowns while averaging a mind-boggling 9.0 yards a carry.

Four of last year’s top five receivers also return, but the offense needs to find a new quarterback to replace departed senior Spencer Keith.

The defense is anchored by defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix, who posted 15 tackles for loss and 6 sacks in 2012. He’s joined by safety Luke Wollet (92.5 tackles and 7 interceptions) and leads a unit that ranked in the top 50 in points against a year ago, yielding only 24.5 points a game. There is plenty of returning experience along the line and in the secondary, but the team’s top two linebackers must be replaced.

A repeat of last year’s success is almost certainly not going to happen this year. Between adjusting to a new coaching staff and having to play LSU, Penn State, and Northern Illinois in the first half of the season, there is no way Kent State will be able to reach double digits in wins. The key will be surviving that brutal stretch of the schedule because the second half will be much easier. Figure 7-9 wins for Kent State.

Ball State Cardinals

Ball State has steadily improved under Pete Lembo and went 9-4 a year ago. Quarterback Keith Wennig returns after throwing for over 3,000 yards with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’ll look often for junior wideout Willie Snead, who caught 89 balls for 1,148 yards in 2012.

The running game is in capable hands with Jahwan Edwards (1,410 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Horactio Banks (586 yards, 4 touchdowns) but the offensive line loses four starters.

The defense was vulnerable last year, struggling against the run and giving up over 30 points a game. The linebacking corps was hit hard by graduation; only one returning linebacker logged more than 8 tackles last year. Losing all that experience is going to hurt, especially with a suspect defensive line.

A favorable schedule means another good season of 8 or 9 wins is likely, but the Cardinals don’t have explosiveness on offense or a sturdy-enough defense to challenge Northern Illinois and Toledo for the division crown.

Central Michigan Chippewas

Most of the starters return from last year’s bowl team, and Central Michigan is looking to build off that success. The Chippewas need to find a quarterback after senior Ryan Radcliff graduated, but whoever wins the job will have the benefit of handing the ball off to running back Zurlon Tipton.

The senior bulled his way to 1,492 yards and 19 touchdowns last year and is primed for another big year. Junior wideout Titus Davis had 850 receiving yards last season and is a big-play threat.

By far, the biggest issue facing the Chippewas is their porous defense. Central Michigan was 96th in the country in points against, yielding 32.4 point a game. The defense has a lot of returning experience, which should hopefully help, but experience doesn’t guarantee improvement. The defense will keep the Chippewas from threatening for a division title, but CMU should go to a bowl game for the second-straight year.

Buffalo Bulls

Buffalo went just 4-8 a year ago, but the Bulls are poised for a much better year in 2013. Buffalo is experienced on both sides of the ball and returns 17 starters. Unlike most of the other teams in the MAC, the defense isn’t the concern for the Bulls heading into the upcoming season; it’s the offense that needs to shape up. Both Alex Zordich and Joe Licata saw extensive action at quarterback last year, but neither one completed more than 53 percent of his throws.

They must improve upon those numbers in order for the passing game to become effective and take some pressure off what should be a decent rushing attack. Running backs Branden Oliver and Devin Campbell combined for 1,300 yards on the ground, and when you throw in Zordich’s 540 yards, it’s clear that Buffalo wants to run the football as much as possible.

Linebacker Khalil Mack has posted at least 20 tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons, and he leads a Bulls defense that is the clear strength of the team. Mack will be joined at linebacker by Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman, who combined for another 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks while defensive end Colby Way contributed 10.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks last year. The secondary is deep and full of upperclassmen.

Buffalo does not have a fun start to the season, opening with Ohio State and Baylor in back-to-back weeks, but if the Bulls can avoid getting demoralized after that, they have a good shot at returning to a bowl game for the first time since winning the MAC in 2008.

Miami (OH) Redhawks

The Redhawks are coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons, and the pressure is on third-year coach Don Treadwell to turn things around. He’ll have to do it without four-year starting quarterback Zac Dysert. Senior Austin Boucher is the presumptive favorite, but whoever ends up replacing Dysert will have a pair of talented receivers to throw to in senior Nick Harwell and junior Dawan Scott.

The two each had about 850 receiving yards a year ago. They’ll need to get on the same page with their new quarterback quickly because the running game struggled mightily in 2012. Neither of the top two running backs who return from a year ago averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry.

The defense, particularly the defensive line, was ravaged by injuries last year, and that lead to opposing teams being able to run all over the Redhawks. A return to health should help immensely.

With a healthy defense, capable quarterback play, and a favorable schedule, there is no reason that Miami shouldn’t bounce back and return to a bowl game. Non conference games against Marshall, Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Illinois are all winnable, and the Redhwaks avoid conference powers Northern Illinois and Toledo.

Bottom of the Barrel

Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Akron, UMass

Western Michigan Broncos

The Broncos took a page out of Toledo’s program and hired a young, hotshot coaching assistant to become their new head coach. Thirty-two-year-old P.J. Fleck knows the MAC well, having been a standout receiver for Northern Illinois before later spending time on the Huskies’ staff as receivers coach.

Losing star quarterback Alex Carder hurts, but Tyler Van Tubbergen filled in admirably last year after Carder went down with injury. Van Tubbergen threw for 1,652 yards and 13 interceptions and gives Fleck an experienced quarterback to work with. Van Tubbergen will be aided by sophomore wideout Jaime Wilson, who caught 67passes for nearly 800 yards as a freshman.

Fleck has brought in former Rutgers co-defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham to coach the defense, but it’s going to take some time before this defense resembles the tough, effective units Pinkham led at Rutgers. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, and while the secondary is experienced, it wasn’t very good.

The schedule doesn’t do the Broncos any favors, either. WMU opens the year against Michigan State and its vaunted defense then has to travel to Northwestern two weeks later followed by a trip to Iowa. Conference play doesn’t offer any sort of breather as that Iowa trip is followed by a home game against Kent State and a visit to Toledo. Even if Fleck turns out to be a savant, it’s going to take awhile to turn around the Broncos.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

Eastern Michigan hasn’t enjoyed much success on the football field, and 2012 was no exception as the Eagles suffered through a 2-10 campaign. Highly-touted quarterback recruit Brogan Roback arrives, but if he’s not ready, Tyler Benz showed some promise last year. He threw more touchdowns than interceptions and threw the ball downfield, but he only completed 54 percent of his throws. The Eagles’ biggest offensive weapon, though, is running back Bronson Hill. The junior averaged 6.5 yards per carry en route to 905 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns.

With a 2-10 record, it’s no surprise that the defense struggled. Eastern Michigan couldn’t rush the passer, and once the ball was in the air, the Eagles couldn’t defend it. The team will also have to replace all three starting linebackers.

The schedule is too difficult, and this team needs too much improvement, for a bowl game to be realistic. Eastern Michigan may win one or two more games than last year, but that’s about it.

Akron Zips

Akron would most likely like to forget that 2012 ever happened after going just 1-11. The Zips will need to replace last year’s starting quarterback, but they do return running back Jawon Chisolm and his 953 yards rushing. Plenty of receivers return, but the offensive line needs to replace three starters. On defense, the Zips were undersized and not very good. Akron is taking steps to remedy that situation, but it’s going to take time. This year’s defense will still be undersized and not very good.

The schedule doesn’t help out Akron, either. Michigan, Central Florida, and UL-Lafayette are three tough non-conference opponents, and the Zips have to play all the elite teams in the MAC while missing out on most of the bad ones. Akron will be improved, but it’s not going to show in the standings.

UMass Minutemen

Wow, talk about a rough transition. In its first year playing FBS football, UMass was dismal, suffering through a 1-11 record and getting blown out on an almost weekly basis. UMass was an extremely young team and endured a lot of growing pains as freshmen were forced into starring roles. Injuries forced the team to play two freshmen at quarterback, and while neither played particularly well, the experience should pay off down the road.

The same goes for the defense as a number of freshmen saw extensive playing time. UMass is building for the future, so this year is all about creating a foundation for 2014 and beyond. The Minutemen will be more competitive in 2013, but it will be another long season.

East Division Champion

Ohio

UMass and Akron have no shot, and Miami (OH) has to replace a four-year starter at quarterback. Buffalo and Bowling Green have great defenses, but their offenses leave something to be desired. Kent State has Dri Archer and Roosevelt Nix but has to deal with a new coaching staff and tough schedule.

Don’t be surprised if Kent State retains the division crown, but of all the teams in this division, Ohio is the most balanced and has the fewest questions. Tyler Tettleton and Co. return to the MAC title game after missing out a year ago.

West Division Champion

Northern Illinois

The West boils down to three teams: Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Ball State. The Cardinals don’t have the defense to stop either Toledo or Northern Illinois and can’t hang with them in a shootout. Toledo has the talent and depth to take down Northern Illinois, and the Huskies have a new, unproven coach.

However, the Huskies have owned the division of late and have the conference’s best player in Jordan Lynch and can win with either defense or offense. That gives them the edge.

Conference Champion

Northern Illinois

Ohio and Northern Illinois staged an epic battle for the league title a couple years ago, and they’ll do so once again in the 2013 MAC championship game. Just like that previous game, Northern Illinois will come out on top. Lynch is just too good, and Ohio will have no answers for stopping the Huskies’ offense.

Tettleton will keep Ohio in the game, but Northern Illinois will make enough plays on defense to seal the deal.

 

 

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