What the heck, by the time the football season rolls around in six months, no one will remember this column anyway.
In the East, there's no reason not to believe that Miami won't provide Marshall its toughest stumbling block to its seventh straight MAC East title. Ben Roethlisberger takes the reigns as the MAC's most feared passer this season. Roethlisberger is among the national top ten active passers with 47 TD passes and 6,343 air yards and joins Hawaii's Timmy Chang as the only juniors among that elite group of quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger shared the wealth last season, as ten different RedHawks who caught at least a dozen passes. But how much will be miss the departed Jason Branch? Four of five starters are back on the RedHawks offensive line to make sure Big Ben has plenty of time to throw.
At UCF, the Golden Knights have just four starters back on offense, but senior Ryan Schneider returns to direct a Golden Knights attack that finished eleventh nationally last season in total offense. Schneider trailed only Byron Leftwich in MAC passing yards per game and passing efficiency en route to an outstanding season and as thrown for more than 6,700 yards in the last two years combined.
UCF loses the Golden Knights' most productive single-season receiving tandem of Jimmy Fryzel and Doug Gabriel, but returns junior tailback Alex Haynes. Haynes may find fewer holes this fall, as UCF must replace a trio of departed starters on the offensive line.
The UCF Golden Knights return eight starters from a defense that that finished third in the MAC in total defense, but they must replace departed All-American defensive end Elton Patterson. The late decision by JUCO Chad Mascoe to play for UCF rather than Florida State, paid big dividends for the Golden Knights last year. Mascoe posted 97 stops last season at MLB, but sat out February's spring practice at UCF in an effort to improve his grades.
Kent State's Joshua Cribbs returns for his junior year and is one of the top duel threat quarterbacks in the nation. He enters the campaign looking to become the first player in NCAA I-A history to post three straight seasons in which he both rushes and throws for more than 1,000 yards.
New KSU offensive coordinator Doug Martin (11 years at East Carolina) will find the best things happen when Cribbs keeps the football himself. Cribbs led KSU with 1,057 rushing years a year ago and featured an key-popping 7.7 yards per carry. Cribbs' former Washington D.C. prep teammate target Darrell Dowery followed him to the Golden Flashes and has quietly emerged into one of the MAC's elite receivers. Now a junior, the razor thin, but tough as nails Dowery reminds many veteran MAC observers of former KSU receiving stars Eugene Baker and Jurron Kelly.
Head coach Dean Pees has added the title of KSU's defensive coordinator to his list of duties this season and he will have his hands full shaping a new D-line that features only one returning starter. Kent State's secondary will have a new look this season as junior free safety Shannon Davis heads up a group that will feature three new starters. KSU feels that Davis is a legit All-America candidate.
The biggest surprise at Akron may be that Lee Owens is still the coach. After an 0-6 start last year, Owens and his staff were almost a lock to be fired. But the fact that Akron won four of its last six games and has 17 starters back, including all eleven on offense for 2003, bought Owens more time.
Quarterback Charlie Frye was playing as well as any MAC quarterback at the end of last season and with two years as a starter under his belt, there's no reason to believe that Frye's development won't continue. Akron gave up an average of 43.8 points a game in its 0-6 start, but Lee Owens and new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey witnessed marked improvement after that.
Akron returns two starters on the defensive front. Junior defensive end Dwayne LeFall (6-3, 252) took 2001 off to hit the books but returned with a bang last season. LeFall joins senior DT Marques Hayes (6-1, 262) to form the veteran core on the D-line. The Zips made some progress last year on pass defense; they still have a long way to go. Akron has struggled against the MAC's better passing teams and managed to pick off a league-low nine passes in 2002.
At Ohio, it looks as if the Ohio quarterback situation could be in flux again this season. Last year, the Bobcats used both the departed Dontrell Jackson and redshirt senior Fred Ray at times, but both seemed incapable of holding down the starting job for long. Ray has a new challenger this season in Miami RedHawks transfer Ryan Hawk, who has two years of eligibility and has already set an Ohio quarterback record by posting a 4.53-second 40-yard dash.
Chad Brinker's departure leaves a huge question mark at running back at Ohio and injury concerns dominate discussion about the Bobcats offensive line. The key to Ohio's O-line will be the health status of senior tackle Dennis Thompson (6-4, 285) and sophomore Shane Yates (6-2, 276). Their return would be a huge boost for the Bobcats.
On defense, Ohio has four starters returning at linebacker. At inside linebacker, junior Dennis Chuckwuemeka from Huntington was one of the biggest surprises in the MAC last year. Ohio will find out this season if there is indeed life in the Bobcats defensive secondary after the departure of veterans Bop White and Joe Sellers.
At Buffalo, 19 starters return to a Bulls squad that was the youngest team in I-A football last year, but junior Randall Secky does provide a bit of veteran leadership at quarterback. Secky rebounded well from off-season elbow surgery and set a UB record for single season passing attempts last year.
There are reasons to believe that the MAC's lowest ranked ground game will improve in 2003. Sophomore Aaron Leeper returns to the UB backfield after being named the MAC Freshman of the Year. Sophomore Dave Dawson averaged a team-best 5.9 yards per carry and joined Leeper in posting a 100-yard rushing effort at Marshall.
Buffalo has been making some progress on defense for head coach Jim Hofher and DC Thurmond Moore. Last season UB's youthful 4-3 look more than doubled their season sack total, by collecting 27 total quarterback sacks.
DAVE'S FAR-TOO-EARLY 2003 MAC EAST DIVISION PICKS:
4. KENT STATE
Coming soon, a trip around the MAC West, complete with picks, just as long as no one reminds me that I predicted that Ball State would win that division about this same time last year.