Scouting the Mid-American Conference

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the nation's division I-A conferences. Today we will take a look at the up and coming Mid-American Conference today.

Mid-American Conference Preview

Will 2005 see the Mid American Conference continue to flourish? After placing a team in the top 10 and another team in the top 25 two years ago, the MAC sent five teams to bowl games last year, and another bowl eligible team was in the running for a sixth bowl bid. Gone from the league are perennial league power Marshall and Central Florida. Temple joins next year, but the Owls are no Thundering Herd.

The MAC has gone from a defense first and run at all costs league to a throw it early and often and win 40-30. It reminds me of the old American Football League of the 1960's.

This year, two teams from each division should fight it out to see who plays in the MAC title game. Three other teams have legitimate chances of becoming bowl eligible if some conferences cannot fill their allotted bowl bids.

In the league's preseason AP poll, Bowling Green was picked to win the East followed by Miami of Ohio, Ohio U., a tie between Kent State and Akron, and Buffalo. The West saw Toledo nudge out Northern Illinois followed by Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Ball State. Bowling Green was picked to win the conference championship game to be played at Ford Field in Detroit. My ratings are not much different than these picks.

This season, all 12 MAC teams get a home field advantage of three points.

Eastern Division

1. Bowling Green PiRate: 101 HFA: 3

The Falcons have moved from the West to the East after the departures of Marshall and Central Florida. Third year coach Gregg Brandon learned well from Urban Meyer and Gary Barnett. The Falcons were virtually unstoppable running or passing in 2004. BGU has the best quarterback in the conference and one of the best in the nation in Omar Jacobs. Jacobs connected for an incredible 41 touchdown passes with only four interceptions last year en route to compiling a passing efficiency of 167.2, good enough for number four in the nation behind Stefan Lefors, Alex Smith, and Jason Campbell.

Not only does BGU have an outstanding quarterback, their top receivers and top rushers return this year as well. The Falcons might have a hard time topping 2004's offensive numbers, but it is possible. They averaged close to 45 points and more than 500 yards per game last year.

A defensive line that surrendered only 132.4 yards per game last year could be even stingier this season if adequate replacements are found at linebacker. BGU lost a 1st team all-conference performer at middle linebacker, and his replacement has little experience. While Bowling Green rates highest in the East, their rating shows them finishing in second place in the standings as they must travel to Miami of Ohio, and their rating isn't enough to overcome Miami's home field advantage. Having to close the season with consecutive Tuesday night games against Miami and Toledo will mean they better be healthy in November.

2. Miami of Ohio PiRate: 99 HFA: 3

The Redhawks may be rated two points behind Bowling Green, but since they play the Falcons at home, they are actually favored to play in the MAC title game if the ratings stay true to form (0% chance they will stay the way they are).

With eight returning starters on offense, including accurate passer Josh Betts, Miami should have little trouble scoring points. New Head Coach Shane Montgomery was the offensive coordinator under Terry Hoeppner, who took the Indiana job. The only possible weakness will be in the defensive line where the Red Hawks have two of four starters returning.

Last year, Miami's average score was 31-23. This year it could be about 35-27. Miami will contend for the MAC title and probably go to another bowl. They open the season against Ohio State in the Horseshoe, and that game could cause them to suffer a few extra injuries.

3 (tie). Ohio U. PiRate: 90 HFA: 3

The last time we saw Frank Solich, he was being shown the door at Nebraska after compiling a 58-19 record in six years, more games than Bob Devaney (53) or Tom Osborne (55) won in their first six seasons in Lincoln.

The Bobcats won't become the Nebraska of the MAC this season, but their experienced defense might occasionally look like the Cornhuskers' Black Shirt Defense. Ohio Should be one of the two toughest teams in the MAC to throw against; the Bobcats return almost everyone from their two deep in the secondary and at linebacker.

Offensively, Ohio has spent two seasons trying to move from an option offense to a short passing game offense. With Solich, expect another move to the multiple I formation and a return of the option. In year one, Ohio won't set any offensive records, especially having to break in a new quarterback. Look for about 17 points per game and 300 total yards, while the defense surrenders 20-24 points per game and 300-325 yards. The out of conference schedule is brutal with road games against Northwestern and Virginia Tech and a home tilt against Pittsburgh. Ohio must play these three teams to start the season, so it is important that they don't lose their confidence when they take on Kent State in game four.

3 (tie) Kent State PiRate: 90 HFA: 3

Kent State finished 2004 with four blowout conference wins after starting just 1-6. The Golden Flashes must travel to Ohio, so they are picked here. Kent State had a powerful offense last year, topping 30 points per game. With a new quarterback, the graduation of their top receiver, and the depletion of the running game, look for those numbers to decrease quite a bit this season. If new signal caller Michael Machen develops quickly, Kent St. could challenge for a winning season. Since I doubt that will happen, and since their schedule has them playing the weaker teams on the road, look for The Golden Flashes to struggle.

KSU gave up 24 points per game in 2004, and the defense is about as good this season. The front seven is experienced, but the secondary might be vulnerable, especially against the likes of Bowling Green and Miami.

Golden Flashes Head Coach Doug Martin is a native Tennessean out of Oak Ridge.

5. Akron PiRate: 88 HFA: 3

Coach J.D. Brookhart scratched out a 6-5 season in his first year at the helm in Akron. The Zips lost six starters on offense, but if they had 10 starters returning with the lone loss being their quarterback, the offense would still suffer. Gone is all-time leading passer Charlie Frye, the 2004 MVP of the MAC and the third round pick of the Cleveland Browns. Replacement Luke Getsy is a transfer from Pittsburgh, but he has seen very little game time.

Defensively, the Zips are in a little better shape this year, but they may stay on the field longer this season and actually give up more points than last year. They didn't set the woods on fire, allowing 32 points and 426 yards per contest. They have a decent shot at a 6-5 season because they have home games against Central Michigan, Ohio, and Kent St., while having to face Buffalo and Ball State on the road.

6. Buffalo PiRate: 79 HFA: 3

The Bulls are the only NCAA I-A team to win fewer games than Vanderbilt in the last three seasons. In going 2-9 last year, Buffalo improved on the field from the year before, when they suffered through a 1-11 season. This year, The Bulls should be in much better shape defensively, as nine starters return from a unit that gave up five fewer points per game than in 2003. The stop troops could do that again this season, meaning they would give up less than 30 points per game for only the second time in their seven years of I-A ball.

The problem this year for Buffalo is a major rebuilding job on the offensive side. The Bulls were no juggernaut on this side last year, and they look to be weaker in 2005. A new quarterback will have a weak group of receivers to locate. Even though Buffalo has a decent group of running backs, opposing defenses will stuff the run not having to worry about the anemic passing game. Look for only 14 points and 250 total yards per game and the distinct possibility of a winless season.

Western Division

1. Toledo PiRate: 101 HFA: 3

Head Coach Tom Amstutz is one to keep an eye on. He will eventually be given the opportunity to take over a program in a BCS conference. The job he did last year with the Rockets' defense was incredible. After giving up 63 points to both Minnesota and Kansas to start the season and then 32 points in a win over Eastern Michigan, Toledo improved quickly, giving up only 23 points per game the rest of the regular season.

Even with a rebuilding defense, Toledo won the Western Division over Bowling Green and Northern Illinois and then defeated Miami for the MAC title. They are my favorite to get back to the title game for the fourth time in five years.

This year's defense should be a team strength. Toledo is solid in all three units, and the Rockets should shave at least a touchdown off their average points allowed.

On offense, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is second best in the MAC only to Omar Jacobs. Last year, he completed an amazing 70.2% of his passes at over 12.5 yards per completion. The running game returns everybody who rushed the ball more than 50 times last year. Toledo averaged four yards per rush, but if you take out the QB sacks, they really averaged 4.5 yards per rush.

The Rockets are ready to blast off and fly to the top of the league standings. The coup de grace is facing Northern Illinois at home on a Wednesday night telecast. A win at home might wrap up the West title before the regular season finale at Bowling Green six days later.

2. Northern Illinois PiRate: 99 HFA: 3

The Huskies aren't ready to concede the West to Toledo. NIU has won 27 games in the last three years and gave the MAC some accolades with victories over Maryland and Alabama. Joe Novak's charges return six starters to both sides of the ball, so they should be quite good once again.

The Huskies lost one of their co-starting quarterbacks from last season, but in Phil Horvath, they have a competent signal caller. His major task will be handing the ball to tailback Garrett Wolfe, who scampered for 1,656 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. The offensive line is in good shape, so NIU should rush for 225 to 250 yards per game this year.

Defensively, the weak spot is at linebacker. The Huskies surrendered 25 points per game last year, and they should give up no more than 28 this year. Since the offense is easily capable of scoring points at a 35-40 average per game, NIU should win eight ball games this year. Having to open at Michigan and at Northwestern could leave them with more injuries than average, but they have four weeks until they have another tough game.

3. Central Michigan PiRate: 90 HFA: 3

The Chippewas used to field winning teams every year, but as of late, CMU has been on the wrong side of .500. Their last winning season was in 1998, but the drought could end this year. Coach Brian Kelly was the Vince Lombardi of Division II, having led Grand Valley to six conference and two national titles, going 41-2 in his last three years. He isn't used to losing, and after going 4-7 in 2004, the Chippewas could flirt with six wins this year.

After Gradkowski at Toledo, CMU may have the next best starting QB in the division. Kent Smith is a duel threat, able to run and pass equally well. His top three receivers from last year return, meaning CMU should throw for 250 yards per game.

Halfback Jerry Seymour is built like Hack Wilson. At 5-6 and 190 pounds, he's as hard to bring down as a greased pig. Seymour ran for 1,284 yards at five yards per rush last year. He could easily top 1,500 yards this year, as CMU rushes for close to 200 yards per game.

Central Michigan was quite charitable on defense last year, giving up 34.4 points a game. Unfortunately, I don't look for too much improvement, as they are a year away from having a decent defense. That means they will have to outscore opponents in a shootout every week. A favorable schedule gives them a good shot at five MAC wins, meaning an upset of Indiana or Army could get them bowl eligible.

4. Eastern Michigan PiRate: 87 HFA: 3

Coach Jeff Genyk came to Ypsilanti from Randy Walker's staff at Northwestern. Just like the Wildcats, EMU had an exciting offense, but couldn't stop anyone on defense. The Eagles gave up an eye-popping 42 points per game last year. What could be worse? Having to rebuild the defensive line could mean EMU won't be as good (or shall I say even more dismal) this season.

The Eagles averaged 30 points per game last year, and with returning starter Matt Bohnet back to throw the ball all over the field, EMU should be quite exciting once again. They could easily approach 300 yards per game passing and 150-200 yards rushing. An added weapon is place kicker Andrew Wellock who connected on 21 of 23 field goal attempts last season. He can deliver up to 55 yards.

EMU could easily average 35-40 points per game this year and still be outscored for the season. At least the games should be exciting for the fans.

5. Western Michigan PiRate: 81 HFA: 3

The once mighty Broncos have fallen from the penthouse to the outhouse. A 1-10 season was the end of Gary Darnell's once successful tenure in Kalamazoo. The new coach is Bill Cubit, who most recently served as offensive coordinator at Stanford.

The Broncos have nine starters returning on offense including quarterback Ryan Cubit. Yes, he is the son of the head coach. Cubit's main QB competition promptly transferred when the elder Cubit was hired as coach. That leaves the Broncos thin at the most important position.

The Cubits have all the key skill positions players returning, so look for WMU to score a few more points this year. They were decent on offense in 2004, scoring 23 points per game.

Defensively, WMU was as weak as Eastern Michigan, giving up 40 points per game. Take away a shutout over I-AA UT-Martin, and that average was 44 per game! This year's stop troops are not much more talented, but the average points allowed should fall because the offense will be on the field a couple minutes longer per game.

WMU could triple their win output this season and escape the basement.

6. Ball State PiRate: 79 HFA: 3

The Cardinals were only 2-9 last season, but they lost several close ball games. They put a huge scare into Boston College and lost three other games by a touchdown or less. This year, they should basically repeat their performance of last year. Unfortunately for BSU, they must play Western Michigan on the road, so I look for The Cardinals to drop into the cellar and possibly end up with a goose egg in the win column.

For a last place team, Ball State has an above-average offense. However, in the MAC, above-average is weak. Most offenses can annex 400 yards in any given Saturday, while the Cardinals are good for about 330.

Defensively, Ball State isn't as weak at the two teams just above them, but they aren't so much better that they can move up in the division. BSU gave up 37 points per game last year, and with experience at every position, the Cardinals should lower that average to about 33. It still adds up to another long year.

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

Team            Conf.        Overall

EAST

Miami (Ohio)     7-1         9-3 @
Bowling Green    7-1         9-2
Akron            5-3         6-5
Ohio U.          3-5         3-8
Kent State       2-6         3-8
Buffalo          0-8         0-11 $

@ wins division by beating BGU
$ bye bye Coach Jim Hofher

WEST

Toledo           7-1         10-2* 
North. Illinois  7-1          8-3
Cent. Michigan   4-4          5-6
East. Michigan   4-4          5-6
West. Michigan   2-6          3-8
Ball State       0-8          0-11 %

* wins division by beating NIU 
%Brady Hoke on the hot seat)
 
** Toledo to defeat Miami (O) in the MAC title game.


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