As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. So far, we've covered the Sun Belt, Mountain West and Conference USA. Now, we continue with 10 things to know about the Mid-American Conference.
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1. Few teams have been as dominant in their conference as Northern Illinois in recent years. The Huskies have won three MAC championships in four years, and they've won five straight MAC West division titles under three coaches (Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren, Rod Carey). It's become a factory for quality dual-threat quarterbacks, whether it was Chandler Harnish, Jordan Lynch or now Drew Hare. Successful Group of Five programs always lose coaches, making stability such as this even more impressive. However, with Toledo and Western Michigan boasting impressive talent, Northern Illinois' stranglehold on the conference will be challenged.
2. The only MAC team to actually beat Northern Illinois in the regular season the last five years is Central Michigan, who won in DeKalb last year and at home in Mount Pleasant in 2011. The Chippewas also won an NIU-like three of four MAC titles from 2006-09. They treaded water around .500 each of the last three years, and after a spectacularly dramatic 49-48 Bahamas Bowl loss, Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos made the rare move of stepping down to an assistant position, becoming the new offensive coordinator at Arkansas. While programs like NIU keep losing coaches because of success, Central Michigan just lost a head coach to an SEC offensive coordinator job, which comes with a substantial pay raise. In his place steps John Bonamego, an alum who has bounced around the NFL as a special teams coordinator, making him a bit of an unknown. Bonamego has some talent to work with as junior quarterback Cooper Rush returns, but after Enos' unexpected departure in late January, the Chippewas are likely headed for a step back in a challenging division, especially with a brutal first half of the season that is likely to leave them with a 1-5 record.
3. It doesn't help Central Michigan that one of its Directional Michigan counterparts is on the rise. As often happens, the first year of the P.J. Fleck era at Western Michigan didn't go well, but he rowed the boat from 1-11 to 8-5, with the offense ranking 21st nationally in yards per play. QB Zach Terrell had a breakout season, finishing sixth in passer rating, while tailback Jarvion Franklin had a big freshman season (1,551 yards, 24 touchdowns) and Corey Davis caught 76 passes for 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns. All were underclassmen, and now the Broncos return nearly all their skill position players, plus seven starters on defense. The biggest problem is the brutal start and finish to the season: Michigan State, Ohio State and a dangerous Georgia Southern early, and the last three against top MAC contenders Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Toledo, the latter two on the road. Fleck has done a phenomenal job, though, and even with a tough schedule, Western Michigan is a MAC title contender and should be able to repeat last year's eight-win season and make the postseason two years in a row for the first time in program history.
4. The last two years of Western Michigan football show that it's possible to move up quickly in the MAC. Now, Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Miami are desperately trying to escape the basement. Unfortunately, Eastern Michigan is unlikely to. While the MAC East is relatively even from top to bottom, the West is not. Eastern Michigan has finished .500 once since 1995, and while Chris Creighton is injecting energy into the program, there are no quick solutions. Quarterback Reggie Bell and linebacker Great Ibe are two quality players to build around, but the depth just isn't there for a team that has finished 2-10 each of the last three years. In its second year under former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, Miami has to rebuild its offense and try to find a semblance of a running game to support an unproven quarterback, likely redshirt freshman Gus Ragland. Martin is a good coach, and this team has had quick turnarounds and success before (they won the MAC in 2010), but the RedHawks likely need another year. Kent State, meanwhile, has been to one bowl game since 1972, in 2012, but it's gone 6-17 in two seasons under Paul Haynes since Darrell Hazell rode that one big year to the Purdue job. The Golden Flashes return pretty much their entire defense, so there's some hope, but the offense is in desperate need of more explosive playmakers.
5. Akron and UMass are fighting for bowl eligibility. The Zips went 1-11 three years in a row from 2010-12, but Terry Bowden has taken them to 5-7 each of the last two, meaning they've been close to making their second bowl game ever. Last season even included a road upset win over Pitt (who comes to Akron this year), although the Zips failed to capitalize on it, ultimately losing five of their last six. The defense led the MAC in yards per play allowed under former N.C. State coach Chuck Amato, and while seven of the top nine tacklers are gone, they should be strong up front. What Akron needs is more dependability at quarterback, where two-year starter Kyle Pohl averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt and is now trying to hold off Pitt transfer Tra'von Chapman to keep his job. Division rival UMass is in a strange situation. This will be a fun team under Mark Whipple, entering its fourth year of FBS play, but it is leaving the MAC after this season, with no permanent new home yet. The Minutemen have won five conference games in three seasons, and this is easily their most promising team, with 19 starters back and what should be a terrific offense. Senior QB Blake Frohnapfel threw for 3,345 yards and 23 touchdowns in 10 games and is likely to get a look from the NFL, although he ranked sixth in the MAC in passer rating. His main target is senior Tajae Sharpe, a star who caught 85 passes and will certainly get a look from the pros. Whipple has the offense heading in the right direction, and last year's 3-9 record included five close losses, plus two losses to end the year with an injured Frohnapfel sidelined. In a tight division like this, a quality quarterback can make all the difference, and the Frohnapfel-Sharpe combination could take the Minutemen to new heights.
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Top 10 Players
1. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
2. Tajae Sharpe, WR, Massachusetts
3. Jarvion Franklin, RB, Western Michigan
4. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
5. Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green
6. Andrew Ness, C, Northern Illinois
7. Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan
8. Blake Frohnapfel, QB, Massachusetts
9. Trent Voss, DE, Toledo
10. Drew Hare, QB, Northern Illinois
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6. Coming off a Khalil Mack-led 8-5 season in 2013, Buffalo did one of the most curious things of the 2014 season, firing coach Jeff Quinn on Oct. 13 after a 3-4 start, the final straw being a dreadful 37-27 loss to Eastern Michigan. It could work out well for the Bulls. Buffalo hired Lance Leipold, in a bold move that will be intriguing to watch. Leipold is one of the most successful coaches in all of college football … at the Division III level. As head coach of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold went an absurd 109-6 in eight seasons, winning six D-III national championships. Leipold is absolutely worth a shot, especially for a team that has had a winning record only twice since joining the MAC in 1999. With a solid offense returning led by quarterback Joe Licata and 1,400-yard rusher Anthone Taylor, the Bulls are in decent shape, provided Leipold can hold a patchwork defense together.
7. Ohio and Ball State are trying to prevent further regression. Ohio was left out of a bowl last year at 6-6, breaking a streak of five straight postseason appearances under Frank Solich. The Bobcats have been reliably good under his watch, and they return 18 starters, including the entire offensive line, although Solich needs to find a quarterback between Derrius Vick and JD Sprague, who split time last year. The Bobcats have gone 4-4 in the MAC three years in a row, and at minimum they should keep that up and possibly go bowling again. Solich has been at Ohio for a decade, which is an eternity by MAC standards. Ball State has now held onto coach Pete Lembo for a fifth season, although that's partly because the Cardinals plummeted from 10-3 to 5-7 last season, with losses to Indiana State, Army and UMass. Sophomore Jack Milas will be the full-time starter at QB after playing six games last year -- Ozzie Mann transferred after the spring -- and he has a chance for solid improvement with the entire receiving corps back, although standout tailback Jahwan Edwards will be tough to replace. Lembo is a good coach who can stop the bleeding from last year, and if Ball State were in the East Division -- like Ohio -- it might contend for the division. Instead, it's buried in the much tougher West.
8. Bowling Green has won the East two years in a row, and it's the clear favorite for another division crown. There is greater parity throughout the East, but the Falcons occupy a solid place atop the league, with a chance to challenge the West champion for a second conference title in three years. Last season, under new coach Dino Babers -- who's known for prolific offenses -- the Falcons overcame the Week 1 loss of star quarterback Matt Johnson to a hip injury to win the division anyway, finishing 8-6. It wasn't the smoothest debut, but with Johnson returning to an offense that features the starting line returning, a proven tandem of tailbacks in Travis Greene and Fred Coppet and a loaded receiving corps led by Roger Lewis, this unit is ready for big things. With a tough schedule that features Toledo, Western Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland, Memphis and Purdue, though, the defense has a lot of work to do with the four leading tacklers gone form a unit that ranked 11th in the MAC in yards per play allowed. If nothing else, this team will be fun to watch.
9. By recent standards, Northern Illinois wasn't a great team in 2014. And yet, the result was still an 11-3 record and a MAC championship, with a bowl loss to a good Marshall squad. Jerry Kill went 11-3 in 2010. Dave Doeren's teams went 23-5 in two seasons. And now Rod Carey is 23-5 in two seasons. The Huskies are on a remarkable run, but 2015 presents a significant challenge to their MAC West supremacy, with Western Michigan and Toledo catching up as NIU takes a small step backward. Granted, for NIU a step back still means a championship, and it appears Carey has found another All-MAC caliber quarterback in Drew Hare. As a sophomore, Hare threw for 2,322 yards with 18 touchdowns and two picks, and he ran 159 times for 900 yards and eight touchdowns. Only five starters return to the offense, but this is still an experienced group because of the depth that has been built. Throw in what could be the MAC's best defense, and Northern Illinois is still the safest bet. It's just that the upside of Western Michigan and Toledo is higher than it's been in a while.
10. So, let's go against the Alabama of the MAC West and say that Toledo will win the MAC. It's a bit of a risk, as the Rockets are replacing their entire starting offensive line, but just about everything else breaks the Rockets' way. Both Northern Illinois and Western Michigan come to the Glass Bowl in the last third of the season. Tailback Kareem Hunt is a underappreciated superstar who averaged eight yards per carry in 10 games. Corey Jones and Alonzo Russell are a quality one-two punch at receiver. Quarterbacks Phillip Ely (an Alabama transfer) and Logan Woodside are both coming off surgery, but they're both enticing options. Throw in eight returning starters on defense, and the Rockets are finally in position to get over the hump and dethrone Northern Illinois. They've gone 42-22 over the last five years, with Matt Campbell (age 35) looking like one of the best young coaches in the country, but despite the relatively high level of play, Toledo hasn't been to the MAC title game since 2004. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan provide stiff competition, but this can finally be the Rockets' year.
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1. Bowling Green 7-5 (6-2)
2. Akron 6-6 (5-3)
3. Buffalo 5-7 (4-4)
4. Ohio 6-6 (4-4)
5. Massachusetts 5-7 (4-4)
6. Kent State 2-10 (1-7)
7. Miami, Ohio 2-10 (1-7)
1. Toledo 9-3 (7-1)
2. Northern Illinois 9-3 (7-1)
3. Western Michigan 8-4 (6-2)
4. Ball State 6-6 (4-4)
5. Central Michigan 4-8 (3-5)
6. Eastern Michigan 1-11 (0-8)
Conference Championship: Toledo over Bowling Green