With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 10 things to know about the MAC.
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1. Last year's MAC title game broke a streak of familiarity. This year can offer variety, too. Northern Illinois had represented the MAC West in six straight conference championship games but didn't even go to a bowl last season. Bowling Green had represented the East in three straight title games and also didn't go to a bowl. With those two out of the way, Western Michigan ended up preserving an undefeated regular season by beating Ohio to go to the Cotton Bowl. Both the Broncos (who lost coach P.J. Fleck) and Bobcats have a chance to make a return trip to Ford Field, but it's hard to imagine both going back to continue a trend of rematches, especially given the likely strength of Toledo and Miami (Ohio).
2. The goal for both Northern Illinois and Bowling Green should simply be getting back to a bowl game. After winning 57 games in five seasons under three coaches from 2010-14, the Huskies showed signs of a decline in Rod Carey's third season in 2015 even though they still won their division, as they slipped to 8-6. That slide continued last year to 5-7, with a disastrous 1-6 start to the season before a late-season recovery. The injury-plagued Huskies played four quarterbacks, and although they still ended up fifth in the MAC in yards per play, they had a negative turnover margin for the first time since 2007, when they went 2-10. The QB battle needs to be settled, but the Huskies do have solid options to replace RB Joel Bouagnon in Jordan Huff and Virginia transfer Tre Harbison. A tough nonconference schedule -- featuring Boston College at home and Nebraska and San Diego State on the road -- could lead to another slow start, but it would be surprising to see the Huskies miss bowl season again. Bowling Green faces a tougher challenge in Mike Jinks' second season. The Falcons fell from 10-4 to 4-8, with a prolific offense collapsing to 11th in the MAC in yards per play. The QBs turned the ball over too often, and the hope is that James Morgan will become more efficient as a sophomore, especially with a solid receiving corps back. The Falcons won three in a row after a 1-8 start last season, but they draw Toledo and NIU from the MAC West and play nonconference road games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Middle Tennessee, so it'll be tough to make a full recovery to the postseason, even if there is tangible progress.
3. Sustained success has eluded Akron, which hasn't played in the MAC title game since 2005 and has had one winning record (8-5 in 2015) in the past 11 seasons. The program has shown signs of life under Terry Bowden, but last year's Zips were blown out four times late in the season before falling short of bowl eligibility with a 9-3 loss to Ohio. Akron has the roster to get to the postseason, but it might not have the schedule. The Zips play Penn State, Iowa State and a good Troy team in nonconference play, and they play MAC West heavyweights Western Michigan and Toledo (plus Bowling Green and Miami in the East) on the road. Last year, they were held back by a mediocre running game -- which could get better with a veteran line returning -- and even worse run defense. The big question is the health of senior QB Thomas Woodson, who is battling back from shoulder surgery. A healthy Woodson gives Akron a chance in the MAC East race, but Miami and Ohio have more favorable schedules.
4. Frank Solich has guided Ohio to four MAC title games, and although he hasn't actually won one -- last year's five-point loss to Western Michigan prevented the Bobcats from winning their first conference title since 1968 -- he has turned Ohio into a model of consistency. That's a remarkable feat, given that Ohio didn't play in a bowl game between 1969-2005. There's no reason to expect anything but another MAC East contender from Ohio. Ohio may not recruit the best talent or depth, but the Bobcats are typically well-coached and reliable in developing talent. This year's team has depth at running back with A.J. Ouellette back from injury to join Dorian Brown, and it will be among the MAC's top defenses again after leading the league in yards per play allowed. With its toughest conference games (Toledo, Miami) at home and winnable nonconference games against Power Five opponents (at Purdue, Kansas), another seven- or eight-win season is a lock.
5. Miami (Ohio) pulled off one of the strangest seasons imaginable last year. After three ugly seasons, two under coach Chuck Martin, the RedHawks started last year 0-6, making it look like another disaster. Instead, a young roster, with the help of QB Gus Ragland, began clicking and remarkably pulled off six straight wins to get to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. The RedHawks did it with the help of a schedule that didn't include West heavyweights Toledo and Western Michigan, but it was nevertheless an impressive turnaround, capped by a one-point bowl loss to Mississippi State. Now, Martin has his entire backfield back, headlined by Ragland, who threw 17 TDs and only one INT upon entering the lineup to start the win streak in the middle of the season after recovering from a torn ACL. The RedHawks return their top rushers, three of their top four receivers and six of their top seven tacklers, and once again they do not play Western Michigan, Toledo and Northern Illinois. Ohio is the safest team in the MAC East, but if the Miami we saw in the second half of last season shows up again, the RedHawks are the team best equipped to win the division.
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QB: Logan Woodside, Toledo
RB: Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
RB: James Gilbert, Ball State
WR: Cody Thompson, Toledo
WR: Corey Willis, Central Michigan
TE: Tyler Conklin, Central Michigan
OL: Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan
OL: Max Scharping, Northern Illinois
OL: John Keenoy, Western Michigan
OL: Jake Pruehs, Ohio
OL: James O'Hagan, Buffalo
DE: Jon Ostman, Central Michigan
DE: Jeremiah Harris, Eastern Michigan
DT: Cleon Aloese, Ohio
DT: Jon Cunningham, Kent State
LB: Ulysses Gilbert, Akron
LB: Quentin Poling, Ohio
LB: Malik Fountain, Central Michigan
CB: Heath Harding, Miami (Ohio)
CB: Amari Coleman, Central Michigan
S: Javon Hagan, Ohio
S: Jamari Bozeman, Bowling Green
K: Louis Zervos, Ohio
P: Joe Davidson, Bowling Green
AP: Darius Phillips, Western Michigan
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6. Three teams have the biggest hills to climb in the MAC this year: Ball State in the West and Buffalo and Kent State in the East. Nobody in the MAC can be completely dismissed -- there have been plenty of sudden turnarounds and rapid declines in this league -- but all face tough situations. Ball State went 4-8 in Mike Neu's debut, loses a lot of its defense and has questions in the receiving corps. If there's a youth movement, the Cardinals could be a year away from a jump forward, although they do have a talented player to build around in RB James Gilbert. Buffalo fell from 5-7 to 2-10 in the second season under coach Lance Leipold, who has already lost 11 more games at Buffalo than he did in eight years at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. The Bulls went 1-7 in the MAC last year, and only one of those losses was decided by single digits. They will be more experienced, and sophomore QB Tyree Jackson is an intriguing player, a 6-foot-7, 245-pound dual-threat who is the team's leading returning rusher. Kent State has played solid defense, but it is in the most dire situation in the MAC: Paul Haynes is 12-35 in four seasons after Darrell Hazell's 11-3 run in 2012, which was one of only two winning seasons the Golden Flashes have had since 1987. Nick Holley is a dangerous player at quarterback because of his running ability, but even if the offense -- which has finished last in the MAC in yards per play in back-to-back years -- improves, the defense is down six of its top seven tacklers, making improvement in the MAC East standings difficult.
7. If Eastern Michigan can go to a bowl game, anybody can go to a bowl game. From 1990-2015, Eastern Michigan went 77-220-1 with one winning record (6-5) and zero bowl games, making it perhaps the worst program in the country. Then last year happened. Chris Creighton went 3-21 in his first two seasons, only to push the Eagles to seven wins in the regular-season and their first bowl -- the Bahamas Bowl, an excellent reward -- since going 10-2 in 1987. The Eagles had won three MAC games in four years; last year, they went 4-4, including an upset win at MAC East champion Ohio. Better yet, QB Brogan Roback, a solid group of skill players (including the return of RB Shaq Vann from injury) and the defense's top seven tacklers are all back. The conference schedule isn't easy -- the Eagles get both Miami and Ohio from the East again -- and back-to-back bowl hopes are likely to hinge on two pivotal nonconference games: at Rutgers and at Army. Nevertheless, legitimate preseason bowl expectations are a huge accomplishment already.
8. Nobody hovers around .500 like Central Michigan. With the help of last year's miracle win at Oklahoma State that shouldn't have counted, the Chippewas went 6-6 in the regular season before being blown out by Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl to finish 6-7. It's the fifth straight season that they've finished within one game of .500, even though they dropped from 6-2 to 3-5 in MAC play last year. This year's Central Michigan fortunes hinge on replacing QB Cooper Rush, because otherwise this team is good enough to break that streak on the positive side of .500. Michigan transfer Shane Morris will try to beat out redshirt freshman Tony Poljan for the job, which comes with the entire starting line back, plus a strong group of skill players led by WR Corey Willis, TE Tyler Conklin and RB Devon Spalding. With good QB play, Central Michigan could be a sleeper contender. But in this division, yet another .500 season and bowl bid may depend on winning one of the three nonconference road games at Kansas, Syracuse and Boston College.
9. P.J. Fleck out-recruited the rest of the MAC, and it showed by his final season. The Broncos went from 1-11 to back-to-back 8-5 seasons to 13-1 and the Cotton Bowl in Fleck's four seasons, a remarkable rise that unsurprisingly earned him a Big Ten job. With Fleck at Minnesota, in steps ex-Broncos QB Tim Lester, who has spent the past few years on the staffs of Syracuse and Purdue. He inherits a roster talented enough to win the MAC again, if he rebuilds the passing game. The top three receivers are gone, including first-round pick Corey Davis, and QB Zach Terrell is gone, too. Making matters worse, QB Tom Flacco transferred to Rutgers, so the Broncos are operating with total unknowns behind center. Still, Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan give them proven running backs, and eight of the top 10 tacklers return on defense. There is no avoiding a drop-off, but Western Michigan will likely still resemble the 8-5 conference contenders we saw in Kalamazoo in 2014-15.
10. Toledo not playing in the MAC title game since 2004 is one of the most surprising facts in college football. Yes, Northern Illinois has owned the MAC West, but the Rockets are consistently decent, with seven straight winning records, including nine wins in five of those campaigns. Last year, they continued to play at a high level under new coach Jason Candle, who unleashed a potent offense featuring a star RB in Kareem Hunt and a prolific QB in Logan Woodside. Hunt is gone, but his replacement, Terry Swanson, has plenty of experience. Meanwhile, Woodside is back after completing 69.1 percent for 4,129 yards and 45 TDs in leading the Rockets to an average of 38 points per game and a 9-4 record (with three close losses). Woodside has some new pieces around him, but standout receivers Cody Thompson and Jon'Vea Johnson return, and this should still be a high-powered, big-play attack -- one that will be supported by a solid defense with a lot of key players back. There are hurdles, including nonconference games against Miami and wild-card Tulsa and Nevada teams, but Toledo has the best quarterback and the best offense in the MAC, and it should have one of the best defenses. At long last, this is finally the year for Toledo to not only win the division, but to win the entire MAC.
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1. Miami (Ohio) 8-4 (6-2)
2. Ohio 7-5 (5-3)
3. Bowling Green 5-7 (4-4)
4. Akron 5-7 (4-4)
5. Buffalo 3-9 (2-6)
6. Kent State 2-10 (1-7)
1. Toledo 9-3 (6-2)
2. Western Michigan 7-5 (5-3)
3. Northern Illinois 6-6 (5-3)
4. Central Michigan 6-6 (4-4)
5. Eastern Michigan 5-7 (4-4)
6. Ball State 4-8 (2-6)
Championship game: Toledo over Miami (OH)
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