By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we look to the MAC. Now, we turn our heads East, where the division seems up for grabs.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Bowling Green Falcons
2) Ohio Bobcats
3) Akron Zips
4) Buffalo Bulls
5) Kent State Golden Flashes
6) Miami Redhawks
If you’ve been reading through these previews, you’re probably used to seeing two, maybe three teams in this first section. Yeah, that’s not going to be the case here as there are four teams that could legitimately make a run for the top spot. All have major questions to answer though.
Bowling Green Falcons
The Falcons continued their run of winning seasons with a 10-3 year and a MAC conference title last season before falling in the GoDaddy Bowl to Georgia Southern. Head coach Dino Babers took the Syracuse job so the Falcons snatched Mike Jinks away from Texas Tech to lead this year’s group. One big question for the offense though: how do they replace QB Matt Johnson?
Johnson threw for 4,946 yards 46 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in Babers’ wide open offense last year. Despite it being an up-tempo spread offense, those numbers are still ridiculous. Replacing him will likely be James Knapke who posted good numbers in 2013 (3,173 yards 15-12 ratio), but he’ll have a hard time living up to Johnson’s numbers this year. One of the biggest reasons for my skepticism there is that the receiver group was decimated by departures with four of the top five guys leaving including Gehrig Dieter, who decided to transfer as a graduate student to Alabama. Not only is the receiver group depleted, but last year’s top runner and the school’s career rushing leader, Travis Greene, departed as well. Fred Coppet did have 825 yards and 5 TDs on 145 carries last year, so there is hope that he can replicate Greene’s production particularly behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Still, the depleted receiving corps and losing Johnson make it hard for me to expect them to do anything other than come up short of last year’s 42.2 points per game.
On defense, the big question comes along the defensive line where three starters are gone from last year. The lone returnee, end Terrance Bush, had six sacks last season and they’ll hope to get more out of former Tennessee transfer Malik Brown at the other end spot. The linebackers group is back intact led by All MAC performers Austin Valdez (First Team) and Trenton Greene (Second Team). The secondary has it’s corner pairing of junior Clinton Stevens and senior Alphonso Mack back which will definitely help offset the loss of the starting safeties from last year. This unit gave up 29 points per game last year and despite some missing pieces up front and on the back end, I expect that number to drop a bit.
The schedule is tough for the Falcons with games against Ohio, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Akron, Ohio State and Memphis all on the road. That’s six very tough games including four of their top MAC competitors. Splitting those games would be an accomplishment and anything better would likely make them the front-runner in the East.
Toughest Games: @ Ohio State (9/3), @ Memphis (9/24), @ Toledo (10/15), @ Northern Illinois (11/1), @ Akron (11/9), vs. Buffalo (11/25)
The Bobcats had basically a two-QB system working last season with JD Sprague and Derrius Vick due to Vick’s various nagging injuries. Those two helped carry the Bobcats to an 8-4 record and a bowl appearance. The fell in the Camellia Bowl to Appalachian State, 31-29, but still it was a successful season for Frank Solich and company. Now, they lose Vick, but Sprague is back and will take the full-time snaps in his senior season.
Sprague threw just 116 passes last season for 921 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions, completing just 55.2 percent of his passes. He won’t have as good of protection as he and Vick enjoyed last season as three starters are gone from the offensive line. The Bobcats do have their top running back AJ Ouellette back, but he carried 151 times for 687 yards last year with a more experienced line. This season, he’ll likely get more of a workload, but has a less experienced group up front to work with so a drop in the 180 yards per game this team averaged on the ground last year is likely. Sprague does have the benefit of all four top receivers returning. I would just like to see more accuracy from him. If he can improve on that, this offense should be good despite an less experienced line.
The biggest concern on the defensive side of the ball is in the secondary where they lose three starters including both corners. That’s a major question mark after the team allowed just 209 yards per game through the air last season. The good news is that the defensive line returns three starters and adds in Michigan transfer Tom Strobel. The three returnees combined for 10 sacks and 13 tackles for loss last season. In addition, the top two tacklers are returning linebackers in Quentin Poling and Blair Brown (69 and 65, respectively). How the secondary fares is a big question, so I’m not ready to say that they will improve on their 25 points per game allowed last year.
The schedule is slightly easier than Bowling Green’s, but not by much. Games at Tennessee, Toledo, and Central Michigan along with home contests against Bowling Green, Buffalo, and Akron. The Bobcats will be in the mix once again.
Toughest Games: @ Tennessee (9/17), vs. Bowling Green (10/8), @ Toledo (10/27), vs. Buffalo (11/3), @ Central Michigan (11/15), vs. Akron (11/22)
Terry Bowden has engineered a big turnaround with this program since arriving five years ago now. In his first season they went 1-11, followed by two 5-7 years before last season’s 8-5 breakthrough. Now, Bowden will be replacing many of the key players that led the team last season, but he has done a nice job of recruiting and bringing in transfers from Power 5 schools and the Zips should be able to contend in the East again.
Bowden does have his starting quarterback from last year back in junior Thomas Woodson. Woodson threw for 2,202 yards 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a sophomore and with the return of his top target in Jerome Lane (39 receptions 762 yards 8 TD), he should improve on those numbers. Bowden will however have to rebuild the offensive line in front of him as all five starters from last year’s team are gone. Another big concern is finding a running back to replace Conor Hundley’s production (911 yards 10 TD). Woodson was the second leading rusher on the team with 600 yards on the ground but no other returning running back has 100 yards. That said, the Zips do add Ohio State transfer Warren Ball, a former four-star recruit. The offensive line will need to come together quickly in order for this team to contend as expected.
On defense, the Zips were very stingy against the run last season and held opponents under 100 yards per game (93). The defensive line loses two starters but adds in Miami, FL transfer Jelani Hamilton to add to senior defensive ends and former Ohio State transfers Se’Von Pittman and Jamal Marcus. That unit looks stout once again and will have to be to allow time for a brand new linebacking group to learn on the job as all three starters from last year, including MAC Defensive Player of the Year Jatavis Brown, are gone. Keeping with the theme of transfers, Brian Bell, a former Florida State recruit who spent last season in junior college will join the team this year. In the secondary, just two starters are back. This unit has plenty of talent, but not a ton of experience.
The schedule isn’t easy on the Zips either with out of conference games against Wisconsin and Marshall on the road. They have to travel to Buffalo and Ohio during the season but get Western Michigan, Toledo and Bowling Green at home. If those Power 5 transfers can live up to their billing, this team will be good.
Toughest Games: @ Wisconsin (9/10), @ Marshall (9/17), vs. Western Michigan (10/15), @ Buffalo (10/27), vs. Toledo (11/2), vs. Bowling Green (11/9), @ Ohio (11/22)
Lance Leipold’s group got off to a 5-4 start last year and looked to be trending towards bowl eligibility before they lost their final three games of the season, including an ugly loss to a 2-8 UMass team to end the season. This year, Leipold has a strong defense back, but big questions on offense to answer if the Bulls are going to be contenders.
The QB, top running back, and top two wide receivers along with three starters along the offensive line are gone from last season. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. On the line, the three replacements for those lost starters all each started at least one game last season so they did see game action and worked with the two returnees, James O’Hagen and Brandon Manosalvas. They’ll pave the way for senior running back Jordan Johnson, who finished second on the team in rushing with 811 yards, but led the team in touchdowns with 12. That means there shouldn’t be much of a drop off in the running game; in fact there’s room for improvement on the 137 yards per game they averaged last year on the ground. Now, the big questions come at QB and receiver. For the receivers group the top three receivers that are back combined for 103 catches for 1,122 yards and six touchdowns. That’s some good production back for the quarterback to work with. Who that will be? Well, it’s going to come down to a competition between Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach and Tyree Jackson. While much of their offense from last year is gone, there is some good talent to work with.
Defensively, they are entering the second year of coordinator Brian Borland’s system after switching to the 4-3 last year. They will be still dealing with the loss of defensive end Solomon Jackson, who passed away after a team workout in the offseason. The defensive line will have four starters back and the secondary loses just one starter. The linebacking group loses two but gets back Jarrett Franklin who missed all of last season and has Brandon Berry (104 tackles 10.5 TFL) back as well. This defense should be much better than the group that allowed 28 points and 413 yards per game last season. Losing a teammate is always difficult to deal with and it certainly bears watching how they handle those emotions this season.
They’ll play a difficult schedule with four tough conference road games in Northern Illinois, Ohio, Western Michigan, and Bowling Green. Add two road games against Nevada and Boston College and this looks like a brutal slate.
Toughest Games: @ Nevada (9/17), @ Boston College (10/1), @ Northern Illinois (10/22), vs. Akron (10/27), @ Ohio (11/3), @ Western Michigan (11/19), @ Bowling Green (11/25)
Kent State Golden Flashes
The Flashes have suffered through three straight losing seasons since an 11-3 year in 2012. Now entering Paul Haynes’ fourth year with the program, they have their most experienced group yet and if it weren’t for a brutally difficult schedule I’d be calling them a possible sleeper contender in this division as well.
The offense returns the starting QB, top nine receivers, and four out of five starters on the offensive line. They do lose top running back Trayion Durham but considering the team averaged just 133 yards per game on the ground last season, they should be much better this season despite losing their top guy because they have a more experienced offensive line and should have a better passing game. George Bollas will likely be the starter after splitting time with Colin Reardon last season because Reardon now moves to wide receiver. Bollas was okay last year throwing for just 756 yards and a 2-6 touchdown to interception ratio. That said, he only started six games and didn’t play the entire game in most of those contests. After putting up just 13 points and 271 yards per game last season, they offense should be much better this year.
On defense, there’s a new coordinator in town as Ben Needham moves up from linebackers coach to coordinator. He’ll have some solid experience to work with in particular First Team All-MAC performers defensive end Terence Waugh and safety Nate Holley. With two other starters back on the defensive line and two at the linebackers spot, the front seven should be solid once again after allowing just 144 yards per game on the ground last year. With Holley and corner Demetrius Monday (6 interceptions) back, the secondary should continue to improve as well. This could be a strong defensive unit, though the numbers may not show it due to the schedule.
The Flashes have to travel to Penn State and Alabama in the non-conference and to Buffalo, Central Michigan, and Bowling Green in conference. They also have home games against Akron, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. In case you’re counting, that’s six teams considered to be contenders in the MAC and two top level Power 5 programs. They’ll need to pull some upsets in conference in order to get to bowl eligibility and with the experience they have back, they just might do it.
Toughest Games: @ Penn State (9/3), @ Alabama (9/24), @ Buffalo (10/8), vs. Ohio (10/22), @ Central Michigan (10/29), vs. Western Michigan (11/8), @ Bowling Green (11/15), vs. Northern Illinois (11/25)
The Redhawks are similar to the Flashes in the sense that coming off a 3-9 season they have one of the most experienced teams in the conference, but their schedule is so tough it’s hard to predict too much improvement in Chuck Martin’s third season at the helm.
On offense, Martin has his top passer, top two running backs, and top eight receivers back along with an offensive line that has four starters back. The team averaged just 18 points and 338 yards per game last season and I’d expect those numbers to go up. The starter will likely be Billy Bahl who had some rough spots in his freshman season (as expected) throwing for just 1,409 yards eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions while completing 44.5 percent of his passes. In his second year working with all of the top receivers once again, those numbers should improve. Sophomore Alonzo Smith led all running backs with 498 yards and five touchdowns and will get an increased load this season.
The defense has a few more questions as they lose defensive end Bryson Albright (seven sacks), top tackler LB Kent Kern (82 tackles) and second leading tackler safety Brison Burris (81 tackles). That said, the line returns its top sackmaster in DE JT Jones, two starting linebackers in Paul Moses and TJ Williams are back and the secondary gets corner Heath Harding back after he missed all but two games last season. Despite the loss of some top guys, the players that return make me think the Redhawks will be able to cut down on the 32 points and 405 yards per game that they allowed.
While they don’t have Alabama and Penn State on the schedule like Kent State does, the Redhawks have away games at Iowa and Cincinnati and a home game against Western Kentucky. In conference they’re on the road against Akron, Bowling Green and Buffalo with home games against Ohio and Central Michigan. It’s tough to see more than five wins without some major upsets this season.
Toughest Games: @ Iowa (9/3), vs. Western Kentucky (9/17), @ Cincinnati (9/24), vs. Ohio (10/1), @ Akron (10/8), @ Bowling Green (10/22), vs. Central Michigan (11/4), @ Buffalo (11/12)
Division Winner- Bowling Green
As you can tell from the above previews, there are question marks galore and reasons to think that four different teams could come out on top this season. Ultimately, it came down to the Falcons having an experienced QB (albeit one that didn’t start last season) and a system that should be able to make new stars at the wide receiver position simply due to the wide open nature of the offense. Either way, I don’t think the winner of the East is the conference winner as the West’s top teams look much stronger overall this season.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.