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. First up, the West division where Northern Illinois has reigned for six years. Can they make it seven?
Preseason Media Poll
1) Western Michigan Broncos
2) Toledo Rockets
3) Northern Illinois Huskies
4) Central Michigan Chippewas
5) Ball State Cardinals
6) Eastern Michigan Eagles
Western Michigan Broncos
PJ Fleck has orchestrated a very quick turnaround in Kalamazoo. His first year, the Broncos went 1-11 and in the two years since, they’ve gone 8-5 twice. Last year, they were part of a four-way tie for the West division crown. Now, they look to book a trip to the MAC title game for the first time since 2000.
The offense is stacked with returning talent in particular at the running back spot where the trio of Jamauri Bogan, Jarvion Franklin and LeVante Bellamy combined for 2,313 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. They’ll be running behind an offensive line that brings back four starters from the unit that cleared the way for the team to rush for 205 yards per game including 5.1 per carry. That running game will open up the field for senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for 3,510 yards 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season while completing 67 percent of his passes. Terrell will have his top receiver Corey Davis back but loses fellow 1,000-yard receiver Daniel Braverman. Despite the loss of Braverman, this looks like an offense capable of surpassing the 36 points per game they put up last season.
The defense isn’t in as good of shape as the offense is in terms of returning players, but there are still some good pieces here. The defensive line loses two starters, but seniors David Curle and Keion Adams are back along with Nathan Braster who also saw some time in the starting lineup last year. The linebackers group should be very good as Caleb Bailer, the team’s second-leading tackler, is back and safety Asantay Brown, who led the team in tackles, makes the switch to linebacker. That does leave the secondary a bit shorthanded as they’re down three starters with Brown switching positions and two players graduating. Despite the losses, there’s enough talent back to cut down on the 28 points allowed from last year.
The schedule is favorable as they get Northern Illinois, Buffalo and Toledo all at home. They do have to hit the road to take on Akron and Northwestern, but with three of their toughest MAC competitors coming to Waldo Stadium, I expect the Broncos to be at the top of the West come season’s end.
Toughest Games: @ Northwestern (9/3), vs. Northern Illinois (10/8), @ Akron (10/15), vs. Buffalo (11/19), vs. Toledo (11/25)
Northern Illinois Huskies
The Huskies have won six straight MAC West titles and in that span and have won the conference title three of those times. Despite injuries last season they were able to keep that streak intact. This season, they’ll hope to have better health and should once again be in contention for the West crown.
Drew Hare is back from injury after missing the final four games and is expected to take over the starting quarterback duties once again. He threw for 2,322 yards 18 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2014 while adding 900 yards on the ground. If Hare can return to that kind of form this will be a very solid offense as the top two running backs, top wide receiver and three starters on the offensive line return. The Huskies averaged 31 points and 399 yards per game on offense last year despite having to change their quarterback multiple times. This year will be better.
The defense will be strong at the linebacker spot as Sean Folliard, Renard Cheren and Jamal Payton are all back after posting a combined 189 tackles and 15 tackles for loss last season. The defensive line and secondary each loses two starters, but the secondary should be fine considering that corner Shawun Lurry is back after picking off nine passes last season and earning first team All-American honors. The defensive line will benefit from the addition of Iowa State transfer Alton Meeks. There’s still some questions in that group as the two projected starting defensive ends in Meeks and senior Ladell Fleming had just one combined start for the team last season. They’re still technically an unknown.
The schedule features a strong non-conference slate with games at South Florida and at home versus Mountain West power San Diego State. In conference, Buffalo, Bowling Green and Toledo all have to make the trek to Dekalb, but the Huskies do have to play their biggest competitor in Western Michigan on the road. That game at Western will likely decide the division and I think that WMU wins that game. That said, the Huskies will keep their bowl streak alive.
Toughest Games: @ USF (9/10), vs. San Diego State (9/17), @ Western Michigan (10/8), vs. Buffalo (10/22), vs. Bowling Green (11/1), vs. Toledo (11/9)
Central Michigan Chippewas
John Bonamego did a fantastic job last season stepping in on short notice after former head coach Dan Enos decided to leave the program to take the offensive coordinator job at Arkansas. The Chips were bowl eligible once again and fell by just a touchdown to Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl 21-14. This season, Bonamego has an experienced group that should compete with Western Michigan, Northern Illinois and Toledo for the West division title.
The offense has a third-year starting quarterback now in Cooper Rush, who threw for 3,848 yards 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season while completing 66.3 percent of his passes in the process. He has four of his top five receivers back, including the top guy in senior Jesse Kroll who 61 catches for 866 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. They lose their top running back in Martez Walker, but the running game was anemic last year and averaged just 101 yards per game despite having a veteran offensive line. This year, the offensive line loses two starters, but really, the running game can only improve. Rush and the passing game look to be prepared for a big season and because of that I expect this team to surpass the 26 points per game they averaged last season.
On defense, they have two senior defensive linemen in Jabari Dean and Joe Ostman who have started multiple games in each of the last two seasons. Despite both of them having down years last year, the Chips will be hoping that they can offset the loss of Blake Serpa and Louis Palmer to pair with Mitch Stanitzek and Kelby Latta for a solid front four. The linebacking group returns Malik Fountain, Nathan Ricketts and Jeff Perry who combined for 153 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss last season. The secondary has three starters back and should be even stingier against the pass this season.
The schedule is pretty difficult as Oklahoma State joins the non-conference slate and they have to travel to both Northern Illinois and Toledo. They do get Western Michigan and Ohio at home, but those three road games are going to be hard to come away with victories. If they can beat WMU at home and pull off an upset against Northern or Toledo they’ll be right in the thick of things come late November. At the very least I expect another bowl appearance.
Toughest Games: @ Oklahoma State (9/10), vs. Western Michigan (10/1), @ Northern Illinois (10/15), @ Toledo (10/22), vs. Ohio (11/15)
The Rockets posted a 10-2 season with wins over Arkansas, Iowa State and Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl. That led to head coach Matt Campbell being named the new head coach at Iowa State. Toledo decided to promote from within its ranks as they promoted offensive coordinator Jason Candle to the head coaching vacancy. That means despite having a new head coach, the system remains mostly the same so there may not be much of a hiccup on offense. Defense is a different story with many of the key guys departing.
We’ll start with the offense where starting QB Phillip Ely moves on, but this year’s projected starter Logan Woodside got starting experience when Ely was injured in 2014 and he threw for 2,263 yards 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. That starting experience will come in handy as it should be a pretty seamless transition from Ely. Woodside has the entire running back unit back from last year and Kareem Hunt/Terry Swanson each both just missed out on having 1,000 yard seasons (973 and 923, respectively). With a veteran offensive line that returns four of five starters, the running game should once again put up monster numbers like they did last season in averaging 213 yards per game. In addition, top wide receiver Cody Thompson returns after having 825 yards on just 37 receptions (22.3 average!) last season. This veteran group should be able to at least match last year’s 35 points and 435 yards per game.
The defense, however, is the big question mark for this team. They lose three starters along the defensive line, two in the linebackers group, and three in the secondary. Safety DeJuan Rogers, who earned second team All-MAC honors last season, returns as does Ja’Wuan Woodley (5th leading tackler) at the linebacker spot. The defensive line adds Notre Dame transfer Jhonny Williams, which should help offset some of the losses. That said, the defense gave up just 20.8 points and 375 yards per game last year and after losing so many starters, this year will likely be a step back for the unit.
Toledo adds BYU to the non-conference schedule and in conference has to travel to Akron and Western Michigan, which makes for a tough slate. I don’t see them getting back to double-digit wins, but they should certainly be bowl eligible.
Toughest Games: @ BYU (9/30), vs. Bowling Green (10/15), vs. Ohio (10/27), @ Akron (11/2), vs. Northern Illinois (11/9), @ Western Michigan (11/25)
Eastern Michigan Eagles
EMU has had a rough last four years as they have a combined 7-41 record in those seasons. Head coach Chris Creighton now enters his third season with the program and he will have his deepest group yet and this team should definitely have more than that one win last season, but in a tough division and conference, it’s hard to see them making too big of a leap.
Brogan Roback, who started 10 games last season throwing for 2,304 yards 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a sophomore, is back for his junior season and seems poised to once again be under center and with a full season under his belt those numbers will likely improve. He will have the benefit of being protected by a veteran line that has all five starters back. The Eagles will hope that Roback makes a jump in his play in order to try and offset the big loss of Darius Jackson, the team’s leading rusher last season. Sophomore Shaq Vann will step into Jackson’s role, but we’ll have to wait and see if he’s able to handle the starter’s workload as he had just 100 carries last year. Roback does have three of his top four receivers back, which means the passing game should be much better than the 222 yards per game they averaged last season. The Eagles scored 25 points per game last year and with the starting QB, three WRs and a veteran line, they should improve on that.
Defensively, this team was a mess last year, giving up 42.1 points per game and allowing the most rush yards per game in the FBS last season at 317. They will have defensive end Pat O’Connor back after he missed all of last season and also get back fellow defensive end Jeremiah Harris and linebacker Anthony Zeppone from injury as well. Those three should help to lower those numbers as they’ll join defensive tackles Mike Brown and Luke Maclean and linebackers Derric Williams and Anthony Brown to form a solid front seven. With a secondary that loses just one starter, this unit looks much better on paper. They are learning a new system, however, as a coordinator change was made in the offseason with Neal Neathery coming in from Texas-San Antonio to take over the job. It would be hard to be worse than last year’s group and with the talent they have returning, signs are pointing up for both this unit and the team overall.
Toughest Games: @ Missouri (9/10), @ Bowling Green (10/1), vs. Toledo (10/8), @ Western Michigan (10/22), vs. Northern Illinois (11/16), vs. Central Michigan (11/22)
Ball State Cardinals
The Cardinals’ rough 3-9 season was made worse in the offseason when head coach Pete Lembo decided to leave and take the assistant head coach position at Maryland. In comes Mike Neu, who was the QB coach for the Saints the past two seasons and he will try to reverse the downward trend of the past two years.
Last season, the offense was headed by a true freshman in Riley Neal for the majority of the season. Neal acquitted himself well throwing for 2,276 yards and a 16-6 TD to INT ratio while completing 58.3 percent of his passes. Neal will have the same trio of running backs and his second and third leading receivers back to work with this season. However, he will be working behind an offensive line that lost four starters from last season, which could mean trouble for the young QB and this offense overall. The team does have the same offensive coordinator in Joey Lynch, so the line won’t have to learn a new system on top of having to come together as a unit, but there will still be plenty of new faces on that group and how quickly they become comfortable working together. That’s a big question that needs to be answered heading into the season.
On defense the Cardinals are in a much better state with multiple starters back at every level. On the line, senior defensive end and First Team All-MAC performer Joshua Posley will look to lead an experienced group with two fellow starters back and tackle Darnell Smith returns after he missed all of last year with an injury. Top tackler Ben Ingle departs, but the linebackers group does return First Team All-MAC WLB Sean Wiggins. As for the secondary, the Cardinals were brutal against the pass last season allowing opposing QB’s to post a 26-to-7 touchdown to interception ratio. They have everybody back and should improve against the pass and overall this unit will be much more stout.
Toughest Games: @ Indiana (9/10), vs. Northern Illinois (10/1), @ Central Michigan (10/8), @ Buffalo (10/15), vs. Akron (10/22), vs. Western Michigan (11/1), @ Toledo (11/16)
Division Winner – Western Michigan
It seems blasphemous to pick anybody but Northern Illinois to win this division considering that the Huskies have now done it the past six years. However, this season PJ Fleck has his most experienced group and they get key games against Northern Illinois and Toledo at home. They will get a battle from in-state rival Central Michigan, but I think the Broncos are just a little better than the Chips and will come away with a victory in that game. WMU on to the MAC title game for the first time since 2000.
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.