Power Five college football dominates headlines and much of the television schedule, but the entertainment value in the Group of Five conferences is not to be undersold. It’s this writer’s particular personal preference, but of that group, MAC football is tough to beat.
Here, we attempt to preview the Mid-American Conference in the form of making some pre-season predictions; always a difficult task at any level of the sport! The only certainty is that there will be some of these proven incorrect in hindsight, so be sure to leave some predictions of your own in the comments below!
The MAC is split into two divisions of six teams, the East and West, with the winner of each meeting in the conference championship game.
East: Miami RedHawks
As of October th 2016, it would have been quite the statement to claim that the RedHawks would be a leading contender for a conference title the following year. At the time, Miami were sitting at 0-6 on the season, but a second-half-of-the-year resurgence directly coincided with the return of quarterback Gus Ragland, who sparked a record-stabilizing six straight wins, earning a bowl appearance against SEC opposition in Mississippi State. While a defeat in that game resulted in a final record below .500, they pushed their more reputable opponents to the very end, losing 17-16 thanks to a late field goal by the Bulldogs.
Ragland is one of sixteen returning starters for this season, with playmakers on both sides of the ball and one of the most well-rounded defenses in the MAC, at all three levels of the unit from the D-line to the secondary. The East Division looks like there’s a good chance that it will end up a direct fight between the RedHawks and the Ohio Bobcats, always a reliable and tough team under Frank Solich.
Two key advantages for Chuck Martin’s side though, are that Ragland arguably offers a bit more at quarterback than Ohio’s Quinton Maxwell, and secondly that the cross-over schedule with the West Division is more favorable than the Bobcats’, who will have to host Toledo. Still, Ohio host the head-to-head battle between the two East teams, which might prove crucial. If both play up to expectations as the best in their half of the MAC, it really could go either way.
West: Toledo Rockets
As with the East Division, the West could have a similar outlook, in terms of having two sides that, at this very early stage, appear to be the class of the division. It could be another close battle, this time between the Toledo Rockets and the reigning MAC champs, the Western Michigan Broncos. If anything, the Broncos are perhaps actually slightly under-rated this year.
People see the departure of not just inspirational head coach P. J. Fleck, but the loss of leaders and playmakers Zach Terrell, a four-year starting quarterback, and Corey Davis, 5th overall pick to the Titans just a few months ago. However, they return one of the best offensive lines in the conference, a physical run game with depth in the rotation, and a talented defense that returns eight starters, including spectacular defensive back Darius Phillips, a threat both on D and special teams.
Still, it’s difficult not to give the edge to the Rockets. The sheer potency of this explosive offense is easy to buy into. Senior quarterback Logan Woodside returns after a year in which he completed 69% of his passes in 2016 for 4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns (to 9 interceptions). He doesn’t lack for talented weapons either, with the under-rated Cody Thompson back as the primary receiver, along with Jon’Vea Johnson. While Kareem Hunt is off to the NFL, Terry Swanson is an experienced, productive running back, and watch out for Art Thompkins too; the dynamic second-year back is poised for a breakout season.
The defense is led by its front seven, but is solid throughout. Jason Candle has thrived since taking over for Matt Campbell and could be a highly sought-after head coaching candidate himself very soon for Power Five schools.
Miami to beat Toledo in the Championship Game. Any of the four teams discussed above could win the title; call this a gut feeling pick. As consistent as the Rockets have been in recent years, they’ve kept falling short. Will this year be different?
Dark Horse: Eastern Michigan Eagles
This is more wishful thinking for the most part, unfortunately. The Eagles, playing in the West Division, had one of the most memorable seasons in their history in 2016, going to their first bowl game in nearly 20 years. Their offense really impressed last year, and put a scare into Western Michigan during the first half of their matchup that might have derailed the Broncos’ own memorable season prematurely. In quarterback Brogan Roback, they have a leader capable of keeping Eastern Michigan in any game.
Unfortunately, the schedule is a little bit against them. That’s putting it lightly; in truth it’s about as brutal as it could be. In their cross-over games with the East Division they face the two best teams in Miami and Ohio, as well as last season’s third placed team in that half of the MAC in Bowling Green. In the West, they have to travel to Toledo, and to Northern Illinois, who should have something of a bounce-back season in 2017.
Also not helping, is losing two key experienced players in both their left and right tackles on the offensive line. How their replacements get on will be important to Roback continuing to succeed. The defense meanwhile, doesn’t quite live up to their offensive counterparts and the Eagles may have to win a few high-scoring shootouts. The win-loss record may not ultimately reflect it, but at the least, Eastern Michigan should be entertaining to watch again this year.
Worst in the Conference: Kent State Golden Flashes
It’s unfortunate to have to say, especially when plenty teams prove pre-season predictions wrong in the end, but it feels like this season will need to see an improvement in the win column for head coach Paul Haynes to stick around beyond this season. The Flashes have indeed flashed at times, especially last year, but couldn’t close games out that resulted in a 3-9 record for the second consecutive season.
They lose a lot of experience, particularly on defense, leaving some relative unknowns going into the season. While they aren’t going to be judged off what should be lock defeats to non-conference opponents Clemson and Louisville, a home game with fellow East Division strugglers Buffalo (1-7 in conference last year) will be one of the key moments in Kent State and Paul Haynes’ season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo Rockets
The stats were given earlier in this article, and there’s every chance that Woodside puts up similar numbers again. Should that be the case, then he will be among the favorites to take the offensive award. Not a lock though, as despite these types of awards often favoring quarterbacks, Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis was a worthy recipient last season. His dominant college career has concluded now though, and Woodside has a clearer path to earning OPOTY.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ulysees Gilbert III, LB, Akron Zips
After just 11 tackles in his freshman season, how’s this for a breakout sophomore year: 121 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 pass breakups, an interception and a pair of forced fumbles. The former 3-star recruit has put up the numbers, but now he wants to build on that in terms of being a true leader on a defense that was decimated by injuries in 2016.
Gilbert is not the biggest at around 6ft tall and 225 lbs, but is a missile around the field, and around the ball constantly. When it comes to his time to be part of the NFL Draft (either in 2018 or 2019), he will likely be one of those great examples of prospects to look beyond the logo on the helmet and the measurables on the spreadsheet.
Coach to Watch: Tim Lester, Western Michigan Broncos
Knee injuries in high school kept Tim Lester from getting to go to the SEC with the Florida Gators, but it’s funny how things work out. He ends up a four-year starting quarterback for Western Michigan in the late 90’s, finishes up with the 4th most career passing yards in NCAAF history at the time, and that legacy with the Broncos factors into his first head coaching opportunity in a sentimental return. It’s not his first time coaching at the school, having spent 2005 to 2006 as the team’s quarterback coach, and has since continued his development at Syracuse and Purdue.
That said, two seasons at Syracuse are the extent of his experience as an offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015, and has the task of continuing the success of now-Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P. J. Fleck. He’s in a great situation though, with a lot of talent remaining on the roster, as the MAC team to continually bring in the highest ranked recruiting classes over the last few years, and that depth of talent at this level should assist the transition to Lester and his own ideas and principles. He stands out as one of the most intriguing coaches to watch in the MAC this year, given the circumstances.
Coordinator to Watch: Brian Wright, OC, Toledo
The exciting Toledo Rockets offense has been mentioned numerous times over the course of this article. So how about the man behind it? He spent four years as Florida Atlantic offensive coordinator, overseeing the switch from a pro-style to spread offense. He won all four games as the team’s interim head coach in 2013 that led to being considered for the full-time gig. The school didn’t go that way, retained Wright, but shortly after was fired.
He has certainly landed on his feet spectacularly since then though, immediately turning the Rockets into the 4th ranked offense in the FBS in his first year last season. How will he follow that up in year two? Probably with more of the same, given Woodside’s return. Perhaps he again gets head coaching consideration after 2017 as well.
Must-See Game: Western Michigan @ Toledo
Has there been too much Toledo as part of this predictions article? Perhaps, but to be fair, it’s been with good reason. All of the various matchups between the top four teams in the conference are going to be must-see games, but it’s difficult not to single out this key contest in the West. Watching how this Broncos defense, one of the best in the conference, and particularly Darius Phillips and that secondary, take on Woodside and the Rockets balanced attack through the air and on the ground; it should be super entertainment, MACtion at its best (damn, got all the way to the end before finally going there).
Thoughts on our predictions? Have some of your own? Discuss in the comments below!
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