Posted: Monday August 22, 2005 4:30PM; Updated: Monday August 29, 2005 4:09PM
Team on the rise
Team on the decline
Most favorable schedule
Coach on the hot seat
Jim Hofher, Buffalo
Newcomer to watch
Luke Getsy, QB, Akron
Game of the Year
Toledo at Bowling Green, Nov. 22
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
It says something about the rapid improvement of the MAC the past few years that Marshall, the league's only champion from 1997-2002, has left for Conference USA, and the league doesn't seem any the worse for wear. Credit the rise of two long-dormant programs -- Bowling Green and Northern Illinois -- along with two standbys, Toledo and Miami of Ohio, all four of which figure to be in the thick of the title race again this fall. And in a conference that's become synonymous with superstar quarterbacks, Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs and Toledo's Bruce Gradkowski are back to continue the legacy.
The Falcons, who have posted a league-best 37-12 record over the past four years but have yet to actually capture a conference crown, move from the West to the East division this season and seem like the team to beat. Jacobs, coming off a dazzling first season as a starter (4,002 yards, 41 touchdowns, four interceptions), is back at the helm of a powerful offense. The RedHawks have a pretty good gunslinger themselves, however, in Josh Betts, and BGSU has to visit Oxford late in the season in a game that could determine the division title. In the West, defending MAC champ Toledo has its own prolific QB in Gradkowski (70.2 percent completions), but the Rockets will once again have to fend off Northern Illinois, which boasts a powerful ground attack behind Garrett Wolfe and A.J. Harris.
And while the league has traditionally been very top-heavy, there is evidence that some of the conference's longtime doormats are starting to get their act together. Akron is coming off consecutive winning seasons, though it has to replace NFL Draft pick Charlie Frye at quarterback. Kent State has been inching toward .500 the past couple of years and is poised for a breakthrough. Second-year coaches Jeff Genyk (Eastern Michigan) and Brian Kelly (Central Michigan) have reenergized sagging programs. Even Ohio has something to be excited about after luring ex-Nebraska coach Frank Solich. It will be fun to watch the progression of these teams, but the real excitement this season will still rest with the Big Four.
Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
Besides Matt Leinart, Jacobs may be the college QB most coveted by the NFL. The Falcons return a plethora of other weapons from the nation's second-ranked offense, including RB P.J. Pope and WRs Charles Sharon and Steve Sanders. Redshirt frosh Corey Partridge could be another dangerous target for Jacobs. If there's one question, it's the O-line, which lost three starters. The secondary is a potential sore spot.
The RedHawks didn't exactly wilt without Ben Roethlisberger last year, going 8-5. With former offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery now the head coach, and with Betts and speedy WR/return man Ryne Robinson among eight returning offensive starters, Miami will be explosive. The question is whether the defense can maintain the same, high level without departed star Matt Pusateri.
In the offensive-oriented MAC, Doug Martin's team has a rare, upper-echelon defense, one that ranked 17th nationally last season and returns seven starters, most notably stud DE Justin Parrish, who had 14 sacks in 2004. If juco QB Michael Machen can fill the shoes of departed star Joshua Cribbs, Kent State should be able to continue the momentum of last year's season-ending four-game win streak.
While the Zips lose record-setting QB Frye, they gain highly touted transfer Getsy, who followed second-year coach J.D. Brookhart from Pittsburgh. He'll be helped by productive scatback Brett Biggs and a deep receiving corps led by Domenik Hixon, but may be hurt by an inexperienced O-line. The defense couldn't stop upper-echelon opponents last season and can no longer count on being bailed out by Frye.
Though Solich ran the option at Nebraska, and though the Bobcats were until last year an option team themselves, Solich is promising a more wide-open, MAC-style offense, wise in the long run but probably a source of growing pains this season. Ohio was last in the MAC in offense last season. The defense, however, was among the best in the conference and returns eight starters, which should help ease the transition.
The Bulls have been arguably the worst program in Division I-A since moving up in 1999, but they do have a significant number of experienced upperclassmen. They should be able to run the ball, but passing remains their Achilles heel. Buffalo's front seven has some proven playmakers, but its secondary is likely to get toasted by the MAC's top-notch passers. Fifth-year coach Hofher, 7-39 so far, is on his last legs.
Gradkowski, the first I-A quarterback ever to complete more than 70 percent of his passes for two straight seasons, is back for another go-around, but he'll be without trusted coordinator Rob Spence, who left for Clemson, and favorite target Lance Moore. The Rockets may rely more on their deep stable of tailbacks. Toledo's defense was horrendous last season, but with eight returning starters, including three solid linebackers, there should be improvement.
The Huskies' pipeline of stud tailbacks continues with Wolfe and Harris, who helped NIU rack up 238.2 yards per game on the ground last season. Three-year QB Josh Haldi is gone, but replacement Phil Horvath has filled in admirably in the past. Along with a veteran line, the Huskies have all the ingredients for a powerful offense, but their defense was leaky against the pass last season and will need twin CBs Adriel and Albah Hansbro to shine.
In Genyk's debut campaign, the Eagles finished .500 in the MAC for the first time in six years. With the return of capable QB Matt Bohnet, solid RB Anthony Sherrell and star WR Eric Deslauriers, Genyk's spread offense figures to be even more powerful. EMU also brings back Groza Award runner-up Andrew Wellock at kicker. In order to move up the standings, however, one of the nation's worst defenses a year ago needs to improve dramatically.
The Chippewas may only have gone 4-7 last year, but they were more competitive under Kelly than they had been in years. Unfortunately, the unquestioned star of that squad, RB Jerry Seymour, is suspended pending his involvement in a grand jury investigation into a fatal bar fight. CMU brings back a promising QB, Kent Smith, but lacks quality receivers. Its defense was atrocious last season and needs to improve by leaps and bounds.
The Cardinals managed to go 2-9 last year despite boasting the nation's leading receiver, Dante Ridgeway. The junior bolted for the NFL, leaving third-year head coach Brady Hoke with a fairly experienced team that seems to lack an offensive identity. QB Joey Lynch has shown promise, but the running game could be lackluster. Nine returning starters look to turn around a defense that ranked 112th nationally (out of 117 teams) last season.
Was it really only earlier this decade that the Broncos were playing for the MAC title behind star QB Tim Lester and head coach Gary Darnell was a hot commodity? Western Michigan's free-fall from that nine-win, 2000 season culminated in a 1-10 debacle last year, resulting in Darnell's ouster. Bill Cubit, Darnell's old offensive coordinator, is back as head coach at the school where his son, Rutgers transfer Ryan Cubit, is the starting quarterback.