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2015 College Football Preview: MAC West

Northern Illinois has made five straight MAC Championships. Will it be six in a row in 2015 and third straight under Rod Carey? (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)
Northern Illinois has made five straight MAC Championships. Will it be six in a row in 2015 and third straight under Rod Carey? (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: MAC West

Part 2 of the 2015 College Football Preview takes a look at the MAC West and predicts the winner of both the MAC West and the MAC Championship game. The entire preview schedule is as follows:

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a closer look at the MAC West.

1. Northern Illinois Huskies

The success started under Jerry Kill has been continued by Dave Doeren (2011 and 2012) and continued under Rod Carey who will be in his third season in 2015. The last five years have been impressive for North Illinois; five straight MAC Championship appearances, three MAC Championships, and five straight seasons with at least 11 wins.

2014 saw a precipitous drop in points per game by the offense. After averaging at least 38 points per game each season between 2010 and 2013, 2014 saw only 31.5 points per game and that was with 9 starters returning. In 2015, the offense loses the top rusher (Cameron Stingily – 971 yards and 14 touchdowns) as well as their top receiver (Da’Ron Brown – 68 catches for 1,065 yards and 6 touchdowns). Offsetting those losses are the return of the now experienced quarterback in Drew Hare. Hare threw for 2,322 yards (59.5%) with 18 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He also was the team’s second leading rusher with 900 yards and 8 touchdowns. The Huskies also return the #2 running back as well as they #2, #3, and #4 receivers from 2014. The offense should continue to plug along.

Defensively, the Huskies see 8 starters return from a unit that gave up 25.6 points per game in 2014. That number could be 7 depending on what happens to linebacker Rasheen Lemon, who was suspended in April for domestic battery. The loss of Lemon would hurt at LB, but the defensive line and secondary both return 3 starters each, which should help NIU improve on their numbers from 2014 (392 total yards per game, 163 rushing yards per game, and 229 passing yards per game).

NIU has a tough out of conference slate that segues into the start of conference play. NIU faces Ohio State on the road September 19, Boston College on the road September 26, and Central Michigan on the road October 3. They draw Miami (OH) (away), Buffalo (away), and Ohio (home) from the East, which is manageable. Their two toughest MAC West foes are Toledo (away on Nov. 3) and Western Michigan (home on Nov. 18). The game against Toledo will probably decide the winner of the MAC West.

Another double-digit win total is not out of reach for Northern Illinois.

2. Toledo Rockets

Matt Campbell has done well at Toledo in his first three seasons. He has guided the Rockets to a winning record all three years and made two bowl appearances (1-1 record in those 2 games). Now is the time for him to put Toledo back in the MAC Championship game for the first time since 2004.

The offense has only 5 returning starters and have to replace the entire offensive line. That means the Rockets will lean heavily on the skill position players early on including the electric Kareem Hunt at running back. He ran for 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging an astounding 8 yard per carry in 2014! Handing him the ball will most likely be former Alabama player Phillip Ely, who tore his ACL in the second game last season. The top two receivers return for Toledo and they will definitely help the offense continue to average over 30 points per game in 2015.

Toledo has 8 starters back on defense. Similar to the offense, there is an entire unit that needs to be replaced and that is at linebacker. The three projected starters made only 4 starts in 2014, but they will have plenty of experience around them on the defensive line and secondary. Defensive end Trent Voss was a machine last year by recording 77 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and intercepting one pass. This unit, despite the inexperience at linebacker, should help the Rockets contend in the MAC West.

Toledo has a difficult looking non-conference schedule (Stony Brook, at Arkansas, Iowa State, and Arkansas State), but could conceivably go 3-1 if they upset Iowa State and take care of Arkansas State. Toledo has a brutal ending to the regular season with a home game against Northern Illinois (Nov. 3) followed by back-to-back road games at Central Michigan (Nov. 10) and Bowling Green (Nov. 17). They end the season with Western Michigan at home on November 27. That four game stretch will ultimately decided where the Rockets finish in conference. Expect Toledo to go bowling again in 2015 and wins over Northern Illinois and Bowling Green could send them to the MAC Championship.

3. Western Michigan Broncos

The dark horse candidate in the MAC West division goes to Western Michigan. PJ Fleck is one of the up and coming coaches in the FBS and he has 16 starters returning from 2014. 9 of those starters are on offense including the MAC Freshman and MAC Offensive Player of the Year in running back Jarvion Franklin. Franklin was a workhorse by accumulating 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns on 306 carries, Quarterback Zach Terrell also returns after throwing for 3,443 yards (67.9%) with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The top 8 receivers also return for Western Michigan, which makes this unit dangerous against any defense.

The defense saw incredible improvement between year 1 and year 2 under Fleck. In 2013, the Broncos gave up 35.4 points and 419 yards per game with 7 returning starters. In 2014, those numbers were down to 24.9 points and 371 yards per game despite only five starters returning. 7 starters return for 2015 led by middle linebacker Grant DePalma. DePalma was second on the team in tackles with 102, recorded 5.5 tackles for loss, and had 2.5 sacks. There are some worries about the secondary (lost two big starters) that may hurt the Broncos on defense, but the defense should be fine overall.

The Broncos are probably staring at a 2-2 non-conference schedule with games against Michigan State, at Georgia Southern, Murray State, and at Ohio State. They have an incredibly tough conference schedule thanks to drawing Ohio (road) and Bowling Green (home) from the MAC East. They also have to play at Northern Illinois and at Toledo, which is why they are being placed behind them. It would be a surprise if the Broncos did not reach a bowl game in 2015.

4. Ball State Cardinals

Ball State has seen some success over the last decade. Brady Hoke led the Cardinals to back-to-back bowl games in 2007 and 2008 while current coach Pete Lembo did the same in 2012 and 2013. Ball State lost all four of those bowl games and are 0-7 all time in bowl games. What does 2015 have in store?

The offense returns 10 of its starters from last season. The one position they have to fill is a big one at running back. In 201, Jahwan Edwards ran for 1,252 yards and 12 touchdowns while helping out the inexperienced quarterbacks. Now it will be up to Jack Milas to help the inexperienced running back. Milas threw for 1,302 yards with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions as a redshirt freshman. The top three receivers return, which should make this offense potent.

On defense, Ball State has 8 starters coming back including their top five tacklers from 2014. The secondary is a slight concern with two starters gone, but the front seven appears to be the strong point of the defense. Linebackers Zach Ryan and Ben Ingle were #1 and #2 in tackles respectively in 2014 and will be raking in the tackles again in 2015. There may be some issues defending the pass in 2015, but with 8 total starters back the defense should be fine.

Ball State has their non-conference schedule strewn across the season. The open with VMI and a road trip to Texas A&M before starting MAC play. Between Texas A&M on September 12 and Northern Illinois on October 10, the Cardinals have 4 road games in 5 weeks. The one lone home game during that time? Toledo. The Cardinals end the season with back-to-back games against MAC East foes Ohio (road) and Bowling Green (home). It will not be an easy task for Ball State to reach 6 wins in 2015.

5. Central Michigan Chippewas

Central Michigan had a lot going for them in 2014. They returned 18 starters and were in year five of the Dan Enos era as well as some winnable non-conference games against Chattanooga, Purdue, Syracuse, and Kansas. They ended up splitting those 4 contests and finished 7-6 overall after a crushing last second loss in the Bahamas Bowl to Western Kentucky.

Enos is now gone and John Bonamego comes in with a tough task in his first season. Only five starters return on offense, but one of them is quarterback Cooper Rush. He threw for 3,157 yards (63.6%) with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He will not have his first and third leading receivers from 2014 to throw to and will also be missing his starting running back. The offensive line does return three starters, but they will be hard-pressed to top their 27 points per game average of 2014.

Just like the offense, the defense only returns five starters from a unit that gave up 25.2 points and 355 yards per game in 2014. The strength will be up front with three of the four starters returning from a unit that allowed only 123 yards rushing per game. The entire linebacking unit has to be replaced and only two of the starters return in the secondary. The defense will probably perform much worse in comparison to last season.

The first year under a new head coach can be difficult especially when there are not a lot of starters returning. The Chippewas will face Oklahoma State and Monmouth at home to open the season before road games at Syracuse and Michigan State. They did not draw the most difficult opponents from the MAC East with Buffalo, Akron, and Kent State making appearances on the schedule. Still, this appears to be a rebuilding season for Central Michigan.

6. Eastern Michigan Eagles

2014 was not a good year for Eastern Michigan under the first year of head coach Chris Creighton. All of their losses were by at least double digits, but the Eagles were able to win 2 games against Morgan State and Buffalo. 2015 appears to have a better team for the Eagles, but will that translate on the field?

Offensively, five starters return from a team that averaged only 15.2 points and 290 yards per game in 2014. That can only improve especially with the dynamic Reggie Bell behind center. He is a dual threat quarterback who led the team in passing (1,297 yards with 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions) and rushing (562 yards and 4 touchdowns). He loses his top target, but does have his #2 and #3 receivers from 2014 to throw to. With a year in the system complete, the offense can only do better.

There is plenty of room for improvement on defense, but 2014 was actually better than 2013. In 2013, the Eagles gave up 45.2 points and 511 yards per game with 5 starters returning. 2014 had 4 starters return and the Eagles gave up 40.9 points and 499 yards per game. 2015 should see those numbers continue to decline with 8 starters back. The front six in this 4-2-5 system looks like it will be better with all six coming back from last season. The back five only returns two starters, but adds in a former quarterback and two upperclassmen are expected to start. The defense will not be overwhelming, but there should be continued improvement over the past two seasons.

Eastern Michigan does not have the toughest non-conference schedule with games against Old Dominion (home), Wyoming (road), Army (home), and LSU (road), but it will be tough for them to eke out even a victory. From the MAC East, they do draw Akron, Miami (OH), and Massachusetts, which could provide a victory for them. 2015 is another year of rebuilding for Eastern Michigan.

Overview

Just like the MAC East, the West appears to be a two-horse race between Toledo and Northern Illinois. Western Michigan is a dark horse in this race, but their MAC schedule is brutal. They will probably make it to a bowl game while the bottom trio of Ball State, Central Michigan, and Eastern Michigan will battle to stay out of the cellar. Below is a recap of the predicted order of finish.

1. Northern Illinois

2. Toledo

3. Western Michigan

4. Ball State

5. Central Michigan

6. Eastern Michigan

MAC Championship

The predicted MAC Championship will be Ohio versus Northern Illinois. Northern Illinois will be selected as the preseason pick to win the MAC Championship.

Check back on Tuesday, July 7 to see the Mountain West Conference – Mountain Division Preview.

2015 College Football Preview: MAC East

Bowling Green Head Coach Dino Babers led the Falcons to the MAC Title game in 2014. Can he do it again in 2015? ( Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)
Bowling Green Head Coach Dino Babers led the Falcons to the MAC Title game in 2014. Can he do it again in 2015? ( Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: MAC East

The start of the college football season is right around the corner on August 29 with an FCS game between North Dakota State at Montana. In the build up to the season, we will provide in-depth previews of each conference and division starting with the Mid-American Conference East Division. The entire preview schedule is as follows:

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Without further ado, let’s jump into the MAC East.

1. Ohio Bobcats

There is a lot to like about Ohio’s chances to win the MAC East. They return a total of 18 starters with 10 on offense and 8 on defense. Their lone loss on offense was their top receiver from 2014, but his production (21 catches for 443 yards and 1 touchdown) can be replaced with the second, third, and fourth leading receivers returning. The quarterback battle will be between JD Sprague and Derrius Vick, but whichever one wins the battle will do well lead the offense. 2014’s leading rusher was AJ Oullette who ran for 785 yards and 7 touchdowns on 160 carries (4.9 yards per carry).

On defense, the Bobcats lose two linemen and a defensive back. They return their top three tacklers (Quentin Polling, Jovon Johnson, and Blair Brown), who all play at linebacker. The defensive backfield is stocked full of seniors at all positions while the defensive line is full of upperclassmen.

If Ohio is to win the MAC East they will have to overcome a tough trio of in-conference games. They get an up and coming Western Michigan team at home on October 17, but have road tests at Bowling Green (November 4) and Northern Illinois (November 24). If Ohio can at least beat Bowling Green, they will be in excellent position to win the MAC East.

2. Bowling Green Falcons

The favorite to win the MAC East belongs to the Bowling Green Falcons under second year head coach Dino Babers. BG won the MAC East last year, but was crushed by Northern Illinois 51-17 in the Title Game. What is really scary about the Falcons is that they return 10 starters from an offense that averaged 30 points a game. There is no reason to expect that average to go down with a full year in the system and two experienced quarterbacks in Matt Johnson and James Knapke. Scary indeed.

The one area of concern for Bowling Green is on defense where they return 5 starters from a unit that surrendered 33.5 points per game in 2014. The losses are immense in the back seven with 5 starters gone from the linebacker and secondary units. The top four tacklers are also gone with several inexperienced players projected to start. One player that is coming in and expected to start is Eilar Hardy from Notre Dame at the strong safety position.

The MAC East will likely come down to a matter of three games in the span of two weeks. They will face Ohio at home on November 4 and then take on Western Michigan on the road November 11. The gauntlet ends with Toledo visiting Bowling Green on November 17. A 2-1 record in those games, especially a victor over Ohio, will probably give them the inside track to win the division.

3. Massachusetts Minutemen

There is no doubt that Mark Whipple made an impact on this team in 2014 in his first year back at the helm. The team lost by field goals to Colorado and Vanderbilt while playing Bowling Green, Miami (OH), and Toledo close, losing those three games by a touchdown or less. UMass beat Kent State, Eastern Michigan, and Ball State to finish 3-9.

In 2015, the Minutemen return a total of 19 starters with 10 on offense and 9 on defense. The offense was vastly improved last season going from 11.7 points per game in 2013 to 27.3 in 2014. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel will be leading the offense for the second straight year after throwing for 3,345 yards (55.1%) with 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He also has his top target in Tajae Sharpe back (85 catches for 1,281 yards and 7 touchdowns). The offense will continue to put points on the board in 2015.

The defense, however, will need to improve drastically if Massachusetts wants to make their second bowl game in school history. In 2013, they gave up 33 points per game and did the same in 2014 with five starters back. Nine starters return in 2015 and it would be surprising if they did not improve across the board. Under this 3-4 system, UMass has seven seniors projected as starters in the linebacking and secondary units.

UMass has also been given a favorable schedule in their final season in the MAC. They face Bowling Green on the road, but draw Toledo at home and will not play fellow MAC East opponent Ohio in 2015. They will also face a couple of Western Division bottom feeders in Ball State and Eastern Michigan. UMass could be headed to a bowl game in 2015.

4. Akron Zips

It has been a decade since Akron made a bowl game, but they have been close the past two seasons with back-to-back 5-7 records. They return six starters on offense led by quarterback Kyle Pohl. He threw for 2,189 yards (54.3%) with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in an injury plagued season. He will need to stay healthy because he does not have his top two receivers from a year ago nor does he have the top returning rusher. The second leading rusher in 2014, Conor Hundley, ran for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns on 104 carries. The offensive line looks like the strength of the offensive with four senior starters and could be key to helping the Akron offense.

Like offense, the defensive side of the ball returns six starters as well. The strength appears to be on the defensive line with three returning starters coming back from a unit that allowed only 149 yards rushing per game in 2014. The defense loses 8 of the top 11 tacklers, but the top tackler in Jatavis Brown will anchor the linebacking unit. He had 99 stops, 4 sacks, and 10.5 tackles-for-loss last season. The secondary loses two starters, but should be decent in 2015.

The schedule was kind to Akron. From the MAC West they drew Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, two teams that are expected to be near the bottom of that division. They get Ohio for homecoming on October 3, and have road games at Bowling Green and Massachusetts. Akron has a real chance at making their second bowl game in school history in 2015.

5. Buffalo Bulls

2015 will be a season of change for the Buffalo Bulls. They made a splash hire by taking Lance Leipold away from Division 3 Wisconsin-Whitewater. At Whitewater, Leipold won 6 National Titles in 8 seasons while making the National Championship 7 times. While he should not be expected to win a National Title in Buffalo, he should have them contending in the MAC within a few years.

Leipold inherits seven starters on offense including the top returning quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Joe Licata threw for 2,647 yards (64.9%) with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, Anthone Taylor ran for 1,403 yards and 12 touchdowns (5 YPC), and Ron Willoughby caught 50 passes for 771 yards and 9 touchdowns. Leipold has the pieces in place on offense to run his system well in his first season.

On defense, Buffalo returns only four starters from a defense that gave up 31.5 points and 398 yards per game. The top four leading tacklers from 2014 depart and the biggest loses come in the secondary. They lost three starters that accounted for 90 career starts. It is hard to see the defense improving drastically with the experience and talent lost from last year.

To win the MAC East, Buffalo will need some help. The face Bowling Green at home to start conference play on October 3 and they were able to draw Central Michigan from the West. However, they will have to play Northern Illinois at home in November. Buffalo has a chance at getting to six wins with some wins in the toss up games.

6. Kent State Golden Flashes

It has been tough for Kent State since Darrell Hazell‘s departure after the 2012 season when they went 11-3. They have gone a combined 6-17 in 2013 and 2014 while the offensive numbers have slipped and the defensive numbers have gotten worse.

Kent State has 8 players coming back on offense, their most since 2011, which was Hazell’s first season in charge. They have to replace a wide receiver, tight end, and center, otherwise the offense remains intact. Quarterback Colin Reardon has been the starter since the beginning of 2013, but saw a small dip in his numbers last year. He loses his top two receivers, but adds in former West Virginia player Connor Arlia. The running game should also be just fine with Nick Holley returning as starter.

Defensively, Kent State has 9 starters coming back from a defense that gave up 29 points and 430 yards a game in 2014. The biggest area of improvement needed is stopping the run, as Kent State gave up an average of 214 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. The two starters need to be replaced on the line. Overall, Kent State returns their top 11 tackles from a season ago and the entire secondary returns, which gave up only 216 yards passing per game. That will be the strength once again.

Kent State has some tough games if they want to win the MAC East. They have back-to-back road games at Toledo (October 10) and Massachusetts (October 17). That is followed up with a home game versus Bowling Green on October 24. After a bye week, they face a winnable game against Buffalo on November 5, but have a quick turnaround to face Ohio on the road November 10.

7. Miami (OH) Redhawks

Year 1 under Chuck Martin saw improvement from the Redhawks. They improved their win total by two, but more importantly they improved on offense and defense. The offense went from 9.8 points per game in 2013 to 22.3 in 2014. The defense went from 35.7 points per game to 31.8 despite only 6 six starters returning.

The unfortunate part for Miami in 2015 on offense is the return of only four starters. They lost their top quarterback, rusher, and receiver from 2014, which puts them in a bad position. The projected replacements at both quarterback and running back are redshirt freshmen. The lone bright spot is the second, third, and fourth leading receivers return. Expect some worse numbers from the offense this season.

The Redhawks will probably continue to improve on defense with 8 starters coming back. The defensive line should improve after giving up 200 rushing yards per game in 2014 as all four starters return. Two of the three linebackers return to help the rush defense including 2014’s second leading tackler in Joe Donlan. The secondary returns two starters as well with the top tackler in 2014 returning in Heath Harding (98 tackles). The defense should improve, but it will need to be a lot better if Miami has hopes of getting near bowl eligibility.

Miami has a tough year ahead in 2015. They have only one winnable game in non-conference action (Presbyterian opening week) and only a few in conference. They drew Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan from the MAC West with only the latter being possible as a win. It looks to be another long season for Miami.

Overview

The MAC East appears to be coming down to Ohio and Bowling Green. Bowling Green will have an incredibly potent offense while Ohio has more experience returning on both sides of the ball. The meeting between those two teams on November 4 could decide the MAC East representative in the Championship Game.

Outside of those two, Akron, Massachusetts, Kent State, and Buffalo will be vying to make bowl eligibility. Meetings between those teams could determine who makes a bowl game and who does not.

To recap the predicted order of finish:

1. Ohio

2. Bowling Green

3. Massachusetts

4. Akron

5. Buffalo

6. Kent State

7. Miami (OH)

Check back on Friday, July 3 to see the MAC West Preview and who will be predicted to win the MAC Championship in 2015.