This year we will make a total of 25 predictions with five each week until August 23. The predictions will range from conference winners to team win totals or bowl games to individual player performances. We will start with the mid-major conferences (predictions 25-16) before ending with the predictions for the Power 5 conferences (predictions 15-1).
This is the fourth edition and we will continue predicting the Power 5 Conferences. Below is the schedule for the 25 predictions.
10. (Pac-12) Washington will win the Pac-12 – Last year we said Washington would not win the Pac-12. Well, we were way wrong and felt like the 2017 would be the breakout season for Washington. The Huskies arrived a year earlier than we expected, but we still like them in 2017.
The offense has seven starters back led by Jake Browning (43 touchdowns against 9 interceptions) and running backs Myles Gaskin (1,371 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Lavon Coleman (852 yards and 7 TDs). The offense loses John Ross (leading receiver with 1,150 yards and 17 TDs), but there are a ton of weapons on offense to ease the burden. After putting up 41.8 points and 457 yards per game in 2016, the offense should be just as powerful.
The defense has done very well the past two seasons. 2015 saw the unit allow 18.8 points and 352 yards per game with four starters back. In 2016, the defense did even better allowing 17.7 points and 317 yards per game. Six starters are back including four in the front six and four of the top five tacklers. They may not match last season’s numbers, but they will still be one of best in the Pac-12.
The Huskies have a very favorable schedule to make a second straight Pac-12 Championship game. They have road games at Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona State in the front half of their conference schedule. Their final five games include four at home with their one road game at Stanford. They also avoid USC out of the South, a team they could easily face for the Pac-12 title. The Huskies are primed for another big season.
9. (ACC) Lamar Jackson will not win the Heisman – Let’s start by saying this: Lamar Jackson is more than capable of winning a second straight Heisman. He is an electrifying athlete, but he lost a lot of pieces around him and the expectations are sky high.
Louisville’s offense averaged 42.5 points and 533 yards per game in 2016, but loses its top three receivers and top running back. Jackson was easily the top rusher with 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns. The loses along the offensive line (three starters) will hurt as well. Overall, the offense will be potent, but will be hard-pressed to equal their output in 2017.
The other part of the equation is expectations. Archie Griffin is the only two time winner of the Heisman (1974-75) and the 9 returning Heisman winners since have largely seen a drop off in stats. The link here shows the stats for each returning Heisman winner going back to 1945. That is probably the biggest hurdle to winning a second straight Heisman and the supporting cast does not look as strong this year (though still very good).
8. (ACC) North Carolina State will win at least 10 games – 2017 is the best season to date for Dave Doeren to breakthrough with North Carolina State. The Wolfpack have 17 starters back and their opponents have some serious concerns.
On offense, the Wolfpack return nine starters led by Ryan Finley at quarterback (3,059 yards with 18 TDs and 8 interceptions). The biggest question is at running back after the loss of Matthew Dayes (1,155 yards and 10 TDs). The offensive line returns four starters, which should help cushion the loss of Dayes. The top four receivers return and this unit should eclipse the 2016 numbers of 27 points and 417 yards per game.
The defense returns 8 starters from a group that allowed 22.8 points and 353 yards per game. Three of the top five and six of the top eight tacklers are back including the front six that allowed just 109 rushing yards per game. That group will need to be just as good and the defense overall should put up similar numbers to 2016.
The schedule starts with South Carolina in Charlotte followed by back-to-back home games against Marshall and Furman. The next four games are all against ACC foes: Florida State (away), Syracuse (home), Louisville (home), and Pittsburgh (away).
The season closes out against Notre Dame (away), Clemson (home), Boston College (away), Wake Forest (away), and North Carolina (home). It will not be easy to reach 10 wins, but with both Louisville and Clemson at home, they might sneak in an upset to give them confidence and put 10 wins in reach.
7. (ACC) Florida State will win the ACC – The Seminoles look like the standout team in 2017. The offense has six starters back from a unit that put up 35.1 points and 466 yards per game. They lost Dalvin Cook (1,765 yard and 19 TDs) as well as the top two receivers. However, they return quarterback Deondre Francois and three starters on the line. The running back spot will be key to develop, but the talent is immense on depth chart for that position.
The defense took a step back in 2016 giving up 25 points and 349 yards per game. Compare that to 2015 when they allowed 17.5 points and 337 yards per game. Nine starters are back including eight of the top nine tacklers. This group should get closer to 2015 numbers and will be the key to how far the Seminoles go.
Florida State opens with the massive game against Alabama in Atlanta. Their ACC schedule is very kind as they face Miami, NC State, and Louisville at home. They face Clemson away in their last conference game of the season. Florida State looks set for another big season, which we think will culminate in an ACC Championship at the very least.
6. (SEC) Missouri will have the SEC’s highest scoring offense – This prediction will be based on the points per game over the entire season. Missouri made a gigantic improvement from 2015 to 2016 on offense. The Tigers put up a horrid 13.6 points and 281 yards per game in 2015, which ended up being Gary Pinkel’s final season in Columbia. 2016 saw them go up to 31.4 points and 501 yards per game and that happened with a new head coach (Barry Odom) and only three returning starters.
2017 will see 10 starters return on offense and their lone loss was at tight end. Drew Lock is back to lead the offense after throwing for 3,399 yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards and 10 TDs) and Ish Witter (750 yards and 6 TDs) are also returning in the backfield with Lock. The top four receivers also return: J’Mon Moore (1,012 yards and 8 TDs), Dimetrios Mason (587 and 3 TDs), Johnathon Johnson (435 and 2 TDs), and Emanuel Hall (307 and 2 TDs).
The offense looks wonderful on paper and they open with four straight home games versus Missouri State, South Carolina, Purdue, and Auburn. The offense may need to be even better because the defense was very porous last year (31.5 points and 480 yards per game). In addition, the Tigers averaged only 22.6 points per game in SEC play, a mark that will need to go up if the Tigers want to contend for a bowl game.
Teams like Alabama (38.8 PPG in 2016), Texas A&M (34.8), Auburn (31.2), Arkansas (30.3), and even Kentucky (30) pose a threat to score more (especially the Tide with their main pieces returning). However, Missouri’s offense returns nearly intact and should fare even better in the second year under Odom.
That concludes the fourth set of five predictions for the 2017 college football season. Check back next week for the final five predictions, which will include two predictions for the SEC and three for the Big 10.
We are taking an in-depth look at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division after looking at the Coastal Division on Tuesday. The Atlantic looks competitive, just like the Coastal division, with any one of four teams having a chance. Below is the schedule of previews completed and those still to come.
Let’s take a closer look at the seven teams in the ACC Atlantic.
1. Clemson Tigers
Dabo Swinney took over in 2009 and has done a wonderful job for Clemson. He has led them to a bowl game each year in charge, but the last few years have been excellent. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, won the ACC Championship in 2011, and been to two Orange Bowls. Will 2015 be more of the same?
The offense has seven starters back including the big pieces on offense. Deshaun Watson was injured last year, but managed to throw for 1,466 yards and 2 touchdowns while also rushing for 200 yards and 5 touchdowns. Wayne Gallman is back to run the ball after rushing for 769 yards and 4 touchdowns with CJ Davidson (248 yards and 3 touchdowns), Adam Choice (218 yards and 1 touchdown), and Tyshon Dye (151 yards and 2 touchdowns) all back as well. The top three receivers return led by Mike Williams (57 catches for 1,030 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Artavis Scott (76 catches for 965 yards and 8 touchdowns). Three starters are gone from the offensive line. Clemson put up 30.8 points and 408 yards per game in 2014 and they should best those numbers with Watson healthy this year.
The worry for Clemson is on defense where only three starters are back after allowing 16.7 points and 261 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line was ravaged by losses with no starters back. Shaq Lawson recorded 34 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss last year in a back-up role. The line is a big worry this year. Linebacker will have Ben Boulware back after recording 40 tackles, 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. The secondary has three starters back led by Jayron Kearse, who had 60 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense is less experienced and they will not match last year’s incredible numbers, but will still be formidable.
Clemson opens the season with Wofford and Appalachian State coming to town before they begin ACC play. The other two non-conference opponents are much tougher against Notre Dame at home and South Carolina on the road. Clemson has to face Louisville, North Carolina State, and Syracuse on the road while taking on Boston College, Florida State, and Wake Forest at home. They also draw Georgia Tech (home) and Miami (road) from the Coastal, but they can win both of those games. Clemson is picked to win the ACC Atlantic, but their margin for error is small.
2. North Carolina State Wolfpack
Dave Doeren came to North Carolina State in 2013 after two season at Northern Illinois. Doeren led the Wolfpack to a 3-9 record, but made a big jump last year to 8-5. Doeren’s coaching has clearly been effective in both the win column and the numbers on paper. 2015 is the third year for Doeren and could lead to a surprise.
The offense went from 22.8 points and 404 yards per game in 2013 to 30.2 points and 409 yards offense per game in 2014. There are seven starters back in 2015 (same number as 2014) including at the skill positions. Jacoby Brissett threw for 2,606 yards with 23 touchdowns while keeping the interceptions low at 5. He ran for 529 yards and 3 touchdowns and is back along with the top two rushers last year. ShadrachThornton ran for 907 yards and 9 touchdowns while Matt Dayes had 573 yards and 8 touchdowns. Tight end David Grinnage is the top returning receiver with 27 catches for 358 yards and 5 touchdowns. Bra’Lon Cherry had 27 catches for 354 yards and 3 touchdowns while Dayes was fourth on the team last year with 32 catches for 321 yards and 5 touchdowns. Three starters are back on the offensive line and the development of two more wide receivers will likely lead the offense to higher numbers in 2015.
The defense went from 30.2 points and 399 yards per game in Doeren’s first season in 2013 with only five starters back. Last year, the defense improved to 27 points and 373 yards per game with seven starters back. There are eight starters returning this year. Mike Rose (46 tackles, 5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss) and BJ Hill (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss) will be back on the line. Jerod Fernandez is the lone linebacker returning. He was second on the team in tackles last year with 78, but also recorded 3 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The secondary returns intact with all five starters back. As a unit, they gave up 205 yards passing per game and allowed 55.8% completions. Strong safety Josh Jones had 56 tackles, 1 sack, 7 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions last year. The defense will continue to improve in Doeren’s third year.
North Carolina State has an easy non-conference schedule. They open with Troy and Eastern Kentucky at home before facing Old Dominion and South Alabama on the road. In conference, they will face Louisville, Clemson, and Syracuse at home while facing Wake Forest, Boston College, and Florida State on the road. They draw Virginia Tech (road) and North Carolina (home) from the Atlantic, which are not easy games. However, the Wolfpack have improved under Doeren and the third year is usually the magical year for coaches. The Wolfpack will pull a few surprises and getting Louisville and Clemson at home helps. NC State is a dark horse contender in the ACC Atlantic.
3. Florida State Seminoles
After Bobby Bowden’s retirement in 2009, Jimbo Fisher took over and the Seminoles have been consistent since then. Florida State has failed to register double digit wins only once in 2011 when they went 9-4. FSU won the National Title in 2013 before losing in the College Football Playoff semifinals last year. Fisher has continued to recruit well, which could mean another dangerous FSU team in 2015.
The 2013 team was incredible on offense averaging 51.6 points and 519 yards per game with Heisman winner Jameis Winston at the helm. The offense came back to earth last year averaging only 33.7 points and 441 yards per game. Winston is gone and Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson is in. Golson threw for 3,445 yards with 29 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year, but was turnover prone at times. DalvinCook ran for 1,008 yards and 8 touchdowns last year, but his status is currently up in the air. The top two receivers are gone, but Travis Rudolph (38 catches for 555 yards and 4 touchdowns), Jesus Wilson (42 catches for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Ermon Lane (13 catches for 267 yards and 1 touchdown) are ready to step up. Another negative is there is only one starter back on the offensive line in RoderickJohnson at left tackle. There is no doubting the talent here, but the lack of experience this year could hurt especially if Golson has a lot of turnovers.
The defense has been excellent under Fisher. Between 2010 and 2013, the defense did not allow more than 20 points or 360 yards per game (three seasons under 300 yards per game). 2014 was the worst season for the defense under Fisher with 25.6 points and 397 yards per game allowed. This year, seven starters are back including the top four tacklers. On the defensive line, DeMarcus Walker and Derrick Mitchell are back with Walker recording 38 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 tackles for loss. Linebacker is loaded with ReggieNorthrup and Terrance Smith both returning. Northrup led FSU with 122 tackles while also recording 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss, and an interception. Smith was the #3 tackler with 87 and also put up 3.5 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions. The secondary is also loaded with three starters back led by Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey had 79 tackles (#4 on the team), 3 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. It is no surprise he was named a 2nd Team All-American last year. The defense will be better in 2015.
Florida State opens with Texas State and South Florida both visiting Tallahassee. Their non-conference schedule ends with the final two games of the season against Chattanooga at home and a visit to the Swamp to face Florida. In conference, they will have winnable road games against Boston College and Wake Forest before a stern test against Clemson. Louisville, Syracuse, and North Carolina State will also be visiting Tallahassee. From the Coastal, FSU will take on Georgia Tech (road) and Miami (home). The offense is a bit of a concern, but once again FSU will be a contender to win this division.
4. Louisville Cardinals
Bobby Petrino was here at Louisville from 2003 through 2006 where he won both a C-USA and Big East Championship. Over those four seasons, Louisville went 41-9 and also won the 2007 Orange Bowl. After a failed attempt in the NFL, he returned to coach Arkansas where he went 34-17, but again his tenure ended badly and in controversy. He went to Western Kentucky for a year before replacing Charlie Strong prior to the 2014 season where Louisville went 9-4 in their inaugural ACC season.
Petrino’s teams have always been known for their offense and he will have five starters back in 2015. Last year, the offense put up 31.2 points and 395 yards per game without Teddy Bridgewater. Will Gardner returns after throwing 1,6691 yards with 12 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, who had several injuries during the season. Brandon Radcliff ran for 737 yards and 12 touchdowns and also have Malin Jones available after transferring from Northwestern. The Cardinals lose their top wide receiver in DeVanteParker, but James Quick returns after grabbing 36 passes for 566 yards and 3 touchdowns. Also entering the mix is Ja’Quay Savage from Texas A&M, who was highly touted out of high school. The offensive line has only two starters back, but in year two of Petrino’s offense, this group should be able to match last year’s production.
The defense has only four starters back from a group that allowed 21.8 points and 309 yards per game. The line has two starters back in Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei. Rankins was fourth on the team in tackles last year with 53 while also recording 8 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. The linebacking unit has two starters back in Keith Kelsey (87 tackles and 6 sacks) and James Burgess (71 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 3 picks), but the biggest addition is former TCU and 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Devonte Fields. Fields will be wreaking havoc all year long if he stays healthy and has been cleared to play this season. The secondary has zero returning starters, but two former Georgia players resurface here in Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins. The defense will be solid again in 2015.
Louisville opens the season with a neutral site game in Atlanta versus Auburn before Houston comes to town. The non-conference schedule concludes with Samford in week four and a road game at Kentucky on the final weekend of November. The Cardinals will face North Carolina State, Florida State, and Wake Forest on the road while playing Clemson, Boston College, and Syracuse at home. From the Coastal Division, Louisville will play Virginia (home) and Pittsburgh (road) in two winnable games. Louisville has been picked fourth due to some losses on offense and defense, but do not sell them too short. They can move up in Petrino’s second season and have a chance to win the division.
5. Boston College Eagles
Boston College appeared in two ACC Championship games in 2007 and 2008, but lost both of those contests to Virginia Tech. Since then, BC has not registered higher than eight wins in a season and have had two losing seasons as well. Steve Addazio started in 2013 and has led BC to back-to-back 7-6 seasons with losses in the bowl game each year. Year three for Addazio is a mixed bag with some positives and some negatives.
The offense averaged 26.2 points and 384 yards per game last year despite only two starters back. That number is doubled to four this year, but one of them is not quarterback Tyler Murphy, who accounted for 1,623 yards passing, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also was the leading rusher with 1,184 yards and 11 touchdowns. Darius Wade is likely to win the starting job, but he has thrown only 8 passes (3 completions for 23 yards) in his career. The good news is that the entire running game returns minus Murphy. Jon Hillman ran for 860 yards and 13 touchdowns, Myles Willis had 459 yards and 2 touchdowns, Sherman Alston had 352 yards and 2 touchdowns, Marcus Outlow ran for 243 yards, and Tyler Rouse ran for 214 yards and 3 touchdowns. Dan Crimmins is the top receiver returning with only 305 yards on 25 catches, but the leader was not much better with 27 catches for 346 yards. The wide receivers only had 933 yards combined. The offensive line will be brand new in 2015 with no starters back. Murphy accounted for a lot of production last year and the Eagles may not top last years numbers.
The defense was excellent last year by surrendering only 21.3 points and 324 yards per game and there will be six starters back. The rush defense was incredible giving up 94 yards per game and the entire starting line returns. Mike Strizak had 43 tackles, 1 sack, and 4 tackles for loss while Kevin Kavalec recorded 40 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss. The line is the strength of the defense and will be important to helping the other units come together. Steven Daniels is the lone returning starter at linebacker. Daniels had 72 tackles (#2 on team), 1.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. He will be flanked by the inexperienced, but talented Connor Strachan (12 tackles last season). The secondary has only JustinSimmons back, but he led the team in tackles with 76 as well as recording 1 sack, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense may not match the numbers of 2014, but should be close.
Boston College opens with back-to-back FCS teams at home with Maine and Howard, which puts them in an interesting spot for a bowl game. Should BC win those games, they would then need to win 7 games on the season. If they lose those games, they would still only need to reach 6-6. The other non-conference opponents are Northern Illinois (home) and Notre Dame (Boston). The face Florida State, Wake Forest, and North Carolina State at home while playing Clemson, Louisville, and Syracuse on the road. From the Coastal division, BC will take on Duke (road) and Virginia Tech (home). BC will need an upset to reach a bowl game for the third straight year in 2015, but are capable of getting that upset.
6. Syracuse Orange
Between 2005 and 2009, Syracuse did not win more than four games in a season. In 2010, they went 8-5 before falling back to 5-7 in 2011, but bounced right back up to 8-5 in 2012. Scott Shafer took over in 2013 and led Syracuse to a 7-6 with a bowl victory over Minnesota. Last year, the Orange went 3-9 with eight losses by double digits. A similar season for Shafer could spell the end of his time at Syracuse.
The offense has seven starters back from a team that put up only 17.1 points and 330 yards per game. Quarterback Terrel Hunt threw for 983 yards with 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions in an injury shortened season. AJ Long threw for 935 yards with 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while AustinWilson threw for 253 yards and 4 interceptions. The top two running backs are gone with DevanteMcFarlane the top back. He ran for 169 yards on 28 carries while Ervin Phillips rushed for 194 yards. The top wide out is also gone, but Steve Ishmael (27 catches for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns), Ben Lewis (24 catches for 275 yards and 1 touchdown), Ashton Broyld (15 catches for 174 yards), and BrislyEstime (10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown) all returning. Three starters are back on the offensive line and if the quarterback position stays healthy this year, the numbers can only go up.
The defense was solid last year allowing 24.3 points and 349 yards per game. This year, three starters return with one at each level. Ron Thompson is the lone returning lineman after recording 32 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 5 pass breakups. Marqez Hodge back after recording 38 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss in an injury shortened year. The secondary has Julian Whigam back after recording 28 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and an interception. With the lack of experience on defense, it would be a surprise if the numbers did not regress.
Syracuse opens the season with four consecutive home games against Rhode Island, Wake Forest, Central Michigan, and LSU. They close out the non-conference slate after a bye on the road at South Florida. In conference, the Orange will take on the aforementioned Wake Forest team as well as Pittsburgh and Boston College at home. On the road, they will play Florida State, Louisville, and North Carolina State. From the Coastal division, Syracuse will face Pittsburgh (home) and Clemson (road). It is difficult to see Syracuse navigating their way to a bowl game in 2015 with the inexperienced defense, but could come close.
7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Wake Forest won the 2006 ACC Championship and played in the 2006 Orange Bowl, but lost to Louisville 24-13. Since that magical season, it has been downhill for the Demon Deacons. They went 9-4 in 2007 and 8-5 in 2008, but failed to achieve a winning record since then with only a 2011 bowl loss to show for it. Dave Clawson was hired from Bowling Green to turn around the program and he led the team to a 3-9 record last year.
The offense was putrid last season with only four starters back. The numbers were 14.8 points and 216 yards per game with the rushing offense averaging a pathetic 40 yards per game. John Wolford threw for 2,037 yards with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and he will have his top target back. Cam Serigne, a tight end, caught 54 passes for 531 yards and 5 touchdowns. The top wide receiver from last year is JaredCrump, who caught 32 passes for 339 yards and a touchdown. The running game has the top rushers back in Dezmond Wortham and Isaiah Robinson. Wortham ran for 240 yards on 84 attempts (2.9 YPC) while Robinson had 175 yards and 3 touchdowns on 98 carries (1.8 YPC). The offense should perform better in 2015 in year two of Clawson’s system and a total of seven starters back.
The defense returns seven starters like their offensive counterparts. For as bad as the offense was, the defense was respectable by giving up 26.4 points and 369 yards of offense per game. The line has three starters returning led by Josh Banks, who had 36 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. The linebacking unit has three starters back. Brandon Chubb was second on the team in tackles last year with 109, but also had 3 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker Marquel Lee had 101 tackles (#3 on team) as well as 4 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. The secondary has just Ryan Janvion back, but he was the top tackler at 115. He also recorded 7 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups. The defense could be solid again in 2015.
Wake Forest opens with Elon at home before back-to-back road games versus Syracuse and Army. They face Indiana in week four at home and then travel to Notre Dame in mid-November for the final non-conference game. In addition to Syracuse on the road, Wake Forest will play Boston College and Clemson as well. At home, they will take on Florida State, North Carolina State, and Louisville. From the Coastal, Wake Forest draws North Carolina (road) and Duke (home). Wake Forest will not be contending for a bowl game in 2015, but 3-4 wins would be good for this group.
The ACC Atlantic will come down to the quartet of Clemson, NC State, Florida State, and Louisville. Behind them will be Boston College and Syracuse as that duo will need an upset or two to reach a bowl game. Wake Forest is probably a year or two from a bowl game. Below is the predicted order of finish.
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 JarvionFranklin. 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.
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
3. Western Michigan
4. Ball State
5. Central Michigan
6. Eastern Michigan
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.