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Five Predictions For The Mid-American Conference In 2016

Drew Hare against Boston College in 2015. NIU has been to six straight MAC Championship Games (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)
Drew Hare against Boston College in 2015. NIU has been to six straight MAC Championship Games (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)

Five Predictions For The Mid-American Conference In 2016

The 2016 College Football season is right around the corner and that means prediction time. Below are five predictions for Mid-American Conference for the 2016 season. Some predictions will be right, some predictions will be wrong, and some will be spectacularly awful by the end of the season.

There is one change to the teams in the MAC and that is the loss of Massachusetts as they are now an Independent. That evens out the teams to six in both the East and West. The six East teams are Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Kent State, Miami (OH), and Ohio. The six West teams are Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Western Michigan.

Here are five predictions for the Mid-American Conference in 2016:

1. Northern Illinois will make it 7 straight MAC Title Game Appearances – The Huskies have been a dominant force in the MAC and MAC West by competing in the MAC Championship Game each year since 2010. They have won three of those (2011, 2012, and 2014) and look poised to reach the title game once again in 2016.

For NIU, they will have two main challengers in Western Michigan and Toledo. The Huskies face Western Michigan on the road and play Toledo off campus in Chicago on a Wednesday night at US Cellular Field. The Huskies welcome back seven starters on offense including quarterback Drew Hare (1,962 yards, 63.8%, 14 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions), running back Joel Bouagnon (1,285 yards and 18 touchdowns), and receiver Kenny Galloday (73 catches for 1,129 yards and 10 touchdowns). The defense will bring back six starters from a unit that allowed 27.6 points and 418 yards per game. That unit should have a solid year.

Toledo is coming off a 10-2 season, but is introducing a new coach in Jason Candle and only have 11 starters back (seven on offense and four on defense). Western Michigan seems like the biggest threat because they have eight starters returning on offense (36 points and 491 yards per game in 2015) as well as five on defense (28.3 points and 414 yards per game). The biggest factor for WMU is they face both NIU and Toledo at home, which may give them the slight edge. Still, NIU seems to have a knack for getting it done and that is why they are predicted to make the MAC Championship. Again.

2. Western Michigan will defeat at least one Big Ten opponent in 2016 – The Broncos will be facing two Big Ten foes in the first three weeks of the season when they travel to both Northwestern (Sep. 3) and Illinois (Sep. 17). The first week of the season is always interesting because teams are not in peak form, which leads to upsets (see Northwestern v. Stanford in 2015’s opening week).

The Illinois game looks like the better opportunity for an upset, at least on paper. Lovie Smith is entering his first season as a college coach, but he is taking over a team that has 11 starters back (seven on offense and four on defense) as well as implementing new schemes. The Broncos are entering their fourth year of head coach PJ Fleck‘s schemes.

The Broncos have a history of playing Big Ten teams really tough as well. They lost 23-20 to Illinois in 2011, lost 28-23 to Minnesota in 2012, lost 26-13 to Michigan State in 2013, lost to Purdue 43-34 in 2014, and lost to Michigan State 37-24 last year. All of those games were on the road except last year against the Spartans. Western Michigan is poised for a potentially big year and defeating one (or possibly both) Big Ten schools is not out of the question.

3. The East will be mayhem – It is hard to confidently make a prediction as to which team will win the MAC East in 2016. Bowling Green has a new coach (Mike Jinks) while also losing their quarterback, running back, and three of their top four receivers. Ohio is returning 12 starters (six on each side), but need to find a suitable quarterback and running back combination. Akron has only seven total starters returning in 2016 and lost six of their top seven tacklers on defense as well as their top running back and second and third leading receivers.

Buffalo will be in their second year under Lance Leipold, but have only three starters back on offense. The defense should be solid with eight starters back, but the loss of their top quarterback, top running back, and top two receivers will hurt. They could pull a surprise in 2016 though with a solid defense leading the way. Kent State went only 3-9 in 2015, but they return an incredible 18 starters in 2016 with ten on offense and eight on defense. In addition, they are in year four under Paul Haynes and could make serious strides. Then there is Miami (OH) who also returns ten starters on offense and six on defense. They are in the third year of Chuck Martin‘s reign and could also pull some upsets.

The MAC East has a lot of variables that will produce plenty of action. Sure, Bowling Green may be the favorite, but they are far from a cinch to win the division. Expect some upsets and chaos from the East.

4. Kent State will reach six wins – The Golden Flashes have 18 starters returning with ten on offense and eight on defense. The offense will need to make a massive jump in production if they are to make this prediction come true.

Kent State put up an anemic 13.1 points and 271 yards per game in 2015 despite having eight starters returning. The rush offense was okay putting up 133 yards per game, but the passing attack was horrendous gaining just 138 yards per game. The running game is likely to be anchored by Nick Holley who put up 133 yards in three games last year before an injury, but was more effective in 2014 gaining an average of 4.1 yards per carry. The receiving group has their top nine back and no matter who wins the quarterback job, the passing game will be better.

The defense gave up 26.1 points and 350 yards per game in 2015, which are very respectable numbers in this conference. There are eight starters back for this unit and it should be one of the best in the conference, which will help if the offense struggles again this year.

The Golden Flashes have a non-conference schedule of Penn State and Alabama on the road while playing FCS foes North Carolina A&T and Monmouth at home. In conference, they do draw Western Michigan and Northern Illinois from the West with both games at home, which will likely result in two losses. Their games against Akron (home), Buffalo (road), Miami (OH) (road), Ohio (home), and Bowling Green (away) in the East will dictate their ability to reach the six win plateau. However, the East is up for grabs and if the offense improves, it could be a solid improvement this season.

5. Eastern Michigan will end their four straight years of double digit losses (and not finish last in the West) – Eastern Michigan has not been a very good football program, but not for lack of trying. They went 4-8 in 2007 and 3-9 in 2008 before going with Ron English as their coach for 2009. It did not get better as they went 0-12 in 2009 and then 2-10 in 2010. They improved to an excellent (for this program) 6-6 in 2011, but did not go to a bowl game. The Eagles slipped back to 2-10 in both 2012 and 2013 with English being let go during the 2013 season. 2014 saw EMU go 2-10 and they struggled again in 2015 as they went 1-11. 2016 will be year three under Chris Creighton.

They return 8 starters from an offense that improved 10 points per contest in 2015. They went from 15.2 points and 290 yards per game in 2014 to 25.4 and 380 yards per game in 2015. Quarterback Brogan Roback should improve on his numbers of 2,304 yards (61%) with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The running game and receivers will also benefit from the entire offensive line returning.

The defense has been terrible the last three seasons for Eastern Michigan. Their best effort was in 2014 when they allowed 40.9 points and 499 yards per game. Eight starters are back from last year’s group that allowed 42.1 points and 519 yards per game. Even an improvement to 2012’s bad numbers of 37.6 points and 479 yards per game would go a long way.

The schedule is favorable for Eastern Michigan to win at least three games. They open with Mississippi Valley State at home before road games against Missouri and Charlotte (another winnable game). They close with Wyoming at home. They have to face some tough teams (Bowling Green on the road, Toledo at home, Ohio on the road, Western Michigan on the road, and Northern Illinois at home), but they have a couple winnable conference games. They will face Miami (OH) at home and Ball State on the road, which could both be wins and improve. The Eagles end the season with Central Michigan at home. The Eagles have a decent schedule to navigate their way to possibly four wins (or even five with an upset or two). That would be a very solid improvement for this program.

The Prediction Schedule

With the MAC predictions above, there are now predictions for four conferences in the books. Below are the predictions completed and which conference is next.

July 17 – FBS Independents

July 17 – Sun Belt

July 23 – C-USA

July 24 – MAC

July 30 – American Athletic

July 31 – Mountain West

August 7 – Big 12

August 13 – Atlantic Coast

August 14 – Pac-12

August 20 – Big Ten

August 27 – SEC

Analyzing Illinois’ Hire Of Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against another of his former teams, the Chicago Bears. (Cliff McBride/Getty Images North America)
Lovie Smith as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against another former team, the Chicago Bears. (Cliff McBride/Getty Images North America)

Analyzing Illinois’ Hire Of Lovie Smith

The Illinois Fighting Illini officially hired Lovie Smith on Monday after firing Bill Cubit on Saturday. Cubit’s short tenure ended as bizarrely as it began when he took over for Tim Beckman just days before the start of the season. Now, it ends a month after signing day and his son Ryan was also part of the fallout as he was fired too.

The hiring of Lovie Smith is no doubt a surprise at this point in the off-season, but there are good things that he brings to the Illini. We take a look at the good and bad sides of his hiring.

The Good

  • Lovie Smith is a big name coach – New Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman wanted a big name hire and he got it with Lovie Smith. It is good for the program to be able to bring in a recognizable coach, but as always, how it ends up depends what is produced on the field.
  • Smith brings stability – The contract for Smith calls for $21 million over 6 years, with his base salary increasing by $1 million per year in 2018, 2019, and 2020. No buyout figures have been released, but it is not hard to imagine they would be pretty hefty early in the contract. More importantly though is that Illinois has a coach they will probably keep around for longer than a few years. Tim Beckman stayed three years after going 12-25 and would have been there at least for a fourth season if not for worrisome allegations against him. It is hard to see Smith not getting at least four season as well in Champaign.
  • Smith knows the state of Illinois – Smith coached the Chicago Bears from 2004-2012 finishing his tenure with an 81-63 record as well as a 3-3 playoff record. He coached the Bears to Super 41, a game they lost to Indianapolis 29-17. That NFL head coaching experience will resonate with college players…
  • Smith knows NFL talent – Smith’s ability to recruit NFL talent is not he main priority for Illinois. They will want to see how he does on the field, as well as off the field given their previous coach’s issues. Still, with Smith knowing what it takes to make a roster in the NFL, that will be enough for some recruits to head to Champaign.
  • Smith has previous college and Big Ten coaching experience – Smith has never been a head coach at the collegiate level, but he did spend over a decade in the college ranks on the defensive side from 1983 through 1995. He even had a stop at Wisconsin in 1987 as the linebackers coach and in 1995 at Ohio State as the defensive backs coach.

The Bad

  • Lack of collegiate head coaching experience – This is a concern because being a college coach involves recruiting. Some coaches love it and others do not care for it. Except for the NCAA mandated quiet and dark periods, recruiting is a near non-stop process. In addition, there are limits on how many hours per week the coaches can spend with the players, something that is not present in the NFL.
  • The College versus NFL playing styles – For the most part, the NFL does not have a ton of variation in the amount of offensive schemes to defend against. Yes, there are spread offenses in the NFL, but not nearly to the extent in the college game where talent discrepancies can accentuate defensive breakdowns. Smith may find that some of his defensive schemes work well on the collegiate level while others may need to be scrapped.
  • He does not have his players in place – This one is not on Smith at all, but it is still a major negative for him in his first year. He will not have his preferred type of players for offense and defense thanks to this change occurring a month after signing day. He will, however, have spring practice to help put his schemes in place going into the summer months.

The Unknown

  • Being a big name coach does not mean success – Lovie Smith may be a popular name among the football ranks, but that does not mean he will be a great or even good college head coach. How well and quickly he adapts to the college game will dictate the amount of success he has. This is an unknown because some coaches have been successful going from the NFL to college (i.e. Pete Carroll from New England to USC) while others have not been as successful (i.e. Bill Callahan from Oakland to Nebraska.
  • Smith’s recruiting base – Smith is from Texas, but does that mean anything in the way of recruiting at this point? Smith has never recruited, but that does not mean he cannot do so. He does have the NFL background to help with some recruits, but what about the others who may see something beyond the NFL? It is a mixed bag at this point for Smith in the recruiting department.

Lovie Smith’s hire is a peculiar one by the Illini at this point in the year, but that does not mean it is a bad hire. The good, bad, and unknown of his hiring will not be fully seen by the end of the first year or even the second year, but it is worth seeing how the above points play out over the next few seasons.