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It doesn’t matter that Northern Illinois got thumped by Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The MAC was in the BCS – it was a moment.
The conference won’t be within 124 miles of the playoff system when it starts two years from now, and it’ll take a special set of circumstances to get a repeat trip into a spotlight game again at the end of this year, but the conference at least showed the world that it really does play some interesting football that’s worth paying attention to.
That the MAC championship game was for more than just a title – it turned out to be for a BCS game – ramped up the dream for all of the league’s teams. Yes, it really is possible to be a Kent State and go from losing year after year after year to within a whisper of the Orange Bowl. Yes, a Northern Illinois really could think that there’s something special out there beyond winning the conference championship. 2012 was about the MAC’s chance to get into the national discussion – even if much of the dialogue was negative – and it meant that, yeah, it’s time for college football to care about the league a little more.
It’s always been an entertaining conference that’s been great at finding stars from out of left field. Kent State wasn’t on anyone’s radar last season; Miami University was brilliant in 2010 after a miserable 1-11 2009 campaign; Buffalo was a shocker in 2008; Akron came up with a special 2005; and Central Michigan’s march to prominence was a stunner. But, again, just getting into the BCS was the most amazing feat of all.
So who’s it going to be this year?
Will Bowling Green finally be able to put it all together with its great defense and veteran offense? Can Western Michigan bounce back to former glory? Will Buffalo find the right mix on offense to go along with its promising defense? Can Terry Bowden turn things around in his second year at Akron? Will Eastern Michigan ever catch a break and start to produce wins on a regular basis? Throw it all out there – the MAC is the conference for crazy.
But in the end, the conference will likely come down to the big boys once again. Ohio is as rock-solid as ever under Frank Solich, Toledo is dangerous and Northern Illinois is still Northern Illinois.
The spotlight is going to be on a bit more now. The MAC deserves it.
Team That'll Surprise
Western Michigan – The Broncos have to go to Toledo early on, and they have to deal with Northern Illinois in the regular season finale, but in between the MAC schedule works out extremely well with the two road dates at UMass and Eastern Michigan and with no Ohio or Bowling Green to deal with from the East. The offense should have a dangerous ground game, while the defense has enough talent to be better. However, the real excitement comes with the new coaching staff, led by the young P.J. Fleck.
Team That'll Disappoint
Central Michigan - Schedule, schedule, schedule. The 2-5 start last season turned around in a big hurry when the dregs of the MAC came up on the slate. This year there isn’t that big break to rely on. With non-conference games at Michigan, an improved UNLV and NC State, the Chippewas could come out of the gate 1-3 going into MAC play – and New Hampshire isn’t a layup. How are they going to start out in conference action? At Miami, at Ohio, Northern Illinois, at Ball State, at Western Michigan. CMU could reasonably be 1-9 – or 3-7 at best - before finishing up with UMass and Eastern Michigan.
Game of the Year
Northern Illinois at Toledo, Nov. 20 – Western Michigan and Ball State will have their say, and Central Michigan will have a few moments, but the MAC West season could come down to the showdown between the Huskies and the Rockets. This should be a fun and wild shootout – most games between the two have been crazy over the years, and three of the last four have been fantastic. The winner will probably be better than the MAC East champion.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
1. RB David Fluellen, Sr. Toledo
2. RB Beau Blankenship, Sr. Ohio
3. S Luke Wollet, Sr. Kent State
4. LB Jamaal Bass, Jr. Northern Illinois
5. LB Paul Swan, Sr. Bowling Green
Coach on the Hot Seat
Ron English, Eastern Michigan – There was plenty of promise and potential following the 6-6 2011 season, but going 2-10 set it all up for an extremely important 2013. He doesn’t have to win the MAC, but with just two wins or fewer in three of his four seasons, and with a 10-38 record overall, he needs to pull off a shocker to stick around for a fifth season.
5 Non-Conference Games that MAC opponents had better take very, very seriously
1. Toledo at Missouri, Sept. 7
2. Ohio at Louisville, Aug. 31
3. Bowling Green at Indiana, Sept. 14
4. Western Michigan at Iowa, Sept. 21
5. Central Michigan at NC State, Sept. 28
- No, the MAC won’t get back to a BCS game.
- If Akron is going to be better, it’s going to be because of the passing game that welcomes back more than its share of talent. Terry Bowden’s team will be fun and occasionally dangerous, but the defense isn’t talented enough to avoid shootouts.
- Bowling Green’s defense will pick up the slack for all the uncertainty on offense. This is a very, very good looking team, but it didn’t win the MAC title with DT Chris Jones, LB Dwayne Woods and RB Anthon Samuel. All three will be missed.
- The defense is there for Buffalo to be fantastic – the defense was there last year, too. The offense has to stay healthy, and if the right pieces can emerge, and if WR Alex Neutz and RB Branden Oliver can be what they’re supposed to be, this could be a surprise team.
- Where are the wins for Eastern Michigan? After everything went in the tank last year for the Eagles, it’s asking a lot to project another win after opening up with Howard.
- Dri Archer moving to more of a wide receiver role is a good thing for Dri Archer and his shelf life as a possible NFL player, but it’s not a good thing for Kent State. The less he has the ball in his hands, the worse it is for the Golden Flashes.
- Charley Molnar has to keep taking baby steps at UMass. It’s still a young team and the goal is for sustained success sooner than later, but this could be another rough season if the offense can’t start completing the forward pass on a regular basis.
- Miami University is the X factor. The talent is in place at the offensive skills spots to go 8-4, but it’ll more likely hover around 4-8 with little to count on up front on either side of the ball. The defense has to start making plays.
- There’s no real excuse for Ohio to not win the MAC title game. Tyler Tettleton could turn out to be a more effective quarterback than NIU’s Jordan Lynch. There will be times when the Bobcat attack marches up and down the field without a problem.
- I’m not sure how Ball State is so effective with absolutely no defense whatsoever, but QB Keith Wenning and the offense finds ways to pick up the slack. For good and bad, at least for the Cardinals, this might be the MAC’s most fun team. Get ready for shootout after shootout.
- Central Michigan will be better, but the record won’t reflect it. The talent says 7-5, but the schedule says 3-9.
- The coaching staff at Northern Illinois isn’t trying to change much of anything. Jordan Lynch will be Jordan Lynch, and the offense will run up and down the field on a regular basis, but the defense will have too many problems up front to even dare to dream about a return trip to the BCS.
- That was a fun year off, Toledo offense. Now it’s time to get back to normal. There’s too much experience on O to not be deep in the hunt for the MAC title, but it’s going to take a lot of 38-34 shootouts to get there.
- Gut feeling: P.J. Fleck is going to be really good, really fast as the way-too-young head coach at Western Michigan. He doesn’t have the talent to work with to win the MAC title, but he has enough to get to a bowl game.
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. LB Khalil Mack, Sr. Buffalo
2. WR/RB Dri Archer, Sr. Kent State
3. C Zac Kerin, Sr. Toledo
4. S Jerry “BooBoo” Gates, Sr. Bowling Green
5. P Brian Schmiedebusch, Sr. Bowling Green
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. Bowling Green DT Zach Colvin for Chris Jones
2. Toledo LB Junior Sylvestre for Dan Molls
3. Northern Illinois DE Ken Bishop for Sean Progar
4. Central Michigan OT Ramadan Ahmeti for Eric Fisher
5. Kent State OT Reno Rada for Brian Winters