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The addition of bottom-feeder Temple as a full time member in 2007 didn't help to dispute the notion either, as Al Golden's team finished a seemingly unremarkable 4-8 in their first year of conference play. In total only three MAC teams finished the year above .500, a paltry figure compared to year's past
Yet for all the struggles MAC members went through last year, the state of the conference looks bright coming into the upcoming season. It's rare that whole conferences can be classified as "young" or "inexperienced," but if there is one theme that tied MAC teams together in 2007 it may be exactly that. Fortunately for the conference inexperience has a way of eventually manifesting itself into experience, a theme which should carry the conference to a more competitive 2008. Amazingly, eleven MAC teams will return 15 or more starters from their 2007 squads this season, with the only two teams returning fewer (Ohio and Akron) still returning 13 total starters. Perhaps equally important to the MAC's revival is the star power coming back to the conference from a year ago. The conference returns its version of Tim Tebow in Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, while Kent State's Eugune Jarvis is already drawing comparisons to former Northern Illinois star Garret Wolfe. And don't forget above defensive talent either, as Miami's (Oh) defense, lead by all-star candidates Clayton Mullins and Joey Hudson, features some of the best non-BCS defensive players anywhere in the country.
MAC teams probably won't dominate out-of-conference BCS competition in 2008, but there are some intriguing matchups where much improved MAC teams figure to have good shots at pulling off the upsets. Central Michigan proved they could finally get close to Purdue in the Motor City Bowl last year, and with the Boilermakers on the slate once again in 2009 the Chippewas may finally get their revenge. Likewise a stout Miami (Oh) defense will see Vanderbilt again after losing to the Commodores by eleven last season, while an explosive and veteran Ball State offense should give a rebuilding Indiana a run for their money. All things considered, 2008 should be a much more competitive season for the MAC, both within the conference and in out-of-conference play.
Year of the Quarterback?
One of the bigger storylines around the country going into the 2008 season has been the expected strength of the quarterbacks in the Big 12 conference. With the likes of Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Texas' Colt McCoy, and Missouri's Chase Daniel (not to mention Todd Reesing, Stephen McGee, and a host of others) the Big 12 has a legitimate argument of hosting the best group of quarterbacks of any conference in the country. While perhaps not packing as much star power as the Big 12's crop of quarterbacks, the MAC's tradition of superb quarterback play also looks strong in 2008, as a solid group of veteran players (including several legitimate NFL prospects) return to lead their respective teams. Consider for a moment that the MAC returns six starting quarterbacks with pass efficiency ratings of over 130.00 from last season, a number higher than any other conference (BCS or non-BCS) in the entire country. Also consider that the MAC returns four starting quarterbacks in 2008 who threw for 20 or more touchdowns last season, a number higher than any other non-BCS conference. Yet even with this established footing, and even with a well known tradition of signal callers who have gone on to the NFL, most college football fans would be hard-pressed to tell you the names of these seemingly anonymous field generals.
Well, maybe not all of them. Most casual college football fans are by now aware of duel-threat Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour, who was named the MAC's Offensive Player of the Year last season en route to leading the Chippewas to a conference title. Yet even beyond LeFevour's gaudy numbers, the conference is stacked with its fair share of highly effective drop-back and duel-threat signal callers.
Take Buffalo's Drew Willy for example. Willy, a rising senior from Randolph, NJ, seemed destined to serve out a rather unremarkable career at Buffalo until the arrival of Coach Turner Gill three years ago. Gill's arrival, not to mention the arrival of a new group of skill position players, has helped Willy mature into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. Already the holder of many school passing records, Willy completed nearly 70% of his pass attempts from a season ago. He has already been named to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award watch list, and with another offseason under Coach Gill under his belt should continue to improve through 2008.
If you're looking for the next duel-threat star out of the MAC, look no further than Eastern Michigan's Andy Schmitt, who at 6'4, 238 directs Eastern Michigan's spread offense. While injury concerns have slowed his production, he's shown flashes of elite athleticism in Jeff Genyk's system, rushing and passing for a combined 20 touchdowns last season. Thrown into the mix as a redshirt freshmen in 2006, the finally healthy and mature Schmitt is one of the MAC's best kept secrets, and could even direct the Eagles to their first bowl birth since 1987.
And as far as pro prospects are concerned look no further than Ball State's Nate Davis, a rising junior who is already receiving second to third round draft projections by some services. At 6'2 he doesn't overwhelm you with size, but his on-field presence, quick release, and rocket arm make him an ideal passer in today's college or NFL games. Far from a scrambler, Davis nevertheless has enough pocket presence to effectively sidestep blitzers, and shows an uncanny ability to find the open man even when flushed from the pocket. After throwing for more than 3600 yards with a 30-6 touchdown to interception ratio in 2007, it's not unthinkable to see Davis put up even bigger numbers for the Cardinals in 2008, especially with Ball State's entire offense returning.
Together with a group consisting of Bowling Green's Tyler Sheehan, Temple's Adam DiMichele, and Toledo's Aaron Opelt, these four quarterbacks form the core of one of the most underrated units in the entire country, and should be primed to put up even more impressive numbers in 2008.
Up from the Bottom
Several weeks ago in an appearance on the
Inthebleachers.net weekly podcast I told host Brian Sakoswki that either Temple, Eastern Michigan, or Buffalo would be bowl eligible in 2008. Known around the country as traditional bottom feeders that can usually be found amongst the worst teams in the FBS, the assertion that these programs could suddenly find themselves above .500 may have shocked some listeners. Yet as any close follower of the conference will tell you, the signs of impending and perhaps unprecedented success from these three programs have been building for much of the past two seasons, and will likely reach a head coming into 2008. After all, consider that all three teams return at least fifteen starters from last season, including quarterbacks who are now all upperclassman. Each team is being lead by a still relatively new head coach who should be hitting stride with "their" recruits, many of whom were pressed into duty as underclassman. Perhaps most convincing however are the strides made by each of these three teams between 2006 and 2007. Winning a combined four games in 2006 Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, and Temple seemed beyond hopeless; but by winning a combined thirteen games last season the three programs showed remarkable improvement. While nothing is assured in today's game, the next logical step for at least one of these programs (if not all three) would be to post an additional 2-3 wins in 2008, a prospect which will earn one of these former doormats in a bowl game.
For Navy, Tougher Slate in 2008 (July 1st)