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Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale
2013 MAC Preview
Running galore, but Northern Illinois's Jordan Lynch is the MAC's pass master
Batch, Roethlisberger, Leftwich, Gradkowski ... not that long ago, the MAC used to be a hot spot for NFL-quality quarterbacks. This year, the conference is more impressive for its runningbacks - Jahwan Edwards at Ball State, David Fluellen at Toledo, Zurlon Tipton at Central Michigan, Beau Blankenship at Ohio - who hope to pace their teams for close to 1500 yards each. However, one quarterback dominates the headlines going in: Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois, who compares favorably with last year's Heisman winner Johnny Manziel for duel-threat productivity in a small frame (he finished 7th in Heisman voting last year). He should continue to dominate conference discussion as the Huskies head for another MAC title.
In consecutive years, the Huskies have gone from division champs to conference champs to BCS bowl busters, crashing last year's Orange Bowl (to the consternation of many). Their 12-2 record and all that success inevitably led to somebody snapping up head coach Dave Doeren, who now plies his trade at NC State. Rod Carey assumes his role at Northern Illinois after working his way up from offensive line coach. Most of the line returns, but most importantly, so does quarterback Jordan Lynch, a revelation as a successor to Chandler Harnish, with almost 5,000 all-purpose yards and 44 combined scores… and just six interceptions. He is understandably an outsider in the Heisman picture, but to even get an invite to the ceremony, the Huskies may have to go unbeaten. If they can 'upset' a couple of beatable Big 10 teams - Iowa and Purdue - during the first month, they'll just need to take care of business in the MAC. To do all of those things, they'll need a host of replacements to step up on the defensive side. It's hard to imagine Northern Illinois being as good a team as they were last year, given that the defense is retooling and the offense seeking a new wave of receivers, so if they do go undefeated with a lesser team, Lynch will deserve every accolade on offer. However, they'll have to watch that November 13 date with Ball State and be careful not to take their own division for granted. This isn't a year for being distracted by the national stage.
It would be easy to write up the MAC as 'Northern Illinois and their in-conference wannabes', but Ball State have plenty of reasons to think they can usurp the Huskies' MAC throne. All four starting receivers return, including 89-catch. 9-TD WR Willie Snead and 57-catch TE Zane Fakes. Spreading the ball around will be senior QB Keith Wenning, and the Cardinals may have the ground game too in big back Jahwan 'Quake' Edwards, who posted over 1400 yards and 14 TDs last year. The reason for using the word 'may' is that the offensive line lost all but one starter, and they may have to field both sophomores and freshmen. That right there is a weak link. There's one on defense too, where the linebackers are restocking, but they may hide their inexperience behind a line that boasts two 8.5-sack returnees, and in front of a secondary that sees three starters return including both corners. A September 7 game against Army and an October 5 visit to Virginia are both winnable fixtures, meaning that if they can enter November unscathed, that showdown with Northern Illinois could have big bowl implications.
There's talent all over the place on the Rockets offense: star running back David Fluellen rushed for almost 1500 yards and 13 scores last year; QB Terrence Owens makes plays with his arm and feet; receiver Bernard Reedy (with a frame to match his name at a generous 175lbs) snagged 88 balls; plus linemen Zac Kerin and Greg Mancz are big and bold for the running game. However, the defense is a perennial disappointment and the only thing that keeps Toledo from being Northern Illinois. At least they needn't worry about this year's D being exactly the same as last year's - there's barely a starting body back. If they lost a lot of tackles at linebacker and safety, that's only because the defensive line wasn't very good. There could be improvement there this season with seniors Jayrone Elliott and Elijah Jones plus huge JuCo transfer Robert Zimmerman, but it may not be evident early with visits to Florida and Missouri to open the season and a visit to Ball State in September.
In the battle of the MAC's Michigans, it's a case of 'pick one and discard'. But there's something about Tyler Van Tubbergen that at least feels like the genuine quarterbacking article. Thrown into action last season, the now-senior passer lobbed 15 scores, 11 picks, and managed over 1800 yards in just six starts and some garbage time. He has experienced receivers too, but with the line practically starting over, will he have a chance to find them? A new defensive coordinator has a returning LB set to play with, including Desmond Bozeman in the middle, and both starting safeties - Justin Currie and Rontavious Atkins are in the mix, so drawing an experienced line up the middle of the field from senior DT Travonte Boles, there's at least the backbone of a defense. It's still a push to foresee bowl eligibility in the immediate future.
I'll start on defense… because it won't take long. While the Eagles return most of their defensive line, almost everyone beyond it will be new. If they've lost all their tacklers, maybe they shouldn't worry - that was more theory than actuality in any case. If Head Coach Ron English, who doubles as the defensive coordinator can't get this turned around from last year's dismal 2-10 result, he'll surely be gone. His hope would seem to be that, despite a rebuilding offensive line, quarterback Tyler Benz expands on his look-see 2012 role and rides offensive coordinator Stan Parrish's playbook to more victories than Howard (the season opener) and Army (one of their wins a season ago). But more likely they're in a scrap with Central Michigan for the basement.
Receiver Titus Davis is a home run threat and runner Zurlon Tipton had yardage to match Toledo's David Fluellen, but the rest of the Chippewas offense is an unknown, including at quarterback. They'll have to hang in games with a defense that found a resistant streak late last year and which returns seven starters. Mind you, their opponents last season were nothing to write home about offensively, so that may have been a mirage. They somehow won a bowl game in 2012. Reaching one at all in 2013 would be an overachievement.
The Falcons may lack some of the big-name appeal of Ohio or Northern Illinois, and running back Anthon Samuel may have left the school to be closer to his family near FIU, but even without Samuel, Bowling Green returns 17 of 22 starters from a team that want 6-2 in the MAC. It's hard not to favor them in the East. QB Matt Schilz is more steady than star, but he may have to step things up unless someone like Jamel Martin can emerge from the backfield committee. The defense won't give up much though (less than 17 points a game in 2012), and the secondary is stacked, including seniors Jerry 'BooBoo' Gates and Cam Truss. The kicking game is set with punter Brian Schmiedebusch, and the schedule is friendly. The Falcons seem ready to fly.
Only injuries prevented the Bobcats from double-figure wins in 2012, and aside from having to sort out a graduation hit interior line, there's a lot to suggest another 9+ wins is possible for Ohio. There's coach Frank Solich, there's QB Tyler Tettleton (distantly on the Heisman radar), and there's RB Beau Blankenship, who battered for over 1,600 yards last season. If the line isn't quite ready, it'll get all it can handle August 31 at Louisville, with North Texas, Marshall, and Austin Peay all visiting to complete non-conference month. By October, the line, with both returning tackles, should have shaken itself out and the offense should be humming. The defensive line will have to be on the same learning curve if Ohio is to match Bowling Green for the East, but the secondary could be one of the best in the MAC, and with Bowling Green and Kent State both at the end of the schedule, Ohio could make it to the MAC Championship.
The bad news is that after last year's 11-win season, four year starter Spencer Keith is gone and coach Darrell Hazell is in Purdue. Paul Haynes now coaches his alma mater. Whoever quarterbacks the team (2012 backup David Fisher is most likely), the electrifying Dri Archer will provide the lightning to Trayion Durham's thunder. On defense, DT Roosevelt Nix is as long-serving as Keith was on offense, but leads a much changed lineup. On the line and in the secondary, there is experience at least, but the LB corps is an unknown. Dri Archer doubles as a dangerous enough kick returner that the 5-8 175-lber will likely get a look in the big time next year in that capacity. The schedule is a little unkind, adding LSU and Penn State to too many of the MAC's best and not enough of its worst, while a key battle with Bowling Green is just their second game.
The Bulls used to log 6-win seasons - not so you'd notice, but there was that sense of being almost relevant. The past three seasons, two wins, three wins, four wins. Steady progress, but six is overdue. Most of the offensive starters return, but after winning three of the last four games last season, the arm of sophomore Joe Licata takes over from demoted senior Alex Zordich, whose running ability may buy him some snaps. 1000-yard receiver Alex Neutz leads an experienced receiving corps, and their a probable 1000-yarder in tailback Branden Oliver. Former Miami (Ohio) head coach Lou Tepper is the defensive coordinator and his defense boasts 7 returnees including All-MAC linebacker Khalil Mack, and the whole 2012 secondary. If the Licata era continues the way it started late last year, the next couple of years should see the Bulls continue to advance.
Ten years ago, Ben Roethlisberger was their quarterback and they were the dominant Miami, while that other one down south went through its lumps. Since then, the RedHawks have posted some winning seasons - 10-4 as recently as 2010 - but the last couple were 4-8 seasons despite QB Zac Dysert, who is now one of Peyton Manning's understudies in Denver. There's potential for a positive record if QB Austin Boucher (4-0 as a starter) is as remembered from his 2010 relief outings, if the defense is improved by better health up front, and if the RedHawks can get their teeth into a schedule that lacks frighteners (the non-conference includes Marshall, Kentucky, visiting Cincinnati, and Illinois).
Whatever did happen to Terry Bowden? Oh wait, there he is. Try to remember he's in Akron, because he may be giving us little reason to remember for a while, riding that surname, hoping you'll remember he had that unbeaten season 20 years ago, and hoping that one day his massive (in quantity rather than quality) recruiting classes can be moulded into something. Last year, they beat precisely zero FBS teams …again (there was one lopsided win over Morgan State). QB Kyle Pohl (probably) and an experienced receiving corps will be the highlight, and RB Jawon Chisholm will do for now, but there's nothing here to hang a hat on.
After suffering a plague of injuries and winning just one game, the Faculty Senate of Massachusetts nearly pulled the plug on being part of the Football Bowl Subdivision after just one season. At least all those injuries means the program accelerated the learning curve of the rest of the roster, so that matches the urgency to impress. A whole bunch of freshmen will be veterans of adversity this year. And yet, there'll still be fairly green on the line, at receiver, at defensive tackle... It'll probably be a last place for UMass, but the scoreline won't be a week n week out embarrassment as it was in 2012.