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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
West, Tier 1: Central Michigan; Ball State
Okay, let's talk quarterbacks. The MAC West has a few of them, and the battle between Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan and Nate Davis of Ball State figures to be the marquee battle of the conference calendar. Coach Butch Jones doesn't just want to win the MAC this year, he wants Dan LeFevour in the Heisman talk. LeFevour is a Tebow–like talent, manifesting 4,774 yards of offense and 46 combined TDs in 2007. For him to be at the center of Heisman talk, the Chippewas will need to mount an assault on the Top 25. The running game is experienced and contributed 16 TDs last season, and 15 starters return between both sides of the ball. Only snag is, that defense was terrible — in their six losses last season, the Chippewas surrendered a low of 44 points and a high of 70. For now, Dan LeFevour will have fling everything he can when he gets the national stage September 6 in Georgia, and dream of nothing grander than a MAC championship.
The reason Ball State falls below Central Michigan in these rankings is defense (so what's new? — this is the MAC!). There's not even any guarantee that Western Michigan's experienced secondary isn't enough to out–grade Ball State if the Cardinals look to get involved in a shootout. But they'll take their chances: Davis threw for 30 TDs and just six picks in 2007, TE Darius Hill might top 1000 yards this season, and WR Dante Love contributed almost 2700 all purpose yards. The entire offensive line returns, so there's no reason to think the Ball State offense is going to slow down. Ball State were only 7–6 last year, but have a legitimate shot at 10 wins and some poll votes by season's end.
Tier 2: Western Michigan; Toledo
Both Western Michigan and Toledo have aspirations after 5–7 seasons last year. Both have passing games of note, Western Michigan QB Tim Hiller (3020 yards, 20 TDs) throwing to WR Jamarko Simmons (84 catches, almost 1000 yards) amongst others, and Toledo passer Aaron Opelt having rangy receivers Stephen Williams (73 catches) and Nick Moore (60 catches) available. The problem for both — and this is why I'm doing them the indignity of lumping them together — is that they couldn't stop other people from scoring straight back. Toledo bled touchdown passes last season, 12 more than they scored, and they don't even have Jalen Parmele (now a Miami Dolphin) to provide 1500 yards and 14 TDs to slow things down. Consider replacement runner DaJuane Collins the most underrated piece of the puzzle for Toledo this year. Between the two, Western Michigan is the most likely to claim third place in the West behind Ball State, if only because every defensive starter is back. The Broncos will simply outscore people.
Tier 3: Eastern Michigan
The problem is not the Eastern Michigan passing game. Andy Schmitt produced 20 scores with his arm or his feet last season, with only 6 interceptions; his leading receivers are back; and the offensive line returns some experienced players. This team had no trouble scoring points. However, this season they play a lot of teams that also scored a lot of points, and the team will be without two DLs who will be playing on Sundays, plus rusher Pierre Walker's gone too. That'll leave them on the outside looking in come bowl season.
Tier 4: Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois RB Justin Anderson could get himself noticed this year, especially if he can help NIU off the MAC West floor. As a sophomore, Anderson managed 1245 yards, and the line is largely intact for his junior year. He's a larger, more durable runner than one–time Huskies scatback Garrett Wolfe, and with 45 catches last year could soon be on the NFL radar. If coach Jerry Kill can persuade Anderson to return in 2009, a passing game and pass defense might be added and the Huskies might climb into the mix in the MAC.
East, Tier 1: Bowling Green
Last year, Bowling Green surrendered 55 points to Boston College, 47 to Miami of Ohio, and 63 to Tulsa. Even when they won, it was a shootout. But that experience did two things. First, it gave the defense plenty of tape to analyze — the talent level is sufficient to do a lot better. Second, it showed what QB Tyler Sheehan could do, as he lobbed for 3,264 yards and 23 TDs. With RB Anthony Turner rushing for over 500 yards and 9 scores after moving across from QB, Bowling Green may only have scratched the surface. If the offense and defense both progress, the MAC East and MAC title game might not be the end of it. Already some have speculated whether the Falcons could worry the pollsters with BCS claims. They'll have to get past road trips to Pittsburgh and Boise State during the first month if they want to run the table. My guess is that the MAC title game is in their destiny, but Ball State or Central Michigan end any BCS dreams there.
Tier 2: Miami of Ohio
Miami University were in the MAC title game last year, but expecting a repeat might be unfair. They are weak at the skill positions after the rushing game graduated, and QB Daniel Raudabaugh threw as many picks as scores last time out with only a 54% completion rate. Overall, they went 6–7 last season, so that MAC East title is misleading. On a more positive note, much of a capable defense returns, including DE Joe Coniglio and LB Joe Hudson. Special teams will also help Miami U stay in the hunt, but hanging onto the Falcons will be harder this time around.
Tier 3: Temple; Ohio; Buffalo; Akron
Temple football may have found a home in the MAC after a torrid time in the Big East and a couple of seasons as an independent. In their debut MAC season, the Owls went 4–4 (4–8 overall), winning 4 of their last 7. Betterment might be tough, but they do have almost the entire defense back, most of the offensive line returns and QB Adam DiMichele is back from injury. It doesn't mean a breakthrough for Temple, but a 5–7 season or even 6–6 isn't beyond reach.
Ohio has an able secondary, and Jameson Hartke is a monster at DE, meaning the Bobcats at least have some defense against the MAC's offenses. The problem is while they have a passing game too, it's not of the calibre of the big MAC names, and Chris Garret must somehow replace Kalvin McRae at RB. Coach Frank Solich has a job on his hands progressing Ohio beyond their 6–6 mark last year with a team that just isn't special on offense or defense.
Buffalo has a lot of people back on a team that went 5–7 last year. If a 6–6 doesn't sound like a big deal to you or I, a non–losing season would be a nice tenth anniversary gift for the Bulls' time in 1–A. Most notable amongst the returnees are the receivers and the offensive line. Senior Drew Willie should take advantage of both. The iffy secondary also returns, but that's perhaps not such a good thing in a conference thick will capable passers, and with the likes of Pittsburgh and Missouri as non–conference foes.
Coach JD Brookhart's first three seasons at Akron garnered an 18–18 record, but last year the Zips slipped, ending 4–8. This year, they will be banking on RB Andrew Johnson, a Miami transfer who was hotly recruited, becoming the centerpiece of their offense behind a four–parts returning line. Last year's runner Bryan Williams shifts all the way to safety in a desperation bid to solve their defensive woes. The shuffles will improve the team, but adjustment must be swift if an August 30 date with Wisconsin and a September 13 date with Ball State aren't to demoralize the Zips.
Tier 4: Kent State
With Iowa State and Delaware State in the first two weeks, Kent State will be looking to start 2–1. It might get a little dismal thereafter. The prolonged health of miniature yardage–maker RB Eugene Jarvis (1,670 yards, 10TDs in 2007) will be the difference between 0–12 and 4–8 (at best).