It’s been three years since Northern Illinois sneaked into a BCS Bowl, losing to Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl, and since that time, the Mid-American Conference has fallen a few spots in the conference ladder, just barely beginning the 2015-16 season ahead of Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference.
There are talented teams in both MAC divisions, but overall, the league has gotten a few points weaker in recent years. In the past three seasons, this league is just 4-13 in bowl games, many of those losses to mediocre opponents. And, last year, MAC teams went 4-20 against teams from Big 6 conferences. Those four beaten big boys were Pittsburgh, Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern. Among the 20 losses were Big Six Conference lightweights Colorado and Vanderbilt, as well as the aforementioned Purdue Boilermakers. Additional losses to the likes of Eastern Kentucky and Army (twice) knocked this league down a few more notches.
2015 brings a new outlook for the Big Ten’s stepbrother. The league will produce a few future NFL players, and we believe this might be the season where the MAC breaks even or even finished above .500 in the bowl picture.
The East Division figures to be four deep in contenders, with Bowling Green leading the way. Second year coach Dino Babers won the division in his first year at the helm, as the Falcons found a way to win close games. However, a three-game losing streak to close out the regular season spoiled a possible repeat of 2013. This year, Babers’ squad is loaded on offense and should score up to 35 points per game, but the defense may be just as generous. The key is the BGU secondary, which is thin to start the season.
Frank Solich once had his alma mater, Nebraska, at the number one spot in the nation and on the cusp of becoming another national champion like the 1997, 1995, 1994, 1971, and 1970 teams. An unbelievable upset blowout loss at Colorado on Black Friday of 2001 basically started the ball rolling to his dismissal in Lincoln, and led to his arrival in Athens, Ohio, where Solich has guided the Ohio Bobcats to a 72-56 record and six bowl trips in his ten-year tenure. Solich’s Bobcats figure to be right on Bowling Green’s heels this year, and the Wednesday night, November 4 game at BGU could determine which East team will play in the MAC Championship Game.
Our sleeper team in the league this year is UMass. The Minutemen have yet to challenge in their first three years in the league, but we have a sneaky suspicion that Coach Mark Whipple’s crew is going to matter in the East Division race this year. The UMass offense is going to be lethal at times this season with the league’s top quarterback and two of the top receivers. Whipple’s Minutemen will not be a one trick pony. The defense should improve by as much as a touchdown per game, and we believe UMass will be bowl eligible. The bowl invitation may not arrive, but a 6-6 season would be enough to create a lot more support in Amherst.
Akron has become a “sexy” pick among the MAC Media, as they believe Coach Terry Bowden is about to turn the corner in the land of rubber. We believe the Zips will vie with UMass for third place, but any of the top four in this division could make it to the Championship Game. Former Louisville wideout Michaelee Harris could be the added ingredient that proves the media to be a modern day Nostradamus.
Kent State is not that far behind the four contenders, but the Golden Flashes have a killer schedule that includes road games against Illinois, Minnesota, Toledo, Ohio, and Akron, and a home game against Marshall. Basically, to make it to .500, the Flashes will have to win the rest of their games, and since the rest of their games include Bowling Green, there is not a path to bowl eligibility this season.
Buffalo and Miami (O) will fight it out in an attempt to avoid the cellar, as these two teams will be out of bowl contention before November. Buffalo actually has some decent talent, but the Bulls don’t have enough to compete with the top four in the MAC East. Miami must be fortunate to draw an opening home game against Presbyterian. A loss to the Blue Hose would mean the Redhawks would be 0-9 when Eastern Michigan comes to Oxford.
The West Division has three very talented squads that are no more than a field goal apart in our ratings to start the season. Any of the top three could state an excellent case as to why they are the best of the trio.
To start 2015, we rate Western Michigan as the best in the division and the league. Coach P. J. Fleck was on a possible hot seat after a 1-11 innaugural season. In year two, the Broncos put together a six-game winning streak that finally ended in the season finale against Northern Illinois in a game that had WMU won, would have been enough to take a piece of the division title. With the bulk of the team that surprised with an 8-4 regular season mark returning, including quarterback Zach Terrell, star runnning back Jarvion Franklin, and just about every receiver that caught a pass last year, look for WMU to be the team to beat in the MAC and possibly one to scare Michigan State for a half in the season opener.
Toledo is not as talented as WMU, but the Rockets have a huge advantage over the Broncos. TU hosts WMU as well as Northern Illinois, while WMU must finish out the regular season with back-to-back road games against the other two contenders. Running back Kareem Hunt may be the best back in the league, and he returns as well as quarterback Phillip Ely. The one problem with the Toledo offense is a green blocking quintet. If the young offensive linemen improve enough by November, then TU will become the favorite to win the division flag. If the group never puts it together, then even hosting the other two contenders may not matter.
As for Northern Illinois, the Huskies may have the best defense of the three contenders, but the offense is the weakest of the three contenders. It could be trouble for NIU having to play at Ohio State and at Boston College in back-to-back weeks, and injuries could accumulate and cause the Huskies trouble the following week, when they continue their road trip at Central Michigan.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo has done an admirable job in Muncie, Indiana, in his four years there. He took over a program that had dropped to the cellar in the West Division, even falling below Eastern Michigan, and he has produced 6-6, 9-4, 10-3, and 5-7 records. This year’s Cardinals squad should be considerably better than last year’s team, but the schedule is not all that favorable. Among their four non-conference games, BSU plays at Texas A&M and at Northwestern. There is still a good chance that Lembo can guide this squad back to bowl eligibility.
There was a time when Central Michigan was the class of the league under former coaches Butch Jones and Brian Kelly. The last three years, Coach Dan Enos took the Chippewas to two bowl games and had a bowl eligible team the other year. However, Enos did not receive a lot of support in Mt. Pleasant, so after last year’s 7-6 season, he resigned to accept the offensive coordinator’s position at Arkansas. New coach John Bonamego has the unenviable task of starting over with a thinned group of Chippewas, and we believe CMU will fall back in the pack just barely ahead of perennial cellar-dweller Eastern Michigan.
Eastern Michigan has suffered through three consecutive 2-10 seasons, and a rebuilding offense will keep the Eagles at two or even fewer wins this year.
Here is a look at the MAC Media Preseason Poll.
|Mid-American Conference Media Poll|
|MAC East Division|
|MAC West Division|
|2015 MAC Championship Game Winner: Toledo (9);|
|Western Michigan (8); Northern Illinois (6); Central Michigan (1).|
The MAC Media did not vote on an official preseason All-Conference Team, so we have included the highest-rated players at each position according to our PiRate Ratings formula.
|Conference USA Preseason All-Conference Team|
|Running Back||Kareem Hunt||Toledo|
|Running Back||Javion Franklin||Western Michigan|
|Running Back||Anthone Taylor||Buffalo|
|Running Back||Travis Greene||Bowling Green|
|Wide Receiver||Roger Lewis||Bowling Green|
|Wide Receiver||Tajae Sharp||Massachusetts|
|Wide Receiver||Corey Davis||Western Michigan|
|Wide Receiver||Ron Willoughby||Buffalo|
|Tight End||Rodney Mills||Massachusetts|
|Offensive Line||Andrew Ness||Northern Illinois|
|Offensive Line||James Kristof||Western Michigan|
|Offensive Line||Alex Huettel||Bowling Green|
|Offensive Line||Willie Beavers||Western Michigan|
|Offensive Line||Steven Bell||Ball St.|
|Defensive Line||Trent Voss||Toledo|
|Defensive Line||Tarell Basham||Ohio U|
|Defensive Line||Perez Ford||Northern Illinois|
|Defensive Line||Pat O’Connor||Eastern Michigan|
|Defensive Line||Orion Jones||Toledo|
|Linebacker||Great Ibe||Eastern Michigan|
|Defensive Back||Paris Logan||Northern Illinois|
|Defensive Back||Randall Jette||Massachusetts|
|Defensive Back||Ronald Zamort||Western Michigan|
|Defensive Back||Nate Holley||Kent St.|
|Defensive Back||Tony Annese||Central Michigan|
|Defensive Back||Marlon Moore||Northern Illinois|
|Kicker||Tyler Tate||Bowling Green|
|Punter||Anthony Melchiori||Kent St.|
|Kick Returner||Darius Phillips||Western Michigan|
|Punt Returner||Ryan Burbrink||Bowling Green|
|Long Snapper||Wyatt Pfeifer||Western Michigan|
Here is how our three PiRate Ratings and the average of the three look to begin the season.
Here is our PiRate Rating Predictions and Bowl Projections.
|PiRate Ratings Predicted Records|
|1||Bowling Green||7-1||7-6 ^||Boca Raton|
|2||Ohio U||5-3||7-5||Idaho Potato|
|1||Western Michigan||7-1||10-3 *||GoDaddy|
|4||Ball St.||4-4||6-6||Bowl Elig.|
|*||Wins Title Game|
|^||Loses Title Game|
|Bowl Elig. means the team will probably be left out of the bowls.|
Coming up next: The Mountain West Conference