Aug. 4, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

If you like offense, you have to love the MAC.

It might not get a ton of attention, but the MAC features some high-flying offenses who love nothing more than to air it out. Quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour and Tim Hiller led the way while others are just waiting to emerge and shatter another school record.

And sometimes, the MAC offers a few surprises. Not many would have ever expected Buffalo to win the conference crown or for Ball State to flirt with perfection and a possible BCS berth. But that was the MAC circa 2008. What does 2009 have in store?

Plenty of points, that's for sure. And this year, that may be the only sure thing.

East Division

2008 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Scoring wasn't a problem for the Zips last year and it doesn't figure to be this year. New coordinator Shane Montgomery (former Miami (Ohio) head coach) and quarterbacks coach Walt Harris (former Pittsburgh and Stanford head coach) were the big additions during the off-season. They're in charge of directing an offense that averaged 30 points per game. With a skilled set of wide receivers and a senior quarterback returning, on top of a veteran offensive line, things are looking up for the Zips. If only Dennis Kennedy was still around. Akron loses his 17 TDs from last season
Defensive Keys: As many points as Akron scored last year, they allowed just as many. While respectable against the pass, the Zips struggled mightily against the run, allowing 187 yards per game. There are a lot of young faces up front who will be filling in for departed starters. The secondary, however, has experience and considering usually five are on the field at a time that's a good thing. But bottom line, Akron needs to improve its run defense if it wants to improve on those five wins.
Keep An Eye On: QB Chris Jacquemain, WR Deryn Bowser, LB Mike Thomas
All In The Numbers: .92, sacks per game last season for the Zips, 115th in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 10 vs. Ohio
Outlook: With a new stadium opening up, the home faithful should see some offense out of the Zips. The defense is the question mark. The Zips have endured three straight losing seasons and if the defense can keep the team in games late then chances are Akron could add a few more wins to 2008's total and quite possibly find themselves in the thick of things in the MAC East.

Bowling Green
2008 Record: 6-6 (4-4)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 3 defense
Offensive Keys: Bowling Green featured a very respectable offense last season, but that did not prevent the Falcons from changing things up. First year head coach Dave Clawson decided to revert back to a more conventional offense - call it a pro-set or a West Coast Offense, either works. Despite some struggles during spring practice, there isn't a ton of concern considering Tyler Sheehan is back at QB. He's got three starters back on the offensive line and his favorite targets at wide receiver. There could be some issues in September as the unit continues to learn Clawson's offense, but don't expect much of a drop-off, if any.
Defensive Keys: The Falcons are pretty young on this side of the ball so expect to see plenty of freshmen getting playing time. Clawson admitted as much this off-season. With only three starters returning, that's to be expected. But there is some experience returning in the secondary. The run defense, which was suspect in 2008, will be tested early and often.
Keep An Eye On: WR Freddie Barnes, RB Chris Bullock, SS P.J. Mahone
All In The Numbers: 180.8, yards passing allowed by Bowling Green last year, good for 21st in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 3 at Buffalo
Outlook: The early season schedule is going to be a challenge. The Falcons start with Troy and then hit the road for matchups with Missouri and Marshall before a home date with Boise State. If they can keep their head above water in those games, and gain some confidence, then there's no reason why they can't seriously compete for the East Division title.

2008 Record: 8-6 (5-3), MAC East Division Champions, MAC Champions, International Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: The good news is that RB James Starks is back. The bad news is QB Drew Wiley is not. So the Bulls have a big hole to fill behind center. Zach Maynard figures to land the job, but it's not a done deal. Others could steal the job away if Maynard does not impress. But whoever is taking the snaps will have Starks to hand off to. All he did was finish 2008 with 1,333 yards and 16 TDs. Expect similar numbers this year if the offensive line - that's replacing three starters - gels. Buffalo likes to run the ball and there's no reason why they won't run the ball as much as possible this year.
Defensive Keys: If nothing else, the Buffalo defense is opportunistic. We saw that in the MAC Championship game against Ball State where turnovers led to the upset victory over the Cardinals. The Bulls led the conference in turnovers gained and recovered an astounding 25 fumbles. That doesn't figure to change this year with eight starters back and arguably the conference's top secondary returning basically intact.
Keep An Eye On: WR Naaman Roosevelt, FS Mike Newton, SS Davonte Shannon
All In The Numbers: 1.36, turnover margin in 2008, third best in the nation
Deciding Game: Nov. 3 vs. Bowling Green
Outlook: The Bulls are the defending conference champs and few would have even thought they would ever hear those words uttered. But the Bulls are now the hunted instead of the hunter and how they deal with expectations will be interesting. There was potential for Turner Gill to take a job somewhere else, but he stayed in Buffalo and there's no reason to think that the Bulls can't make it to a second straight bowl game and defend that crown.

Kent State
2008 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: He may be 5-foot-5 and only 170 pounds, but when Eugene Jarvis is healthy he's good. Very good. The only problem is keeping him on the field so look for the Golden Flashes to keep his carries down. He's capable of big things as evidenced by his 1,669 yard performance in 2007 when he ran the ball 279 times. He'll have a veteran offensive line to run behind, but unfortunately a new quarterback steps into the fold and wide receiving corps is untested.
Defensive Keys: The run defense was porous, allowing 178.7 yards per game. That can't continue is the Golden Flashes want to be one of the contenders for the East Division crown. There is experience returning, especially in the secondary where three starters return. That's a big help in the pass-happy MAC. They only allowed 216.5 yards per game in the air last season.
Keep An Eye On: WR Tyshon Goode, LB Cobrani Mixon, S Brian Lainhart
All In The Numbers: 230.58, rushing yards per game last season for Kent State, 11th best in the country.
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 vs. Buffalo
Outlook: In terms of the schedule, the Golden Flashes have it easy to start the season with three home games in September. But how will they handle a pair of two-game road trips in October and November? There won't be many secrets on offense. They're going to run the ball to set up the occasional throw down field. Defensively, if the run defense is improved then so should the record from last season.

Miami (Ohio)
2008 Record: 2-10 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Scoring was a chore for the RedHawks last season and the hope is that won't be the case this year under new head coach Michael Haywood. QB Daniel Raudabaugh enters his senior season and his experience is expected to be weighed upon heavily to guide a unit that will feature plenty of new looks. Haywood is revamping the offense so expect less in the way of new age and more old school. He's put an emphasis on bulking up on the front five.
Defensive Keys: Losing your top four tacklers from last year is a tough. So what are the RedHawks going to do? Good question with only a handful of starters back. But a very good passing defense last season (28th in the nation) should be one of the better units in the MAC. Martin Channels is Miami's big defensive tackle who will clog up the middle. It remains to be seen who will step up alongside him. He's going to need all the help he can get after Miami allowed 208 yards per game on the ground.
Keep An Eye On: WR Chris Givens, LB Caleb Bostic, CB Wendell Brunson
All In The Numbers: 4, home games the RedHawks will play at Yager Stadium this fall.
Deciding Game: Nov. 5 at Temple
Outlook: The defense must improve if the RedHawks are going to start to turn things around. Finishing last in the MAC in total defense and second to last in scoring defense last season won't get the job done. Haywood will infuse some new enthusiasm into the program and it could use a jolt since it's been a few season since the RedHawks have seriously competed in the MAC. But this is a proud program, with a storied history, and it only seems like a matter of time before things get going. The schedule is tough with seven games against teams that played in a bowl game last year.

2008 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Last season saw plenty of offense from the Bobcats and 2009 doesn't figure to be any different. Don't expect big changes - Ohio wants to run the ball - but do expect something different out of the quarterback position. Whoever ends up under center will ideally run the ball a little more and provide another added dimension that opposing defenses have to deal with. The battle will be between Boo Jackson and Theo Scott. Whoever wins the job has all of last year's leading runners and receivers to distribute the ball to. But the offensive line is pretty bare in terms of starting experience. With a number of freshmen waiting in the wings, Ohio will hope against all hope that they can avoid any injuries up front.
Defensive Keys: The Bobcats are in pretty good shape with five of their front seven returning. Ohio finished among the top of the conference in rushing and passing defense. That figures to be the same this year barring injury. The secondary has to replace two starters, but does feature what many regard to be among the conference's best in FS Steven Jackson and a pretty good corner in Thad Turner.
Keep An Eye On: WR Taylor Price, WR LaVon Brazill, LB Noah Keller
All In The Numbers: -12, turnover margin for Ohio last year, 110th in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 10 at Buffalo
Outlook: First thing is first for the Bobcats: cut down on those turnovers. If they can hang onto the ball then they have a great chance to compete for the MAC East title. The x-factor for the Bobcats is that return game. Brazill is dangerous on punts and RB Chris Garrett can easily take it all the way every time he touches the ball on kickoffs. Another 4-8 season would be a bitter disappointment considering the amount of talent they now feature.

2008 Record: 5-7 (4-4)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The Owls will be welcoming in a new quarterback, whether that's Vaughn Charlton or Chester Stewart remains to be seen. Charlton has more experience over Stewart, but Stewart started three games last season. Either way, Temple doesn't have to fret handing the offense to a newbie. The Owls have a solid set of running backs to run with, including former linebacker/fullback Lamar McPherson. His size will be welcomed on this side of the ball after Temple only average 95 yards per game on the ground last year.
Defensive Keys: A good defense is built on a solid foundation and the Owls have it in NT Andre Neblett. The All-MAC selection last year is a space eater at 6-foot-2 and 292 pounds. End Junior Galette will bring his 16.5 career sacks to the line to make up a nice one-two combo. All three linebackers return to action and the secondary has plenty of experience. All in all, the Owls have the makings of a pretty good MAC defense. After all, the unit gave up only 23 points per game last season, no easy task in the offensive-minded MAC.
Keep An Eye On: RB Kee-ayre Griffin, WR Jason Harper, SS Dominique Harris
All In The Numbers: 5, games Temple lost by a touchdown for less last season.
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 at Ohio
Outlook: On the verge? Many seem to think so after the Owls came so close to pulling out a number of wins last year. Offensively, they have some talent and if they can get some consistent play out of the quarterback expect them to improve on last year's numbers. The rushing game needs to improve if they're to be a legitimate threat in the MAC East, but with a defense like the Owls are expected to field, there's much more room for error on offense than some other teams will be afforded this fall.

West Division

Ball State
2008 Record: 12-2 (8-0), MAC West Division Champs, GMAC Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 offense
Offensive Keys: To say Ball State will be featuring a new look offense will be putting it mildly. Scheme-wise, the Cardinals will look the same, but without Nate Davis under center Ball State will be a different team. Kelly Page will be taking over at QB and he's going to have a number of freshmen and sophomores to work with. The Cardinals do, however, have MiQuale Lewis returning in the backfield. Lewis had a huge year in 2008 and he'll be relied upon heavily this fall. To expect the offense to be as explosive as it was last year when it averaged nearly 35 points per game could be asking too much.
Defensive Keys: A very respectable unit figures to pick up where it left off last year. Ball State was solid against the run and solid against the pass and with the entire front four returning there's no reason to believe there won't be improvement. They're not the biggest set of linemen in the conference, but they're more than capable of getting the job done. New coordinator Doug Graber takes over the hoping that his unit won't feature a cornerback as its leading tackler for yet another season.
Keep An Eye On: WR Briggs Orsbon, DE Brandon Crawford, LB Davyd Jones
All In The Numbers: 442.5, yards per game averaged by Ball State last year on offense.
Deciding Game: Nov. 18 vs. Central Michigan
Outlook: Ball State was an amazing story last year. Going 12-0 before reaching the MAC Championship, they disappointingly finished the year with two losses. Head coach Brady Hoke took off for San Diego State and Davis bolted to the NFL. In stepped Stan Parrish, the former offensive coordinator, who will try to rally his team into believing that it has another magical run left. It appears that it will be too much to ask of Ball State to repeat last year's dominating regular season. But that doesn't mean they won't be in the thick of things for the MAC West title once again. 

Central Michigan
2008 Record: 8-5 (6-2), Motor City Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 10 defense
Offensive Keys: When you have one of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, you would think there isn't too much to worry about. And for the most part that's the case with the Chippewas. Dan LeFevour will be back under center for his senior season and will most likely put up the big numbers we're so accustomed to. The only question is what will his offensive line look like? There are some holes on both ends and there are worries that the running game could struggle at times. But with the set of receivers that LeFevour has to work with, on top of his great talent, should allow Central Michigan to put up plenty of points, once again.
Defensive Keys: With 10 starters back, Central Michigan should present one of the stoutest defenses in the conference. They were very good against the run last year, but the secondary will be under pressure to improve on last year's numbers. The Chippewas allowed opposing offenses to throw all over them, to the tune of 287.2 yards per game. Part of that falls on the front four, but much of it falls on the corners who must do a better job in man-to-man coverage situations.
Keep An Eye On: RB Bryan Schroeder, DE Frank Zombo, LB Nick Bellore
All In The Numbers: 2005, the last year Central Michigan did not go bowling. 
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 at Western Michigan
Outlook: The Chippewas will be one of the favorites to emerge out of the MAC West. Butch Jones has done a fine job in Mount Pleasant in his two years at the helm following Brian Kelly and when you have a quarterback like LeFevour, it only makes his job that much easier. With an experienced defense and one of the best kick/punt returners in the game in Antonio Brown, the Chippewas appear to be loaded for a run at the conference crown and yet another bowl game.

Eastern Michigan
2008 Record: 3-9 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: It's easy to overlook a 516 yard passing performance, but you could easily make the case that that's what happened to QB Andy Schmitt last season. The senior-to-be had himself a record breaking day against Central Michigan to end last year completing 58 of his 80 attempts. He's going to be the driving force again for the Eagles who should have a very respectable unit this season. Schmitt can rely on running back Terrence Blevins who will have the luxury of running behind four returning starters on offense.
Defensive Keys: There's a lot of room for improvement after last year's disappoint season that saw the Eagles allow over 35 points per game. There are a good amount of starters back so one would think those ugly numbers from last year will look a lot prettier come December. First thing that needs to be addressed is the run defense. Allowing 196.3 yards per game will spell certain doom. New head coach Ron English will import his defensive pedigree on the unit so some sort of turnaround is to be expected.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jacory Stone, TE Josh LeDuc, P Zack Johnson
All In The Numbers:  5, times Eastern Michigan allowed 40 points or more last season, all losses.
Deciding Game: Nov. 1 at Western Michigan
Outlook: English takes over a program that has seen better days. And competing in the MAC West, with other state schools in Central Michigan and Western Michigan, doesn't make his job any easier. He's a well-known name who has coached at some of the biggest schools in the country, but to orchestrate a 180 with the Eagles will be his toughest challenge yet. English will look to plant the seeds for future MAC contention with this group.

Northern Illinois
2008 Record: 6-7 (5-3)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense
Offensive Keys: All things considered, Northern Illinois did rather well for itself last season with a freshman quarterback under center. Chandler Harnish is the man once again to guide the Huskies and he'll have a talented sophomore running back to help him out in Me'co Brown. The problem that's facing the Huskies is who will Harnish throw to? After losing five senior wide receivers that's the most pressing question.
Defensive Keys: Huskies fans better study the depth chart because with only a few starters back, new names and faces will be par for the course this fall. Larry English, one of the best defensive players in the MAC the last several years, is gone from the defensive line. He was a force to be reckoned with and every other team in the conference is thankful he's out of their hair. Only two starters are back for the front seven, but the secondary has some experience, especially at safety. Repeating the defensive performance this unit had last season in the high-flying MAC will be difficult to say the least with so many defections.
Keep An Eye On: C Eddie Adamski, LB Cory Hanson, S David Bryant
All In The Numbers: 18, points per game allowed by the NIU defense last season, 14th best in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 at Ohio
Outlook: Offensively there are a lot of positives to build from last year and plenty of reason to be optimistic. Defensively, there could be a feeling of starting from scratch for head coach Jerry Kill and his staff. The Huskies did a fine job getting to a bowl game last season, but getting back there could prove to be a tall task if the defense doesn't grow up quickly. The kicking game, however, should be sound with Mike Salerno back.

2008 Record: 3-9 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: Fast and furious. That's how the Toledo offense hopes to operate this fall. Featuring four wide on a number of plays, the Rockets are going to spread teams out and mix in a running game that had positive results last year. DeJuane Collins and Morgan Williams are one of the best tandems in the MAC and could very well combine for nearly 2,000 yards rushing when it's all said and done. The offensive line returns all five starters so this offense is poised to score. And based on how they plan on planning - as fast as possible - expect the scoreboard to light up.
Defensive Keys: Defense was not Toledo's strong suit last season so they brought in hew head coach Tim Beckman to address that side of the ball. It starts up front where the front four did not put much pressure on opponents last season. They need to get into the backfield to generate some heat to alleviate the heavy lifting the secondary was forced to do last year.
Keep An Eye On: QB Aaron Opelt, LB Archie Donald, S Barry Church
All In The Numbers: 10, sacks generated by the Rockets in 2008, last in the conference.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 at Miami (Ohio)
Outlook: Only a few seasons ago, Toledo was a perennial player in the MAC West. But three straight losing seasons have forced the Rockets to change things up and they hope that Tim Beckman is their man. Improving on that 31.4 points per game mark will be the first order of business if Beckman plans to make a winner out of Toledo. That may not come this season, but he's looking to lay the foundation for a brighter future.

Western Michigan
2008 Record: 9-4 (6-2), Texas Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 3 defense
Offensive Keys: Scoring wasn't a problem for Western Michigan, nor was passing the ball. And it doesn't figure to be again this fall with QB Tim Hiller. He's an accurate passer who can throw the ball downfield with the best of them in the MAC and probably will find himself on an NFL roster next fall. Hiller has an experienced line to protect him and a nice pair of running backs to rely on. His receiving corps, however, lacks a veteran presence other than Juan Nunez.
Defensive Keys: The defense losses a lot. But the linebacking corps will be the unit's unquestioned strength. Austin Pritchard is the main cog of the defense that will have an entirely new secondary. That doesn't bode well for a team that allowed 254.9 yards per game via the pass. A secondary that's going to feature some young players will be tested and will need help from a defensive line that has only one returning starter.
Keep An Eye On: RB Brandon West, DE Justin Braska, FS Doug Wiggins
All In The Numbers: 29, games Western Michigan has won over the past four seasons.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Central Michigan
Outlook: Western Michigan will be one of the favorites to win the MAC West. That offense will be among the league's best, but it's just a matter of whether the defense can make the big stops when necessary. The road won't be easy with three of their last four games on the road, including a Nov. 7 date at Michigan State and two straight games against Central Michigan and Buffalo in October. The Broncos have been to two straight bowl games and they have - despite some flaws - the tools to make it three in a row.