By Marc Lawrence
Entering its 64th year of gridiron competition, the MID AMERICAN CONFERENCE will once again play a balanced schedule, meaning each team will play eight conference games in 2010. Let's hope the results are more balanced that last year when only two teams in the MAC West Division managed to finish the season with a winning record. This on the heels of the 2008 campaign when only Buffalo was on the plus side of the ledger inside the East Division.
This is definitely a league that is wide open and one that likes to mix things up. Seven different teams have appeared in the last five MAC Championship games while 11 different MAC schools have appeared in a bowl game in the last five seasons.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
AKRON - *6 / 9
TEAM THEME: GOOD YEAR
After suffering his fourth straight losing season, J.D. Brookhart was quickly bounced from town. Last year's three-win season was the Zips' lowest since 1997 and inevitably meant some rubber was going to meet the road. New HC Ron Ianello leaves his South Bend receivers coach gig and inherits the third youngest team in the nation: twenty-nine players from last season's two-deep squad were either freshman or sophomores. Ianello does welcome back nine starters from a defense that has improved each of the last two seasons and he may be able to zip through the majority of his non-conference matchups. However, he'll need to rely on all of his offensive prowess to repair an attack that regressed 96 YPG and averaged less than 20 points per contest if Akron hopes to rebound from last year's fiasco. Look for the ball to bounce Ianello's way in 2010.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Kentucky (9/18)
BOWLING GREEN - 3 / 4
TEAM THEME: TOO GREEN TO BOWL
The Falcons were picked to finish 5th in the MAC East Division a year ago. After a 1-4 start the pundits appeared on target, but a 6-1 finish lifted the Falcons and rookie HC Dave Clawson to a winning campaign and a trip to the alleys. Another slow start might be in the offing as Clawson must replace 15 starters and 18 seniors from last year's squad - including QB Tyler Sheehan, who accounted for 97% of the team's passing yards since 2007 and star WR Freddie Barnes, who set an NCAA record with 155 receptions last year. This depleted roster must also deal with a schedule that finds them on the road for five of their first seven contests. With only five games taking place in Doyt Perry Stadium, a strong case for a reversal of fortune could be made this season. No Bowling for these Green Falcons in 2010.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Troy (9/4)
BUFFALO - 6 / 8
TEAM THEME: WINGING IT
After resisting tempting offers the previous year, a five-win season had Turner (Gill) putting on the burners and heading for Kansas. Jeff Quinn, a long-time assistant to Brian Kelly, takes over the reins. The veteran OC will be looking to install a new spread offense in upstate New York. Quinn, however, will need to find replacements at QB and the top two WR spots from an offense that averaged over 400 YPG. On the bright side, four offensive linemen are back and eight starters return from a defense that allowed a respectable 24 points and 343 yards per game. With four of their first six games in other pastures, the Bulls' defense will need to lead the stampede and give Quinn's offensive system time to gel. We'll need to see more before we run and gun with these new-look Bulls.
KENT STATE - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: FLASH FORWARD
An 0-3 finish denied the Flashes a winning season for the first time since 2001. An offense that dropped 73 YPG and 7 PPG was the main culprit but it should turn into a strength for HC Doug Martin as nine starters return, including QB Spencer Keith who tossed for over 2,100 yards and 14 TD's as a freshman in 2009. Keith will, once again, be hooking up with WR Tyshon Goode, who excelled in his freshman season while hauling in a team-leading 53 passes and 5 TD's. The backfield is deep as four RB's who have combined to rush for over 5,200 yards in their collegiate careers are back in the mix. If Kent can weather a storm that finds them on the road early and often, look for the Flashes to come up Golden in 2010. A year of experience and a season-ending schedule that finds them home for four of their final five games ensures no late-season collapse this year.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Ohio U (11/26) - *KEY off loss
MIAMI, OHIO - *8 / 9
TEAM THEME: ROCK THE CRADLE
Miami's ‘Cradle of Coaches' (Paul Brown, Carm Cozza, Paul Dietzel, Weeb Ewbank, Ara Parseghian, John Pont and Bo Schembechler) likely turned over in their graves after witnessing the Redhawks cough up a nation-high 32 giveaways to opponents last season. Injuries forced first-year HC Michael Haywood to turn to a bevy of freshmen and sophomores, resulting in a turnover-plagued, 1-11 season. Included in the Pampers' parade was QB Zac Dysert, who passed for over 2,600 yards as a redshirt freshman. Haywood better have this group of toddlers ‘turnover trained' as they leave their Oxford crib for seven games this season, including stops at Gainesville, Missouri and Cincinnati.
The feeling here is Haywood might throw a temper tantrum of his own before this season is said and done.
PLAY ON: vs. Kent St (10/2) - *KEY as dog
OHIO U - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: BOBBING AND WEAVING
We were as wrong as the day is long on our assessment of the Bobcats last year. Or at least on the SU and ATS scoreboards - and that's what ultimately counts! It was our contention that OU would not improve on a 4-8 mark from 2008 without better defensive play and fewer mistakes. The defense did not improve at all while the offense regressed 50 YPG - yet the Bobbies won nine games and hit the alleys. We'll press our bet in 2010, as teams that enjoyed great success without improving their numbers are normally a sure-fire disappointments the following season. In our defense, we turn to our highly popular Midweek Alert newsletter, which points out that the Bobcats were just 4-10 ‘In The Stats' despite the 9-5 SU and 8-5 ATS marks in 2009. Outside of a trip to Columbus, the schedule doesn't appear too daunting. However, after all, you can only ‘Bob' and weave for so long.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Bowling Green (10/9)
TEMPLE - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: THE ‘EYES' HAVE IT
MAC Coach of the Year, Al Golden, took the Owls to new heights last year as Temple enjoyed their first winning season since 1990, their first league title since 1967 and their first bowl appearance in 30 years. The news gets even better as 16 starters return to Philly, including conference defensive Player of the Year and league leader in sacks, DE Adrian Robinson. Nine of those starters, led by SR QB Vaughn Charlton and RB Bernard Pierce, who rushed for 1,361 yards and 16 TD's as a true freshman, return to an offense that tallied 30 PPG last season. There's plenty to like about this group and its coach. With a tough non-conference schedule, there may not be a lot of hooting early but it would be wise to keep both eyes on these Owls. The way we see it, the later in the season, the better for this nocturnal bunch.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Miami Oh (11/23)
BALL ST - *10 / 7
TEAM THEME: PARRISH THE THOUGHT
Could this be the year Stan Parrish (4-42 SU) finally shakes the enigma of being in over his head as an FBS head coach? The signs are there. Since 2005, the Cardinals have committed the 5th fewest turnovers (87) in the nation. The usually well-stocked Ball State offense returned only four starters last season, and it showed as the output dropped by 148 YPG. There's no such dilemma this season, however, as the offense returns virtually intact, led by all-MAC RB MiQuale Lewis. Stan would be wise to rely on the 3rd all-time leading rusher in BSU history to carry the load if he wants to continue to man the Muncie sidelines. By season's end, we'll know if it's either ‘Stan the Man' or ‘Stan gets banned.' One thing we know for sure - Parrish will have to learn how to beat .500 or greater opponents (1-28-1) if he doesn't want the ‘Ball' to drop any further.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Western Michigan (10/9)
CENTRAL MICHIGAN - 6 / 5
TEAM THEME: THE FEVOUR'S GONE
There's no more ‘Fevour' hanging around the Mt. Pleasant campus but new HC Dan Enos may still want to take a couple of aspirins. Not only has record-sitting QB Dan LeFevour left for the NFL, but also Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson, the two most prolific WR's in school history. The 1st-year HC takes over a program that won its seventh MAC title last year - the most of any school since joining the league in 1975. Thanks to LeFevour, Central Michigan won eight or more games each of the last four seasons and appeared in four straight bowl games. The Chippewas have never won eight or more games in five consecutive seasons and with a new coaching staff and signal caller, we're betting ‘never' triumphs once again. Let the Chips fall where they may - just be sure to stand clear.
EASTERN MICHIGAN - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: MAJORING IN ENGLISH
They weren't speaking fluent English at EMU last season where the Eagles suffered through an 0-12 season. "There is no doubt that our players will be bigger, stronger, tougher and coached better than they were a year ago," contends second-year HC Ron English. We certainly hope so. English thinks his Eagles will be much improved in 2010 and we tend to agree. Due to injuries and a lack of depth, 25 newcomers - including nine true freshmen - saw significant playing time last season. Our database is also keeping a close eye on this bunch, noting: winless teams who find themselves favored in any game the following season are 31-21 ATS since 1980, including 21-9 ATS when laying five or more points. That's a lesson in Playbook 101. Now let's see if English could get his message across.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS - *6 / 9
TEAM THEME: KILLING ‘EM SOFTLY
The Kill era is seemingly at a crossroads. While the third-year HC has guided Northern Illinois to a bowl in each of his first two seasons, both of those games ended in losses and all Kill has to show for his effort is a 13-13 record. In fact, his Huskies have yet to beat an opponent with a winning record (0-11). While the defense declined slightly in 2009, it still ranked tops in the MAC and 30th in the nation and remains the strength of the team. Nine return from that highly-rated unit but it did suffer a blow when DE Jake Coffman, the team leader in sacks, decided to skip his senior season. "We did lose some kids... some very good players," said Kill. "But at the same time, we've had some in the program that are growing up. This is the best I've felt since I've been here." We don't want to be a killjoy but that feeling here is that the Dekalb bunch is growing restless.
TOLEDO - 6 / 6
TEAM THEME: BOY WONDERS?
Holy Toledo, Beckman. The second-year head coach saw six true freshmen start at least two games in 2009, including three defensive backs. That's one good reason to explain their 92nd-ranked pass defense. "We have nine seniors and only three who played all four years. So we need leaders to step up from junior, sophomore and even freshmen classes," contends Beckman. The former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator probably didn't sleep too well after seeing his defense stepped on for 38 PPG and over 400 yards of total offense. The young Rockets, though, did manage five wins thanks to an offense that ranked 13th in the nation. However, with just six starters back on each side of the ball and a non-conference schedule that includes three bowlers, it may take some time before Toledo sees lift-off. A fifth straight losing season is likely in the offing.
PLAY ON: vs. Bowling Green (11/17) - *KEY
WESTERN MICHIGAN - 7 / 7
TEAM THEME: SPIN MOVES
The love affair in Kalamazoo is on the ropes. A 1-3 conclusion to the 2009 season denied the Broncos a second straight bowl bid and to that they can thank an offense and a defense that each slid 25 YPG. If 6th-year HC Bill Cubit hopes to keep the yo-yo working (alternating winning and losing seasons each of the four years), he'll need to win every home game possible with three of his six road games against bowl teams - along with a visit to Notre Dame wedged in between! (Note: WMU is just 2-7 SU and ATS in its last nine road games). To make matters worse, QB Tim Hiller has departed, having matched or broke every Broncos' passing record along the way. Only four teams with winning records dot the schedule, so there's a chance Cubit could play cupid in 2010.
PLAY ON: vs. Kent State (11/20)