By Marc Lawrence • 

 Entering its 65th year of gridiron competition, the MID AMERICAN CONFERENCE will once again play a balanced schedule, meaning each team will play eight conference games in 2011.

Let’s hope the ledger is more balanced than its been the last two years 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.

Fifteen players from the MAC dotted Super Bowl rosters last year. Only the SEC (16) was better represented. The Pittsburgh Steelers have had the most success using the MAC as a fertile breeding ground. Two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, OH) and Defensive MVP James Harrison (Kent State) hail from the MAC.

Amazingly, when traveling as favorites on the non-conference road the MAC is a staunch 20-4 SU and 16-7-1 ATS laying points, including 7-0 SU and ATS as non-conference road chalk when playing off a double-digit victory.

This is definitely a league that is wide open and one that likes to mix things up. Eight different teams have appeared in the last six MAC Championship games while 12 different MAC schools have appeared in a bowl game in the last six seasons.

And speaking of bowls, keep this note handy once the bowl games roll around: since the 2008 calendar year, MAC bowlers are 3-13 SU and 2-13-1 ATS!

Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 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.

East Division

AKRON – *6 / 7
Team Theme: BLOW OUT

Plain and simple, Ron Ianello's first season with the Zips was a disaster. Following a demoralizing double-overtime home loss to Gardner-Webb, the Rubbermakers proceeded to lose every game thereafter before fixing the flat with a season-ending win over Buffalo (a game in which Akron was outgained by 141 yards). The hiring of defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove is a major upgrade. The former DC for Nebraska and Wisconsin is an accomplished defensive mind and should make an immediate impact with a veteran defense. Thus the onus falls on an offense that finished 119th in the nation. Promising QB Patrick Nicely figures to improve. After five straight losing seasons, the bar has been set low. Stat You Will Like:The Zips are 0-14 SU and 1-12-1 ATS away vs. greater than .400 conference opponents. PASS

BOWLING GREEN - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: SOPHOMORE BLUES

The Falcons fell to 2-10 overall and 1-7 in conference play behind second-year coach Dave Clawson, after going 7-6 and 6-2 in his rookie campaign. The offense was the main culprit, slipping appreciably in 2010 (8 PPG, 108 YPG). The good news is 66 players with at least three years of eligibility return, including QB Matt Schilz, who started 10 games as a freshman last season. First-team all MAC WR Kamar Jorden (96 catches, 1109 yards) is also back. The Falcons aren’t so ‘Green’ this time around and if Clawson can address a rush defense that has allowed over 5.3 YPC the past two seasons, then this group could go ‘Bowling’ for the third time in five years. Stat You Will Like:The Falcons are 12-4 SU and ATS from Game Nine out during the regular season over the last four years, including 7-1 SU and ATS away. PLAY ON: as a dog at Buffalo (11/25)

BUFFALO - *9 / 3
THEME: KILLING ME SOFTYLY
It’s hard to find a lot to like about Buffalo’s 2010 performance, but the 332 YPG that the defense surrendered last season was the best since the Bulls roamed into Division I waters. Unfortunately, the offense slipped into a coma, declining 10 points and 108 yards per contest. And it may not get any better this year as we ‘herd’ the QB spot is unsettled. “It’s open competition at the quarterback position,” said HC Jeff Quinn. “We have four players that will be competing… the thing that really hampered us offensively was that we turned the ball over way too much and lacked the ability to score points.” Yep, that’s a problem… as well as having too many cooks in this kitchen. Stat You Will Like:The Bulls are 1-9 ATS in their last 10 games as conference home favorites. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Akron (11/19)

KENT STATE - *9 / 5
TEAM THEME: PRESSURE. WHAT PRESSURE?
Doug Martin, and his 29-53 record, was tattooed when the Flashes reached out for new coach Darrell Hazell, a nine-year assistant at Ohio State. Hazell arrives with 25 years of college coaching experience and brings a staff that carries 142 years of collegiate expertise. The pressure of guiding the Flashes to their first winning season since 2001 falls in the hands of JR QB Spencer Keith. Keith knows all about pressure as his high school team never punted the ball or kicked a field goal, opting to go for it every time on 4th down. The defense will lean on DT Roosevelt Nix, the first true freshman ever to be named MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Heck, in Columbus that would have warranted a new car! Stat You Will Like:The Golden Flashes’ season opener is against Alabama’s Nick Saban, a KSU alum. PASS

MIAMI OH - *8 / 9
TEAM THEME: TREAD ON ME
In one of the most ill-fated moves witnessed in a long time, former RedHawks head coach Mike Haywood was signed by Pitt, and then fired just 16 days later due to an arrest for domestic violence. The short-lived celebration came on the heels of Miami’s 10-win season and nine-game improvement, the largest turnaround of any FBS team. As a result, Miami went from worst-to-first in the MAC. With Haywood gone, the keys to a well-stocked unit (17 returning starters, 51 letterman) have been handed to Don Treadwell, a Miami grad and recent OC at Michigan State. The QB spot, in particular, is strong with the return of both Zac Dysert and Austin Boucher. Stat You Will Like:Last year, Miami was the first team in NCAA history to go from 10 losses to 10 wins. PLAY AGAINST: at Minnesota (9/17)

OHIO UNIVERSITY – 7 / 3
TEAM THEME: 'O' YES, 'O' NO

It's not often you will find a team that returns a 100% compliment of its starting offensive linemen and 0% of its starting defensive linemen on the opposite side of the ball.  So it is with the 2011 Bobcats as Frank Solich ushers in his seventh season on the sidelines in Athens.  Thus, hopes for a third-straight bowl game hinge not only on the arm a tenuous quarterback situation (Boo Jackson departs with 38 TD's, 4,446 yards and a 136.3 career TD rating) but also a revamped stop-unit that has improved its numbers each of the last three seasons. Plugging the hole in the defensive-line dyke, while somehow reinvigorating a leaderless offense, is the double-tough task at hand. Stat You Will Like:The Bobcats are 20-3 SU and 17-4 ATS vs. .250 or less opponents under Solich. PASS

TEMPLE - *8 / 5
TEAM THEME: NO TEMPLE OF DOOM

How many licks can the Owls take in one season? Being the only eight-win team home for the holidays was hardly the worst news the Owls suffered last year. That paled in comparison to the loss of HC Al Golden, who was lured away by the babes on South Beach. However, insiders tell us that new coach Steve Addazio, former offensive coordinator at Florida State and QB coach to Tom Brady, feels confident his troops can win the MAC this season. While a QB battle ensues between Chester Stewart and Mike Gerardi, how well ‘Daz’ addresses the loss of four all-MAC performers on defense will likely determine the Owls fate in the post-Golden year. Stat You Will Like:The Owls are 6-0 ATS with revenge in Game Three of the season. PLAY ON: as a dog at Ohio U (11/2) - *KEY

West Division

BALL STATE
TEAM THEME: HANGING IN LEMBO
At Dave Letterman’s request, we promised ourselves not to make direct references to testicles in any form whatsoever in this prognosis and instead address the sad sack condition of the Cardinals ever since Brady Hoke bolted for sunny San Diego two years ago. The Stan Parrish experiment saw BSU’s win total shrink considerably more than showering in ice water and now the team’s fate rests in the hands of Pete Lembo. The former head coach at Elon and Lehigh, respectively, employs a unique no-huddle, non-spread offense. Before busting our nuts trying to figure that out, we’ll step back and observe for now. Sorry, but that’s as indirect as we can get. Stat You Will Like:Lembo is one of five new head coaches in the MAC this season. PASS

CENTRAL MICHIGAN - *8 /6
TEAM THEME: TOASTED CHIPS

A three-win season wasn’t quite what freshman coach Dan Enos had envisioned after taking over the reins from Butch Jones, who had garnered 28 victories in his three seasons at CMU. However, with no Dan LeFevour and only 13 seniors on the roster, Enos was forced to play 19 first-time starters. Thus, it was no surprise that the Chips ended the season much like fans at a Jimmy Buffet concert – toasted. Still, this season could be a ‘real beauty’ as more than half of the Chippewas losses (5) last year were by seven points or less and the combination of QB Ryan Radcliffe and WR Cody Wilson returns to Mt. Pleasant. No wasting away for this ‘Mission Team’ this season. Stat You Will Like:The Chippewas are 10-1 SU and 9-2 ATS over the last six years in games against an opponent off a SU underdog win. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Toledo (11/18)

EASTERN MICHIGAN – *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: ENGLISH LESSON

Two wins in a season are hardly worth writing about. Unless, of course, you’re an English major looking to put a new spin on an old story. After going winless in 2009, the Eagles showed some fight last season, posting a pair of road victories as 14.5 and 7-point underdogs, snapping a 14-game road losing skein in the process. It might not be Shakespeare but HC Ron English, his staff and players, have taken the following oath: ‘I will hustle, I will display courage, I will know my assignment and I will care about my teammates.’ According to English, these qualities do not require physical ability but they do require great effort and discipline. Let’s hope it’s a lesson well learned. Stat You Will Like: The nine coaches on the Eagles staff bring 160 years of coaching experience with them. PLAY ON: at Northern Illinois (11/25)

NORTHERN ILLINOIS - *9 / 5
TEAM THEME: HARNISH RACER

In three short years in DeKalb, Jerry Kill rescued the Huskies program, turning them from two-win underdogs into 11-win wonder dogs. As a result, they are less-Kill and more-Doeren these days as Jerry was lured to Minnesota while Dave (Doeren) arrives from Wisconsin. The former Badgers’ defensive coordinator inherits an offense that is loaded with talent, headlined by three-year QB Chandler Harnish, a dual threat who passed for 2,530 yards while running for 830 more. Joining Harnish are his top three wide receivers from last season’s record-breaking squad, along with all five starting offensive lineman. More or less, the Huskies are the team to beat in the MAC. Stat You Will Like: The offensive line allowed just 13 sacks last season. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Wisconsin (9/17)

TOLEDO – 9 / 9
TEAM THEME: CHANGING OF THE GUARD

The Tim Beckman project appears to be taking off rather well as he has improved the Rockets’ fortune in each of his first two years on the job. And with 18 starters back from last year’s bowl squad, touch down brings us round to the Glass Bowl this season. The question becomes whether Toledo can handle the prosperity of this sudden loser-to-winner makeover. According to Beckman, they can. “We know we were successful last year… but the bottom line is we were not in the MAC championship game and we didn’t win the bowl game. The players understand that and they have not accomplished all their goals,” reminds the third-year head coach. Stat You Will Like: Toledo is 7-0 SU and ATS in games off a loss of 20-plus points under Beckman. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Western Michigan (11/8)

WESTERN MICHIGAN - *6 / 8
Team Theme: CUBIT’S CUBE

Last year's 6-6 effort was disappointing for Western Michigan fans but a closer look shows the Broncos’ numbers were up across the board in every offensive and defensive category. That’s what we call gently kicking up a storm, meaning the ingredients are in place for a profitable (read: $$$) season in 2011. QB Alex Carder (3,334 yards, 30 TD’s, 63.1 completion percentage) – who started every game last year – is back, along with his favorite WR Jordan White, the WMU record-holder for receiving yards. Tread carefully, though: head coach Bill Cubit needs to solve his puzzling 14-26-5 ATS run over the past four seasons with the Broncos. Stat You Will Like: Cubit is 1-9-1 ATS home vs. an opponent seeking revenge. PLAY ON: vs. Central Michigan (9/17)

Be sure to check back here next Monday, July 25th for Marc’s 2011 MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE Football Preview!