Last year, Western Michigan looked much the best from the outset and didn’t disappoint by running the table with 13 straight wins (including a 29-23 win over Ohio in the MAC championship game) before giving Wisconsin everything it wanted in the Cotton Bowl. P.J. Fleck has moved on to Big Ten Minnesota but that MAC looks to be as high-flying as ever and much more wide open.
The Ohio Bobcats won the East in 2016 and with 13 key returning starters and Frank Solich back at the controls for his 13th year, the Bobcats could be in a position to win the MAC title outright for the first time since 1968. Miami, Ohio, and Akron appear to be Ohio’s chief opposition with both teams return solid veteran teams.
The MAC West is the stronger of the two divisions and perennial kingpin Toledo (9-4 last year) will look to reclaim its place at the top. Northern Illinois looks to regain some of its program’s luster after two down years. The Huskies finished 5-7 and were spanked 55-7 by Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Western Michigan was hit hard by graduation but should still be in the hunt with new HC Tim Lester.
Last year, the Bobcats were ravaged by injury but were still able to keep it together and win the East. Solich has a history of playing upperclassmen so returning starters has never been an issue. This year, the Cats are loaded on both sides of the ball. If Ohio can win their two early games against Power conference teams Purdue and Kansas and then stay healthy in conference play, the Bobcats could end six decades of futility and take down the MAC.
The Redhawks have improved their win total all three years of the Chuck Martin regime. Last year, Miami went 0-6 to start the year before closing with six straight wins culminating in a one-point loss to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Seventeen returning starters have the Redhawks definite contenders in the East.
The Zips battled countless injuries en route to a disappointing 5-7 year last year. Terry Bowden returns a veteran club in 2017 and figures to improve. Akron’s biggest problem is its schedule which includes the opener at Penn State plus catching Toledo and Western Michigan out of the West. Still, the Zips have good personnel and will be a factor in the East.
The Falcons won the MAC in 2013 and 2015 but last year fell on hard times in their first year under new head coach Mike Jinks. Bowling Green started the year 1-8 with its lone win a 27-26 decision over FCS Nort Dakota. The B.G.’s were a turnover machine last year at -16 and will need to get that straightened out if it hopes to get into a position to get Bowl eligible in 2017.
Since winning 11 games in 2012, the Golden Flashes have won just 12 games combined over the last four years. Last year, Kent was a sacrificial lamb to Penn State and Alabama but also lost in four OT’s to Nort Carolina A&T. The Golden Flashes play seven road games including at Clemson and at Louisville and will be hard pressed to duplicate last year’s three wins.
The Bulls have been in a downward spiral since winning eight games in 2013. Last year, the Bulls were beaten by Albany in their opener and finished the year 2-10 while somehow managing to beat a pretty good Army team. Buff opens at Minnesota and at a revenge-minded Army and gets Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Ohio at home. At best, the Bulls are still a year or two away from even thinking about getting Bowl eligible.
The 9-4 Rockets had a pretty good year in 2016 but it could have been a great year had they been able to hang on and win at BYU in their fourth game. Toledo returns just five offensive starters from last year’s turbo outfit but one of the returnees is Sr. QB Logan Woodside who can throw the ball around. This year’s keys are finding a defense that can stop somebody and beat a very good Ohio team on the road.
The Huskies won 35 games between 2012-2015 and not used to being as rudely handled as they were in a 5-7 2016. NIU returns just 12 starters but returns good skill people and an excellent secondary which is arguably the best in the MAC. The Huskies draw Buffalo and Kent out of the East and have no excuse to not get to a decent Bowl.
Western Michigan took advantage of its perfect storm last year in having the best year in school history. The Broncos return 12 including five linemen but have upgraded their non-conference schedule to at USC and at Michigan State to start the season and are at Northern Illinois and Toledo to close out league play. New HC Tim Lester is a Bronco legacy who passed for 11,000 yards in the 90’s. The Broncos should get to a Bowl, just not a January Bowl.
It was a strange year for the Chips in 2016. They opened the year 3-0 including their “upset” of Oklahoma State but went just 3-6 the rest of the way while only being a dog twice. CMU was boat-raced 55-10 in the Miami Beach Bowl by Tulsa but return nine offensive starters and key defensive people. The first five games will be critical for the Chips who could gain a lot of confidence by winning two of three road games against power conference Kansas, Syracuse and Boston College.
Last year, the Eagles were the surprise team in college football. The EMU’s were 1-11 in 2015 and 7-41 the prior four years before going 7-6 last year and getting to a Bowl for the first time since 1987. This year’s edition is even better but the schedule is loaded with tough road games including at Toledo. Miami Oh, Northern Illinois, and Central Michigan just in its conference games.
The Cardinals surprised everyone last year by opening up 4-3 before dropping their final five games. Eight return from a pretty good offense that will play six home of which they’ll be favored in all except against Toledo. With a back-loaded second half schedule, Ball State could be a wildcard or spoiler if it can navigate a tricky first half that includes a stretch of three road games in three weeks.