TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE MAC--PART I
Following is our Mid-American Conference preview, courtesy Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano. First, we take a look at the West half of the loop before concluding with the East in our next installment. As usual, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2015 straight-up, spread, and over/under results included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
NORTHERN ILLINOIS (SUR 8-6; PSR 9-5; O-U 7-7)...It’s difficult to make a case for a team other than Northern Illinois in the MAC West. The Huskies have been the West representative in the MAC championship for six straight seasons and are returning 13 starters, including sr. QB Drew Hare, all of their top ground gainers, and some decorated offensive linemen. In 2015, HC Rod Carey ‘s team lost more than three games for the first time since 2009, but one of the losses was to Ohio State by just a TD, and three others came by an average of just 7 points.
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NIU covered nine of its first 11 games before season-closing SU and spread losses to Ohio, Bowling Green (MAC title game), and Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl left a bad taste in Rod Carey’s Huskies’ collective mouths. That late-season nosedive can be linked to a combination of QB injuries, the team’s sudden inability to effectively rush the ball, and to a collapse of the defense’s ability to stop the run. NIU averaged just 1.7 ypc in those games, while yielding 258 ypg. Both figures were out of character compared with the first portion of the season.
Hare looked like a clone of ex-NIU star Jordan Lynch when he took over in 2014, throwing for a 2322 yds. with an 18-2 TD-int. ratio while rushing for 900 yds. and 8 more scores. Last season, Hare was on his way to similar numbers before his season ended with a ruptured Achilles suffered in a Thursday night game against Toledo on Nov. 3. That injury, along with a subsequent injury to backup QB Ryan Graham, set up the season-ending decline. Hare had completed 64% of his passes and had a 14-4 TD-int. count when he was cut down. The team delayed the start of spring drills in hope that Hare would be ready to participate, but he sat out full-team workouts, advancing only to the point of “skeleton” passing drills. On the plus side, Hare’s spring absence allowed Graham and sr. Anthony Maddie (who missed last season due to back surgery) to get reps with the first team and regain their form. But the Huskies need Hare to return to his previous level to be at their best.
Slamming sr. RB Joel Bouagnon gained 1285 yds. and scored 18 times last season, and jr. Jordan Huff added 685 yds. and 8 TDs. An experienced OL is headed by second-team all-MAC left tackle Levon Myers and soph Max Scharping (frosh A-A LY), so the running game should show improvement. However, the Huskie OL has to cut down on last year’s aberrational allowance of 32 sacks. The team yielded an average of less than a sack per game over the previous five seasons, so expect OL coach Joe Tripodi to slash the sacks in half in 2016. If Hare is available to keep defenses honest, the offense could return to the 38 ppg level it achieved in the period from 2010-13. The Huskies have a dangerous target in 6-4 sr. WR Kenny Golladay, a former transfer from North Dakota who was 2nd-team all-MAC last season with 73 catches for 1129 yds. and 10 TDs. Sr. WR Aregeros Turner, who made the all-MAC team for his kick returning ability, should excel after catching 39 LY.
Defensively, the Huskies’ have slipped in terms of points allowed each of the last three seasons, but new d.c. Kevin Kane has plenty to work with. Fifteen of the top 21 tacklers return, including A-A jr. CB Shawun Lurry, who led the country with 9 interceptions. Sr. LB Sean Folliard and jr. S Brandon Mayes combined for 171 tackles, and sr. vet starting DT Mario Jones and NG Corey Thomas add up-front muscle to a pretty solid spine. Jr. DE Alton Meeks (at Iowa St. in ‘14; JC last season) won a job in spring. The NIU defense wasn’t as bad as the 28 ppg and 418 ypg would indicate, as foes gained just 5.2 yds. per play. Only once in the past seven seasons have they posted a better mark. There’s reason to believe NIU’s “D” will get some “bounce” from Kane’s fresh eyes.
Summary...NIU’s 16-4 SU and pointspread record on the road under Carey is impressive—a tribute to his coaching and preparation. The Huskies lost just 15 players from last season’s roster, and they would likely have won 11 or 12 games, as they did in the previous five straight seasons, if Hare had stayed healthy. Still, last year’s results weren’t up to NIU standards, and Carey brought in new offensive (Mike Uremovich) and defensive (Kevin Kane) coordinators. Both men are alumni of the Northern Illinois staff, and therefore the usual “learning curve” doesn’t really apply. The Huskies should hit the ground running in September. And, if Hare remains in good health, they ought to play in the MAC title game for the seventh straight season!
WESTERN MICHIGAN (SUR 8-5; PSR 8-5; O-U 7-5-1)...It’s not often a MAC team could lose two offensive starters to the NFL and still be loaded on that side of the ball, but that’s the case with Western Michigan this season. The departure of WR Daniel Braverman and OT Willie Beavers to the pros will barely slow a Bronco attack that scored 36 ppg and generated 491 ypg last season.
HC P.J. Fleck has turned things around in Kalamazoo, leading the team to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history. Fifth-year sr. QB Zach Terrell has thrown for 6969 yds. with a 55-19 TD-int. ratio in the last two seasons, and he was named second-team all-MAC both years for his efforts. The Broncos return their top three RBs, who combined for 2295 YR and a 5.9 ypc mark. Soph Jamauri Bogan and jr. Jarvion Franklin have been named the outstanding freshmen offensive players of the year in the MAC each of the last two seasons. Bogan scored 16 rushing TDs, and the depth at RB could help alleviate the loss of Braverman. LeVante Bellamy (509 YR, 6.4 ypc) was moved from RB to WR in the spring figures to get ample touches.
The “big dog” of the receiving corps is 6-3 sr. WR Corey Davis, who ranked fifth in the nation with 1436 receiving yards and had 12 TDs last season. Davis is the second-rated player at his position on mny early NFL draft boards, and was named MAC frosh of the year in 2013 before becoming first-team all-conference at wideout the last two seasons. He averaged 153 ypg receiving with 7 scores in the last five games in 2016! In spring work, sr. WRs Michael Henry and 6-2 Carrington Thompson (comeback player of the spring) both impressed the coaching staff and should be ready to step into much larger roles.
The offensive line should be able to replace Beavers at LT, as sr. RT Chukwuma Okorafor was moved to the left side in spring. Sr. Taylor Moton was moved back to RT (where he made 25 starts in 2013 and 2014) after moving to G and being named third-team all-conference last season. Moton is on the Outland Trophy watch list. Soph C John Keenoy proved his worth in 12 starts as a true frosh last season, and with sr. G Jackson Day returning, the unproven weak spot is at RG, where soph Luke Juriga will get his chance.
The Broncos yielded 28 ppg (79th in the country) and 414 ypg (82nd) last season, a fairly significant drop from 2014, when WMU ranked 42nd and 45th, respectively, in those categories. Although this unit has just 5 starters returning, Fleck has attracted some decent defensive talent that has a chance to fill in around a quality base. Jr. LBs Asantay Brown and Caleb Bailey return after ranking 1-2 in tackles last season. Brown had 103 stops and was third-team all-MAC last season, while Baily had a team-high 12 TFLs. Jr. CB Darius Phillips was a second-team all-conference player and is a dangerous kick returner.. And the rapid spring development of speedy RS frosh CB Obbie Jackson (“A tough, tough player,” according to Fleck) should help improve the coverage.
The defensive line left something to be desired a year ago, however, as the Broncos yielded 5.3 ypc and had just 17 sacks. There’s some material for new defensive line coach Jimmy Williams to work with, as 303-lb. sr. NT David Curle and sr. DE Keion Adams (team-high 5½ sacks) both return, while jr. DE Nathan Braster has 41 tackles and 10 starts over the last two seasons.. Williams was an All-American player at Nebraska and did a nice job of improving the effectiveness of the front four in spring work.
Summary....Fleck has made serious inroads in recruiting and has an eye for talent. The success of Bogan, Bellamy and Keenoy offensively is proof of that, as is the recruitment of PK Butch Hampton, a true frosh who enrolled early and showed in spring he’s ready to fill a hole in the kicking game. Fleck’s “row the boat” mantra has caught on with the players. The team has had much better execution the last two years, posting an aggregate +4 in turnovers in 2014-15 compared with a sloppy -22 total in the previous two seasons. The Broncos won their first bowl game last season (45-31 over Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas Bowl), and Fleck appears convinced the team is ready to take the next step. Having MAC West rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo at home this season could help get the team back to the MAC Championship game for the first time since 2000. Pointspread note: WMU is 11-4 as a road dog under Fleck.
TOLEDO (SUR 10-2; PSR 9-2-1; O-U 3-8-1)...Toledo is a victim of its own success, as HC Matt Campbell left for Iowa State after compiling a 35-15 record in a bit more than four seasons on the job, after predecessor Tim Beckman left for Illinois. The 2015 MAC coach of the year has been replaced by longtime o.c. Jason Candle, who was promoted to the HC position at the end of 2015 and led the team to a victory over Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl. The Rockets began last season with a seven-game winning streak (it would’ve been eight were it not for a thunder storm forcing the cancellation of the opener against Stony Brook), but home losses to Northern Ill. and W. Michigan down the stretch prevented Toledo from reaching the MAC title game.
The Rocket attack welcomes back eight starters from the group that scored 35 ppg and generated 461 ypg. If anything, Toledo will be more potent offensively this season, with four offensive line starters returning to form the strongest such unit in the conference, anchored by LT Storm Norton. Not one, but two second-team all-MAC RBs in sr. Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson are back, after they combined for 1896 YR, 19 TDs and 5.9 ypc LY. Those players helped Toledo lead the MAC in rushing. Vet. jr. QB Logan Woodside was redshirted last year to allow the now-departed Philip Ely to complete his eligibility. But Woodside started 10 games taking over for the injured Ely in 2014, throwing for 2263 yds., completing 63% of his passes with a 19-8 TD-int. ratio. Sr. all-MAC WR Corey Jones heads a crew that returns five of its top six pass-catchers. Woodside should have plenty of time to throw, since the OL allowed just five sacks in 2015. Candle directed the offense well enough that the switch to new o.c. Brian Wright (formerly at Florida Atlantic) should go off without a hitch.
Defensively, the outlook is not as rosy. Defensive coordinator Brian George will not be able to match last season’s performance under Jon Heacock, who accompanied Campbell to ISU. The Rockets lost seven starters, including four named to all-MAC teams, from a unit that allowed a MAC-low 20.8 ppg, and was ranked first in the conference in pass efficiency defense. The top defender is sr. FS DeJuan Rogers, who was also an all-conference selection after he made 67 tackles in each of the last two years. Sr. DT Treyvon Hester had an off season last year, but he was all-MAC in 2014. However, the defensive line is very inexperienced after losing some talented players, including all-MAC DE Orion Jones.
Everything came together for the Rocket defense last season, as that unit’s 20.8 ppg allowance was a big improvement after 32 ppg over the previous eight years. That aberrational performance is unlikely to be duplicated considering all the talent that went out the door at the end of last season. An additional problem for the defense is the suspension of a pair of starters (NT Marquise Moore and LB Jaylen Coleman) by Candle for the first two games.
Summary...Candle knows offense. He has had enough experience. And one must remember that Matt Campbell was promoted from the o.c. spot in the same manner when Campbell took the reins at the end of 2011 from Tim Beckman. However, with a regression to the mean expected on defense and with road games looming in Chicago (at the ChiSox’ Cellular Field) against Northern Illinois and at Western Michigan, it will be difficult for Toledo to return to the MAC Championship for the first time since 2004. Pointspread note: Under Matt Campbell, the Rockets were 10-3 as a road dog.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN (SUR 7-6; PSR 8-4-1; O-U 5-8)...HC John Bonamego demonstrated more than enough enthusiasm and confidence, helping him pull through his cancer treatments after he was diagnosed shortly after being hired. Bonamego is also confident CMU will be improved this season, as his staff has returned intact, the players know the systems, and the coaches know what the players are capable of.
CMU is set at QB. Sr. Cooper Rush has passed for 9,354 yds. and 67 TDs in his career, and he’s got four of his top five pass catchers back, including his top three in WRs Jesse Kroll (61 catches), Anthony Rice (57) and Mark Chapman (43). Rush is the key to an attack that generated 300 ypg passing and completed 66% in 2015.
The OL is replacing two top performers C Nick Beamish and T Ramadan Ahmeti, who combined for more than 80 career starts. OL coach Derek Frazier shuffled the deck and moved jr. G Austin Doan from guard to C to replace Beamish, while counting on a pair of juniors, LT Jack Ford and G J.P. Quinn, are ready to step forward.
The Chips used a “committee” approach at RB last year, and three of the top four at the position return, after leading rusher Martez Walker (373 YR) transferred. Soph Romello Ross, jr. Devon Spalding and sr. Jahray Hayes combined for 753 YR and 9 TDs LY, and Bonamego likes to spread the touches around in a “Swiss army knife” approach to the position. However, in Bonamego’s first season in charge, the Chip ground production dropped to a lowly 101 ypg after averaging 155 in 2014. The results of the OL in 2015 weren’t the greatest (28 sacks allowed; only 3.1 ypc), so perhaps losing a pair of longtime starters can be overcome, and the ground game can improve from CMU’s 124th (out of 127) ranking.
Eight defensive starters return from a stubborn unit that allowed just 332 ypg, 16th in the nation, and was an integral part of the team’s 6-2 MAC record. The Chips owned the MAC’s top pass defense despite having the fewest sacks in conference games, and they cut their points allowed for the fourth straight season. The defense will also be reinforced by the return of sr. DE Joe Ostman, who made just two appearances last year after starting 25 games in 2013-14, being named to the all-MAC third team in ‘14 when he made 60 tackles and 10 TFL. The linebacker corps returns all three starters and six of its top seven from last year’s rotation. Soph Malik Fountain (13 starts, 67 Ts) was questionable with legal problems, but he was acquitted on assault charges in late June and the school is reevaluating his suspension. Sr. S Tony Annese is the leading returning tackler with 84. The secondary figures to be a strength again this season, as jr. CBs Amari Coleman and Josh Cox return, mitigating the loss of S Kavon Frazier to Dallas in the NFL draft.
Summary...CMU’s football program has been somewhat stagnant since 2009, when record-setting QB Dan LeFevour and WR Antonio Brown led the team to a 12-2 mark for HC Butch Jones, who would leave thereafter for Cincinnati (and., eventually, Tennessee). Since then, the Chippewas are 33-42 SU. However, Rush is capable of lifting the team in much the same way as LeFevour did, and it’s possible Kroll can do a decent imitation of Brown. So CMU might have a new ceiling. After suffering through some off-field issues (former RB Zurlon Tipton’s accidental death, Bonamego’s cancer, Fountain’s legal battle), CMU appears ready to put the bad news behind it. The Chips will begin 2016 with one of the more experienced teams in the MAC and a brand new artificial surface at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. The team will be in the mix in the MAC West, but will likely be fourth in line unless it can win at the tough sites of Northern Illinois and Toledo. Possible, but not probable. Pointspread note: CMU is 16-8 vs. the number in MAC play the last three seasons and 6-1 as a road dog the last two.
BALL STATE (SUR 3-9; PSR 4-8; O-U 4-8)...Ball State had an offseason last year, as its three wins were its fewest since 2009. The backward slide extends to the end of the 2013 season, as the Cardinals are just 9-18 SU in their last 27, with the frustrating results influencing HC Pete Lembo to take an essentially lateral move to be the assistant HC at Maryland of the Big Ten last December. Enter Ball State alum and one-time MAC offensive player of the year Mike Neu. Neu has spent the last two seasons as the QB coach with the NFL’s Saints, and has prior head coaching experience in the Arena Football League. Neu retained Joey Lynch in his position of offensive coordinator, so there should be some continuity on that side of the ball.
Considering the Cardinals gave up 36 ppg (108th) and 518 ypg (121st) in 2015, it was probably a wise move to hire a whole new crew, led by d.c. Tim Daoust, an assistant at Syracuse the last five years who has previous coaching roots in the MAC. Daoust has nine starters back from a troubled unit, and most are seniors, which is potentially good news and bad news. The seniors were involved in the 2013 and 2014 teams as well, and those squads performed much better than last season’s. But, a new broom sweeps clean, and Daoust might prefer to make changes and start a rebuild. The experience on hand is a plus, and, despite the numbers, Ball State sr. LB Sean Wiggins (95 Ts) and DE Joshua Posley (58 stops, led team in sacks and TFL) both made the first-team all-MAC squad. The defensive line gave up 5.3 ypc last season despite the presence of Posley, but a pair of jucos who could help right away were on hand in spring.
The secondary allowed 71% completions in 2015, one reason why 5th-yr. sr. S Martez Hester made 78 tackles. The Cardinals ranked 122nd in pass efficiency defense and had some brutal outings overall, giving up 636 total yards at Northern Illinois, 711 at Western Michigan and 607 at Ohio in MAC play. VMI, which was 2-9 in the FCS Big South Conference, burned Ball State for 444 YP, and Georgia State, which was just 2-27 SU at the time in 2+ seasons competing in the FBS, threw for 412 yards against Lembo’s Cards. An area of concern to be sure, especially considering the number of the returning veteran QBs in the MAC.
The offense is in considerably better shape. Soph QB Riley Neal, who’s 6-5, made a splash as a true frosh last season, taking over midway through both the Texas A&M and Eastern Michigan games after jr. backup Jack Milas was ineffective. Neal started the rest of the way, and finished the season completing 58% for 2276 yds. with 16 TDs and just 6 interceptions. Only Matt Johnson, Zach Terrell and Drew Hare had a better TD-int. ratio among MAC signal-callers last season. Neal flashed his potential in throwing for 393 YP with 4 scores at Northern Illinois last season, and he can also help with his legs. Neal ran for 399 yds. (4.5 ypc), ranking third on the team in rushing. In fact, the top five ground-gainers return, led by jr. Darian Green and soph James Gilbert. Those two scatbacks (both stand 5-8) combined for 1338 YR and 13 TDs.
The receiving corps lost a good one in Jordan Williams (200 career catches; signed with the Saints), but Neal will still have quality targets available. Returning starters KeVonn Mabon (70 catches, 745 yds.) and Corey Lacanaria (45 recs.) are both solid. Mabon is both big and explosive (6-1, 219; 27.2 avg. on KORs LY). Lacanaria made 45 catches in just 10 games (missed 2 due to off-field problems).
Summary...Lembo left Ball State as much for personal reasons as anything else (he and his wife have roots in the Baltimore/Washington area). The Cards are in solid hands offensively with Lynch tutoring Neal. But the key will be if Neu can engineer a turnaround in the defensive fortunes of a group that hit rock bottom last season. Pointspread note: The Cardinals have posted a 67% mark against the number on the road over the last 12 seasons.
EASTERN MICHIGAN (SUR 1-11; PSR 4-8; 0-U 9-3)...At some point, it might be time for the EMU athletic department to admit the football program just can’t generate a winner. The Eagles have won an average of 2.3 games per year in the last decade and have posted just one winning record (6-5 in 1995) in the past 26 seasons! Considering the on-field results and the fact that athletics at Ypsilanti overall have lost $52.4 million in the last two years, it’s a wonder they haven’t cancelled the program altogether.
The Eagles have made little progress under HC Chris Creighton in his two years in charge, beating only Morgan St., Buffalo and Wyoming. Even with 16 returning starters, can there be a line of thinking that leads to the conclusion the team will be improved? Perhaps. But a move to three or four wins vs. a weak schedule is likely the top end of reasonable expectations.
The offense showed improvement in 2015, making jumps from 15 ppg and 290 ypg in 2014 to 25 ppg and 380 ypg a year ago. With Jr. QB Brogan Roback (61%, 2304 YP LY) and five sr. starting offensive lineman, plus sr. TE Cody Tuttle, returning, along with three of the top four receivers, things might continue on the upswing. On the other hand, Roback has turnover issues (16 ints. in 14 career starts), and the attack has to replace a high-quality RB in Darius Jackson (1078 YR, 14 TDs; sixth round by the Cowboys).
Soph RB Shaq Vann showed some promise last season, rushing for 586 yds. with a 5.9 ypc mark as well as catching 37 passes, and scoring 6 touchdowns. RS frosh Breck Turner had a nice performance in the spring game (16 carries for 84 yds. and a TD), and the 4.5 ypc of last year was EMU’s best in the last four seasons. The offense has a chance to improve if the turnovers can be reduced (the Eagles ranked 120th in TO margin). The experienced OL made strides in protecting Roback, cutting sacks allowed from 35 in 2014 to 24 last season, so there are some positives.
Defensively, the team figures to improve its numbers, just because they were so dismal last season. The Eagles ranked 122nd in points allowed (42 ppg), and have yielded an average of 43 ppg and 510 ypg over the last three seasons. EMU’s rush defense was the worst in the nation (317 ypg; 6.5 ypc). A portion of the terrible performance was due to injuries, to be sure. The Eagles’ best player, DE Pat O’Connor, who was a first-team all-MAC selection in 2014, missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. LBs Anthony Zappone and Great Ibe missed time, as did DE Jeremiah Harris, depleting the defense. O’Connor (led the MAC in sacks in ‘14) and Zappone return, hopefully at full strength.
Summary...Eastern Michigan has lost 53 straight games against teams from power conferences, which is a sobering view of where the Eagles are in the college football pecking order. Creighton is in his third season, and often head coaches show positive results at that point. With their schemes in place and their own recruits taking over from holdover starters from the previous regime, things generally get better. We’re just not convinced that EMU, which has an average five-year recruiting ranking of 119th, is making a huge jump. There’s a major difference between the Eagles and Creighton’s situation, for example, and USF’s Willie Taggart winning eight games LY in talent-rich South Florida, or Mark Dantonio’s buildup a decade ago at Cincy, or Hugh Freeze turning around the situation at Ole Miss. EMU has had some success attracting jucos, but convincing three-star prospects to turn down Michigan, Michigan State or even Western Michigan to come to Ypsilanti is another story. Pointspread note: EMU has covered just 22% of its MAC games in the last four seasons and its consistently poor defense has led to a 32-14 “over” mark since 2012.
NEXT UP: THE MAC--PART II
NEXT UP: THE MAC--PART II
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