We conclude our look at the MAC with Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano's preview of the East half of the loop.  Teams as always 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

BOWLING GREEN (SUR 10-4; PSR 9-4-1; O-U 7-6-1)...Defending MAC champ Bowling Green will be starting over on several fronts this season. First, Mike Jinks has arrived from Texas Tech to take over the head coaching job from Dino Babers, who moved on to Syracuse. The Falcons will also be replacing a fistful of offensive weapons, as QB Matt Johnson (4946 YP, 46 TDP LY), WRs Roger Lewis (1544 yds., 16 TDs), Gehrig Dieter (1033 yds. 10 scores), and RB Travis Greene (1299 YR, 15 TDs) all have moved on.

The good news for Jinks and the BG faithful is that the Falcons have some ready replacements in the queue. While MAC Offensive Player of the Year Johnson’s numbers likely won’t be matched, sr. QB James Knapke threw for 3173 yds. and 15 TDs in 13 starts in 2014 replacing the injured Johnson. Knapke threw for 395 yds. and 3 TDs against Indiana and 1024 in a 3-game stretch against MAC foes UMass, Buffalo and Ohio and was good enough to lead BGSU to the MAC East title in ‘14. Not bad for a backup.


Sr. RB Fred Coppet rushed for 1489 yds. and 11 TDs as Greene’s backup the last two seasons, averaging a hefty 5.5 ypc. And another sr., WR Ronnie Moore, who has caught 128 passes the last two seasons, will now assume the lead role. Certainly there will be a degree of drop-off from last season’s offensive output of 547 ypg (4th in the country). But Bowling Green managed to score 30 ppg with Knapke at the controls in 2014, and Greene missed a chunk of that season with injury. The sr. “triplets” will have the benefit of a very experienced offensive line. Four starters return up front, led by second-team all-MAC left tackle Jacob Bennett. The experience of that unit is a key in Jinks’ version of an uptempo offense, which is very similar to what the Falcons ran under Babers.

There have been some setbacks rebuilding the receiving corps, such as the dismissal of Baylor transfer Robbie Rhodes for violations of team rules, and an injury that kept Moore out of some spring action. But there have also been signs of improvement in that platoon. Jr. Teo Redding and soph Scott Miller earned praise from the coaching staff for their work in spring, and the transition of 6-5, 244 Hunter Folkertsma from TE to outside receiver went well. The depth showed promise with the development of 6-3 soph Deric Phouthavong and RS frosh Janarvis Pough when the new regime ran drills in April.

The Falcon defense has six starters back from a unit that last year cut 5 ppg and 76 ypg off its allowances from 2014. Although the defensive line is replacing three starters, the linebacking crew is one of the best in the league. Jr. MLB Austin Valdez was named first-team all-MAC after recording 144 tackles last season, and sr. LB Trenton Greene was a second-team all-conference selection who made 127 stops, while sr. LB James Sanford was third on the team with 91 tackles in 2015.

BG’s stop unit should be a bit better in coverage, with a pair of starting CBs back who combined for 120 tackles and 8 interceptions. And the replacements on the defensive line have some experience. Jr. Gus Schwieterman made 13 starts in 2014 before being injured and missing last season, and holdover sr. starting DE Terrance Bush made 68 tackles with six sacks. Soph S Jamari Bozeman acquitted himself well as a true frosh last season, playing in 11 games and making 22 stops.

Summary...Bowling Green might not hit the ground running at Ohio State on September 3, considering its key skill position turnover and its new coaching staff. However, by the time the MAC schedule starts in October, expect the Falcons to be doing a decent impression of last season’s squad. The balance of power hasn’t shifted in the MAC East in the last three years, and BG has dominated its main competitors in the division, Ohio and Akron. The Falcons are 8-0 against those two teams the last four seasons, beating them by an average tally of 43-12 in the last three. Although BG must travel to play both the Zips and Bobcats this season, one must note the Falcs’ 13-5 SU mark on the road over the last three seasons. Pointspread note: BGSU has been a 67% play against the number on the road the last nine seasons.

OHIO (SUR 8-5; PSR 9-4; O-U 8-5)...
HC Frank Solich is one of the best coaches in the MAC and has produced teams that consistently perform above their base talent level. This season he has a bit of a rebuilding job, as he must replace 10 starters, plus both kickers. But he’s proven in that past that he and his staff can fit the pieces together.

The offense did not look good in the spring game, as the defense dominated due in large part to a weak offensive line. Solich thought the offense was “soft” facing the Bobcat defense, and the attack needs to play more physically up front. “That’s not what we’re all about, so that has got to change,” said the Ohio coach of the offense in spring. Soph LT Joe Lowery made only one appearance last season before being cut down with an injury, and the team is replacing a pair of offensive linemen named to all-MAC teams.

Sr. QB J.D. Sprague missed spring due to offseason shoulder surgery after throwing for 921 yds. and 7 TDs with a 55% completion percentage in 2015. Sprague is expected to return, but it was 5th-year sr. backup Greg Windham and a trio of younger QBs who split the snaps in spring. Windham played a key role in the Bobcats’ upset of Northern Illinois in the regular-season finale last year when he came on in relief and threw for 76 yds. and a TD as well as running for 43 yards. Sprague and Windham will compete for the starting job in the fall, but Windham’s main negative is a propensity to throw interceptions. Ten percent of his passes last year were picked off.

Four of the top five RBs return, led by A.J. Ouellette, who has gained 1472 yds. and scored 13 TDs in the past two seasons. Soph Maleek Irons and jr. Dorian Brown combined for 391 YR and 5.4 ypc in 2015. Soph Papi White was promoted to the backup spot behind Ouellette in spring after gaining 5.5 ypc in an injury-shortened season in 2015. The coaches are pleased with the depth available.

The offense will try to emphasize a quick-strike passing game featuring three tall returning wideouts who combined for 140 catches for 1903 yds. and 14 scores in 2015. Srs. Sebastian Smith and Jordan Reid (both 6-3) join jr. Brendan Cope to form a solid trio of targets. The offense should also get a boost from the return of jr. TE Troy Mangen, who started 11 games in 2014, but was lost to an ACL tear last season.

Defense is clearly the strength of the team this season. The Bobcats are loaded in the front seven on that side of the ball, with a pair of all-MAC caliber DEs and a solid LB crew. Ohio has three holdover DL starters led by sr. DE Tarell Basham and adds Michigan graduate transfer Tom Trobel. Jr. MLB Quentin Poling was named to several preseason all-conference squads after leading the team with 69 tackles LY. Poling has gotten some votes for best LB in the MAC. He’ll be flanked on one side by sr. returning starter Blair Brown (2nd LY with 65 stops).

Ohio isn’t quite so lucky in the 2ndary, as the Bobcats lost three starters and their top four corners. The three new DB starters are a juco and a pair of sophs who saw very limited action last season. The new projected starting CBs, in particular, will be under pressure, as soph Jalen Fox played in just one game last season, while jr. London Miller is a juco transfer.

Summary...Although many observers point to the offensive line as the key to the Bobcat season, perhaps some questions should be asked about the QB situation. Sprague and Windham will be in competition for the job in August. Sprague has completed just 51.6% of his throws in the past two seasons. Windham was 19 of 40 passing (47.5%) with a 1-4 TD-int. ratio. It would be a stretch to expect either to make the jump to the level of last year’s starter, Derrius Vick (64% in an injury-plagued sr. season). With an OL lacking physicality, Solich’s preferred gameplan, usually including a liberal dose of smashmouth, has to be altered. Getting the ball to the team’s trio of wideouts in space is key to igniting the offense. Accuracy and protection are important, and it’s unclear if either the QBs or the OL is up to the task.

AKRON (SUR 8-5; PSR 8-5; O-U 5-8)...HC Terry Bowden has to get more than a little credit for the job he’s done at Akron. Taking over a team that had gone 5-31 SU in the three seasons before he arrived, he turning the program around in four years, culminating with an 8-5 mark last year, including the team’s first bowl win in history (23-21 over Utah State in the Idaho Potato Bowl). This season the Zips return just seven total starters. But Bowden’s recruiting skills have yielded some bonus experience in the form of “Power 5" transfers over the past few seasons. Five transfers from college football’s “big leagues” are projected to start for the Zips in 2016.

Offensively, 240-lb. QB Tommy Woodson is the clear starter after throwing for 2202 yds. and 16 TDs, as well as rushing for 600 yds. and three scores in 2015. Woodson took over the starter’s role after an injury to since-graduated Kyle Pohl and the ineffectiveness of jr. backup Tra’Von Chapman. Woodson has some solid holdover targets in the persons of jr. WRs Jerome Lane (team-high 39 catches; 20.1 ypc) and Austin Wolf (21.2 ypc LY). Also, Tyrell Goodman (4th on the team LY with 12 catches) will be among the top targets.

Some stop-gap recruiting could fill in a few major holes on the attack side. RB Warren Ball, a 235-lb. graduate transfer from Ohio State, is being counted upon to lead the ground game that lost Conor Hundley and Donnell Alexander, who combined for 1410 YR and 13 TDs last season. At WR, Utah State transfer JoJo Natson had 1002 yds. receiving and rushing as well as averaging 11.7 yds. per punt return last season. Natson had a game-high 101 receiving yards in the spring gameand was named co-offensive MVPs of the spring (along with Woodson). Another potentially explosive weapon laying in the weeds is soph WR Kwadarrius Smith, a transfer from SEC rep Missouri, who has run a 10.39 100 meters and caught 2 TD passes in the spring game.

The OL is replacing all five starters, and, on paper, is a real worry. But Bowden has moved ex-TE & DE LaVonne Gauthney inside to take either a C or G spot, and he landed 6-5, 312 Cedric McCoy from Ellsworth CC. McCoy was good enough to be selected to represent Florida in the 2013 Florida-Georgia All-Star Game and will likely move into a starters’ role immediately. True frosh T Trevor Brown enrolled early for spring and is projected as the blindside protector. And there are other potential contributors on the horizon (another solid juco, the scout team MVP, and some other true frosh).

Defensively it will be difficult to duplicate last year’s dominant unit that allowed just 4.9 yds. per play, was third in the nation against the run, and led the MAC in total defense. On the other hand, respected d.c. Chuck Amato still has talent on hand. Consider that his returning starting sr. DEs were both originally transfers from Ohio State. And the defensive front will benefit from the presence of DT Jelani Hamilton this season. Hamilton is a graduate transfer from Miami-Florida. Soph LBs in Ulysses Gilbert and Brian Bell, who were a cut above the standard level of recruits Akron normally gets when they arrived on campus, will get their chance to shore up a LB group that’s completely rebuilding. They’ll be joined by another Bowden stop-gap recruit in juco DeMarcus Lloyd. The LBs are a potential troublespot in terms of experience, but ample quality is available. The 2ndary returns sr. CB DeAndre Scott and S Zach Guiser. But one corner will be manned by ex-Miami Hurricane Larry Hope, and the nickel-back could be Boston College transfer Bryce Jones.

On the downside, Akron lost six of its top seven tacklers from last season, including NFL draftee Jatavis Brown (116Ts; Chargers), who led the team with 12 sacks, and LB Dylan Evans (106 tackles). The Zips have reduced their points allowed each of the last four years, from 38.5 ppg in 2011 down to 21.5 in 2015. It’s doubtful that trend will continue. But even with some regression, Akron will have one of the tougher defenses in the MAC East.

Summary...Terry Bowden (former Auburn HC) is a big fish in a little pond. He has more career wins (159 overall) than any other MAC coach. He was named national coach of the year after taking Auburn to an 11-0 record in 1993 and finished with a 73.4% winning mark in the SEC. He also has a valuable knack for making a home for talented misfits from elsewhere. Pointspread note: Akron is 31-17 “under” since Bowden took over the program.

KENT STATE (SUR 3-9; PSR 4-8; O-U 4-8)...HC Paul Haynes enters his fourth season in Kent with one of the most experienced teams in the country. The Golden Flashes have 18 returning starters from a squad that has taken plenty of lumps in Haynes’ tenure. Kent is just 9-26 SU since Haynes took over for Darrell Hazell, and last season’s squad put up some terrible numbers. The Golden Flash attack ranked last in the FBS in scoring at just 13 ppg, was 126th in yardage, 127th in first downs, and failed to score a TD in half of its games. The defense was overworked as a result, but still managed to lead the MAC in sacks and rank third in total defense in the conference.

However, some other numbers reflect poorly on team discipline and coaching. KSU ranked 121st in penalties, giving away 73 ypg to opponents via flags. Kent was 119th in defending kickoffs and 113th in returning them. The Golden Flashes were 117th in punt returns, putting themselves in holes constantly.

Considering the offensive failure last year, it’s no surprise the coaches are shuffling the deck at QB. Colin Reardon, who started the first six games of 2015 and completed only 46% of his passes for 901 yds., was moved to WR in the offseason. True frosh Justin Agner enrolled early and impressed the staff in spring. He’ll compete with soph George Bollas, who started the final six games last year and threw for 756 yds. with 56% accuracy, but had just a 2-6 TD-interception ratio. He was neck-and-neck with Agner at the end of spring workouts. And also in the mix for the starting spot is RS frosh Mylik Mitchell.

RB is considered a strength, with a healthy Nick Holley returning and the arrival of true frosh Justin Rankin. Rankin was named the most improved offensive player in spring, and his presence allowed the coaches to move soph Raekwon James to WR. It may be a bit dicey to allow the offense to fall into the hands of a pair of true frosh in Agner and Rankin. But off the results the last few seasons, things can’t get much worse.

The line needs to get better if the offense is to begin to become part of the solution instead of a major problem. The Golden Flashes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage an average of eight times a game last season, but it must be noted the unit allowed just one sack per game.

Virtually all the players who caught a pass last season return, including soph Antwan Dixon (26 catches, 13.7 ypc; also effective on jet sweeps at 14.7 yds. per rush and a pair of TDs). Raekwon James, jr. Kris White, sr. Ernest Calhoun, and soph Johnny Woods all caught at least 21 passes. It’s difficult to see how converted QB Reardon will fit in with the deep WR corps.

Despite the pressure put on it by an anemic attack, the defense gave a good account of itself, ranking 27th in the country. Four Kent State players were named first or second all-MAC in 2015, and three return. Sr. DE Terence Waugh was a first-team all-MAC selection last season after recording 57 tackles and 9 sacks. Soph MLB Jim Jones was the most improved defensive player of the spring and put himself in position to start over sr. Darius Redmond, who had 34 tackles in eight starts in 2015. OLB Nick Cuthbert (who was a Ga. Tech transfer) played well enough to be considered in competition with Elcee Refuge, who started 10 games in each of the last two seasons. The secondary is still talented despite replacing two starters. Sr. FS Nate Holley has made 278 tackles in the last two seasons and was first-team all-MAC in 2014 and 2015. He’s joined by fellow first-team all-conference CB Demetrius Monday, who nabbed six interceptions LY.

Summary...Paul Haynes has been able to recruit some talent. But, as of yet, he’s fallen short scaring up a serviceable QB and some high-quality offensive linemen. We’ll see if that changes. But it’s doubtful either Agner or Bollas is going to appreciably move the needle at QB. The Golden Flash schedule is tough. So it’s likely that bowl eligibility will remain out of reach. Kent has covered just 13 of 35 games since going 11-3 in its 2012 season, which was fueled by a +20 turnover count. That was the team’s only winning campaign since 1977. Good luck at your next coaching assignment, Paul!

BUFFALO (SUR 5-7; PSR 5-7; O-U 7-5)...HC Lance Leipold’s first season in the FBS wasn’t great. Buffalo won just five games, and four of the five victories came against some very poor teams (Albany, Florida Atlantic, Miami-Ohio, and Kent State). The Bulls failed to cover their last five games in 2015, and they were burned for 282 ypg rushing the last three. The Buffalo offense now returns just three starters and is clearly rebuilding. Plus, the Bulls are replacing stalwart Joe Licata at QB this season, and spring workouts did little to settle a three-way battle for the job. Iowa St. graduate transfer Grant Rohach, RS frosh Tyree Jackson, and soph Chris Merchant all made a case for their candidacy. The arrival of 6-6 true frosh Dominic Johnson could further muddy the waters at the key position come August.

Whoever wins the QB job will be working with a relatively new receiving corps after UB lost all-MAC TE Matt Weiser (team-high 63 recs.) and WR Ron Willoughby (62). Sr. WR Marcus McGill is the leading returning receiver after his 50 catches in 2015 ranked third on the team. Sr. WR Malcolm Robinson had 97 yds. receiving and a pair of TDs in the spring game, and sr. TE Mason Schreck had five catches in that scrimmage as well, so there is some promise on the receiving front.

UB has enjoyed a string of 1000-yard rushers in the last decade (James Starks, Branden Oliver, Anthone Taylor) and might have another at the ready in sr. Jordan Johnson, who returns after gaining 811 yds. (4.7 ypc) despite making just three starts in 2015. While the team has just two full-time offensive line regulars returning, each of the three new “hogs” had at least one start last year. Soph C James O’Hagen and jr. G Brandon Manosalvas combined for 22 starts LY, and LT Roubbens Joseph (4 starts) had won a first-team role by the end of the season. The ground game, which averaged 170 ypg rushing in four seasons from 2011-2014, fell to a five-year low of 137 ypg and 3.9 ypc last season. Expect a bounceback with more familiarity within the offense.

The Bulls’ defense improved under d.c. Brian Borland last season despite returning just three starters at that time, but some all-conference players aided the switch from a three to a four-man front. Borland helped Buffalo shave 4 ppg off its 2014 allowance, and the Bulls cut their yards per play a fraction as well. The aggressive stoppers were second in the country in defensive scoring with seven TDs. The Bulls had trouble defending the red zone last season (ranking 109th), but reportedly made progress in that area in spring work.

The defensive line returns intact, so expect the front seven to be tougher against the run. Buffalo allowed 186 ypg on the ground last season, its worst showing since 2005. The run defense will be backed by the return of sr. LB Brandon Berry, who was named second-team all-MAC after making 104 tackles. The team also welcomes back a “bonus starter” in jr. MLB Jarrett Franklin. Franklin started 10 games and made 49 tackles in 2014, but missed last season with a back injury.

The secondary slipped a bit last season, giving up 56.4% completions and 15.0 ypp after holding foes to 50.5% and 12.6 in 2014. However, three starters now return, including CB Boise Ross, who was a third-team all-conference selection last season. The pass defense could be further boosted by the presence of Haitian/Canadian RS frosh S Dev Lamour and soph CB Cameron Lewis. Both pushed into thick competition for starting spots in spring. S Ryan Williamson, 4th on the team with 83 stops last season, and Andrews Dadeboe (36 Ts in 9 starts at S) both return.

Summary...Leipold has now had a chance to bring in two recruiting classes tailored to his schemes, and the impact of several RS frosh was apparent in the spring. Further, the schedule presents five extremely winnable home games, and the Bulls have managed to win seven road games overall in the last three seasons. In this day and age, a 6-6 mark gets a team into a bowl game (sometimes 5-7 does it, just ask Nebraska and Minnesota). Pointspread note: The Bulls are 23-12 “over” the last three years.

MIAMI-OHIO (SUR 3-9; PSR 7-5; O-U 6-6)...The first two seasons in Oxford have been a bit rocky for HC Chuck Martin. But the team did win 2 and 3 games in 2014 and 2015, respectively, after an 0-12 mark in 2013 resulted in the firing of Don Treadwell. Still, a season in which you beat only Presbyterian, Eastern Michigan and UMass is nothing to highlight on your résumé. Certainly, Martin is still rebuilding the roster. Of 79 players on the team in spring, only 12 were juniors or seniors. Another 20 frosh join the squad in August camp.

This year’s offense boasts 10 returning starters, but that unit is projected to have seven sophs on the first team. Considering how Martin threw his true frosh into the fray last season, the 2016 offense might be even younger before it takes the field at Iowa Sept. 3. Soph QB Billy Bahl (6-4, 248) threw far too many interceptions as a true frosh in 2015 (13 vs. just 6 TDs) and completed only 44.5% of his throws. Fellow second-year QB Gus Ragland (6-3, 213; 20-29 passing, 3-0 TD-int. count) was competing for the position last season until he was injured. He won’t be back until October. Soph Jordan Martin took up the chase in spring and had better stats in the spring showcase than Bahl. However, a telling comment about the QB situation came when HC Martin said, “Billy and Gus got some playing time down the stretch, but they’re still puppies. We’ve got to teach them some fundamentals.”

Soph RBs Alonzo Smith (498 YR LY) and Maurice Thomas (18 attempts for 206 YR LY) will likely divide the lions’ share of the carries in the fall, and Thomas, in particular, offers some explosiveness. The offensive line gave up 28 sacks last season, a major improvement over the depressing average of 44 sacks in 2012-2014. The team’s 3.6 ypc is well below the national average, but it actually compares favorably to the poor 2.8 ypc the team posted over the six previous seasons. The modest 130 ypg rushing in 2015 was the most for a Miami team since 2007!

Virtually all of the receivers return, including four players who caught at least 21 passes, led by sr. WR Rokeem Williams (16.5 ypc) and jr. Sam Martin (18.7 ypc). The receiving corps has plenty of length, as 6-6 soph Chris Hudson was giving Martin (6-3) a run for the starters’ job in spring, and Ryan Smith (6-4, 258; team-high five TD catches) and 6-5, 265 soph TE Nate Becker are bookends in the useful two-TE sets.

The defense made strides last season despite giving up fractionally more points than 2014. The stop unit generated 30 sacks, double the average of the previous three seasons. The RedHawks shaved 29 yards per game off their 2014 allowance, and the 405 ypg represented their best effort since 2011. Miami also did a better job in yds. per play, defensive completion percentage, and yds. per pass. But make no mistake, there’s a lot of work left to do.

Miami lost its top two tacklers, and sr. DE J’Terius Jones is Miami’s lone returning all-MAC player (fourth on the team with 52 tackles; 10 sacks last season). Jr. LB Paul Moses, who made the transition from RB last season, had 71 stops playing outside backer in 2015. The defensive line also returns DT Ikeem Allen, and the front seven showed improvement against the run as well as in its pass rush last season. The RedHawks cut their allowance from 5.1 ypc in 2013-2014 to a much more respectable 4.2 ypc in ‘15.

The secondary returns a pair of starters in jr. CB Bert Birdsall and sr. S Buchi Okafor and should get a quick infusion this fall. S Mark Meyers, a graduate transfer from Michigan State, made the move to Oxford, and the one-time Academic All-Big Ten player will be a welcome addition to the RedHawks.

Summary...Miami should make some progress in 2016 in HC Chuck Martin’s third year in charge. But an improvement of more than three ppg on offense and/or defense is asking a lot. The RedHawks have only about four truly winnable games on their schedule this season. Two of those are on the road (at E. Michigan and at Buffalo), and Miami is just 3-29 SU away from Oxford in the last five years. Given that consideration, another two or three-win season seems in the cards unless the RedHawks can pull a Penn & Teller sleight of hand and reverse their -14 turnover ratio of last season. That’s what they did between 2009 (-24) and 2010 (+11), moving from 1-11 SU in ‘09 to 10-4 and a bowl game in 2010. Lightning is unlikely to strike again for Martin’s 2015 RedHawks.


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