We conclude our preview of the MAC by looking at prospects for the West Division, with teams presented in predicted order of finish along with 2013 straight-up and pointspread records...

by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

TOLEDO (SUR: 7-5; PSR: 8-4)...Toledo HC Matt Campbell likes his team. “In my six years at the University of Toledo, this is the most complete football team we've had,” says Campbell. The Rockets are certainly experienced, as 35 of last season’s 44-man 2-deep return, and that group will be supplemented by a few key transfers. The offensive line is as good as any in the MAC, with 5 seniors starting, led by G Greg Mancz, an all-MAC pick who has 38 starts under his belt. LT Josh Hendershot and G Jeff Meyers enter their third seasons as starters. That unit was responsible for generating 6.0 ypc on the ground, holding foes to just 6 sacks last season, and is a major reason the conference media picked the Rockets to win the MAC West.

The running game should again be extremely effective despite losing all-conference David Fluellen. Sophs Kareem Hunt and Damion Jones-Moore totaled 1133 YR and 11 TDs, combining to gain 6.5 ypc. Hunt has more size than Jones-Moore and will be the lead back, and sr. Cassius McDowell can be useful as well (8.1 ypc in limited action LY).

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The question on offense is at QB, where Alabama transfer Phillip Ely and soph Logan Woodside are competing for the job. Ely was the only QB the Tide signed in 2011, while Woodside showed a lively arm and some flashes of promise in getting his feet wet as a true frosh last season. Also in the picture is 6-5 RS frosh Michael Julian, who was recruited by Campbell. One of the three will likely emerge as a solid player, and our money is on the SEC-recruited Ely.

The receiving unit is rebuilding a bit, but RS jr. WR Alonzo Russell made 3rd team all-MAC each of the last two seasons after catching 56 and 59 balls. The Washington, D.C. product is 6-4 and had 1688 receiving yards in 2012-13. Senior WRs Dwight Macon and Justin Olack (also 6-4) combined for 34 catches, 419 yards & 4 TDs in 2013.

The Toledo defense presents an interesting conundrum. The unit returns 10 starters from last season, including 3 who were named to the all-conference team. Mind you, however, Toledo ranked 10th in the MAC defensively a year ago. Five of the top 6 tacklers are back, led by a solid LB core of sr. Junior Sylvestre and jr. Chase Murdock, who combined for 227 stops and 9 sacks. The Rockets’ had 34 sacks overall last season, a significant boost over recent performances, and UT cut its defensive ypc from 5.3 in 2012 to 4.0 LY. The defensive line has third-team all-MAC DT Treyvon Hester clogging the middle and providing a little pass rush (3½ sacks LY), and jr. NT Orion Jones can eat space inside as well. The pass rush might get a boost from DE Tre James, a juco transfer who participated in spring. The 2ndary is led by sr. CB Cheatham Norrils, who joined Hester on the 3rd team all-conference list. Norrils had 52 tackles, and jr. SS Chaz Whittaker had 45. Hybrid jr. “Star” LB/FS Trent Voss made 60 tackles in the first 7 games last year before breaking his arm and sitting out the rest of the year. Voss came back in spring and appears ready to rumble again.

Toledo has challenges, to be sure, as early-season dates with Missouri and at Cincy will be difficult, and the MAC West might come down to a Tuesday night in November when the Rockets visit Northern Illinois. Still, Campbell has another ace up his sleeve in sr. PK Jeremiah Detmer, who has made 36 of his last 37 field goals. And the Rockets get Ball State at home, whereas the Huskies must go to Muncie. It’s tough, but give a slight edge to Toledo to get to the MAC title game for the first time since 2004.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS (SUR: 12-2; PSR: 8-6)...Northern Illinois has enjoyed a remarkable 4-year run that’s seen the Huskies go 46-10 SU since 2010, finishing ranked in the top 25 in 3 of those seasons. That streak was accomplished under 3 different head coaches (Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and current boss Rod Carey), but it might not continue with the same verve this season. NIU won all those games with two of the most prolific duel-threat college QBs in recent times in Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. This season the QB position is clouded and inexperienced. Jr. Matt McIntosh has appeared in just 12 games over the last 2 seasons (a cumulative 15 pass attempts; 31 rushes) and is the most experienced candidate. Soph Drew Hare has the best arm, while Western Michigan transfer Anthony Maddie poses something of a duel threat. None figures to approach the numbers put up by Harnish or Lynch.

The offense will lean heavily on the rushing talents of sr. Cameron Stingily (1119 YR LY; 5.5 ypc) and sr. Akeem Daniels (out LY; 750 YR, 6.0 ypc combined in 2011-12), both of whom will be operating behind a talented, veteran line led by 1st-team all-MAC LT Tyler Loos. The OL allowed just 11 sacks last season, and it returns 102 career starts from a group that dominated MAC foes LY. A pair of talented sr. WRs, Da’Ron Brown and Tommylee Lewis, combined for 132 catches and 12 scores LY, but the part they play in 2014 will be directly linked to the maturation of the QB. It will be difficult for NIU to reach the heights it attained last season, when the Huskies ranked 5th in the nation in total offense.

Defensively, five starters are back from a side that ranked just 78th in the country (8th in the MAC). The LB corps is among the best in the league, as sr. Jamaal Bass (87 tackles LY) and jr. Boomer Mays (82) are all-conference-level talents. The 2ndary returns 3 starters, but that unit ranked just 105th against the pass and will miss the unit’s leader, graduated S Jimmie Ward (team-high 96 stops; top pick of the 49ers).

Defensive coordinator Jay Nieman has a rebuilding job on the DL, as all four starters up front are gone. However, sr. DE Jason Meehan can rush the passer (6½ sacks LY), and 3 of the replacements appeared in virtually all of the games LY.

NIU might be repeating a scene from the past this season. In 2002-2004, the Huskies were 27-9 SU under Joe Novak, then had to replace QB Josh Haldi, who had 5955 YP and 55 TD passes in 33 games during that streak. The transition didn’t go so well, as the Huskies went 16-21 in Novak’s final 3 seasons in DeKalb. With road games at Northwestern, Arkansas, Ball State and Ohio on the schedule, it will be difficult for Carey to coax 9 wins out of this year’s Huskies despite some undisputed talent on hand. NIU will be in the hunt for the MAC West title, without question, but Carey’s Huskies might lack the key element that separated the team from foes the last four years unless McIntosh suddenly blossoms into something special.

BALL STATE (SUR: 10-3; PSR 8-5)...HC Pete Lembo is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. He has quickly erased the stain of the short-lived Stan Parrish regime that saw the team go from a 12-2 MAC giant under Brady Hoke to a 6-18 disaster in 2 seasons with Parrish. The last 3 years, Lembo has revived the Cardinals, guiding them to back-to-back bowl games and a 25-13 record. After being courted by some other schools, Lembo is back in Muncie with a new 5-year extension and an assistant AD title to boot.

Now comes the tough part, as Ball State must replace record-setting QB Keith Wenning. 3 of his top 4 targets, and a couple of all-MAC defensive linemen. However, Lembo still has some bullets left in the chamber. Offensively, sr. RB Jahwan Edwards has been a scoring machine, piling up a team-record 39 career rushing TDs, as well as gaining 2520 YR the last 2 seasons. Edwards is a complete package of power, speed and elusiveness. He’s also got a solid backup in Horactio Banks, who shined in gaining 1186 yds. the past 2 seasons as Edwards’ caddy, with 6.3 ypc and 7 TDs in 2013. That duo, along with an experienced OL (3 returning starters, including 3rd team all-MAC C Jacob Richard, with a total of 44 career starts) should form a base for the offense to take the pressure off whoever wins the QB job. The offensive front will get a boost from the return to Muncie of position coach John Strollo, who spent the last two seasons at Penn State. Strollo shifted soph T Steve Bell from strong tackle to quick tackle, making room for RS soph Drake Miller in the starting five after Miller appeared in all 13 games LY.

A spring competition narrowed the QB derby down from 4 candidates to a match race between RS frosh Jack Milas and soph Ozzie Mann. New o.c. Joey Lynch should be a solid role model for the QBs, as he’s not that far removed from his playing days back in 2003-‘06 when he threw for 4292 yds. & 37 TDs. Whoever wins the job will have at least one lively target in the person of jr. Jordan Williams, a physical 6-2, 224 WR who caught 72 passes for 1050 yds. and 10 TDs LY. Jr. KeVonn Mabon showed great promise and would’ve played a bigger role last season if he hadn’t been injured in Game Three. Jr. TE Dylan Curry has played in 24 games the last two seasons after transferring from Louisville. There are candidates to fill in, with hope that some playmakers could arrive with the incoming freshman class.

Interestingly, how the defense progresses might have more influence on Ball State’s record than the QB or WR situations. The Cardinals are 22-1 SU under Lembo when they hold foes to 29 pts. or fewer. After yielding 32 ppg in the previous 3 seasons, the Cards cut that to less than 25 ppg last year. Six starters return to that unit, including jr. LB Ben Ingle (116 tackles; 2nd team all-MAC) and soph MLB Zack Ryan (92 stops). New d.c. Kevin Kelly will also have three returning 2ndary starters and sr. DE Nick Miles (5 sacks in 13 starts LY; 36 games L3Ys) to work with. Last season the DL cut foes’ ypc from 5.2 to 4.8 and collected Ball’s most sacks in the past 5 years. It’s possible jr. DTs Darnell Smith and Keenan Noel can maintain that level of play, as both have plenty of experience, although losing projected starting soph NT Carlutorbantu Zaramo (6-4, 304) to a knee injury in spring will delay development of the front line.

Ball State has been one of the best road plays in college football, logging a 37-14 pointspread mark the last 8 seasons. Lembo’s Card editions are 17-7 against the number overall the last two regular seasons, and although 10 wins might be a bit of a reach, solid special teams should make the QB transition go more smoothly. The Cards should again be in the mix for a run at the MAC West title, especially if they can come close to last year’s +12 turnover ratio.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN (SUR: 6-6; PSR: 6-6)...With 19 starters back from a team that went 5-2 SU and 6-1 vs. the number in its last 7 games in 2013, HC Dan Enos likely has his best team in his 5 years as a head coach.

QB Cooper Rush completed 57% for 2349 yds. with a 15-15 TD-int. ratio, learning on the job with each game as a true freshman last season. Sr. former starter Cody Kater will attempt to regain the top job, but Rush is the man. The attack has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation, as all 5 starters return, including 2nd team all-MAC G Andy Phillips. The Chippewas have possibly the best deep threat in the MAC in sr. Titus Davis, who made all-MAC teams in his first 3 years and is coming off a 2013 season when he gained 1109 yds. on 61 catches (18.2 ypc). Fellow starting wideouts sr. Courtney Williams and jr. Andrew Flory combined for 55 recs. and return as well, making 5 of the top 6 receivers from a year ago available. Jr. RB Saylor Lavallii gained 1070 yards over the past two seasons, taking over in 2013 when Zurlon Tipton broke his ankle. Tipton returned, but Lavallii showed he’s more than capable, and Michigan graduate transfer Thomas Rawls (4.6 ypc in 27 gms. as a Wolverine) should provide high-quality depth.

The defense ranked a respectable 4th in the MAC and was 20th in the country against the pass. This is the team’s third full season playing d.c. Joe Tumpkin’s 4-2-5 defense. The DL returns 3 starters and gains a big bonus with the return of soph NT Jabari Dean, who missed last season with injury after impressing in 10 starts as a true frosh. Dean looked recovered and ready in spring work. DT Leterrius Walton had 9½ TFL last season and is lighter and faster now, while soph Kelby Latta and jr. Louis Palmer proved extremely useful. Sr. LB Justin Cherocci was named 3rd team all-MAC after making 121 tackles LY (and 132 in 2012) and will play an even bigger role this season. The LB corps returns 3-deep at every position except for graduated starter Shamari Benton. The 2ndary is equally veteran and deep, as nickle back Kavon Frazier and sr. CB Jason Wilson combined for 128 stops. The development of soph S Tony Annese last year adds to the depth of this platoon. The defense has been slipping against the run the last few years, allowing more rushing yardage in 4 straight seasons. But with 15 of the top 18 tacklers returning, the “D” should improve significantly this season.

Enos has brought the Chippewas back to the bowl-eligible level after starting 6-18 SU in his first 2 seasons taking over for Butch Jones back in 2010-11, winning 6 regular-season games in each of the past two years. He has plenty of cards in his hands heading into his 5th season as head coach at Central Michigan. However, there’s a major hurdle CMU must overcome before it can take another step forward. The Chippewas are just 1-11 SU against MAC thoroughbreds Northern Illinois, Ball State and Toledo in the last 4 seasons. Unfortunately, CMU must face NIU and Toledo on the road this season (as well as non-conference foes Purdue & Syracuse). The Chips should be improved, but they might only get to the 6-7 win range and bowl eligibility again.

WESTERN MICHIGAN (SUR: 1-11; PSR: 4-8)...P.J. Fleck took over a floundering program last season and things got worse. The Broncos had averaged just over 6 wins in 8 seasons under Bill Cubit, but WMU went 1-11 last season, suffering a humiliating home loss to FCS rep Nicholls St. before hanging on for their lives with a win against another MAC doormat, Massachusetts. Had the Minutemen converted a 2-point conversion with 22 seconds remaining in that contest, WMU would be riding a 14-game losing streak into 2014.

Despite the fact the Broncos have 14 returning starters (9 on offense), rest assured there will be plenty of turnover in the starting lineup this fall. A handful of frosh are expected to win starting spots on offense, one being incoming Chance Stewart, a 6-5 pocket passer from Sturgis, Michigan, who received offers from Big Ten reps Wisconsin & Illinois. The arrival of Stewart and the presence of alternative QB Cameron Thomas likely spells doom for soph Zach Terrell’s bid to regain his job after completing 53% of his passes for 1602 yds. in starting the last 6 games in 2013 as a RS frosh. Incoming frosh Jarvion Franklin could be the starter at RB, after turning down offers from most of the major forces in the MAC. Fleck also lured WR Lonnie Johnson away from his commitment to Ohio State, and Johnson will likely join soph Corey Davis in a young, talented WR corps. Davis was the MAC frosh Player of the Year in 2013 after catching 67 passes for 941 yards and leading the team with 6 TD catches. However, given the poor play of the offensive line and total lack of depth up front, don’t look for a huge jump in offensive production. WMU scored just 17 ppg LY (116th) and gained only 3.6 ypc (ranking 112th in rush yards), and the OL is an area where frosh don’t often come in and make an immediate impact.

The defense is looking for some quick fixes to a bad problem. The Broncos gave up 35 ppg, the most since 2004, and they allowed 5.4 ypc. The Broncos haven’t allowed more than 5.4 ypc in more than two decades, so Fleck went for a quick fix. Graduate senior NT Richard Ash (6-3, 316) has transferred in from Michigan, and a pair of junior college transfers, jrs. Jason Sylva and Jakevin Jackson, have been penciled into the starting lineup at linebacker to shore up the front seven. Hopefully RS frosh Andre Turner and sophs Keion Adams and David Curle (all Fleck recruits) can rally around Ash and the juco LBs to make some progress.

The secondary is absolutely the strength of the defense and perhaps the team, as seniors CB Donald Celiscar and SS Justin Currie both have made all-MAC teams, while jr. CB Ronald Zamort broke up a team-record 19 passes last season. The defense ranked 4th in the nation and first in the conference vs. the pass in holding foes to 169 ypg in the air, but when foes are gaining 250 ypg and 5.4 ypc on the ground, they tend to stay on the ground.

Fleck is confident, one has to give him that. And it appears he can sweet talk the recruits, as Rivals.com ranked his recruiting class tops in the MAC and ahead of four Big Ten schools. The Broncos should make significant improvement from a year ago, but let’s not forget they won just once and scored their fewest points since 1986. Shaving 3-5 points off the defensive allowance and adding it to the offense would still leave their average score a double-digit loss, so don’t get too excited about Fleck’s youngsters just yet.

EASTERN MICHIGAN (SUR: 2-10; PSR 6-6)...First, a reality check. Eastern Michigan hasn’t had a winning record since 1995 and hasn’t been to a bowl since ‘87. The Eagles are 20-76 in the last 8 years, and 6-18 against the number the last 2 seasons. Ron English was fired as head coach and Chris Creighton was hired for the job after successful stints at NAIA Ottawa (Kansas), DIII Wabash and FCS Drake. Creighton is the 11th coach for the team in the last 23 seasons. EMU chews up coaches and spits them out with regularity, and only time will tell if Creighton is just more cannon fodder.

Obviously, all of the Eagles’ numbers from last season are awful. EMU ranked 112th in scoring and 109th in total offense. The defense gave up 511 ypg and 45 ppg last season, and was a net -175 total ypg in 2013. The Eagles had 226 Fds; their opponents 542! Oh, and the overall special teams were the worst in the country. It won’t take much to achieve a little improvement.

The offense stands a solid chance to increase production, as sr. RB Bronson Hill returns after gaining 2006 yds. and averaging 6.0 ypc over the past 2 seasons, and there is some depth at the position as sr. Ryan Brumfield gained 509 yds. at a 5.2 clip in ‘13. The receiving corps should be presentable, as 2nd-team all-MAC TE Tyreese Russell was the co-offensive MVP for the team LY along with WR Dustin Creel. Russell & Creel combined for 90 receptions in 2013. Soph QB Brogan Roback took over last season and didn’t perform terribly for a true freshman, and the late transfer of ex-Penn State and LSU QB Rob Bolden (graduate sr.) will lend experience and depth to a position that is stocked with RS frosh behind Roback. The offensive line has plenty of returning starting experience and is led by sr. T Lincoln Hansen, who was a 3rd-team all-MAC selection last season. However, the offensive line gave up the most sacks (28) at the school since 2003, and the Eagles expect to throw more this season.

The defense is thin almost everywhere and has just 5 starters returning from one of the weakest units in the country. EMU has yielded 6.3 ypc each of the last two seasons, so it could improve a full yard per carry and still be terrible. The DL has some measure of experience, but it might still be traumatized after last season. Army gained 513 yards at a 9.5 ypc clip in a 50-25 victory. LB Ike Spearman led the team with 82 tackles last season, and fellow jr. LB Great Ibe is the 2nd-leading returning tackler with 62. But considering foes ran 806 plays, those numbers are neither significant nor particularly encouraging. The 2ndary allowed 65% completions, and the team gave up 7.6 yds. per play. Again, even significant improvement might still mean the Eagles have one of the worst defenses around.

It’s likely this job looked like a step up to Creighton, but the scales will fall from his eyes soon if they haven’t already. With visits to Florida and Michigan State in the preseason and the usual schedule of MAC foes including Northern Illinois, Ball State and Toledo, there is little hope that EMU will exceed expectations. The Eagles have won more than 4 games just once in the last 18 seasons, so 4 wins this year would appear to be their ceiling. The Eagles will improve, but there are no quick cures on the horizon...this team is from Ypsilanti, not Lourdes.



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