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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 9:09 AM

It's rare to see a conference, or a division within an expanded conference, that has all of its starting quarterbacks from the prior season returning to action. When that does happen, or even when something close to that happens, you generally get a good year from the league. The West Division of the Mid American Conference has that luxury in 2011. So, as handicappers, you need to be looking for value spots right out of the gate with the teams we'll be discussing today.

Now, we're not saying all of these teams are going to be GOOD! It's still the Mid American Conference. There's only so much lipstick you can put on Eastern Michigan's pig. The point is, these teams have a good chance of being better than the market realizes...particularly early in the season. As we run through the list today, be on the lookout for teams that return experience at other positions to, and have stable coaching situations.

The team picked by most to win the West this year has ALL of those things. So, let's start the rundown with the Toledo Rockets...

MAC WEST

TOLEDO
Athlon Ranking: 68th
2010 Total Offense: 74th
2010 Total Defense: 56th
Strength: Rush Defense (36th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (86th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Tim Beckman
Notebook: There are actually two experienced quarterbacks battling for playing time here. Austin Dantin is back from an injury and Terrance Owens doesn't want to stand around all year holding a clipboard. You see the high numbers returning on both sides of the ball. Coach Tim Beckman took the team to a bowl last year (though losing to Florida International had to be a big disappointment). He also oversaw a road win at Purdue of the Big Ten. Last year's Northern Illinois team set a very high standard for this division and the MAC in general. We're not ready to say that this Toledo group will measure up. But, they do have more going for them in terms of indicators than anyone else in either division. A September schedule featuring Ohio State, Boise State, and Syracuse will give them a chance to make some headlines. Should Toledo have a big game in Columbus against a Buckeyes team in turmoil, we may come back on Boise in the natural letdown spot the next week. Be sure you're studying the September schedules for spots like that!

NORTHERN ILLINOIS
Athlon Ranking: 74th
2010 Total Offense: 19th
2010 Total Defense: 26th
Strength: Rush Offense (7th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (85th)
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 2 on defense
Head Coach: Dave Doeren (new)
Notebook: The Huskies were really something last year. They had a win over a Big Ten team at Minnesota, and also had another at Illinois. They won their bowl game 40-17 over Fresno State, and it seemed like an even bigger blowout if you were watching it. Unfortunately, the team got way overconfident in the MAC title tilt and got stunned by huge underdog Miami of Ohio. That's a pretty big blemish...but it's important to remember the full season rather than just the highlights or lowlights. Northern went 11-3 for the year, and 8-0 in regular season conference play. Former head coach Jerry Kill has climbed the coaching ladder, so Dave Doeren has stepped in to try and keep things going. That should be easy on offense with nine starters back including quarterback Chandler Harnish. Defense could be a headache with only two starters back. We could have a lot of high scoring games this year needless to say. You have to give Toledo the nod because of stability and defensive experience in this division. We wouldn't be stunned if Northern repeated though. We'll be watching a nice September sequence of Army, Kansas, and Wisconsin very closely. A virtual scrimmage vs. Cal Poly will set up league play afterward. The most important game of the West is currently expected to be Northern Illinois at Toledo on November 1st.

WESTERN MICHIGAN
Athlon Ranking: 88th
2010 Total Offense: 34th
2010 Total Defense: 73rd
Strength: Pass Offense (16th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (93rd)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bill Cubit
Notebook: The top two contenders better not go to sleep on Western Michigan. Quarterback Alex Carter led the offense to a gaudy 16th ranking in the air last year. He's back, and there's a respectable number of returning starters that will have revenge on their minds. The Broncos didn't impress much when stepping up in class last year, losing by 24 at both Michigan State and Notre Dame. Their chance to break through this year will come in the season opener at Michigan, with others following down the road at Illinois and Connecticut. Western has to visit both Toledo and Northern Illinois this year...so it's hard to see them rising all the way to the top. They'll certainly be in the mix if one of the others stubs their toe.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Athlon Ranking: 101st
2010 Total Offense: 50th
2010 Total Defense: 66th
Strength: Pass Offense (17th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (108th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Dan Enos
Notebook: It's kind of tough to see Central Michigan fall on hard times. Brian Kelly had great success here on his way to Cincinnati, and then Notre Dame. Butch Jones followed him up...then also moved on to Cincinnati. Can Dan Enos keep the train going? Last year's 3-9 record (2-6 in the MAC) was a wake-up call...and possibly the bubble bursting in terms of this being a contending program. The good news is that the team was better than their record last year. They lost toughies to Temple, Northwestern, and Navy. If you just miss winning on the road against bowl caliber teams like NW and Navy, then you have some things going for you. The scary thing is that we may be looking at rare highlights in a downhill slide rather than sustained quality. Quarterback Ryan Radcliffe is back for a team that ranked 17th in passing offense last year. Central and Western Michigan have a lot in common...with 13 starters, a returning QB, a returning head coach, and a very high pass offense rating last year. They'll face each other on September 17th. Other good tests for the Chippewas in September come on the road against Kentucky and Michigan State.

BALL STATE
Athlon Ranking: 111th
2010 Total Offense: 106th
2010 Total Defense: 79th
Strength: Pass Defense (59th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (109th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Pete Lembo (new)
Notebook: The distance from top to bottom in this conference is surprisingly small. Bring in a breakout player or two and you can rule the league. Once you lose those guys, you sink right to the bottom. It doesn't seem that long ago that Ball State was begging for BCS consideration. They may be begging for mercy this year with a poor overall team and an October 1st visit to Oklahoma. New coach Pete Lembo has moved here from Elon. Is he a hotshot about to climb the ladder? Or, should he have stayed at Elon?! A lot of volatility here. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones used to be coaches nobody ever heard of. Maybe Ball State is about to take a big step forward. Their pre-conference slate will give them a chance to impress against the likes of Indiana, South Florida, and Army before the date with the Sooners.

EASTERN MICHIGAN
Athlon Ranking: 112th
2010 Total Offense: 91st
2010 Total Defense: 113th
Strength: Rush Offense (37th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (118th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Ron English
Notebook: Remember how bad Vanderbilt was last year? Vandy beat Eastern Michigan 52-6. Remember how good Ohio State and Northern Illinois were? They beat Eastern Michigan 73-20 and 71-3. There's a long way to go before the Eagles can even get back to respectability. Early seen games against Howard and Alabama State will give them a chance to build some confidence. Road trips to Michigan and Penn State will probably nip that in the bud. Unless head coach Ron English can get things going this year, this is a program that should consider moving down in class. They're a doormat in a weak conference. What's the point?

That wraps up our weekend look at the MAC. Our college conference previews finish up next weekend with the Sun Belt on Saturday and the Independents on Sunday. That's the final weekend of the summer. REAL COLLEGE FOOTBALL kicks off the following week.

If you haven't already signed up for football with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK, we hope you'll do so today here at the website. You get the most bang for your buck with the full season rates. And, you still have plenty of NFL Preseason action to help you build your bankroll. The dress rehearsal games are coming up, as is our annual NFL Preseason Game of the Year.

Back tomorrow with a look at the NFC North to get you ready for Chicago/NY Giants on ESPN'S Monday Night Football. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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