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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, July 14, 2012 at 6:45 PM

Last year the Northern Illinois Huskies won the MAC West (thanks to a 63-60 track meet in Toledo), the MAC Championship Game (23-20 in a thriller vs. Ohio), and the GoDaddy Bowl (38-20 over outmatched Arkansas State). They were one of the best MAC teams in recent memory, even if you had to worry about a defense that was prone to wear down in track meets.

This year, the Huskies only return three starters on offense, and they lost championship architect Chandler Harnish at the quarterback position. That’s opened the door for the likes of Western Michigan or Toledo to sneak through and claim the division crown this year. In fact, Northern is the only team in the division, and one of just two teams in the whole MAC not returning some experience at quarterback (please see yesterday’s preview of the MAC East for more details).

For now, Western Michigan is the consensus pick to take over supremacy in the West. Let’s crunch the numbers and see if that’s justified…

 

MAC WEST

 

WESTERN MICHIGAN

Athlon Ranking: 77th

2011 Total Offense: 19th

2011 Total Defense: 99th

Strength: Pass Offense (8th)

Weakness: Rush Defense (109th)

Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense

Head Coach: Bill Cubit

Notebook: The Broncos were basically a mediocre Big Ten team last year. They lost a close game at Illinois. They lost a bowl thriller to Purdue. It wasn’t a blockbuster year for Illinois and Purdue! Western lost to Michigan 34-10 in their season opener. So...that gives you a sense of where a 5-3 team in the MAC would rate in the Big Ten. This year’s team has a chance to be better because quarterback Alex Carder is back to lead a pass offense that ranked 8th nationally last season. He’ll give them a fighting chance for a revenge upset at Illinois…and he’ll most certainly lead the most potent attack in this division (unless Northern Illinois reloads with newcomers). The defense will have to prove itself too us. Too bad the game with Toledo is September 29th. That will probably be for the divisional championship…and will at least launch the most serious contender into the race through October and November.

 

TOLEDO

Athlon Ranking: 79th

2011 Total Offense: 9th

2011 Total Defense: 76th

Strength: Rush Offense (17th)

Weakness: Pass Defense (105th)

Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 4 on defense

Head Coach: Matt Campbell

Notebook: Campbell replaces Tim Beckman, who is now the head coach at Illinois. And he’s in danger of losing a team that accomplished so much last year with experienced talent. You see that only four starters are back on both sides of the ball. That combination…new coach…new starters…right after a big season…has been a recipe for disaster at other programs. At least there’s talent at quarterback, where both Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens are capable leaders after splitting time at the position (as that total offense rank from last year suggests). This won’t be the same team that took Ohio State down to the wire in Columbus, got hosed in Syracuse, then beat Air Force in a bowl after forging a 7-1 MAC record. We’ll be watching September road games at Arizona and Wyoming very closely to evaluate how much of a conference threat this new-look group is going to be.

 

NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Athlon Ranking: 85th

2011 Total Offense: 11th

2011 Total Defense: 76th

Strength: Rush Offense (12th)

Weakness: Pass Defense (89th)

Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 9 on defense

Head Coach: Dave Doeren

Notebook: We already talked a lot about this group in the opening. The defense returns a lot of experience, and may be better than the stats make it seem given the fast-break football the team got caught up playing last year. They’ll need to be slow and smart to upset Iowa in a season opener to be played in Chicago. What’s left is a mystery given the uncertainty at quarterback and across the offense. Maybe the newcomers won’t miss a beat, and this STILL the class program of the West. Maybe Harnish deserved more credit than the coaches last year…and implosion is imminent. This won’t be a major media story this year…but getting an early read on the Huskies could pay off for you multiple times through the course of the season. JIM HURLEY is certainly going to look at it that way.

 

BALL STATE

Athlon Ranking: 102nd

2011 Total Offense: 68th

2011 Total Defense: 119th

Strength: Pass Offense (53rd)

Weakness: Pass Defense (115th)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense

Head Coach: Pete Lembi

Notebook: Ball State just missed being a big story in 2011. They beat Ohio, champions of the East on the road. They lost a heartbreaker at Northern Illinois. In fact, those were both three-point margins…so Ball State played the divisional champs to a dead heat on the road! The Cards also beat Indiana of the Big 10 to start the season, and obliterated Army. At their best…they were a top MAC team. Unfortunately, they couldn’t play at their best every week. This inconsistent group finished 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the conference. This is now Lembi’s second year at the helm, which is often a breakout year for quality coaches. We could see Ball State taking a big step forward this season. We think Athlon is too pessimistic with this ranking in the 100’s. Let’s see how interesting September gets with Clemson, Indiana, and South Florida in succession (and the SF game is in Muncie).

 

EASTERN MICHIGAN

Athlon Ranking: 103rd

2011 Total Offense: 93rd

2011 Total Defense: 34th

Strength: Rush Offense (14th)

Weakness: Pass Offense (117th)

Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 5 on defense

Head Coach: Ron English

Notebook: The Eagles are another team that showed enough promise late last year to suggest at least the potential for a big step forward this year. They beat Western Michigan at home, and lost their season finale 18-12 at Northern Illinois…which is right before Northern won the MAC crown and its bowl game. You just can’t count on consistency in this conference! Vegas oddsmakers have been bemoaning that for years, while Vegas sharps have been exploiting it. Pass offense was a big problem last year, so returning quarterback Alex Gillett may not be a big plus. But, indicators suggest English has things moving in the right direction. It’s great to see that happening with so many teams in this league. Unfortunately, that just means the surgers will be hired by bigger programs in 2014 or 2015!

 

CENTRAL MICHIGAN

Athlon Ranking: 110th

2011 Total Offense: 57th

2011 Total Defense: 96th

Strength: Pass Offense (25th)

Weakness: Rush Offense (98th)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense

Head Coach: Dan Enos

Notebook: It’s the MAC, so Central went 3-9 last year with a win over eventual champion Northern Illinois. They lost to other powers Western Michigan 44-14 and Toledo 44-17 though, which is why they’re sitting at the bottom of most MAC West projections. We can’t argue with a last place pick given what we’ve seen so far from the other teams in this league. But, there is some experience returning on both sides of the ball…and quarterback Ryan Radcliff threw for the 25th ranked pass offense last year. That gives them a chance to catch some teams napping…and it might be enough to put them into the parity mix in what might turn out to be a surprisingly competitive Western grouping. We expect them to get sky high for a rare HOME game against Michigan State on September 8th.

Wow…some years our MAC previews are just a horror show. Looks like the conference is on the way back, at least for the time being. A lot of experience across the board. And, you don’t get the sense at the moment that at least half of the head coaches are in over their heads. Let’s see if the league can cover some spreads vs. the Big Ten in September…and then continue its pace from last year’s bowl victories.

That’s it for the MAC. We move onto Conference USA next week before wrapping up July with the Mountain West and the Independents. August will be devoted to major conferences as we build to an opening weekend highlighted by Boise State-Michigan State and Alabama-Michigan (at the Dallas Cowboys cathedral). We hope you’ll take some time today to lock in your seasonal plans for football. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Sunday baseball will be up a few hours before first pitch. The TV games today are the LA Angels at the NY Yankees on TBS, and St. Louis at Cincinnati in prime time on ESPN. Check the ad boxes on the home page of this website for big play bulletins. You’ll find complete details on what’s available Sunday from JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK on the “buy picks” pulldown page.

Baseball coverage resumes Monday with a Showcase Series report on the Chicago White Sox visiting the Boston Red Sox. Make 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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