Previewing the MAC

Bernard Reedy and Toledo are the best bet to take down MAC favorite Northern Illinois. (USA TODAY Sports)

Bernard Reedy and Toledo are the best bet to take down MAC favorite Northern Illinois. (USA TODAY Sports)

We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:

Monday: Pac-12 and Mountain West
Tuesday: ACC and the American
Wednesday: SEC and Sun Belt
Thursday: Big Ten and MAC

Here is everything you need to know about the MAC:

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1. MACtion is alive and well. The Mid-American Conference is full of smaller schools and is mostly irrelevant in the national picture, but the MAC may be the most likeable conference in college football. It plays thoroughly entertaining shootout games, and it’s willing to do it on TV any day of the week for our amusement. It got its first BCS bowl bid last year. It quietly stayed stable through realignment, existing in its own happy, unpretentious Rust Belt world (although, one that now includes a team from Massachusetts that, if it wasn’t already misplaced geographically, plays its home games another 93 miles away in Foxborough). And it frequently upsets or at least scares bigger schools from the neighbor Big Ten and other leagues.

2. It also has Dri Archer, one of the most exciting players in America. The Kent State running back/receiver/return man did everything last year, propelling the Golden Flashes to their first bowl game since 1972 and coach Darrell Hazell to the Purdue job. He ran for 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns on only 159 carries (9.0 yards per carry). He caught 39 passes for 561 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 36.9 yards per kick return with three touchdowns. And he even threw a 24-yard touchdown pass. Kent State is unlikely to repeat its 11-3 season of a year ago, but Archer is good for multiple highlight-reel plays every week. The Golden Flashes also have one of the more unique players in disruptive defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix, who is only 5-foot-11, 260 pounds but has 52 career tackles for loss.

3. The MAC had some success putting quarterbacks into the NFL, but now Archer is part of an inordinate amount of running back talent in the league. Six 1,000-yard running backs return, including Archer, Kent State teammate Trayion Durham (1,316 yards), Toledo’s David Fluellen (1,498 yards), Ohio’s Beau Blankenship (1,604 yards), Central Michigan’s Zurlon Tipton (1,492 yards) and Ball State’s Jahwan Edwards (1,410 yards). Throw in the MAC’s leading rusher, Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch (1,815 yards), and seven of the nation’s 22 leading returning rushers are in the conference.

4. At some schools, we expected a lot of rushing success. That’s certainly the case at Ohio, where Frank Solich is in line for his fifth winning season in a row after the Bobcats were above .500 only twice from 1983 through 2008. Last year was actually somewhat disappointing for Ohio, as a 7-0 start, including a win at Penn State, turned into an 8-4 finish before a blowout win in the Independence Bowl. Still, the Bobcats have won the MAC East two of the last four years and may be the favorites to get back to Detroit behind the productive offensive trio of QB Tyler Tettleton, Blankenship at tailback and wideout Donte Foster.

5. Aside from Kent State, Ohio’s stiffest test will come from Bowling Green, which has engineered a nice turnaround under Dave Clawson. The Falcons have improved their record by three wins each of the last two seasons, resulting in an 8-5 mark with a Military Bowl loss in 2012. They lost a key piece in star defensive tackle Chris Jones, but otherwise they return almost every key contributor from last year, when they ranked sixth nationally in total defense. The offense is mediocre, at best, but the MAC’s best defense will have the Falcons in the conference title hunt again.

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The 10 Best Players in the MAC:
1. Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois
2. Dri Archer, RB, Kent State
3. Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
4. Roosevelt Nix, DT, Kent State
5. Gabe Martin, LB, Bowling Green
6. Beau Blankenship, RB, Ohio
7. Bernard Reedy, WR, Toledo
8. Jonathan Newsome, DE, Ball State
9. David Fluellen, RB, Toledo
10. Zurlon Tipton, RB, Central Michigan

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6. Four teams in the MAC East finished below .500 overall last year, and they could all do the same again, although Buffalo will compete for a bowl. Buffalo really shouldn’t be lumped in with Miami, Akron and UMass, as while the Bulls went 4-8 last year, they’ve shown signs of progress under Jeff Quinn, and with so much returning experience this should be his biggest leap forward. It helps that they also have Khalil Mack, who is one of the best linebackers in college football. The other three teams will rest comfortably at the bottom, as UMass is still trying to get a foothold in its transition to FBS, Miami can’t run or stop the run and Akron has Terry Bowden but little else of note after failing to beat an FBS opponent in his first season.

7. Top to bottom, the West is better than the East, but there’s still a divide between the three contenders and three Directional Michigans. Eastern Michigan has gone 10-38 under Ron English, and fortunes are unlikely to change anytime soon for a program that needs the coach to go skydiving so it can upgrade its bathrooms. Dan Enos actually took Central Michigan to the Little Caesars Bowl after a pair of 3-9 years, beating Iowa in the process, but its league schedule was weak and the Chippewas are probably destined for regression. Western Michigan looks like the best of the three, even after a 4-8 season. If not, at least energetic new coach P.J. Fleck, just 32, will make things interesting.

8. The MAC’s three best teams reside at the top of the West. The challengers are Ball State and Toledo, both coming off 9-4 seasons, both returning good senior quarterbacks (Toledo’s Terrance Owens, Ball State’s Keith Wenning), both returning 1,400-yard rushers, both returning 1,000-yard receivers (Toledo’s Bernard Reedy, Ball State’s Willie Snead), and both led by up-and-coming head coaches (Toledo’s Matt Campbell, Ball State’s Pete Lembo). The three games between the Rockets, Cardinals and Northern Illinois will decide the conference title.

9. For all the good runners in the conference, nobody is better than Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. Replacing the productive Chandler Harnish, Lynch put together ridiculous numbers, completing 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,138 yards with 25 touchdowns and six picks, while rushing 294 times for 1,815 yards and 19 touchdowns (6.2 yards per carry). He was the first player in FBS history to rush for 1,500 yards and pass for 3,000. In last year’s game against Toledo, he threw for 407 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 162 yards. Duplicating those numbers will be next to impossible, but the offense at least maintains stability under 2012 coordinator Rod Carey, who takes over for Dave Doeren (N.C. State).

10. But Northern Illinois is not a lock to win the MAC title. In fact, the pick here is that, on one of those glorious MAC Wednesdays in November, Toledo upsets the Huskies at the Glass Bowl (let’s pause to remember what happened the last time they met there) behind its explosive offense, which actually has more weapons than NIU. Toledo opens with a brutal schedule at Florida and at Missouri, but otherwise the Rockets are good enough to challenge for 10 wins, with some typical MAC fireworks along the way.

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Projected Standings

East
1. Ohio (8-4, 6-2)
2. Bowling Green (7-5, 5-3)
3. Kent State (6-6, 4-4)
4. Buffalo (5-7, 4-4)
5. Miami (3-9, 3-5)
6. Akron (2-10, 1-7)
7. Massachusetts (1-11, 0-8)

West
1. Toledo (8-4, 7-1)
2. Northern Illinois (10-2, 7-1)
3. Ball State (8-4, 5-3)
4. Western Michigan (6-6, 5-3)
5. Central Michigan (5-7, 4-4)
6. Eastern Michigan (2-10, 1-7)

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Contact me at matt.brown@sportsonearth.com and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE.

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