MAC Preview: The Wild, Wild West
By Jon Coffey
The 2012 MAC West was a one-horse race.
Northern Illinois lost by one to Iowa to kick off the season before racking up 12 straight wins, including the MAC championship game, and earning a trip to the Orange Bowl.
All eyes were on the Huskies and their quarterback, Jordan Lynch, for the duration of last season as Northern Illinois continuously outgunned and overpowered its opponents.
Expectations are similar going into the 2013 campaign, and Lynch will once again be the most talked-about player in the MAC. But with Northern Illinois now under new management in coach Rod Carey, and losing eight starters on defense, the door cracks open for a team to take advantage with a nearly-perfect season.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, there are two teams that might fit that bill this year. Ball State and Toledo played to identical records of 9-4 overall, 6-2 in the conference, and both suffered one of the losses at the hands of Northern Illinois last season. They will each get another crack at the Huskies in 2013, in back-to-back weeks, which means that if either team beats the defending conference champs, the division title turns into an all-out scramble.
Expect the 2013 MAC West to come down to the last three weeks of the season. Three thoroughbreds will stride into the home stretch and the final sprint will be one race that you won’t want to miss.
Here’s a look at the entire MAC West Division for 2013:
6.) Eastern Michigan
After an ugly two-win season, the Eagles come into 2013 looking for direction. Hopefully that direction is up and not down.
Led by junior running back Bronson Hill, the Eastern Michigan backfield will the be power source of the offense. Ryan Brumfield adds the presence of an elusive back with speed and the potential to become a one-man highlight reel. But more likely, the Eagles will use at least three backs consistently in their run-by-committee scheme.
The two biggest question marks for Eastern will be the passing game and the defense. Quarterback Tyler Benz offers some stability as a passer, but the problem lies more with those catching the ball. Donald Scott is the sole returning starter in this unit, but caught just 19 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns last year. The Eagles are desparate for a playmaker to emerge at receiver.
On defense four starters return from the unit that ranked 112th in the nation in 2012. Eastern Michigan’s defense gave up an average of 37.6 points per game. If they want to have any hope of improving upon last year’s record, they can’t do that again for an entire season.
Best Case: (4-8, 2-6)
Worst Case: (1-11, 0-8)
5.) Central Michigan
The Chippewas are coming off of an incredibly exciting offseason. After going 7-6 and winning in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the CMU program got to see one of its own go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. Fortunately, the Chips retain offensive linemen Jake Olson, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing almost all of last season with an injury. Andy Phillips and Nick Beamish also return from last year’s dominant offensive line.
The problem for Central Michigan is going to be less about the protection and more about the one being protected. The starter at quarterback has yet to be determined and is still considered a three-man battle. Freshman Cooper Rush, sophomore Alex Niznak, and junior Cody Kater all will compete for the job. None of them have significant experience at the FBS level.
Wide reciver Titus Davis and running back Zurlon Tipton will offer explosiveness on offense and will be responsible for much of the scoring the Chips do.
Coach Dan Enos claims this year’s defensive front line is the best of his tenure. The rest of the defense will need that to be true for this unit to see any success.
Best Case: (6-6, 4-4)
Worst Case: (2-10, 1-7)
4.) Western Michigan
First-year coach P.J. Fleck will be the youngest head coach in the nation, at age 32, coming into 2013.
The Broncos are hoping to feed off some of that youthful energy and gain a solid foothold in the division by the end of the year.
Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen will lead the way for Western, taking control of the offense for the first time after a four-year wait. The Broncos return two starters at receiver in senior Josh Schaffer and sophomore Jaime Wilson and also at running back with Dareyon Chance. Western finished with the 28th-ranked passing offense in the country last year, partially due to Van Tubbergen, who played after Alex Carder went down with an injury.
The biggest need for the Western Michigan defense is to create more turnovers in 2013. Last season, the Broncos ranked 110th in the nation in turnover margin, giving up 14 more than they forced.
If the defense comes alive and the offense stays healthy, Fleck will have the pieces he needs to make a big splash in his head-coaching debut. They might not contend for a division crown immediately, but a solid first year will only lead to a brighter future for Broncos.
One of the toughest non-conference schedules in the conference could hamper them early.
Best Case: (6-6, 5-3)
Worst Case: (4-8, 3-5)
The Rockets return nine starters on offense coming into the season and should have one of the better offenses in the conference.
Terrance Owens will undoubtedly be given every opportunity at quarterback and will have valuable weapons in receivers Alonzo Russell, Justin Olack, Bernard Reedy and running back David Fluellen. Cassius McDowell will offer more of an outside presence at running back and should be a factor, but look for Fluellen who piled up 1,498 yards (5.8 average) and 13 touchdowns as a junior to be the workhorse.
Toledo also returns four-fifths of it’s offensive line, making them the most experienced and arguably the best in the conference among O-lines.
The Rockets will lean heavily on the strong offense, as the defense returns only two starters from a unit that struggled to get the stops that put games away last season. If Toledo is going to legitimately contend with the likes of Northern Illinois this year, the defense is going to have be a whole lot better than last year.
After starting the year 8-1, Toledo dropped three of four, including the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to Utah State, to end the year. Being so close to winning the division should only fuel the Rockets in 2013. You can bet they will be hungry and angry after starting the season against Florida and Missouri in back-to-back road games.
Best Case: (9-3, 7-1)
Worst Case: (6-6, 4-4)
2.) Ball State
It’s easy to forget about the Cardinals. In 2012, Northern Illinois (as previously mentioned) ran away with the division and stole any and all national attention by making its way to the Orange Bowl. Kent State came out of the MAC East to challenge the Huskies and played them in a memorable overtime thriller championship game.
But all the while the Cardinals sat silently by, won nine games and fielded the second-best offense in the conference. Arguably the second-best team, Ball State has hit a patch of unfortunate luck named Lynch. If Lynch were not in the picture, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine the Cardinals winning the division and maybe the conference title last year.
But for all the what ifs of seasons past, there is the present season to be concerned with. And this one is rife with opportunity for Ball State.
As stated previously, Ball State is one of the two teams (the other being Toledo) who have a chance of usurping the throne of Northern Illinois. But unlike Toledo and Northern Illinois, Ball State has a returning nucleus of six players (Jonathan Newsome, Nathan Ollie, Nick Miles, Jeffery Garrett, Eric Patterson and J.C. Wade) on defense that gives them an edge in experience. The Cardinals' defense wasn’t great last season, but they did enough to help the team win games.
On offense quarterback Keith Wenning and top three targets, receivers Willie Snead and Jamill Smith and tight end Zane Fakes all return in 2013. Running back Jahwan Edwards will also be back after rushing for 1,410 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012. The offensive line will be the most inexperienced component to this high-powered offense, but shouldn’t prevent the unit from putting up huge numbers once again.
At minus-three in turnover margin and currently streaking to the tune of giving up at least 20 points in 26 consecutive games, there are some things for Ball State to figure out on defense. But with established firepower on offense, the defense needs only a slight improvement and Ball State could be the last team standing in the West.
Best Case: (11-1, 7-1)
Worst Case: (8-4, 5-3)
1.) Northern Illinois
Surprised? I didn’t think so.
Not many are expecting a repeat performance of last year’s Orange Bowl appearance, but almost everyone is picking the Huskies to win the West again in 2013. Honestly, it’s hard to pick against them. They haven’t done much to dissuade critics contending they won’t be able to provide Lynch with the talent and support he needs to be spectacular once again. We all know how dangerous the Huskies are with Lynch at the helm.
New head coach Rod Carey inherits the team at a great time, and could share some of the instant success that has been the cause for the quick departures of some of his predecessors. If he can coach up the defense and keep the offense churning, there really isn’t a reason that Northern Illinois shouldn’t win the division (and maybe even the conference) title a second time in as many years.
This race is the Huskies’ to lose.
Best Case: (11-1, 8-0)
Worst Case: (9-4, 6-2)
For Jon's preview of the MAC East, click here.