The MAC West was the division that busted the BCS a year ago. Northern Illinois went 11-1, then won the MAC Championship Game and ended up ranked high enough to get automatic qualification for an Orange Bowl slot.
TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage enthusiastically applauded the selection of the Huskies for the BCS, but a repeat is going to be hard to do. This side of the division looks like it’s going to be exciting, but with a stacked race that prevents any one team from racking up a huge win total. Three teams, including NIU have legitimate hopes of making it to Detroit on December 6 for the conference championship game.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: WHERE ALL DISCUSSION STARTS
The head coach is gone, as Dave Doeren took his talents to N.C. State. Doeren won two straight MAC titles, including what was supposed to be a rebuilding year in 2012, so this is no small loss. But there is coaching continuity, with defensive coordinator Rod Carey taking over, and most of the key players are back.
No one is more key than quarterback Jordan Lynch—not just in Dekalb, but in this entire conference and maybe the entire country. Lynch threw for over 3,100 yards, ran for over 1,800 and had a combined 44 touchdowns running and throwing. Running back Akeem Daniels is back in the fold, as are four offensive lineman.
A special shout-out to one of the returning lineman, and that’s right guard Jared Volk. It’s purely a local thing—Volk played just up the road from where I live, at the state’s powerhouse high school football program and did his youth ball in the association I cover as a freelancer, the Lake Country Chiefs. Now he’s got a shot at a third straight MAC ring.
The Huskies should be strong on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with three returning defensive lineman, and all four starters are back on the secondary. As we’re about to see, they’ll have stiff competition and you don’t necessarily have to pick NIU to win the West again. But with all the personnel on hand, you certainly have to begin the conversation with them.
TWO HUNGRY CHALLENGERS
Ball State: The Cardinals went 9-3 last season, and have a load of skill position talent back. Keith Wenning is a solid senior quarterback, while running back Jahwan Edwards, and receivers Willie Snead and Jamil Smith are as good as any in the MAC at their positions. The defense is strong at the point of attack and in the secondary.
The challenge is going to be rebuilding the offensive line to create opportunities for all that explosive talent. The good news is that MAC football often has a flag football quality to its games, so a weaker offensive line isn’t as devastating as it might be in another league.
Toledo: This is another team with a weakness, but one that might be manageable in the MAC. There are four sophomores starting on defense, and a freshman at free safety. But in a league where nobody blinks if you see a 70-63 final score, the offense might be enough to overcome it.
And offense is something the Rockets have in spades. Terrance Owens is a talented and versatile senior quarterback. If I had to pick one running back in the MAC to ride for a year it would be David Fluellen, with his 1500 yards. Bernard Reedy can stretch the field at receiver, and All-Conference center Zac Klein keys a veteran offensive front. Toledo is going to score points by the bunches and matching last season’s 9-3 showing should at least be a minimum.
THE REST OF THE WEST
Western Michigan: The Broncos fell flat after high expectations in 2012 that were built around quarterback Alex Carder. The team won four games and Tyler Van Tubbergen ended up starting at QB by midseason. The back seven is functionable on defense, but both lines are weak and this program is rebuilding.
Central Michigan: A decent 6-6 year was capped off by a nice bowl win over Western Kentucky, but Central Michigan really made its name at the NFL draft—offensive tackle Eric Fisher was the first player chosen overall.
There are three offensive line starters, but is it stating the obvious to point out that at Central Michigan, none can possibly overcome the loss of Fisher. Another 1,400-yard season for running back Zurlin Tipton is going to be hard. A respectable defense could keep the Chippewas again hovering around bowl eligibility territory.
Eastern Michigan: This is a team that should be rebuilding, as nearly every starter has to be replaced. But head coach Ron English is in the last year of his contract. What that likely means is that the new starters get experience, but unless they turn a 2-10 team completely around, those kids will have to get used to a new coach next season. English is 10-38 in four years.
I’m not sure if Carey can keep the NIU program rolling along at the top of this league for the long-term. Time will tell on that. But at least for now, his hiring reminds me of when the Dallas Cowboys hired Barry Switzer in 1994, to inherit a team that was at the peak of its power and had its coaching staff in place after Jimmy Johnson left town. All you needed was a coach to let things run on auto-pilot, and I think Carey at least assures that this season. And if that’s the case, no one is going to outtalent Northern Illinois.