MAC Football & Sun Belt Previews

The MAC and Sun Belt may occupy different geographic milieus in the world of college football, but they come together in the postseason. Surely you set aside time to watch the fabled Bowl, which features the champions of each league in early January. Even though both conferences are at the bottom of FBS college football, the league races are exciting and MAC football gets TV coverage with their Tuesday and Wednesday ESPN dates. TheSportsNotebook offers a concise summary of both the MAC & Sun Belt as we stand seventeen days from the first college football game of the season…

MAC: If you think the NFL is a quarterback-centered league, the pros have nothing on the MAC. Almost every conference team has a pretty good quarterback and none were better last year than Northern Illinois’ Chandler Harnish. He led the Huskies to a come-from-behind rally for the league title and then to a win over Sun Belt champ Arkansas State in the Bowl. But Harnish is now carrying a clipboard behind Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and NIU has to re-tool. The Huskies are going to be good again and have a legitimate shot, but they are more darkhorse rather than true contender.

Western Michigan is the prohibitive favorite in the league’s Western Division and Alex Carder is a gunslinger behind center. The Broncos have an experienced offensive line to protect Carder, and with that as an offensive foundation, they should be able to fill in the pieces at the rebuilt skill positions. The defense is not dominant, but none in this league are and with six returning starters it’s enough to punch Western Michigan’s ticket to Ford Field and the conference championship game on November 30.

The East is a tougher division at the top, as both Ohio and Kent State are strong contenders both divisionally and to win the league. Ohio went to bowl game last year and beat Utah State in a crazy Idaho Potato Bowl finish (yes, I watched the game start-to-finish. I know I need to get a life). The Bobcats have a terrific versatile quarterback in Tyler Tettleton, son of former Detroit Tiger catcher Mickey. The rest of the offense will be good, but I am concerned the back seven defensively is too young, which is why I don’t grant the Bobcats the favorite’s role in the East, even though they will get one of the MAC’s four bowl slots.

Kent State finished strong in 2011 under first-year coach Darrell Hazell, who cut his teeth on the coaching staff at Alabama. A 5-7 record obscures the fact four of the wins came in the final five games and the loss on the road at Ohio was a competitive 17-10 game. Now Kent State is loaded offensively and has eight starters back defensively. Because Golden Flash quarterback Spencer Keith isn’t as highly regarded as Tettleton, Kent State isn’t seen as the favorite, but I believe the senior Keith will thrive in his second year under Hazell and surrounded by experienced personnel. And with the season finale against Ohio at home the Friday after Thanksgiving, look for Kent to win the division.

For the rest of the conference just breaking into the quartet of Western Michigan/Northern Illinois in the West and Kent State/Ohio in the East and snaring a bowl bid would constitute a successful season. I like Miami-Ohio quarterback Zac Dysert, and I like the overall returning cast at Eastern Michigan. Toledo and Ball State also could surprise, but the middle class in this conference is generally even more unpredictable than in other college conferences. The only team we can really rule out is UMass, which begins FBS play this year, replacing Temple, who bolted to the Big East.

SUN BELT: Arkansas State, as noted above, won the Sun Belt a year ago and did with a tough defense. The Red Wolves will have to change their M.O. this season. The defense needs rebuilding and the personnel strength shifts to the offensive side, with quarterback Ryan Aplin and an experienced receiving corps. Arkansas State also brought in highly regarded Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to be the boss and it’s safe to see a sea change in philosophy is coming into the program.

With a new coach and new defense I don’t see Arkansas State repeating this time around and would instead look at Florida International and Western Kentucky. FIU head man Mario Cristobal has been steadily building a good, consistent program and though he needs to find a quarterback, Cristobal has the defense and offensive line to make at least another bowl run, and possibly a championship push. As for Western Kentucky, they were a surprise team last year, going 7-5 under first-year coach Willie Taggart and being snubbed at bowl time. The momentum from that season, the motivation from the bowl snub (two teams below them got postseason nods) and a veteran lineup at least put the Hilltoppers into a bowl game and will give them a shot at a crown.

Louisiana was one of the teams that leapfrogged WKU in the bowl selection process last year, thanks to an electrifying quarterback in Blake Gautier, and they went on to upset San Diego State in a postseason game played in New Orleans. I don’t know that they’ve got the overall team balance necessary to do it again, but Gautier will make every game exciting. Louisiana joins Arkansas State and UL-Monroe as those with legitimate bowl aspirations, even if I doubt their chances at the trophy.

Troy and North Texas will be respectable, but not bowl-worthy. Keep an eye on North Texas though. The Mean Green is coached by Dan McCarney who turned Iowa State into a winner and made North Texas at least competitive on a week-to-week basis in just one year. At the bottom of the league is Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and new FBS member South Alabama who are threats to no one except each other.

PREDICTIONS: I’m picking Kent State to win the MAC and Western Kentucky to win the Sun Belt, which sets up those two schools for what will surely be a hyped Bowl. Though I’m being sarcastic the insult is at the media, not the schools. I’d rather watch a game like that among teams that earned it through good regular seasons than a  couple of 6-6 major conference teams where one coach is fired and both fan bases are pouting.

For the guaranteed bowl slots, the Sun Belt only has one more, in the New Orleans Bowl and that will go to Florida International. The MAC has three bowl slots to fill beyond its champ. Western Michigan and Ohio are locks. I’d like to be bold and pick an underdog for the fourth spot, but I like Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren too much to bet against him, so I’ll stay chalk. Both conferences will have chances at additional slots if power leagues can’t fill their quota, and Louisiana and Eastern Michigan will have the best shots at getting those.