1. Northern Illinois Huskies
Would you believe that Joe Novak’s career at Northern Illinois started with a 1-26 run? It did. NIU was in terrible shape before Novak arrived in 1996. At that point, Novak embarked on a hellacious rebuilding project, and he began to see payoff in 1999, when the Huskies won five games and nearly doubled their offensive output (14.5 points per game to 26.3).
1999 was Northern Illinois’ last losing season. Since then, Novak is 40-24, and NIU broke a 21-year bowl drought with a win over Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic. They’ve produced an NFL running back in Michael Turner, an NFL receiver in Justin McCareins, and they have NFL-caliber talent on hand this year. After a relatively disappointing 7-5 season and a heartbreaking loss in the MAC title game, there should be no shortage of motivation in DeKalb this fall.
In good shape: Running back. This one is easy. Garrett Wolfe posted the following single-game yardage totals last year: 148, 245, 197, 153, 177, 277, 270. For the season, an incredible 175.6 yards per game and 16 touchdowns in just nine games. Just when you thought that Turner’s school-record 4,941 career yards was untouchable, here comes Wolfe, who is a mere 1,705 yards away. If he stays healthy for 12 games and gains yards at the same pace as he did last year, he’ll post a 2,100-yard season and obliterate Turner’s record. With the traditionally strong offensive line returning two starters, including NFL prospect Doug Free at left tackle, and the Huskies returning a senior quarterback, you could argue that a healthy Wolfe is not just a candidate to break a few records, but that he’s a darkhorse candidate for the H*i*m*n if the people who vote on it can look away from Brady Quinn and Adrian Peterson for a few seconds.
Needs work: Wide receiver. McCareins, Dan Sheldon, and P.J. Fleck have all posted quality numbers at NIU in the last ten years, and Sam Hurd followed in their footsteps. Hurd caught 65 last year for over 1,000 yards and 13 scores, and he departs second on NIU’s all time list for receiving yards in a career (behind McCareins). The top receiver this year is likely to be sophomore Britt Davis, who caught 42 passes a year ago. Redshirt freshman Orlando Moore is a Phil Steele-labeled VHT and was impressive in spring practice, as was fellow second-year freshman Preston Williams. That said, the lack of experience at this position is staggering, and it could make life stressful for senior quarterback Phil Horvath, who returns after breaking his arm late last season.
Overview: There is no way to predict how NIU’s offense will perform, though it is certainly tempting to look at past performance. The Huskies have had success filling in holes in recent years, and Novak’s recruiting appears to only be getting stronger. Horvath is backed up by capable sophomore Dan Nicholson, who led NIU to three straight wins after Horvath went down. On defense, the Huskies have there seniors projected to start in what should be a very strong secondary (twins Adriel and Alvah Hansbro are set to start at corner). Also back is senior end Ken West, who will lead the pass rush, and sophomore linebackers Phil Brown and Tim McCarthy both got plenty of playing time last year. For the second straight year, NIU opens on the road against a Big Ten power. Last year, it was Michigan, and it’s Ohio State this year. But unlike last year, when the Huskies went to Northwestern after the Michigan trip, they get a reprieve of sorts this year. The other non-conference games are at home against Indiana State and Temple, with a road trip to Iowa coming in late October (if NIU is healthy, by the way, this one will have “trap” written all over it, as Iowa will be coming off a road game against Michigan). The Huskies have the firepower to win eight or nine games, and they should be able to again hold off Toledo for the division title.
2. Toledo Rockets
Strangely, people thought Tom Amstutz was nuts when he scrapped Gary Pinkel’s run-oriented attack in favor of the spread offense, which was not as “in style” as it is now. The Rockets had carved out quite a niche with their running game, especially with Chester Taylor, who is still the school’s all-time leading rusher and now plays for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
What has followed certainly was enough to quiet the detractors, as the spread has been wildly successful at Toledo. Amstutz and offensive coordinators Rob Spence (left after 2004 season) and John Shannon have seen the offense score no fewer than 32.4 points per game in any of the five years since it was implemented. The Rockets haven’t abandoned the running game that they were so successful with, either, as they’ve averaged at least 161 yards per game, and as many as 217, in those five years.
This year, Amstutz has to break in a new quarterback and a new running back, but a host of receivers return, and the defense looks strong again this year, continuing to rebound after a subpar 2004 season.
In good shape: Defensive line. The Rockets were pretty good up front last year, and things are looking even stronger in 2006. The switch to a 3-4 last season went very well, and now the entire two-deep returns, led by senior tackle J.P. Bekasiak and junior end Sean Williamson. Junior end Patrick Clark is also back, and senior Seth Thitoff will push both starting ends for playing time. Junior tackle Alfred Martin and end Nick Lawrence should both be in contention for snaps, too. With everyone back from the second-best run defense in the MAC, Amstutz and defensive coordinator Tim Rose are in great shape along the line.
Needs work: Quarterback and running back. Of all the shoes to be filled in the MAC this year, none may be bigger than those of Bruce Gradkowski. Gradkowski had to battle injury issues the last two years, but still threw well enough to become Toledo’s all-time leading passer, surpassing Gene Swick by almost 2,000 yards. He also leads in career completions. Since Amstutz took over and installed the spread offense, Toledo has been fortunate at quarterback (Tavares Bolden and Brian Jones, followed by Gradkowski’s three-year run), and they hope that good fortune continues with sophomore Clint Cochran, who hit a mere 74 percent of his throws in limited duty last year. The future is definitely bright, but in the short-term, Toledo is going to feel the loss of Gradkowski. At running back, Trinity Dawson, who gained nearly 1,300 yards and also caught 22 passes, is gone. If freshman Raymond Williams, a former West Virginia prospect who ran into legal troubles and lost his WVU scholarship in 2004, is eligible, he could be a huge factor. Junior Scooter McDougle, if healthy, should get the bulk of the carries, and junior Jalen Parmele is also a candidate.
Overview: The Rockets return a load of wide receivers. Senior Steve Odom was the only player on the team to catch at least one pass in every game last year (he had 55 on the year). Junior Andrew Hawkins and sophomore Nick Moore should also get a healthy number of catches. Outside of the line, there are questions on defense, as the two starting inside linebackers depart, leaving senior outside ‘backers Michael Chamberlain and Mike Alston to lead the charge. Veterans Tyrrell Herbert and Nigel Morris are back in the secondary. Like many MAC teams, Toledo is going to open with a road game against a BCS conference team (Iowa State). The Rockets host Kansas in Week Three, and visit Pittsburgh two weeks later. When all is said and done, the Tuesday night game at Northern Illinois November 7 should decide the division champion. Toledo will stay in the race, but unless they can replace the losses at quarterback, running back, and linebacker, they won’t have enough horses to win the division.
3. Central Michigan Chippewas
It’s been a quick turnaround for Brian Kelly and the CMU program. In just two years, Kelly has transformed the Chippewas into a team that could be considered a contender for the MAC West title this season. Kelly switched CMU to the spread offense that he had great success with at Division II powerhouse Grand Valley State, and while CMU isn’t scoring at a much greater clip than they were when he arrived, the talent level is increasing, and Kelly’s staff has done a great job improving the defense.
It’s that defense that earned accolades last year. CMU cut their points per game against by double-digits last year, and they get seven starters back on defense this year. They also posted the top-ranked run defense in the league in 2005.
In good shape: Linebacker. If you saw the two-deep at linebacker for CMU last year, you have seen the two-deep at linebacker for CMU this year. The starting linebackers are all back, and two of the three are entering their senior seasons. “Drop” linebacker (hybrid LB/safety) Issac Brown posted 73 tackles with three sacks last year. Doug Kress is back after also making 73 tackles last year while starting nine games. The only junior among the starters is Thomas Keith, who led the team with 104 tackles last year while also making four interceptions. The Chippewas have valuable backups in senior Leython Williams and sophomore Jonathan Lapsley. With guys like defensive end Daniel Bazuin (set a MAC record with 16 sacks last year) and junior defensive tackle Steven Friend up front, these guys should have plenty of room to roam and make plays.
Needs work: Secondary. Luckily for CMU, the front seven looks pretty strong, because the secondary took a beating last year, as Kelly jettisoned two starting corners and lost a starting safety to graduation. Senior Pacino Horne will move from safety to corner and is a likely starter, while the other starter will probably end up being redshirt freshman Josh Gordy. True freshmen Chaz West, Tommy Mama, and Kirkston Edwards could all compete for playing time, along with senior Terrance Robinson, who may be one of the odd men out because of his size (5-6, 181). Horne will be replaced at one safety position by junior Curtis Cutts, while Marlin Maxwell’s departure may open the door for another redshirt freshman. Coming out of the spring, Aaron Carr was the favorite to start at strong safety.
Overview: Last year’s 6-5 record marked CMU’s first winning season since 1998. The Chippewas did it despite some up-and-down performances, including a home loss to Eastern Michigan and a win over Miami that ended the RedHawks’ 10-game home winning streak. The Chips also split games against division favorites Toledo (win) and Northern Illinois (loss). QB Kent Smith, who was a big part of that success (2,800 yards, 16 TD, 6 INT), is gone, but Kelly is confident in new starter Brian Brunner, a sophomore, can take over and run the spread efficiently. It helps to have senior receivers back in Damien Linson and Obed Cetoute, and Kelly figures to have a solid running game again thanks to sophomore Ontario Sneed. Sneed stepped in last year when Jerry Seymour’s legal troubles landed him on the outside of the program, and he ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman. For the second straight year, CMU opens at home against a BCS conference opponent, as Boston College will be visiting Mount Pleasant (Indiana was there last year). Trips to Michigan and Kentucky will be very challenging, as will conference road games at Toledo and Northern Illinois. They’ll be favored in their four league home games, and CMU is certainly capable of beating Eastern Michigan, Temple, and Buffalo on the road. If they can split the Toledo and NIU games again, and/or upset Boston College, the Chippewas could very well be bowl-bound in Kelly’s third season.
4. Western Michigan Broncos
Western Michigan’s record-setting season came one win short of a shot at the West Division title, but it still has to be considered a success. Just one year after a 1-10 debacle that cost coach Gary Darnell his job, new coach Bill Cubit took the Broncos on a fabulous ride that ended with the biggest one-season turnaround in league history. WMU finished 7-4, including an impressive 7-1 run that followed season-opening losses to Virginia and Toledo and preceded a season-ending loss to Northern Illinois that ended their bowl hopes.
They did it despite losing starting quarterback Ryan Cubit to a broken leg in the fourth game of the year. Freshman Tim Hiller stepped in and was outstanding, posting a 20-3 TD-INT ratio and leading WMU to four wins in his six total starts.
The challenge this year? Build off that momentum and crack the top tier of the West Division. It’ll be easier said than done.
In good shape: Quarterback. Not many teams return a player as experienced as Ryan Cubit, coach Bill Cubit’s son. Ryan Cubit gained a sixth year of eligibility, and he will be the starter in 2006, as Hiller’s knee injury will cause him to redshirt this season. Cubit was good last year before getting hurt, hitting over 60 percent of his throws and throwing six scoring passes. He is a heady guy who makes good decisions, something that will be necessary this year. Leading receiver Greg Jennings and top tight end Tony Scheffler were both taken in the second round of the NFL Draft, leaving gaping holes at both positions, so Cubit’s presence is key to the development of the new starters. As long as he’s healthy, Cubit should post quality numbers and keep WMU’s offense from going under.
Needs work: Running back and wide receiver. I already mentioned Jennings and Scheffler, who combined for 155 catches last year, along with 23 of WMU’s 30 passing touchdowns. Also gone is running back Trovon Riley, who topped 1,000 yards and scored six times. He was also fourth on the team in receptions. Junior Mark Bonds and sophomore Kirk Elsworth will compete to start at running back, while senior Joe Chapple will be counted on heavily at wide receiver after placing third on the team last year with 33 catches. Junior Scooter McIntosh starts at the other receiver spot, while sophomore Brandon Ledbetter takes over at tight end. The coaches like sophomore Jamarko Simmons, who could see time at receiver and in the offensive backfield. For the offense to work, WMU needs to have one or two receivers show they can make big plays and get downfield, things that Jennings brought the offense.
Overview: The Broncos have plenty of talent returning on defense. Senior end Anthony Belmonte leads a run defense that ranked fifth in the league, but there is still room for improvement along the front four. Much of that improvement could come with experience, as projected starting end Zach Davidson and tackles Nick Varcadipane and Cory Flom are all sophomores. Senior weak-side linebacker Ameer Ismail is coming off an all-MAC season. The loss of junior safety Antwain Allen to a torn ACL hurts, as the Broncos are very inexperienced in the secondary. Early-season games with Indiana, Toledo, and Virginia will test that secondary, and the Broncos’ last three games are all on the road, including showdowns against rival Central Michigan and East Division power Akron. The other road game is a non-conference date with Florida State. There are too many questions at the skill positions and in the secondary for WMU to pull off another surprise. The Broncos will win five or six games and be stuck in the middle of the MAC West. That said, the large number of sophomores and juniors starting on both sides of the ball (five juniors and ten sophomores are projected to start), the future is bright for Western Michigan.
5. Ball State Cardinals
The Cardinals went 6-6 in 2002, with all six losses coming to teams that contended for bowl berths. Despite the respectable record, just two years after an 0-11 campaign, coach Bill Lynch was canned, and former Michigan defensive line coach Brady Hoke was brought in to lead the program. Hoke, a strict disciplinarian, has taken a hard line approach to building the program in Muncie, and the Cardinals have taken some hard knocks for it.
Hoke suspended 13 players, eight of them starters, for the season opener at Iowa for their roles in a book loan scandal on campus. The result? 56-0 and a paltry 144 yards of offense and seven first downs. Oh, and Iowa’s quarterbacks combined to hit 19 of 20 passes. Ouch.
Ball State has gone 4-8, 2-9, and 4-7 in Hoke’s first three seasons. The defenses, despite Hoke’s defensive background, have been a huge problem, allowing 32, 37, and 38 points per game. In order for things to turn around, Hoke has to fix the defense. That’s the mission in 2006, as eight starters return, and Ball State projects to start five seniors on defense.
In good shape: Linebackers. Hoke probably has his best set of linebackers since he took the job. That label suffered some damage in the spring when middle linebacker Brad Seiss suffered a knee injury that may cost him the 2006 season. However, Ball State has better depth here than possibly anywhere else on the field. Outside linebacker Wendell Brown is set to move inside if Seiss isn’t able to play, and fifth-year senior Anthony Corpuz will start on the outside, where he has seven starts and 58 tackles in three years. The other outside linebacker, sophomore Bryant Haines, is a good one. He posted 83 tackles and 7 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman while starting all eleven games.
Needs work: Running back. 2004 MAC Freshman of the Year Adell Givens should have been the answer here, but he was dismissed for academic reasons. As a result, the Cardinals fielded a putrid running game last year, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and 110 yards per game. Part of that could be blamed on the offensive line, which didn’t do much of anything right last year (gave up 43 sacks as well). Leading rusher Charles Wynn isn’t back, leaving the job, in all likelihood, to sophomore B.J. Hill and senior Larry Bostic. The two combined for 616 rushing yards and five scores last year, and Hill averaged 5.1 yards per carry, so there’s some promise there.
Overview: Senior quarterback Joey Lynch is a gem in the Cardinals’ backfield. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, and he lacks Michael Vick’s quickness, but he knows this offense, and he’s a good leader. Lynch completed 63 percent of his passes last year, and he compiled an impressive TD-INT ratio of 18-7. With top receivers Terry Moss and Louis Johnson both back, more is expected of Lynch, and he may be able to deliver, if the offensive line improves. Hoke has some big boys available up front this year, led by sophomore tackles Andre Ramsey and Robert Brewster, who both started last year and got better as the year wore on. Fifth-year senior Justin Schneider starts at guard, and sophomore center Dan Gerberry also started all eleven games as a freshman. Hopes are high up front, but how much improvement can realistically be expected? The Cardinals get their first two games at home, including a non-conference date with Indiana, and they also get a home game with North Dakota State. A stretch of five out of six on the road starting in October will be tough to overcome, and a winning season is probably not realistic because of how much improvement Ball State needs to see on defense and on the offensive line.
6. Eastern Michigan Eagles
Considering the past at Eastern Michigan, there were high expectations on this team last year. For a program that has just six winning seasons since 1974, and has been the bottom-feeder among the directional Michigan MAC schools for the better part of a decade, hopes were on the rise for a winning season a year ago.
And despite the complete lack of tangible success over the years, EMU fans have every right to be upset with how things turned out last year. The Eagles finished 4-7 for the second straight year, and the offense, which was expected to improve, actually took some steps in the wrong direction, rendering the great progress made by the pass defense moot.
In coach Jeff Genyk’s third year, it looks like EMU might have trouble climbing very far in the MAC West, despite a large number of returnees on both sides of the ball.
In good shape: Offensive line. While Genyk has to replace his starting quarterback and running back, along with one of the starting receivers, he has four starters back on the offensive line, along with plenty of depth. Leading the way are senior left tackle Courtney Ford and senior center Kevin Minor. Both started 11 games at different positions last year, with Ford playing right tackle and Minor playing left tackle. Junior Chris Thomas is moving from guard to tackle, with junior Tom Schmeding the likely starter at Thomas’ old guard position. The run-blocking needs to improve, which Genyk recognizes, but the line is already very good at pass protection, having allowed just 17 sacks last year on a team that averaged 38 pass attempts per game.
Needs work: Secondary. The Eagles had a solid improvement in their pass defense. Despite a virtual lack of pass rush, the secondary held its own, allowing 210 yards per game (down 68 from 2004). It was a huge part of why the defense went from allowing 42 points per game in 2004 to around 27 last year. There are two primary issues this year. Despite the improvement in yardage allowed, the Eagles only had 11 interceptions in 11 games, and five of those came in the season finale against Buffalo. EMU went without an interception in an astounding seven of 11 games. Not only that, but three of their four starters from last year are gone, leaving only junior corner Duan Bracey and a lot of question marks. Sophomore Corey Reid should be the other starting corner, and redshirt freshman Chris May could earn a starting job at safety. The Eagles are very undersized, too, with three projected starters shorter than 5-10.
Overview: Genyk has problems on offense. Matt Bohnet was efficient, though not spectacular, at quarterback, and sophomore Tyler Jones, the likely replacement, has some shoes to fill there. Jones has two good players to pitch the ball to. Canadian Eric Deslauriers caught 75 passes last year after getting 84 the year before, and tight end Ken Bohnet is back after breaking his arm early last season. Both return, but the second receiver, A.J. Bennett, departs. Also gone is leading rusher Anthony Sherrell, who spent much of his last year in Genyk’s doghouse after almost transferring to a I-AA school last spring. The questions at the skill positions and in the secondary will make this a tough season in Ypsilanti, and a schedule that includes road trips for three non-conference games (Michigan State, Northwestern, and Louisiana-Lafayette) doesn’t help. EMU’s only non-league home game? Navy. Ouch.