1. Kent State
2. Miami (Ohio)
3. Bowling Green
-->TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN MAC EAST
5. How far back up the ladder will Miami climb? After 12 straight winning seasons, the RedHawks crashed hard in 2006, winning just two games and losing five games by double digits. The run game and run defense were both atrocious. Shane Montgomery has 14 starters back for another shot, including senior quarterback Mike Kokal, senior running back Brandon Murphy, and top tacklers Joey Hudson and Craig Mester. The schedule is daunting, with trips to Minnesota, Colorado, and Vanderbilt, but it's hard to imagine that Miami won't be at least three or four wins better than a year ago.
4. Is Kalvin McRae capable of carrying an entire football team? He may have to. The Ohio back topped 1,250 yards last year, despite scattershot quarterback play (combined 8 TDs and 15 picks). McRae's task might be taller this year. The steadiest of last year's quarterbacks, Austin Everson, is gone, leaving Brad Bower, an Illinois transfer who hasn't lived up to his potential in multiple shots at Ohio. Three of the top four pass-catchers are gone as well. To make matters worse, a defense that kept things together most of last year lost five top players, including leading tacklers Tyler Russ and Matt Muncy. McRae is one of the few remaining stars at Ohio, and it's up to him to keep this team above water in 2007.
3. How much of an impact will Freddie Barnes make at Bowling Green? Barnes was the starting quarterback in the Falcons' opener last year, a loss to Wisconsin. He kept the Falcons in that game for a half by running away from defenders, but was never a passing threat as a quarterback. In addition to his time there, Barnes caught 20 passes and two touchdowns last year. He's a great athlete, having run for over 400 yards. This year, head coach Gregg Brandon has a three-headed monster at quarterback, and Barnes is available as a receiver. Expect to see him work there, but don't be surprised if Brandon finds other ways to get him the ball, too. Barnes is one of those kinds of players.
2. Who will be competitive first, Temple or Buffalo? At Temple, Al Golden has 14 starters back, he played a slew of freshmen last year, and recruiting is already looking better. Buffalo's Turner Gill had one more win last year (2-10 versus 1-11), and appeared to make a few more strides as the season wore on, especially on offense. He has 18 starters back this year, and didn't have to play as many freshmen last year. Neither is likely to threaten to have a winning season this year, but both should be better. Temple's schedule isn't as tough in the early going of the season, but Buffalo may have a bit more talent this year. Call it a wash for 2007, with Temple's location giving them a bit of an upper hand in the long-run, especially if Golden is as energetic as advertised.
1. Can Kent State fix their broken special teams? The Golden Flashes were awful last year, going 2-for-10 on field goals (they hit just one of five inside 30 yards!), and averaging a pathetic 33 yards per punt. The defense will be good again, but Kent State can't afford to have poor field-goal kicking cost them easy points, and they can't afford to have poor punting cost them field position.
1. Western Michigan
3. Ball State
4. Central Michigan
5. Northern Illinois
6. Eastern Michigan
-->TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN MAC WEST
5. How hot is that seat, Jeff Genyk? Eastern Michigan took a huge step back last year, getting poor play at quarterback, an often-absent running game, and no luck in close games (1-6 in games decided by 10 points or less). Genyk is just 9-25 in three years. The good thing is that he returns 39 of 48 lettermen. The bad thing is that not many offensive skill players stood out last year, and the ones that did (receivers Eric Deslauriers and Trumaine Riley) are gone. Opening with road trips to Pittsburgh and Northern Illinois in the first three weeks won't help matters much, and EMU also travels to Vanderbilt and Michigan in non-conference play. A home game against Northwestern will be played at Detroit's Ford Field, presumably to help with attendance problems. So, yeah, that seat? Hot.
4. Who will win the wide-open quarterback job at Toledo? For such a traditionally strong offense to struggle like UT did last year, you know that something was up. Injuries slowed Clint Cochran and opened the door for youngster Aaron Opelt. Opelt didn't exactly light things up, hitting just 54 percent of his throws in an offense designed to rely on completion percentage. Coach Tom Amstutz will name a starter during the week of the first game, after this preview goes online. It looks like it will be Opelt, a sophomore who has been taking the majority of the snaps on the first team. Whoever does win the job will have to be more accurate with the football. The Rockets have 16 total starters back, including a slew of skill-position talent on offense. Getting that offense clicking again will be a huge priority for Amstutz.
3. Does the old Bill Simmons Ewing Theory apply at Northern Illinois? On the surface, you would assume that it's impossible for a mid-major football school to replace a guy who ran for over 5,000 yards in his college career, including 1,928 last year on a team that regressed for the most part on offense. It might become harder to think that said mid-major school could replace that guy when they also lose their starting quarterback. Replacing Garrett Wolfe and Phil Horvath will be tough for NIU. New quarterback Dan Nicholson has his top three receivers back from last year, and it looks like junior Montell Clanton will get the first shot at being the feature back. Losing star LT Doug Free to the NFL may be as big a blow as any, but junior Jon Brost moves over from RT, and appears capable of at least not collapsing at his new position. All in all, it's a season of transition for NIU, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest another winning season.
2. Can a ton of talent overcome a coaching transition? On paper, Central Michigan appears to be one of the MAC's best. But you can't deny that Brian Kelly made a heckuvan impact on this program in three short seasons. How the players respond to new coach Butch Jones' staff is a key. The talent is there on both sides of the ball, with seven starters back both on offense and defense. Sophomore QB Dan LeFevour and junior RB Ontario Sneed key the offense, which figures to at least approach last year's 29.7 points per game average. Senior LB Red Keith leads the way on defense, with help from senior DT Steven Friend, who flashes some solid pass-rush ability from the middle. Opening with Kansas (road), Toledo (home), and Purdue (road) make the transition all the more important. A slow start could doom the season. Even a 1-2 start could flash promise for the road ahead.
1. Will Tim Hiller keep a QB controversy from blowing up at Western Michigan? Hiller was outstanding as a freshman, hitting 65 percent of his throws for 20 TDs and just three picks. A knee injury shelved him last year, and Ryan Cubit, son of head coach Bill, led the team to a bowl game. Hiller is back, but so is senior JC transfer Thomas Peregrin, who was very good in limited duty last year. For now, it looks like Hiller is the starter, but if he struggles, Bill Cubit probably won't be slow with the trigger. He has feature back Mark Bonds returning, along with star receiver Jamarko Simmons and tight end Branden Ledbetter. The Broncos won eight last year, and if Hiller can do the job, they could surpass that this year. WMU looks like the safest bet among the MAC teams to have a very strong 2007 season.
CISKIE BLOG PRESEASON MID-AMERICAN AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Nate Davis, QB, Ball State
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Joey Hudson, LB, Miami (Ohio)
Preseason Coach of the Year: Brady Hoke, Ball State
Coach on the Hot Seat: Jeff Genyk, Eastern Michigan
Bowl Bound: Western Michigan
Bowl Bubble: Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Toledo, Ball State
Best Non-Conference Game: Purdue at Toledo, September 1
Worst Non-Conference Game: Central Connecticut State at Western Michigan, September 22